Tag Archives: Gray Matters

Loving the Secular for its Secularity

Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013) died yesterday. He wrote a splendid book on food called The Supper of the Lamb, which has been significant for me. Here is a passage from the book that I quote in the food section of Gray Matters:

“The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms; wine is in order to be wine: Things are precious before they are contributory. … To be sure, God remains the greatest good, but, for all that, the world is still good in itself. Indeed, since He does not need it, its whole reason for being must lie in its own goodness; He has no use for it; only delight. Just think what that means. We were not made in God’s image for nothing. The child’s preference for sweets over spinach, mankind’s universal love of the toothsome rather than the nutritious is the mark of our greatness, the proof that we love the secular as He does—for its secularity. We have eyes which see what He sees, lips which praise what He praises, and mouths which relish things, because He first pronounced them tov. The world is no disposable ladder to heaven. Earth is not convenient, it is good; it is, by God’s design, our lawful love.”

And here’s another lovely passage from Supper:

“For all its greatness (trust me—I am the last man on earth to sell it short), the created order cries out for futher greatness still. The most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetites than they satisfy. They do not slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds. Dogs eat to give their bodies rest; man dines and sets his heart in motion. All tastes fade, of course, but not the taste for greatness they inspire; each love escapes us, but not the longing it provokes for a better convivium, a higher session. We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature, discloses cities more desirable still.

You indict me, no doubt, as an incurable romantic. I plead guilty without contest. I see no other explanation of what we are about. Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is anoutlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself—and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetittes, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.”

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Gray Matters Trailer

Check out the new, animated trailer for my new book: Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty

Special thanks to the talented illustrator/animator team of John Choura and Evan Rosa!

Places to purchase the book:

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If you purchase a copy of the book and post a review of it on the Amazon page, leave a comment here linking to it and I will personally mail you a copy of my first book, Hipster Christianity

Christians & Hollywood: 20 Moments of Tension

25 years ago this week, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ came out in theaters. It was controversial in the truest, non-“manufactured publicity stunt” sense of the word. Many, many Christians were up in arms about the film. In his Christianity Today article looking back on the controversial film, Ken Morefield writes that the film “wasn’t simply criticized: it helped establish the battle lines. It is the prime example in the book by Michael Medved that gave this particular battlefield a name: Hollywood vs. America.”

As I write in my Gray Matters chapter on the history of Christianity’s relationship to Hollywood, the Last Temptation “battle” was, indeed, probably the single biggest clash between Christians and Hollywood in the history of cinema. But while Last Temptation might have been the high water mark of the Christians vs. Hollywood culture wars, it certainly isn’t the only example.

Below is a list of 20 “moments of tension” that I include in chapter six, “A Brief History of Christians and Movies,” of Gray Matters. It’s not an exhaustive list of all the films that provoked the wrath and boycotts of Christians, but it gives a general sense of the narrative, going back to the earliest decades of film history:

Gray Matters: In Stores Now!

August 1, 2013, is a day that for over a year I have looked forward to: the slated release date for my new book, Gray Matters (Baker Books). When you write a book–something that consumes immense amounts of energy, time and yes, draws a fair share of blood, sweat and tears–the release date is something filled with emotion. For the first time, the words and ideas you mulled over, jotted down and then refined over and over and over again, are out there.  Sparking discussion, provoking thought and action, inviting critique. It’s a weird and wonderful feeling. And now it’s here. I’m humbled and grateful for this opportunity.

Gray Matters is the culmination of ideas I’ve long contemplated–perhaps dating back to high school when I first starting really getting into movies and “secular” music. How and why should Christians enjoy art and culture? Is our consumption of culture simply a “diversion” with no meaningful bearing on our faith? Or should our faith inform, deepen, and open up new layers of enjoyment in our consumption of culture? And how does a Christian evaluate and interact with the thornier areas of culture? Is it better to just flee from anything potentially hazardous and consume only the safe, sanitized or “Christian” cultural items? Or does Christian liberty (e.g. Romans 14) make it possible for us to consume anything and everything as it pleases us, without worrying about it?

Those are a lot of questions. And most of them have been asked before. Gray Matters is a book that continues asking these questions, offering not definitive answers but principles and a toolbox to help us think through the issues. Rather than pontificating on these age-old questions from my own relatively shallow well of wisdom, I draw upon all sorts of other thinkers, including Abraham Kuyper, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Miroslav Volf, Hans Rookmaaker, Philip Ryken, Kevin Vanhoozer, N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Tom Schreiner, Tom Beaudoin, Lisa McMinn, Megan Neff, Charlie Peacock, Chuck Colson, Nigel Goodwin, Kevin DeYoung, John Piper, Nancy Pearcey, Scot McKnight, Mark Noll, Clement of Alexandria, Jamie Smith, Mako Fujimura, among others.

I wrote Gray Matters to continue the conversation about Christianity and culture with special focus on some of the particular challenge areas for my generation. But it’s a book with principles and discussion points for everyone. I wrote it with the idea in mind that it would be discussed in small groups, amongst friends, wrestled with in classrooms or around the dinner table.

If the book sounds at all interesting to you (if you’re still reading, that is), please consider purchasing a copy on Amazon, or at your local Barnes & Noble (find it in the “Christian Living” section).

Download a free sample from the first few chapters of the book here.

If you purchase a copy of the book and post a review of it on the Amazon page, leave a comment here linking to it and I will personally mail you a copy of my first book, Hipster Christianity

You can also help spread the word by sharing about the book on social media, or just recommending it to friends, pastors, parents, kids, cousins, professors, etc.

If you are reading this, you are both the reason I’ve been able to write this book, and the means by which it will be a success. Thank you in advance for your support.

And if you’re in the Orange County area on Aug. 25, come to the book release party!

Cultured Christians

There’s a lot of talk these days about “cultural engagement” and how it’s important for Christians to be culture-makers, culture-watchers and culture-advocates. Umpteen books, blogs and conferences have been developed around these themes. And rightfully so. This is an area in which evangelical Christianity has been notoriously apathetic for far too long.

But what does it actually look like to be a “cultured Christian”? And by “cultured,” I don’t mean fashionable, well-heeled aristocrats who frequent the opera and attend gallery openings. I simply mean people who take culture seriously and love it enough to approach it with nuance, intentionality and an open mind. What does it look like to do this Christianly?

It’s my belief that Christians, of all people, should be the best connoisseurs, appreciators, advocates and patrons of culture. Why? Because for Christians, culture—what human beings make of the world—is far more than just an end unto itself. It’s far more than just something that brings glory to man. It’s a means by which we understand, reflect and glorify the Creator God.

To be a “cultured” Christian, then, is not to inordinately elevate or idolize the makings or thinkings of man; it’s rather to see God more clearly and humbly worship him more dearly through the goodness, truth and beauty all around us, in both the natural and cultural world.

What else does it mean to be a “cultured Christian”? Over at Q Ideas, I list “9 Attributes of a Cultured Christian.”

Freedom to Drink And Not Drink

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol (see “Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline”).

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

Over time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

  • Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
  • Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
  • Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
  • Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.

Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

This is the third in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books). See also: part one and two.

Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline

Christians have had a decidedly love/hate relationship with alcohol. The infamous “drink” has been regarded by Christians at various times with awe, horror, religious devotion, fear, obsession, prohibition, addiction, and temperance. It has been one of the most divisive issues within modern American evangelicalism, creating rifts within churches, within families, within Christian institutions. As Mark Noll has noted,

Some evangelicals have made opinions on liquor more important for fellowship and cooperation than attitudes toward the person of Christ or the nature of salvation. This is particularly unfortunate since the Bible speaks clearly about Christ and salvation, but not about the question of total abstinence.

How did alcohol become the subject of such an emotionally charged cultural debate? Have Christians always been so divided about it? (Short answer: no.) Is it significant that followers of Christ were the first people to invent sophisticated wine- and beer-making techniques (in medieval monasteries), but also the people who led the charge to make alcohol illegal in America?

My new book Gray Matters has an entire chapter devoted to the fascinating history of Christians and alcohol, but for a brief overview  of key points between the life of Christ and today’s world, see below timeline:

  • 27–28 AD: Jesus performs his first miracle: turning 120- 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana (see John 2:1-11).
  • 30–31 AD: Jesus says of wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).
  •  Second Century: St. Clement of Alexandria publishes Pedagogia, which included the first scholarly treatment of the subject of Christians and alcohol.
  • Fifth Century: St. Brigid of Ireland reportedly changes her dirty bathwater into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink.
  •  Twelfth Century: Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen discovers hops in beer.
  • 1620: Ship carrying John Winthrop to Massachusetts Bay Colony also carries more than 10,000 gallons of wine and three times as much beer as water.
  • 1670: Hard cider a staple at ministerial ordinations in apple-rich New England
  • 1673: Increase Mather publishes Wo to Drunkards, in which he says, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”
  • 1736: The ill effects of gin in England lead Anglican clergyman Thomas Wilson to publish Distilled Spirituous Liquors the Bane of the Nation.
  • 1759: Arthur Guinness opens his brewery in Dublin; eventually uses money from its success to fund Christian charities, hospitals, and Sunday School programs.
  • 1770s–80s: Spanish Catholics plant first vineyards in California at missions up and down the coast.
  • 1805: America’s first temperance sermon, “The Fatal Effects of Ardent Spirits” is delivered by Rev. Ebenezer Porter in Washington, CT.
  •  1826: Revivalist pastor Lyman Beecher publishes Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasion, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance, condemning liquor for “the moral ruin it works in the soul.”
  •  1840: The Washingtonian Movement, one of America’s first anti-alcohol organizations, is formed.
  • 1869: Methodist pastor Thomas Welch invents a method of pasteurizing grape juice so that it isn’t fermented. He persuades local churches to adopt this non-alcoholic “wine” for communion services, calling it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.”
  • 1873–74: “Mother” Eliza Thompson—a devout Methodist—leads “crusade” of women protesting American drinking establishments.
  • 1874: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is formed.
  • 1893: Ohio pastor Howard Hyde Russell establishes Anti-Saloon League, a nationwide pressure group aimed at ridding the country of alcohol.
  •  1899: Carrie Nation attacks saloons with hatchets and sledgehammers and becomes an icon of female-led temperance movement.
  • January 17, 1920: Eighteenth Amendment goes into effect in America; Billy Sunday holds symbolic funeral service for “John Barleycorn.”
  •  1933: Twenty-first Amendment ends Prohibition.
  • 1933–1949: “The Inklings” convenes Christian luminaries like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford for beer-aided literary discussions.
  •  1935: Christians “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob” found Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • 1980: Televangelist Jack Van Impe publishes Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy.
  •  2000s: First “bar churches” begin popping up.
  • 2003: Wheaton College changes rules to allow faculty, staff and graduate students to drink alcohol in private, when not around undergrads.
  •  2009: Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield publishes, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World.
  •  August 9, 2011: In blog post, evangelical pastor/author John MacArthur chastises the “Young, Restless, Reformed” community for their reckless approach to alcohol.

The above is an excerpt from Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty (Baker, 2013).