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Gray Matters
Gray Matters
Brett McCracken
Baker Books, 2013
272 pp., $15.00

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John Van Sloten


Gray Matters

Discerning the source of common cultural graces.

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McCracken says it himself, "It should be about God: hearing him, honoring him, celebrating his truth and beauty in ever more perceptive ways."

While he goes a long way to accomplishing this goal—this is a great book for any culture consumer—if the common cultural graces that he references are indeed God's, then perhaps they need to be engaged with even more reverence. If the truth that is mixed into culture's gray is divinely sourced, then what would it mean to receive it with an understanding of its full revelatory weight? It seems to me that a true discernment can only come when God's revelation through culture is received with the authority that it's due.

Only then will we have the proper contrast. The glory of God's creational good is seen for what it is, and evil's corrupting influence is more readily exposed. When God is the one who is understood to be speaking through a cultural product, the truth, meaning, or beauty we encounter there also becomes more personal, relational and just-in-time. God is now saying something through that Arcade Fire song to you, right now and in a particular way.

At one point, McCracken quotes John Calvin: "the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts," But he leaves the best part out. Calvin continues, "If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth, nor despise wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn the Spirit himself."

We're not just allowed to engage God's truth in culture; we're obliged to do so! This high view of the Source of cultural truth changes things. It compels us to look further and deeper, to expect more, to actually anticipate engaging God in a real and transformative way.

In one of his chapters on film, McCracken asks, "Should there be a noticeable difference between Christians and 'the world' "? The answer is yes. Christians should be the ones who are first to pick up on what the Spirit of Christ is whispering through culture. We should be discerning Christ's voice everywhere, all the time, and then showing the world just how real and alive he is.

Gray Matters, will help Christians do that.

It will also upset a few people, disturbing both conservative evangelicals and wide-open-to-culture believers alike (which is exactly what a book that seeks to illumine the mysterious gray middle ought to do). McCracken is well positioned to speak to both.

What makes him such a credible voice to conservative evangelicals is the fact that he's been there. He knows the conservative culture from which he came. What makes him credible to culture lovers is that he knows his stuff; he's watched that foreign film gem, listened to that band live, and sipped that wine.

As you read his book, you also get an increasingly strong sense that he's personally very close to finding that well-discerned gray place—"a space of flourishing and worship"—where he "aspires to exist". At times, he goes too far (for some) in one direction and then he goes too far (for others) in the other direction. By taking readers on that pendulum ride, he helps them find their cultural-engagement equilibrium. The grace that marks his tone, navigating the turbulence between legalism and license, seems just right for the discussion. He embodies a lot of "weaker brother" wisdom; operating in both directions.

As a pastor who's often been accused of engaging culture with too much liberty, I found McCracken's words a welcome corrective. This book is not just for culture-avoiders who need to lighten up, it's also for culture adopters who need to tighten up. In a mysterious way, McCracken's words to culture avoiders, giving them permission to risk more, has an anchoring effect; reminding me of how far the church has come, how much I have changed. The time he spent talking to those concerned with holiness reminded me of my call to personal holiness.

For me, the chapter entitled, "Where do we draw the line?" was the best in the book. Where I expected familiar platitudes, I encountered new wisdom and practical advice for every reader—wherever you're at on this cultural engagement journey.

John van Sloten pastors New Hope Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He's the author of The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything (Square Inch).

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