Christians have long had an uneasy relationship with culture. We like art, music, food, and movies, but possess an internal sensor that starts beeping wildly if we start liking these cultural goods too much. In the last hundred years, many believers have ricocheted back and forth between these poles—between, as Brett McCracken puts it, "legalism and liberty."
McCracken's new Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty is an accessible, readable approach to the issue of "culture." McCracken gives no hard definition of culture in the text, but he makes his focus clear: "This book is about pursuing God and giving him glory as mature, nuanced consumers of the 'gray areas' of culture." He zeroes in "on four areas of pop culture that we don't often think about as necessarily theological: food, pop music, movies, and alcohol." Building off of McCracken's acclaimed debut, Hipster Christianity, the point of Gray Matters is not to stimulate the making of culture (per the work of Andy Crouch), or to reposition evangelical cultural engagement (as was James Davison Hunter's task), but to consume culture well.
The Aesthetic Perspective
McCracken is well suited to his task. He's a graduate of evangelical schools (Wheaton College and Biola University) that emphasize considerable cultural separation, but he's also an unabashed advocate of cultural engagement (generally involving upmarket and cosmopolitan passions, that is). He, with many young peers, adores "gourmet burgers with blue cheese and port-caramelized onions," and if you happen to have some "bruschetta with pistachio butter and red wine figs," he wouldn't mind at all. McCracken's viewpoint represents that of many children of conservative evangelical churches who construe the doctrine of common grace as a permission slip for aesthetic enjoyments. This narrative has played out many times over in the last several decades, though not always with the cheerful spirit and careful eye evident in McCracken's text.
Gray Matters speaks well to the goodness of the created order. In numerous places, McCracken draws briefly from biblical texts to show that material goods and cultural artifacts are not the realized fantasies of debased minds, but God's own creation. Against squeamishness over enjoying food, McCracken points to the seemingly constant feast cycle of Jesus' own life. Countering those who would argue against any consumption of alcohol, McCracken discusses how Scripture often depicts wine as "a symbol of joy and divine blessing." Where he cannot draw from biblical material—there are no Levitical sections on Hollywood, for example—McCracken offers a spiritual grid by which to decide what to watch and what not to, with section titles like "What Is Your Weakness?" and "Is It Beneficial?".
The book, in sum, is a helpful introduction to thoughtful and spiritually-aware engagement of the created order. Several things are clear from McCracken's survey. He is a student of art, he obviously enjoys the world God has made, and he wants others to benefit from his explorations of food, music, movies, and fine drink. He is sensitive to the dangers of embracing culture, especially when its purveyors are not motivated by holy intent. He rightly chastises drunkenness, for example, but he doesn't stop there, dealing out some tough words to younger evangelicals who wield their Christian freedom with in-your-face bravado.