Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013), Hipster Christianity (Baker, 2010) and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, RELEVANT magazine, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas and Conversantlife.com. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches & conferences, and is a regular blogger. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrettMcCracken.
Shades of Gray
Two Christians walk into a bar. One of them passes out tracts with hopes of saving some heathens from hell-bound paths to certain ruin. The other sits at the bar and orders a beer, with hopes of drinking the night—and a week full of sorrows—away. The former believes “secular” culture (bars, movies, basically anything that can’t be purchased at Hobby Lobby) is evil and to be avoided. The latter doesn’t believe in the “sacred/secular” distinction at all, seeing everything in culture as fair game for the Christian (as much as it is for anyone else).
When it comes to how we engage and consume culture, Christians far too often have defaulted to one of these two extreme approaches. You’re likely familiar with both of them.
The Legalists are the Christians who see culture mostly in terms of liability: how it can damage us, taint our witness, lead us down a slippery slope. This mentality leads to the boycotting of Spongebob Squarepants, the picketing of Martin Scorsese films, the ritual burning of Led Zeppelin records at youth camp (the horror!). It’s the approach that claims Harry Potter is Wiccan propaganda, Million Dollar Baby is a defense of euthanasia and P.O.D.’s version of “Bullet the Blue Sky” is OK for Christian radio but U2’s version is not. It’s a philosophy of strict separation, wherein “Christian” labeled alternatives (Amish romance novels) are harmless but everything else (non-Amish romance novels) is worldly and dangerous.
The ambiguity of a “Christian” approach to culture ... should beckon us to go deeper.
The Libertines are the Christians who were either raised by Legalists or used to be one, and thus are now pushing as far away from that attitude as they can, often in as conspicuous a manner as possible. They are the Christians who intentionally subvert “evangelical morals” by holding Bible studies in brewery taprooms or dropping the F-word frequently on their Christian college campus. They smoke (cloves, hookah, pipes, cigars, Parliaments, even pot), drink (usually craft beer), and celebrate the TV-MA shock value of shows like Girls and Game of Thrones. Theirs is a philosophy of no separation. They have purged their vocabulary of words like “worldliness,” “holiness” or “secular,” opting to approach the realm of culture with an arms-wide-open acceptance of anything and everything that brings pleasure or entertainment.
Among the many things the divergent paths of the Legalists and Libertines demonstrate is this unfortunate fact: Christians have a hard time with nuance. Gray areas are not our strong suit. This is unfortunate because while there are some clear-cut do’s and don’ts in Scripture, there are many areas where it’s just not very black and white.
Culture, and what we partake 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 or whether it’s appropriate for Christians to enjoy the music of Tyler, the Creator. Scripture contains no comprehensive list of acceptable films, books or websites. Contrary to what some Christians maintain, the Bible neither endorses nor forbids many things that we wish it were more clear about.
But the ambiguity of a “Christian” approach to culture should not lead us to throw up our hands and default to the easier, black-and-white positions described above. Rather, it should beckon us to go deeper, to ask questions, to truly wrestle with what it means to be a Christian consumer of culture.
Five Questions for the Discerning Consumer
For Christians interested in consuming culture in the thoughtful, edifying and ultimately God-glorifying middle ground between extreme legalism and extreme libertinism, the following questions may help. Before you buy a new album, movie ticket, magazine or any other of the thousands of cultural items we regularly consume, consider asking yourself these questions:
1. Does it point me toward God? Every moment of our lives should be an opportunity to worship God. In whatever we eat, drink, watch, play or listen to, we should strive to do it to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). It doesn’t have to be “churchy” to be worship and it doesn’t have to be a praise song to be God-honoring, but given all the things we could spend our time enjoying or consuming, why not choose that which points us toward God? Often, this simply requires a shift in our thinking—to start approaching cultural consumption actively rather than passively, seeking out the goodness and truth within it rather than taking it at face value. When we start looking at culture in a deeper way, the bounds of what can facilitate our worship are greatly expanded.
2. Would Jesus consume it? OK, I know the WWJD thing is overplayed, but if, as Christians, we are called to follow after Christ and “be imitators” (Ephesians 5:1) of Him, then it’s an appropriate question to ask. And it’s not just about whether we can envision Jesus putting on headphones and enjoying the music of Radiohead (though I think He might), as much as whether we would feel ashamed if Jesus took a gander at our iTunes libraries. After all, our ears, eyes and bodies are not our own. They were bought at a price. They belong to Jesus. We are called to be “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God,” not conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1–2). Would Jesus recognize that transformation in the media we choose to consume?
3. What would my community say? Discernment in our cultural habits should include a consideration of those around us. We don’t want to offend them with things we are free to consume, but which might be frustrating stumbling blocks to them. Also, it’s just a wise thing to consider the counsel of others rather than relying solely on one’s own judgment. As Proverbs 18:2 says, “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” We shouldn’t isolate ourselves and privilege our own opinions about things. If others around us have thoughts about why something is or is not appropriate, maybe we should listen.
4. Is it good quality? If we’re going to be spending money, time and energy listening to music, watching a movie or consuming some other item in culture, why not focus on the highest quality we can find? Sure, there’s a time and a place for “escapist” fare, but a diet of 100 percent Katy Perry and Jerry Bruckheimer does not do a body good. A key aspect of a healthy Christian consumption is the ability to recognize and then support the most excellent and creative content we can find, however subjective such determinations might be. Discernment is not just about avoiding too many F-words or overly nihilistic themes. It’s also about avoiding the trite, cheap and clichéd and instead seeking out the best.
5. Is it edifying? This sounds like something Focus on the Family might ask. But it’s a solid question. Paul tells Christians to rid themselves of “anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips” (Colossians 3:8), which isn’t to say we should avoid any media that depicts such things, just that we should beware of such influences tarnishing our character and eroding our witness as God’s chosen people. We are to set our hearts and minds “on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1–2), and to dwell on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). If we can’t find any of those redeemable attributes in the culture we are consuming, we should question whether it’s worthwhile.
You Are What You Consume
Ultimately, the question of what you consume in culture, and how you go about it, says a lot about what you value and the type of person you want to be. Do you want to be the person who is always pushing the boundaries, consuming culture recklessly and rebelliously without ever engaging it on a deep level? Do you want to be the person who legalistically avoids all culture out of fear or apathy, refusing to dig into the trenches of discernment and, as a result, misses out on the goodness, truth and beauty that can be found? Or, do you want to be someone who is caught up in the desire to be more Christ-like, to know Him more, to testify to His glory through the manner in which you engage the culture in His world?
As a people charged with the task of being salt and light (Matthew 5:13–16), a “royal priesthood” called out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9), Christians must consider how our consumer choices contribute or detract from this vocation. What is communicated about our identity and values via our consumer behavior? If a Christian is seen at church one minute and seen throwing money away at a casino or guzzling cheap beer at a kegger the next, what does that communicate?
When we start looking at culture in a deeper way, the bounds of what can facilitate our worship are greatly expanded.
On the other hand, if we consume culture in a thoughtful, healthy manner, we both reflect the grandeur of God’s creation back to Him in worship and to the world around us as witness.
The manner in which Christians engage culture is too important to get wrong. It’s lamentable that throughout so much of Christian history, we have approached it so simplistically, and often in reaction to whatever end of the spectrum the previous generation favored.
When God created culture, He said it was “very good.” Yet the fall of man complicated things, making culture a realm that is as full of the bad, false and ugly as it is of the good, true and beautiful. Still, there are vestiges of “very good” everywhere, and it behooves Christians to work to discern, discover and champion it whenever they can.
I once heard the Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware define the Christian as “the one who, wherever he looks, sees Christ everywhere.” I don’t think he meant the Christian sees Jesus’ face on tortillas. Rather, I think the bishop was getting at the same thing C.S. Lewis was expressing when he famously said “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” It’s what Abraham Kuyper was getting at when he said “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” It’s the idea that Christ illuminates and animates all things; that our enjoyment of culture is both justified and amplified by His Incarnation.
It’s the reason there is so much at stake in this question of how we consume culture. It’s a way for us to seek and honor our Creator, even while we enjoy His creation. It’s a statement to the world that yes, Christians care about culture. We care about it so much, in fact, that we’re not going to just consume it recklessly or indiscriminately, or to prove a point. Rather, we will consume culture carefully, thoughtfully, joyfully and worshipfully. Which is to say: Christianly.
This article is partially adapted from the book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty (Baker, 2013), by Brett McCracken