To the American mind censorship is abhorrent. Unlike the totalitarian state, ours is a country in which men may speak, write, and publish as they wish and read and see what they want. Just as governmental requirements of religious and political conformity are intolerable, so censorship in literature and in the visual and performing arts is repugnant to our society. To be sure, there are legal limits to the exercise of free speech and artistic expression; the law prohibits obscenity that is utterly without social value, malicious libel, and subversion of national security amounting to “clear and present danger.” Yet we seem in principle to be moving toward a position in which it will be increasingly difficult to define and enforce the limits beyond which the spoken and written word and the various modes of artistic expression may not go.
Thoughtful observers of American society can hardly fail to recognize the almost Copernican revolution that has taken place in American standards of decency. What was a trend two or three decades ago has in the last five or ten years become a landslide. The daring plays or pictures of the late fifties seem tame in comparison with today’s “adult” entertainment. That a minister of a great denomination should place on the pulpit alongside the Bible a book denied free circulation since the eighteenth century because of its salaciousness ought not to be considered merely an individual aberration but should be seen for what it is—one of many signs of a changed climate of opinion that now stomachs what only a few years ago would have been spewed out as morally defiling. Of recent years the public sense of propriety has been chipped away under the ceaseless impact of literature, entertainment, and advertising that have gone further and further in unending exploitation of sex.
To turn to another field, the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court throwing out a $500,000 award in an Alabama libel suit against The New York Times has upheld the right of criticism of public officials (even though the criticism may be false) provided that it is not made “with actual malice.” The decision was doubtless necessary; in a democracy political discussion must at all costs be kept free from reprisal. However, two justices, Hugo L. Black and Arthur J. Goldberg, in concurring opinions, in which Mr. Justice Douglas joined, advocated the removal of the qualification regarding malicious intent. Mr. Justice Black’s call for “granting the press an absolute immunity for criticism of the way public officials do their duties” was consistent with his statement in 1962 that any and all libel and slander laws along with any prosecution whatever of spoken or written obscenity are ruled out by the First Amendment (interview with Professor Edmond Cahn, New York University Law Review, June, 1962), Though few would go so far as this, it is evident that the widening interpretation of the constitutional privilege of freedom of speech and the press carries with it a heavy obligation of self-restraint.
Censorship, self-restraint under liberty, or untrammeled freedom of expression in speech, the press, and the arts—which? This is the problem. There are no easy solutions. And for this reason and because no problem comes closer than this one to the springs of human conduct and welfare, it must be the subject of deeper Christian thought and concern. Certainly the present situation in which almost anything can be said, written, or portrayed may yet result in a reaction that will impose restrictions in default of the exercise by individuals and groups of socially responsible self-restraint.
Further questions need to be asked: Is the public taste descending to a point of no return through mass media that reach as never before practically all the population? The licentious Restoration drama in England led to reform through the middle class; but what if the general standard of propriety has been lowered throughout society? Or, looking at the problem from another side, is it reasonable, while assuming on the one hand that the only truly effective censorship or restraint is self-imposed, to suppose on the other hand that man in his alienation from the God of holiness and truth will exercise such self-restraint?
To such questions there are indeed no easy answers. But they must be asked; and as they are asked, the Christian position vis-à-vis the moral relativism of the day must be clearly and unashamedly stated. It is not the task of the Church to impose its convictions upon the world, but it is the obligation of the Church to declare its convictions to the world. In a day when multitudes have substituted a laissez-faire morality for the biblical ethic, Christians are responsible to live in a non-Christian world according to the teachings of their Lord and the Scriptures which testify of him.
This leads to the responsibility to practice Christian non-conformity in a society that is brimful of materialism and sensuality, and that widely repudiates the Gospel with its ethical corollaries. And this in turn entails a Christian critique of cultural values, based not upon withdrawal or isolation from culture but upon compassionate understanding of it in the light of biblical revelation.
What, then, are some principles of Christian action in a morally corrupt society? Scripture knows no such thing as a Christian world order short of the millennium; with utter realism it sees the Church and the believer as in the world and therefore with responsibilities to it but at the same time as generically different from it. As a new man in Christ, the believer has in spiritual reality an other-worldly origin, although he lives in a this-worldly environment.
The inevitable result is tension. “The world,” said Christ of his disciples, “has hated them because they are not of the world.” What he stated with such profound simplicity is developed throughout the New Testament, especially but by no means exclusively in the Pauline epistles. But this polarity between Christians and the world does not exempt them from their continuing responsibility to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”
It is at this point of creative witness that ambiguities arise in respect to the Christian attitude toward the wide-open expression so characteristic of contemporary literature and the arts. Because these mirror the mood of the time with its restless search for meaning and escape by those who do not believe in the Gospel, many Christians feel that we must know what is being communicated. And so we must—within limits.
“But what,” it may well be asked, “are these limits?” Briefly they may be comprehended under three principles: that of Christian responsibility for the thought-life, that of Christian responsibility for one’s brother, and that of Christian non-conformity to the world.
Individual responsibility for the thought-life is implicit in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Christ searchingly equates sin in thought with sin in fact: “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.… Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
To know what the world is thinking and saying does not mean willing capitulation to its obsessive preoccupation with illicit sexual activity. The argument that Fanny Hill with its descriptions of prostitution and perversion is a useful background for choosing virtue is as sensible as advocating visiting a brothel as an inducement to chastity. No Christian is obligated to reside in the brothels of the mind in order to know the world in which he lives. For those who feel obligated, as Milton says in Areopagitica, to “see and know and yet abstain” (italics ours), sampling under Christian conscience is sufficient acquaintance with the redundant portrayal of lust that fills so many pages and occupies such unending moving-picture footage. The inescapable principle that thought leads to action has not been canceled by dropping practically all reticencies in fiction and on the screen. It is still true that as a man thinks in his heart, so he is, and that “the pure in heart shall see God.”
“But what of the ‘erotic’ passages in the Bible?” To that question, frequently raised by defenders of morally questionable literature, the answer can only be that the attempt to equate the restrained way in which Scripture speaks of sex or the beautiful imagery of Solomon’s Song with a Tropic of Cancer or any other scatological novel is sheer intellectual dishonesty convincing only to those who are ignorant of Scripture.
A second responsibility relates to one’s brother. The glorious truth is that Christians have liberty of thought and action. They are under grace, not law. But their liberty has inherent limits. As the Apostle shows in his classic exposition of Christian liberty in Romans 14, liberty may not be exercised in such a way as to “put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.” No reasonable Christian would distort this principle to the extent of subjecting all literature and art to bowdlerizing; there must be a place for honest and responsible portrayal of human life in the actuality, often unpleasant, of evil as well as good. Yet Christians cannot in the exercise of their liberty escape responsibility for youth. If promiscuity is rife among adolescents throughout the country today—including many church-going young people—the question of where they learned their “new morality” is in part answered by what paperbacks and magazines they are free to buy at the corner drugstores, what they read even in respectable periodicals, and what they see in their neighborhood theaters as well as on the television screen at home. Indifference to human welfare when responsibility for others demands restraint of personal indulgence, is a mark of our age; and it shows itself in lack of concern for what is happening to children through debasement of public taste.
A third responsibility is that of non-conformity. Christian protest is overdue. Making every allowance for contact with and understanding of the world, the call of both Church and believer is to non-conformity. Paul’s “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” has ample roots in the teachings of Christ. Samuel Rutherford of seventeenth-century Scotland put the principle in vivid words, “You will find in Christianity that God aimeth in all his dealings with his children to bring them to a high contempt of, and a deadly feud with the world”—words that echo the drastic statement of James the brother of the Lord, “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?”
What is needed is a resurgence of Christian responsibility expressed first of all in self-restraint and thoughtful discrimination of values. The easy answer of avoiding all modern literature and entertainment will not do. Not everything the world does is corrupt. Under God’s common grace unbelievers write great novels and plays, paint beautiful canvases, compose fine music, and produce worthy motion pictures. Yet when the world uses its abilities to degrade public morality and debase human life, then Christians are obligated not only to non-conformity but also to open protest.
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon gives as one of the main causes of the growth of the early Church in the decadent empire the pure morality of the Christians, who, by their steadfast non-conformity to the world around them, shone as lights in the darkness and worked as salt in a pagan society. The principle has not changed. Purity for conscience’ sake, goodness out of conviction, self-restraint motivated by love for God and man, have not lost their winsomeness. In this secular society, as in imperial Rome, Christlike living still has its ancient power.
Jerusalem And Times Square
A recent event in New York’s Times Square, modern “crossroads of the world,” seemed but to illustrate a timeless sermon of an ancient preacher in Jerusalem. Last month musty 1904 New York newspapers were removed from a copper box that had sealed them for sixty years in the former Times Tower. Their contents, The New York Times reported, showed that the tenor of the news has changed surprisingly little:
There was trouble in the Far East and in Panama. Commuters on the Erie Railroad complained of congestion. Broadway box-office practices were under fire.
The Brooklyn police were chasing the Mafia, with little success. There were bloody uprisings in Africa. Editorialists were writing about the perils of smoking cigarettes.
Long ago the Preacher said: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.… One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh … and there is no new thing under the sun.”
If indeed man is “born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” and if indeed his problems seem unending and beyond human solution, let him turn to the enduring New Testament for the answer: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” From him flows eternal grace to meet the recurring temporal need.
The Return Of The Social Gospel?
A theology is being widely propagated in which the death of Christ on the Cross for the sin of the world is construed to mean that every man is already saved from sin, even though he may have no knowledge of this. The resurrection of Christ for man’s justification is construed as meaning that every man is already justified before God, even though he has never heard of the Resurrection. Christ has already saved all men and is thus Lord of all.
The mission task of the Church, according to this theology, is merely to announce the news of what God has already done in Christ for men. The task is not to call men to the decision of faith, but to inform them that they are saved. The Church must inform men that life is not as it seems to be. It must tell the lost that they are not lost, as they thought; that they are not subject to death, as they imagined, but have, unbeknown to them, already come under the decisive power of the Resurrection. Thus the decisive character of the Cross and the Resurrection dissipates the decisive, life-or-death character of faith.
On this understanding of what God actually accomplished in the Cross and Resurrection, this theology proceeds to erase the line of distinction between the Church and the world. The Church is no longer the company of the redeemed, since the world is also redeemed. It is distinguished from the world only in that it knows it is redeemed, and it seeks through Christian missions to bring the world to this same knowledge.
Spokesmen for this theology also deny that there is any distinction at all between the sacred and the secular. The Church is not sacred, the world secular; work is not secular, and prayer sacred or religious. Everything is said to be sacred, and every vocation an essentially religious one. Here too lies the cause of the recent blurring of the distinction between clergy and laymen. The theological basis for regarding the whole span of human life and action as religious and sacred is said to be the Lordship of Christ. Since Christ as Lord of history is active in all of human history, any proper action by anyone in any area of life is regarded as a religious action, as a sacred function of co-laboring with Christ. On this basis it is said that anyone marching in a picket line, or taking part in a civil rights demonstration, is engaging in an act of worship. This, so goes the claim, is to put the altar out of the Church and into the street where it belongs. From this theological perspective stems the claim that social legislation is a fulfilling of Christian mission, and working for better housing a fulfillment of the Great Commission. From this same point of view it can be easily understood that some churchmen urge that the Church’s task is not to preach for the salvation of individual men, but to save the social, political, cultural, and economic structures in which men live, and often suffer. For us to think we can bring souls to Christ is regarded as presumptuous. The Church’s great mission task is said to be that lesser function of saving those organizations and institutions in which we have structured our social life.
One churchman has pressed the trinitarian character of God, and thereupon urges that Christ the Lord of history and the Spirit of God who moves redemptively in history are always first on every mission field. Before the missionary arrives, Christ and his Spirit are there and at work, so that there is no wholly pagan man or wholly pagan situation. On this basis, he urges that the missionary must first listen to the pagan to hear what he has to tell the missionary, before the missionary can speak to him of Christ.
That God has wrought decisively in the Cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ on man’s behalf cannot be denied. Nor can it be denied that Christ is Lord of all history, and that he by his Spirit works in history. Yet all this is not the whole biblical truth, and a theology built on this restricted basis is bound to be profoundly unbiblical and dangerous.
In biblical teaching missionaries are sent to lost men, and sent, not with a message that is merely information about what has happened, but with a message that, by proclaiming Jesus Christ for acceptance and acknowledgment, creates an eschatological moment, a moment in which men stand between heaven and hell in the time of their salvation.
In the preaching of the Gospel, Christ himself confronts men and speaks to them. He summons them to become what they are not: new creatures in Christ. In the critical moment, precipitated by gospel proclamation, the hearer is not merely summoned to accept some new information. He is called to the decision of faith; his whole being is summoned to response. He is called to accept his very life, indeed his new self, from the hand of Christ. And on this biblical view, the Church is not essentially indistinguishable from the world, nor the sacred from the secular. The Church is God’s new creation, which the world is not, just as the Christian is a new creature, the man “in Christ,” which the nonbeliever is not. However difficult theologically it may be to integrate the decisiveness of the Cross and Resurrection with the biblically taught necessity of the decision of faith, in biblical thought the first is not without the second.
The theology that claims that all men are already saved and that nothing decisive remains to be done but to save life’s social structures, and that therefore urges men to get on with the act of worship by putting the altar in the streets, has the earmarks of a returning “social gospel,” this time grounded in neo-orthodoxy’s faulty understanding of the objective and decisive character of God’s redemptive actions in Christ.
Biblical Illiteracy And Public Education
Time has brought to the nation’s attention the biblical illiteracy so widespread today and one man’s effort to do something about it. To assess the effect of Bible-banning in the public schools, English teacher Thayer S. Warshaw of the high school in Newton, Massachusetts, subjected several classes of college-bound seniors and juniors to a Bible quiz. To those appreciative of the integral role the Bible has played in Western culture, the results could be termed stunning:
Several pupils thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were lovers; that the four horsemen appeared on the Acropolis; that the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mary, Luther and John; that Eve was created from an apple; that Jesus was baptized by Moses; that Jezebel was Ahab’s donkey; and that the stories by which Jesus taught were called parodies.
The pupils also fared very poorly when asked to complete familiar biblical quotations. Thus it was no surprise that biblical allusions in secular literature often held no meaning for the youngsters. To correct the situation, Warshaw devised a reading course in the King James Version, emphasis being upon literary influence and not theological implications. As a result, his students’ knowledge of the content of the Bible has been vastly improved.
We salute teacher Warshaw and encourage others to follow in his train. Such methods cannot replace religious teaching of the Bible to be found in varying degrees of effectiveness in the Sunday schools, but a large portion of our youth do not attend Sunday school. And their ignorance of the Bible is no small matter, for following hard on the heels of biblical illiteracy is moral deprivation.
An Income For All
That every American has the right to the guarantee of a sufficient income whether or not he works was the recommendation of what is called the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, in a document sent to President Johnson late in March. The committee is made up of thirty-two educators, writers, economists, and other leaders. According to this group, “the Triple Revolution” requiring drastic adjustments in American society comprises cybernation, the new nuclear weaponry, and the human rights conflict. The call for “an unqualified commitment” of government to give “every individual and every family … an adequate income as a matter of right” is based largely upon the development of cybernation, whereby machines needing very little human direction will be capable of vastly expanding production. But this almost unlimited output is being checked, the committee says, by the present “income-through-jobs link as the only major mechanism for distributing effective demand—for granting the right to consume.” The recommendation did not say how the suggested provision of an adequate income to all would operate.
While the suggestion represents an attempt to face future problems of the American economy, this kind of endeavor may well jeopardize one of the most basic of human rights—that of the individual to achieve fulfillment and dignity through work. Granted the real problems of unemployment resulting from the expansion of automation and cybernation, there must be a better solution than the bestowal of an income on those who will not work, as well as on those who cannot work. (The Apostle’s word, “If any would not work, neither should he eat,” is still relevant.) Certainly the present use of available free time causes one to ask how millions without the stimulus of working for a living would use their total leisure.
In any event, these momentous problems cannot be adequately discussed without reference to certain theological implications, among which the nature of man himself is paramount. Fundamental is the question whether fallen man can safely be placed in an environment that ignores God’s wise and merciful provision that man should eat his bread in the sweat of his face. Well meant though it is, the suggestion of excusing multitudes from earning their living may, if carried out, be a giant step toward dehumanization. Edenic conditions are hazardous for post-Edenic man.
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