Baker Books, 2013
270 pp., 16.00
John Van Sloten
"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place…"
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
Several years ago I was sitting in a meeting at Fuller Theological Seminary with Richard Mouw, Neal Plantinga, and a few other pastors talking about how to rightly discern God's truth in culture. At one point in the conversation, as we were attempting to distinguish the dividing line between good and evil, Neal Plantinga leaned forward and relayed how his brother, renown Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga, saw things. Bringing his hands together and tightly interweaving his fingers, he explained that good and evil are inextricably intertwined, "Like this."
Black and white are co-mingled. So much so that, on the surface, all you see is gray. "Gray areas are not our strong suit," Brett McCracken writes in his newest book, Gray Matters. "Christians have a hard time with nuance."
This fact has led to many culture wars. Is Christ "against," "in," "above," or "transforming" culture? I suppose the answer to H. Richard Niebuhr's question is simply "yes." If the culture we live in is indeed a mix of good and evil, then surely Christ is against all that perverts, corrupts, and pollutes, and in all that is good, true, and beautiful. And stands above all that is his in this world, and is passionately at work transforming his creation; making all things new.
If this is true, then McCracken is right, gray does matter and "Christians must be more intentional about being present, active, and critical in our [cultural] consumer choices." We should "be passionate about engaging culture well because we want to know God more through his creation."
Gray Matters is a reliable guide to that end. In a well-researched, historically informed, and humbly articulate way, McCracken shows us how to consume "culture well: discerningly, maturely, thoughtfully." With grace he notes that, "Sometimes the most significant thing we can do for culture is simply to seek it out passionately and thoughtfully, to receive it well." Engaging the cultural spheres of food, music, film, and alcohol, this book gives us plenty with which to do that. Readers will become better receivers after engaging McCracken's wisdom on the nature of consuming, the differences between license and legalism. and the place of personal taste in engaging your world. His hope is that "we will each come to a fuller appreciation of the finer things in life, the glories and goodness of God's common grace, and that we would worship the Creator ever more through receiving the fruits of his creation."
Throughout this book, cultural engagement is presented as a pretext for worship. Food is "revelatory of the goodness and joy of the earth… . [W]ith every bite we seek to honor God." Music is an opportunity for, "seeking out the melodies of heaven wherever they can be heard on earth." Film can "most certainly bear witness to the majesty of God and the beautiful complexity of his creation," and alcohol, consumed rightly, can create the space for, "reveling in the blessings of God."
McCracken is clearly imaging God's creation-loving heart when he says these things.
But as I read the book, I found myself wanting more. I wanted him to go further, to take his call to worship beyond mere appreciation, gratitude, honor, bearing witness, or reflection. McCracken talks about, "fixing our eyes more closely on the awe and wonder of God, the Creator and Artist behind all things." What does culture specifically teach us about the Creator behind culture?
McCracken cites scores of cultural products that potentially point us to God; U2's Where the Streets Have no Name, the Academy Award-winning film Million Dollar Baby, the music of Metallica, and the consumption of food and wine as eschatological symbols. I think he could have strengthened his argument if he'd taken his analysis one step further and listened through these creational texts and showed us the connection to a God who will one day make a new earth, free from sectarian violence, a God who is the only one who loves enough to know when a life should end, a God who also gets angry at those who act Holier Than Thou, and a God who will one day invite us to the greatest feast, into a perfect ecstasy; a de-stressed, free, fully alive, in-full-communion-with-Christ kind of buzz that far surpasses any Napa Valley offering.
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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