Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Brett McCracken about his new book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty. His previous book Hipster Christianity dealt with the collision of the church and cool. His latest work examines the complex interaction between Christianity and culture. He was gracious enough to answer some questions about it in the next two posts.
Trevin: You start off the book talking about Lee the Legalist and Lance the Libertine – two types of Christians, one who is indifferent and even hostile to culture, and the other who is licentious and all-embracing of anything. Why do we as evangelicals have a problem swinging between these two extremes?
Brett: I suspect part of it is simply that we evangelicals are zealous and passionate. In general, we equate “the middle ground” with that most distasteful of dispositions: being lukewarm. And so when we see something as problematic, we tend to overcorrect in the opposite direction. In almost everything, Christians have a hard time with nuance and complexity because they see it as a compromise.
This particular question—Christianity’s relationship to culture—has inflamed passions of every sort throughout Christian history. Scores of sects, denominations, traditions and movements have defined themselves by their unique take on the question, resulting in a multitude of approaches to culture (Niebuhr’s spectrum in Christ and Culture is just the tip of the iceberg) that often conflict with one another.
But culture is complex and fluid, always changing and never as monolithic or definitive as our rhetorics of theological engagement would like. Thus our “swinging” between extremes is partly a natural byproduct of the dynamic nature of the conversation. But I think it’s also because evangelicals just like to go big whenever they think they’ve figured something out.
That’s why an evangelical college student who lived under their parents’ legalistic roof all their life has a hard time adjusting once they have an epiphany of grace or discover “Christian liberty” in some theology class. Instead of taking things slow and asking critical questions (like maybe our parents weren’t so off-base?), they often rush out to start a beer-tasting Bible discussion group or something. They’re enthusiastic and often well-intentioned, but I think it’s important that we temper our reactionary swings with a bit more critical thought. This is why I wrote Gray Matters.
Trevin: You challenge Christians to be better consumers of culture, so that we can then become better creators of culture. What is the connection between consumption and creation?
Brett: In order to be a good creator of culture, one must be a good consumer. We will never make great films if we don’t know and love the greatest films and understand why they are great. The best chefs are the ones who love food and take the time to consume it well—paying attention to flavor profiles, savoring tastes that go well together, understanding what cooking methods work and don’t work, etc. The great artists in history didn’t just make their masterpieces from some innate mastery of technique. They studied the masters first. They were good consumers before they were good creators.
Christians have often skipped the whole “being good consumers” part in their rush to create culture. There is a lot of talk about how the worlds of film, literature, music, etc. desperately need Christian voices of influence. But Christians will not make any real difference in any of these cultural areas if they aren’t first informed and engaged consumers, able to discern quality, knowledgeable of what has and hasn’t been said, and who has said it best. If we skip that part, it’s very unlikely we will create anything of any significance.
Furthermore, from the creator’s point of view, the consumer is essential. Unless a musician has a supportive fanbase of good consumers who buy music, attend concerts and enthusiastically spread the word about quality music, it will be hard for them to keep creating. Great art needs great interpreters, passionate appreciators, and willing patrons. An environment where quality artists and culture-makers flourish is one where there is no scarcity of quality consumption.
Trevin: There have been many Gospel According To… type books lately, finding God and gospel themes in just about every kind of book or movie or TV show imaginable. Do you think these kinds of books are generally helpful or generally harmful in the way they engage culture? Are we finding God where He isn’t?
Brett: I find that the impulse behind these books—to enlarge our understanding, in the Kuyperian sense, of what can be redeemed in culture—is positive. I am generally in favor of challenging tidy divisions between categories like “sacred” and “secular.” At some point it becomes ridiculous to talk about whether a piece of culture is “Christian” or not. Does it have to do with the creator being Christian? Does that mean that a church built by a non-Christian architect should not be considered a “sacred space”? I have personally found my faith to be enriched and my love and awe of God enhanced through my experiences of goodness, truth and beauty in “secular” culture, and I admire authors who try to articulate similar experiences of their encounters with the sacred in pop culture.
That said, I do grimace sometimes when I see these “Gospel According to…” books because I think they often reach too far and over-spiritualize or over-theologize. I get the sense that some of them are more about the shock of “finding God in ____ (insert R-rated film or TV-MA television series)” than they are about actually engaging the work’s theological content in a deep way. I also fear that such books can soften or confuse our understanding of what the gospel actually is, while at the same time limiting the value of “secular” culture to that which contains allusions to Jesus or occasional theological themes. I would argue that it’s at least as valuable for Christians to simply enjoy art that is beautiful, or which espouses truth or goodness. We may not be able to write a book about “The Gospel According to Mozart,” but man do his symphonies bring glory to God and nourishment to the Christian. Just ask Karl Barth.
Trevin: What does it mean to be a cultured Christian? Scripture doesn’t give much attention to this category of Christian (hence the title of your book, Gray Matters), which makes me wonder what biblical basis there is for Christians strive toward this goal. How would you make a case for it?
Brett: Culture is everywhere. It’s all around us and is unavoidable. It’s the food we eat, the houses we live in, the language we speak, the clothes we wear, the books we read. So like anyone, Christians are interacting with culture everyday, whether they like it or not. Jesus interacted with it too. He “came eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34) and carried out his ministry often around the dinner table. Jesus wasn’t acultural. Just as he did not shun his embodiment, nor did he downplay his culture.
On the contrary, throughout his ministry he incorporated culture in his parables and teachings, drawing upon cultural artifacts (coins, clothing, implements, tools), conventions (language, holy days, instructional methods), and institutions (kingdoms, marriage, government) as illustrations in communicating his message about the kingdom of God. The very incarnation of Jesus as a material and cultural human being seems to me one of the most compelling biblical cases for why we must take culture seriously.
Given that as humans we are consumers of culture by default, why don’t we start doing it more intentionally, more thoughtfully, and as something that is integrated with rather than divorced from our Christian identity? Ultimately every moment of our lives can 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 Cor. 10:31).
We should care about culture, and think more deeply about it, because we want to know God more through his creation. We should want to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8), understanding that God speaks to us everywhere, that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). He Speaks To Me Everywhere by Philip Ryken is a great little book on this subject. Kevin Vanhoozer’s Everyday Theology (particularly the introduction) also offers an excellent rationale for thinking theologically about the everyday culture we encounter.
Ultimately, Christians should be better consumers of culture because culture is an extravagant gift from God. We don’t deserve beauty, but even in this fallen world, it exists. Food didn’t need to have such amazing flavor; but it does. The world is full of color, texture, drama and the creativity of humans bearing the image of the Creator God. We shouldn’t squander the opportunity to bring glory to God through a healthy, God-oriented rather than me-oriented consumption of culture.
In the next post, I ask Brett about being discerning when choosing films to watch and if “cultured Christianity” can be simply a euphemism for “worldly Christianity.” Plus, we discuss our differing views on alcohol.