Tag Archives: legalism

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:

Paperback: http://amzn.to/14OwCzw
Kindle: http://amzn.to/142DZPP
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/1bRBcPD

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

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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!

How Are Christians Set Apart?

How are Christians set apart or distinct from the unbelieving world? When push comes to shove, would any observer be able to pick today’s edgy/authentic/real/raw/not-your-grandmother’s Christian out of the proverbial crowd? In what ways are we embodying the call to be salt and light, a city on a hill (Matt. 5:13–16), and a “royal priesthood” called out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9)?

These questions have nagged at me for a number of years, as I’ve witnessed younger evangelical Christians (myself included) more often blending in with the dark than advancing the light. When I go to parties with Christian friends, and then parties with non-Christian friends, I often lament that they are observably indistinguishable.

We are the same in how we talk: the petty subjects of conversation, the toxic cynicism lacing our speech, the obscene language, the general negativity … same.

We are the same in the way we dress, the way we drink, the way we smoke, the movies and TV we watch, the music we listen to, the pop culture we consume, and the way we cordon off “spirituality” in a manner that keeps it from interfering with our pursuits of pleasure.

We are the same (maybe worse) in the way we shred each other to pieces in the blogosphere, caddily gossip about each others’ social media posts, and jump to complaining before we think about complementing.

It’s all the same… And we wonder why so few bother with Christianity anymore. By the looks of many Christians, it offers nothing radically different or new.

Of course it’s easy to understand how it came to this. Many of my generation grew up in an evangelicalism that was perhaps too excited about its different-ness; it separated from “the world” and created its own media empires, with churches that tended to pull in and hunker down while the rest of the world went to hell in a handbasket. All of this left an understandably bad taste in many of our mouths for the concept of being “set apart” vis-a-vis the world. If all our difference amounts to is cheaper, sanitized versions of the same consumer culture pervading everything else, it just feels a bit phony.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because previous generations have gone about Christian “difference” in perhaps less than ideal ways, it doesn’t change the fact that the call remains: to be set apart; to “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 2:16). Swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction to the extent that holiness is altogether absent is not a helpful solution.

The thing about holiness, though, is that the point of it is not to steer clear of all that is unholy; it’s not about retreating from “the world” and existing in some perfect space untainted by temptations and immoral sights and sounds. This only leads to legalism and a neutered, irrelevant witness.

Rather, the point of holiness is positive: to live in the world, reflecting Christ and his holiness outward in the way that we live our lives. Holiness is more complicated than just abstaining from a checklist of vices. Does holiness require us to avoid certain activities? Certainly. But fleeing from potential hazards is only part of the story.

Should there be a noticeable difference between Christians and “the world”? Yes. Christians are called to be holy, set apart, sojourners and exiles in this world, bearing witness to the gospel through the way that they live. But the difference between the church and culture is not a “hard” difference, notes Miroslav Volf in his analysis of 1 Peter (a key text on the nature of Christian difference).

For Christians, the distance from society that comes from the new birth in Christ is not meant to isolate from society, notes Volf, but rather serves the mission: “Without distance, churches can only give speeches that others have written for them and only go places where others lead them. To make a difference, one must be different.”

Volf goes on to describe this “missionary distance” in 1 Peter as “soft difference,” which is not to say weak difference:

It is strong, but it is not hard. Fear for oneself and one’s identity creates hardness. … In the mission to the world, hard difference operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation, and threats. A decision for soft difference, on the other hand, presupposes a fearlessness which 1 Peter repeatedly encourages his readers to assume (3:14; 3:6). People who are secure in themselves — more accurately, who are secure in their God — are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even “without a word” (3:1).

Rather than an embattled, separatist, or hard-line “holiness vs. worldiness” approach to culture, I think Christians would do well to adopt Volf’s “soft difference” mindset. Again, this is not to say the church should deny any difference from the world, or that it should be tepid or weak in its different-ness; it’s just to say that we shouldn’t wield our difference as a weapon in a culture war, attacking the world for its worldliness and positioning ourselves arrogantly and with an oppositional attitude. Rather, our differentness should be positive, attractive, desirable. It should be conversational, relational. It’s about witness. We should keep our conduct “honorable” for a missional purpose: so the world would “glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

For the sake of Christ-like holiness, it may very well be the honorable thing for a Christian to abstain from some cultural activities or media choices that may be “permissible” but perhaps not beneficial. But those choices should be lived out as a positive affirmation of one’s convictions rather than a negative chastisement of others, as if anyone who does partake in such things is evil and dangerous.

Insofar as Christian identity is different from that of the surrounding culture (and it should be), it is a difference that is, according to theologian Darian Lockett, “constructed along the lines of its own internal vision of wholeness before God, and not through a negative process of rejecting outsiders.”

We are a people chosen by God, set apart for kingdom purposes, charged with a task of being light in the darkness. The salt of the earth. But is our light shining? Is our salt losing its saltiness? That question should haunt us. Because it’s not just about us. It’s about our credibility and effectiveness on mission for Christ.

We Christians need to stop overcompensating for the wrongheaded approaches to culture that our forebears might have had. Getting drunk proves nothing other than the fact that we can lift a glass of alcohol. Smoking and cussing doesn’t prove we are “more accessible” or “authentic” Christians; it proves we can suck in tobacco fumes and use our lips to utter four letter words. Oh, and it also might prove that we’d rather look like everyone else than be identifiably “set apart,” which probably also communicates that following Christ is in fact as superficial as some skeptics assert.

Friends: let’s stop deluding ourselves in thinking that by shirking holiness we’re advancing the cause of Christ by “breaking stereotypes” people might have of Christians. All we’re actually doing is demeaning the name of Christ by cheapening the cost of discipleship. We can do better than that.

This is the first in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my soon-to-be released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).

Coming Soon: Gray Matters

In my first book, Hipster Christianity, I attempted to explore the relationship between Christianity and popular culture by examining the phenomenon of “cool Christianity” and how the realities of trendiness and the notion of “cultural relevance” have been interpreted and enacted by contemporary evangelicals. Among the several motivations for writing that book was a perception I had that many of my contemporaries (Millennial Christians) had mistook relevance for rebellion/edginess and had replaced a pursuit of holiness with a pursuit of “authenticity.” While it is true that in many cases the hyper-legalistic, Christ-against-culture approach of our parents was off the mark and needed to be moved away from, my concern was that the pendulum had swung (as it so often does) too far in the other extreme, replacing conservative legalism with a distorted form of “liberty” that essentially becomes legalism in the opposite direction.

Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (coming out on August 1, 2013) is my attempt to address this “pendulum” problem head on and present an approach to cultural engagement that thoughtfully resides in the vast and glorious terrain between the extremes to which we are so prone to default. Christians have a hard time with nuance. Gray areas are not our strong suit. It’s way easier to just say “yes” or “no” to things, rather than “well, maybe, depending. . . .” But there are many areas where it’s not that black and white. God gives us minds with the capacity for critical thinking so that we might navigate the complexity of these less- straightforward areas of existence.

Popular culture, and what we consume or abstain from within culture, is one such gray area. There aren’t easy answers in the Bible about whether this or that HBO show is OK to watch. Scripture contains no comprehensive list of acceptable films, books, or websites. Contrary to what some Christians maintain, the Bible neither endorses nor forbids all sorts of things it could have been clearer about.

But scriptural silence about the particularities of 21st century media habits is no reason to just throw up one’s hands and indulge in an “anything goes” free-for-all. Rather, it’s an invitation to think about the gray areas more deeply, to wrestle with them based on what Scripture does say and what we’ve come to know about the calling of Christians in this world. The gray areas matter.

I wrote Gray Matters to give Christians tools to better wrestle with a few of the gray areas that have sometimes proven divisive for evangelicals. More broadly, I hope it helps us to take more seriously our habits of cultural consumption–considering how they enrich, corrode or conflict with our Christian identity. Even if we aren’t tempted to be legalists or libertines, many of us are simply apathetic about the things we consume and the manner in which we consume them. Some of us are downright gnostic in the way that we divorce our media/entertainment habits from the faith we purportedly practice.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I believe that following Christ and appreciating the goodness, truth and beauty of culture are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Reasonable integration, rather than convenient compartmentalization, should define our engagements with culture as Christians. We must go about it thoughtfully, with moderation, and in community. We must do it well because the world is watching; a reckless posture toward culture can impair our witness. More importantly, a healthy consumption of culture can bring glory to God.

I’ll be sharing more about Gray Matters in the coming months (pre-order if you’d like!), but for now I’ll leave you with the endorsements the book has received thus far.

“Brett McCracken is one of this generation’s leading thinkers on the intersection of faith and culture. In Gray Matters, he explores Christianity’s natural extremes with his feet firmly planted in Scripture. He charges headfirst into controversial questions and leaves no stone unturned. The result is a truly spectacular book that carves a path between an oppressive, rules-based religion and a powerless, free-for-all ‘faith.’ If you start reading it, beware—you won’t be able to put it down.”

—Jonathan Merritt, faith and culture writer; author, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars

“Idealism is all the rage among bright young evangelicals today, but Brett McCracken brings something all too rare to the table: he holds his earnest idealism in tension with lucid good sense and winsome moderation. May his tribe increase!”

—John Wilson, editor, Books & Culture

“Martin Luther said the world was like a drunken man, first falling off one side of the horse and then the other. With a fresh and thoughtful look at challenges such as food, music, film, and alcohol, Brett McCracken has offered a new generation a way to stay on the horse.”

—Roberta Green Ahmanson, writer and speaker

“In Gray Matters, Brett McCracken does something quite refreshing—he serves as a wise and discerning guide to the consuming of culture. Many books condemn ‘secular’ culture, just as many books advocate (consciously or unconsciously) accommodating ourselves to culture. Brett has written something much different: a biblically informed and culturally savvy approach to consuming culture in a God-honoring, community-building, and mission-advancing way.”

—Mike Erre, pastor; author, The Jesus of Suburbia: Have We Tamed the Son of God to Fit Our Lifestyle?

“Brett McCracken has long been my favorite reviewer of both music and movies, so it’s no surprise to me that he has written this needed book on consuming culture. A number of wonderful books have been written encouraging readers to create culture, but Brett takes the reader into the everyday world of consuming culture. Brett is an incredibly capable writer, thinker, and connoisseur, and all of this shines through in his work—bringing back into focus that how we engage the world around us matters deeply.”

—Tyler Braun, worship pastor; writer; author, Why Holiness Matters: We’ve Lost Our Way—But We Can Find It Again

“This book is not only clear and engaging, but also careful and wise. Gray Matters is a helpful, critical, reflective exploration of how we should consume culture as Christians that is neither reactionary nor defensive, triumphalistic or despairing.  Few younger Christians have navigated these turbulent waters with as much even-handed clarity as this book does, which makes it an important read.”

—Matthew Lee Anderson, MereOrthodoxy.com; author of Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter for our Faith

The Upside of Legalism

Part 2 of the What We Really Need Now is No” series.

“No” is the new “Yes.”

Even with Obama’s “Yes we Can” battle cry (of which, in all seriousness, I’m a big fan), I think that our society is more in need of nos now than yeses. And I think they realize it.

Detroit needs to be told no, as do greedy banks on the verge of collapse. People with bad credit and no income seeking a loan need to hear it, as do fiscally irresponsible, tax-and-spend politicians. Little boys and girls screaming for this or that at the mall need a hearty N-O from their parents, as do I when I’m in the iTunes store, preparing to buy my third digital album of the week.

We need restraint. We need to be more disciplined. We need to rediscover the beauty of not getting things we want. We need to re-introduce ourselves to the ascetic life. We need to deny ourselves daily.

I grew up in conservative Southern Baptist churches that seemed to be all about legalism. There was an abundance of things that were forbidden for members of the church to partake in: drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, having sex before marriage, watching too many R-rated movies, etc. At the time, it seemed so stupid and so unfair.

These days, there are tons of “cool” churches that allow all of the things I’ve listed above. Many of them show R-rated movies in church, have wine-tasting events for the college groups, and don’t say a harsh word when it comes to illicit sexual activities. Little if anything is forbidden, and only the happy, “love others” passages of scriptures are preached. The Gospels get emphasized a lot more than the Epistles, that’s for sure.

Obviously I am pointing out two extremes here: the hyper-legalistic and the hyper-permissive. Both are wrong, in my view. It is a shame that, in reacting against the former approach, the latter has gone so far in the other direction. I think we’ve lost a crucial aspect of Christianity in our efforts to purge it of the much-maligned “legalism.” We’ve lost the element of sacrifice. Christ called his followers to take up their cross, to identify with his suffering, to be living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to him.

And it’s not like this is a bad life. What we take as a renunciation of the worldly things we desire is really just a renunciation of the smallest, most unfulfilling part of existence. Lewis reminds us so beautifully in The Weight of Glory that it is not that our desires are too strong, it is that they are too weak—that we are far too easily pleased. In Christ, in focusing on being in him and abiding in the future glory he promises, we discover a higher longing that frames and illuminates everything else we thought we wanted.

The Christian life is a wonderful life because it requires some pretty serious “no” discipline but ultimately offers the greatest “yes” of all: an affirmation of our part in the kingdom and royal priesthood of God, the very maker of heaven and earth. In the face of God’s grace, our excuses and quibbles and struggles look pretty insignificant. As such, we should be more than happy to give up the pursuits, pleasures, and comforts we thought we wanted. God’s grace is sufficient, but it isn’t cheap.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes it nicely in The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has… It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

So what does this mean for Christians? It means that we can’t be cavalier with God’s grace. We can’t live wild, hedonistic lives in which the world’s pleasures and our own deeply felt, bent urges are in competition with the call of the Christian life. We have to say no to what is wrong and stand up for what is right. We have to be willing to discipline ourselves and each other; we have to be willing to be intolerant where it is appropriate. And yes, this goes against the grain. It isn’t popular to be intolerant. But ultimately, it’s better for humanity.

Some might say that rules, boundaries, and limitations are stifling. I say they’re liberating. When individual man is the measure of morality… that’s when it’s stifling.