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.
Though McCracken inclines toward the more refined end of the pop culture spectrum, he also recognizes the goodness of less fashionable goods and practices. I share his love of Chicago's Intelligentsia coffee (to say nothing of the otherworldly restaurant Hot Chocolate). But I'm reassured that he celebrates homespun dinners with family members who likely have a tough time spending a dollar on McDonald's coffee, let alone meticulously curated cups of $5.00 Peruvian java. Upmarket cultural consumer: Meet thy friend, self-awareness.
Gray Matters is a straightforward book. Its task is fairly narrow, though not unimportant. It left this reviewer thinking over a few matters in particular. First, McCracken's take on watching movies with explicit content seemed less driven by holiness than by freedom to engage. This is a big topic, to be sure; good Christian people disagree on what level of unrighteousness to tolerate in movies and television. If one savors an artful show or film—as McCracken and I both do—this is an especially tough question, given the amount of spellbinding (but envelope-pushing) television series on offer today.
This leaves conscientious Christians in a potentially hard place. Enjoy the political theatrics of the bawdy Game of Thrones? Savor the curse-driven humor of Veep? What should a Christian do? McCracken's exhortation to know one's areas of temptation and seek holiness is on target. One question nags at me, though. Sure, I can watch shows that depict the darkness and complexity and desperation of life—but should I? Do I need to?
The apostle Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 6:13 play on my mind in these discussions: "'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are helpful." The first part of the verse seemed of greatest importance to me earlier in my Christian life—all things are lawful! As I mature, I find the second part coming most often to mind: Not all things are helpful. I would submit that this is a crucial text for cultural engagement.
I'm not against a deep-dive into heavy material that probes the depravity of the human condition. But remembering Paul's words has helped me, and frankly has steered me away from material that speaks truly about aspects of life but wraps that message in worldliness. Just because a work of art has a doctrine of brokenness and a type of Christ does not make it worthy of engagement. Some works of art will be; many will not be, particularly as the depravity-meter creeps upward.
The basic point is this: I, like many young evangelicals, don't need more worldliness. I need less. That applies to a good number of movies and television shows I could watch but don't, because frankly they won't help me. I teach college students, and I can say with great confidence that their chief need is Christward conformity and transformation.
Cultural watcher and engager though I am, I cannot help but think that the Scripture has a great deal more to say about gospel-driven holiness than about cultural engagement. We are surely free to consume and enjoy cultural goods. But, starting with the Scripture's doctrine of God, I am called to lose myself in marveling at the holiness of the Lord (Isa. 6:3). With God's grace looming large in all that I do, I'm called to be set apart (Rom. 12:2), killing sin constantly (Col. 3:1-11), making no provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14), and putting on all the holy armor of the Lord (Eph. 6:10-20). "Without holiness no one will see the Lord," Hebrews 12:14 says. To use Miroslav Volf's language, I think there's more of a "hard difference" between the church and culture than we might suppose.
This last reality can perhaps help us apply McCracken's numerous insights. It is not cultural, worldly artifacts that are most pleasurable. Holiness itself is pure delight (Psalm 16:11). This is what makes the prospect of life in the new heavens and new earth so exciting: We will taste the full sweetness, and luxuriate in the aesthetic splendor, of holiness. We will be, as Jonathan Edwards once said, "wrapt up" in God forever, enjoying all the fruits of a renewed city whose light is the slain Lamb.
Christian freedom entails several revolutionary realities: liberation from the law, from guilt, from a moralistic—but demoralized—way of life. Above all, though, Christian freedom is the freedom to obey Christ, and in so doing to savor the goodness of God above all else.
Owen Strachan is the author of the forthcoming Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome (Thomas Nelson).