Church Visibility or Church Publicity?

Church leaders find themselves today harangued and prodded to build an “online presence”. This usually means a busy Facebook page, a Youtube channel, a Twitter account, a static website, live-streamed services and more. Without these, we’re told, a church is mostly “invisible” to the world, and is “failing to reach its community”. It is even called a neglect of evangelism, a failure to connect, or hiding one’s light under a bushel.

In urban settings, it is true that the Internet has become the primary source of information. Gone are the days of the phone book, the classified sections in the print newspapers, the community noticeboards and the leaflets for the mailboxes. These still exist, but people looking for services, restaurants, directions, and, yes, churches, are likely to Google before they look to some other source. Therefore, I have no quarrel with those encouraging churches to use these means. Indeed, my church uses some of them, and will likely use more of them in the future.

I do have a deep concern that many who are pushing for “more online presence” have lost all sense of distinction between very different things: visibility and publicity.

Visibility is allowing those who are looking, and even those who may not be, to come across your church. In years past, this was everything from your church sign, to its steeple, to the bells on Sunday morning, to an ad placed in the community newspaper. Now, in addition to these, a church does well to enable those looking for churches through the window of a computer or cellphone screen to be able to find you. Visibility is simply gaining enough presence on the web for a “seeker” to come across your church as an option.

Publicity is a very different animal. Publicity is the work of marketers, advertisers, promoters, publicists, and those masters of hype and spin. Publicity is the creation of an image, a “brand”, to produce an impression of success, popularity, and customer satisfaction. When a church pursues publicity, it paints an idealised image of itself for its target-market. The church is a “relaxed atmosphere”, where all should “come as they are” and enjoy a warm welcome and a cup of coffee. Child-care is available, and plenty of parking, too. A nice “what to expect” page briefs the customer as to how to place this church on the spectrum of churches, so he can try before he buys. Photos of happy people abound, as well as pictures of the worship band, to assure you that there won’t be an organ.

Publicity works hand-in-hand with celebrity. The simple, but carnal, appeal to mass approval is supposed to confer importance upon the church. If the church’s social media has thousands of “likes”, followers or subscribers, if the pastor has his own radio or TV show or podcast (who doesn’t, these days?), if he has books published (preferably with his smiling face on the cover), if he is a sought-after conference speaker, then this must be hyped. The pastor becomes a brand, and if he has some particular spin or take on the Christian life, all the better. He can be marketed as the wild-at-heart preacher, or the ragamuffin Gospel preacher, or the Christian hedonist preacher, or the God-is-indescribable preacher, or the biblical-counselling man, or the current-affairs-and-prophecy man or you-fill-in-the-blank preacher. If you want celebrity, you can’t simply expound the Word each week: you need some unique schtick to distance you from the pack, and create hype around your personality.

Some Christians are so embedded in the celebrityism and exhibitionism of the web that they cannot see that these are hostile to the gospel. Publicity is the work of those wanting to sell something. It is a commercial animal, and it lives on the showmanship, competitiveness and shameless self-promotion of those hawking their products and selling their stuff. To treat your church, the gospel, or any man’s ministry in this fashion falls under the clear condemnation of Scripture:

“For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17)

“But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)

Publicity does not simply create visibility for your church or ministry. It reduces Christianity to the level of every other product and service competing for customers. It speaks the language of consumers, and those Christians using it should not be surprised when those arriving in church have the attitude that the customer is king. It trivialises holy things by portraying the church as just one more accoutrement to the narcissistic secular man’s life. It seems to believe the opposite of what Jesus taught: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Lk. 6:26), “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:13-14). It inverts these values and prizes what the Internet has trained us to prize: as many five-star ratings as possible, as many happy customer reviews as possible, and the endorsement of an “Influencer” with thousands of followers. It trains us to be exhibitionist instead of modest about our achievements, to praise ourselves instead of deflecting attention, and to hunger for online approval instead of seeking real-life faithfulness.

Yes, churches, seek visibility. People should know your church is there. But once you’re visible, that’s enough. Remember: He must increase, and we must decrease.

Royal Presents

The off’rings of the Eastern kings of old
Unto our lord were incense, myrrh and gold;
Incense because a God; gold as a king;
And myrrh as to a dying man they bring.
Instead of incense (Blessed Lord) if we
Can send a sigh or fervent prayer to thee,
Instead of myrrh if we can but provide
Tears that from penitential eyes do slide,
And though we have no gold; if for our part
We can present thee with a broken heart
Thou wilt accept: and say those Eastern kings
Did not present thee with more precious things.

Nathaniel Wanley (1634-1680)

The Magi

Sometimes I wish that Balthasar
Had not been gazing when that star
Appeared, so many years ago.
We were younger then and bold, though
Not so rash as to dash our lives
For sudden changes in the skies.

But nightly we watched their motions.
Their dance soon cast out all notions
Of conjunctions we expected.
This was new. Old, too: predicted!
A Magi six hundred years past-
Daniel, the Hebrew unsurpassed,
In wisdom great, and said to be
Possessed by the Spirit of God:
Israel’s God, Yahweh the Only.

Daniel wrote of a coming king
Whose throne would end all suffering,
A king to rule all human clans
Somehow from God and yet from man.
He’d crush those kings who’d not submit
And heal those humbled to the pit.
Meek as lambs; strong as a lion.
Strangest truth: His throne in Zion.

“Israel” We spat at the name!
Haughty hypocrites laying claim
To chosen status: God’s people.
“Never! All nations are equal”,
We’d say, by silencing the doubts
Gnawing at our hearts with proud shouts.

But what if? What if the Saviour
Was Jewish? Should our behaviour
Towards that old, ancient nation
Keep us from our own salvation?
Should we then make an enemy
Of God? Rather an embassy
Of peace, gifts of royal treasure
To secure his heart and pleasure.

If we needed confirmation
His grace surpassed expectations
And wrote on the parchment of sky.
Regulus, the king of stars with
King Jupiter the planet fifth.
A king’s king in constellation
Leo, sign of Daniel’s nation.

Thus the unforeseen decision:
We gathered goods, made provision
For the months we would journey west.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh, our best
Gifts safely in our camels’ sacks;
Soldiers, hunters, guides on their backs.

I will not lie: the road was hard,
The nights cold, the way often barred,
The inns dirty, the towns unkind,
The desert highways hard to find.
Caspar tried cheering us with rhymes
“Philosopher on camel’s hump
Is sure to come down with a thump!”
Truth in jest. We were just magi,
Not explorers. The weeks went by.

We could not agree what to say
To Herod the King on the day
We arrived. It was suicide
To ask a king to be our guide
To the king we sought.
But where else to begin, we thought,
But Jerusalem, the same place
Daniel foresaw Messiah’s grace?

Herod feigned his humble interest.
Beguiled we were, and soon dismissed
The warning in our hearts. He called
For the rabbinic crew who hauled
Their scrolls, and with ceremony,
Read the prophet’s testimony.

Micah, I think it was, who said
His birthplace is the House of Bread:
Bethlehem, a town one hour south.
Herod’s heart was dark, but his mouth
Spoke of his unannounced visit
To worship. Fools! Who can match wits
With a fox? Naive stargazers
cannot read those men like razors
who rule in palaces. We thanked
Herod, spurred camels south and banked
our hopes on more clear providence.

Our hearts soon leaped, we laughed aloud:
the star we’d seen now pointed south!
To come this far, the end in sight –
my heart was racing, my chest tight.
The town was small, the houses rough.
We knocked on doors and soon enough
We learned about a recent birth.
The house was small and hardly worth
A second glance. “Strange home”, thought I,
“To bear and raise the king most High.”

We entered in, lanterns aflame.
I know not how, but more light came.
In that moment, the room aglow,
Within my heart I came to know
The deeper meaning of this shame.

The light burst on my consciousness
Of course salvation must be thus:
To be rich he must first be poor;
To taste reward he must endure
The pain of God’s condemnation
Before he knows commendation.
If he would reign he must first serve,
He must refuse what he deserves;
Accept the scorn he has not earned
To purchase back what man has spurned.
To conquer pride, the king will kneel.
He’ll carry weakness so as to heal.
Our greed he’ll kill by giving all
Our hate he’ll quell by loving more.
To master death, the Son will die.
The King of Kings, Lord God Most High.
This I saw in the broken walls
The meagre food and dirty floors,
The weary couple, faces thin
The infant child of tender skin.

I confess I forgot my speech
My throat was tight, my knees were each
Without strength and I fell, offering
What I had, for so great a king.
Long I lay, in sweet surrender
To Israel’s God whose tender
Mercies fed us, the ‘dogs’ with crumbs
From Zion’s table, and who comes
To Him He will cast out never.

That night we slept: God, our Father,
In dreams warned us and rather
Than go to Herod, we escaped
His eye another way and scraped
Our way home.

But now this birth became a death.
Deaths, for those who’d only drawn breath
For less than two years. How many tears
Were shed that week and our worst fears
Came to pass. Our regret may not
Ever be soothed, the pain forgot,
Though it was Herod’s sin, his blot.

But the other death was now ours.
We weren’t those who’d left the towers
Of Persia with its religion,
No longer men who tried to win
The favour of a foreign Lord
With gifts. We’d lost, and found reward.
We were dead and at last alive.
Our home was now an idol’s hive,
Our family were but strangers now,
Our culture’s gods we’d disavow.

Yes, sometimes I wish Balthasar
Had not been gazing at that star.
But all such thoughts are soon expelled
And with the truth my heart is quelled.

“What will a man give in exchange
For his soul?” Nor is it strange
To lose your life for Him and find
You now can see, who once were blind.

David de Bruyn

(with HT to Eliot and Piper)

2019 Reading

            cover  Title and review Author
Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture
Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture
5/5 A tad nostalgic, but otherwise superb.
Esolen, Anthony
The Fall of Arthur
The Fall of Arthur
3/5. Pity he never finished it.
Tolkien, J.R.R.
A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry in English from Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century
A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry in English from Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century
4/5 A great collection.
Trott, James H.
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
4/5 Apart from the big tent approach, excellent. And he mentions famous people like Ryan Martin and Scott Aniol, and I’ve been in their presence.
Dreher, Rod
Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation
Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation
3/5 Sound, but too Kuyperian.
Doriani, Daniel M.
The Children of Húrin
The Children of Húrin
5/5 Wonderful and tragic.
Tolkien, J.R.R.
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
4/5 Faithful presence is an excellent view of Christianity and culture.
Hunter, James Davison
What I Learned in Narnia
What I Learned in Narnia
4/5. One of the better summaries.
Wilson, Douglas
The Forgotten Heavens: Six Essays on Cosmology
The Forgotten Heavens: Six Essays on Cosmology
3/5. Uneven qualities of essays, but refreshingly supernaturalistic.
Wilson, Douglas
The Silmarillion (Middle-Earth Universe)
The Silmarillion
5/5 Christian mythos at its best.
Tolkien, J.R.R.
Being Consumed
Being Consumed
3/5. Great on diagnosis, shorter on cure. 
Cavanaugh, William T.
The Pilgrim Church
The Pilgrim Church
3/5 Great in places, careless in others. Wish it were all true.
Broadbent, Edmund Hamer
C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction
C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction
4/5 Amazingly concise.
Como, James
Religion and the Rise of Western Culture
Religion and the Rise of Western Culture
5/5 Peerless combination of detail, clarity and insight.
Dawson, Christopher Henry
Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost
5/5 Soaring.
Milton, John
Theology of Jonathan Edwards
Theology of Jonathan Edwards
4/5 Excellent topical summaries.
McClymond, Michael James
The Practice Of Piety
The Practice Of Piety
3/5 Dense and scrupulous.
Bayly, Lewis
How to Be a Gentleman: A Contemporary Guide to Common Courtesy
How to Be a Gentleman: A Contemporary Guide to Common Courtesy
4/5 For us barbarians.
Bridges, John
Mere Fundamentalism: The Apostles' Creed and the Romance of Orthodoxy
Mere Fundamentalism: The Apostles’ Creed and the Romance of Orthodoxy
4/5 Insightful treatment.
Wilson, Douglas
A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness
A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness
4/5 The middle section on illumination is simply superb.
Piper, John
Live Like A Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis's Chronicles
Live Like A Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles
3/5 Great chapter or two surrounded by others.
Rigney, Joe
The Hour That Changes the World: A Practical Plan for Personal Prayer
The Hour That Changes the World: A Practical Plan for Personal Prayer
3/5 Fantastic approach, marred by vacuous mysticism.
Eastman, Dick
Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God
Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God
5/5 Simply brilliant description and summary. Delightful.
Rigney, Joe
The Stranger in Your House
The Stranger in Your House
3/5 Some helpful insights on teenagers, with some psychobabble.
Jantz, Gregory L.
Man, The Dwelling Place Of God
Man, The Dwelling Place Of God
4/5 Tozer rarely disappoints.
Tozer, A.W.
Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith
Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith
3/5 Foster’s taxonomy of spirituality would be brilliant but for his unnecessary inclusion of the ‘social justice’ tradition.
Foster, Richard J.
Madame Guyon: A Short and Easy Method of Prayer
Madame Guyon: A Short and Easy Method of Prayer
3/5 I don’t find it short and easy to be a quietist.
Motte Guyon, Jeanne Marie Bouvi
Worship and the reality of God: an Evangelical Theology of Real Presence
Worship and the reality of God: an Evangelical Theology of Real Presence
3/5 Marred by silly remarks on music and continuationism. The arguments for more frequent Lord’s Supper are strong.
Davis, John Jefferson
A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies)
A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church
4/5 The early church did not borrow its music from the world.
Stapert, Calvin R.
Select Sermons of George Whitefield With An Account Of His Life By J.C. Ryle
Select Sermons of George Whitefield With An Account Of His Life By J.C. Ryle
5/5 Surprisingly readable and warm.
Whitefield, George
Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship
Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship
4/5 Good, but not new for Piper.
Piper, John
The Once and Future King (The Once and Future King, #1-4)
The Once and Future King (The Once and Future King, #1-4)
3/5 A rather odd treatment of the tale, in my opinion.
White, T.H.
Fidelity: What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man
Fidelity: What It Means to Be a One-Woman Man
4/5 Great insights on purity.
Wilson, Douglas
Imitation Of Christ
Imitation Of Christ
3/5 Warm and severe at the same time. Unfortunate sacerdotalism.
Kempis, Thomas à

New Children’s Book: The Mirror Who Wanted To Be Someone

I’m pleased to announce the release of a children’s book, The Mirror Who Wanted To Be Someone. Lovingly illustrated by Diane Shearer with hand-drawn illustrations, this is a fairy tale of the Christian story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.

A happy Mirror becomes confused when a Dragon tempts him to stop reflecting others, and to “be himself”. When the Mirror makes a fateful decision, only the King can rescue him.

A King, a Mirror, and a Dragon together re-tell the oldest story of all. Man, as Martin Luther put it , is “curved in on himself” (in curvatus in se). When loving ourselves more than our Creator, we are broken. Only grace can fix and re-make what we were meant to be.

The book concludes with questions, answers and Scriptures that give parents the chance to explain the gospel to their children.

The paperback version is available on Amazon , as is the Kindle.

Christian at the Movies (3) – Magic and Fantasy

Many Christians are alarmed at books or movies that involve magic or fantasy. They feel that the one is dabbling in the occult, and the other is immersing oneself in what is unreal and possibly even false. They wonder that any Christians could read or watch something containing magic, wizards or any reference to the occult. Can Christians, in good conscience, watch stories related to magic or pure fantasy?

On the first score, not all magic is created equal, so to speak. There is magic and magic. The occult practices of Deuteronomy 18:10-11 are forbidden, and any story which glorifies them or encourages participation in them is to be shunned by Christians.

The problem is, not all of those films or TV shows accused of promoting the occult practices of Deuteronomy 18 actually do so. It becomes guilt by association, or more accurately, guilt by equivocation. Not all that is called magic in films and books is occultic and satanic. The term magic refers to more than forbidden witchcraft, and it is easy to paint everyone who uses the word with the same brush.

For example, in the Bible itself, the wise men who visit Jesus are called magi, which is the word related to our word magic. Daniel himself was the chief of these “magicians”, a term which referred to astronomy, astrology, philosophy as well as occultic arts. (Indeed, the English word wizard comes from the Middle-English word for wise one, and simply meant sage or philosopher.) We can be certain Daniel practised only that “magic” that was pleasing to God, but it would not be incorrect to call Daniel a magician. In fact, as late as the 17th century, a believing scientist like Isaac Newton was regarded as “the last of the magicians”, since he took seriously the practice of alchemy. Magic is a term that broadly refers to knowledge and power, and usually supernatural power. We might want to use the term to restrictively speak about what is forbidden in Deuteronomy 18, but then that is our quirk, not one we can impose upon all authors and film or TV producers.

This brings us to books and movies containing magic. In each one, we have to be fair to the author and ask how he or she is using the term and idea of magic. Is magic, in that story, simply power granted to one or more of the characters? Is magic one of the laws of the internal universe created by the author of the story? To link magic in a given story to necromancy or calling upon demonic beings or anything that corresponds to Deuteronomy 18 requires some warrant. We need to ask what the author means by magic on his own terms, and how it functions in his literary world. Only if the author is drawing clear correspondence between magic in his created world and the magic condemned in the Bible can we say that we have a real problem. The mere presence of the term is not enough to go on, nor is the presence of fantastical creatures with fantastical powers. The Bible contains talking trees and flying dragons, too.

For example, in Tolkien, very little is magical. Certainly the creatures are remarkable, but not magical, since they belong in the world Tolkien has created. Yes, there are “wizards” (the Istari), but they turn out to be the equivalent of angels, with powers from Illuvatar, the one true God. Tolkien even has Galadriel tell Frodo that the powers the elves possess should not be called by the same term “magic” as what the Dark Powers possess. One is sub-creation, the other is manipulation and domination. Nothing in Tolkien remotely corresponds to the prohibitions of Deuteronomy 18.

Similarly in Lewis’s Narnia. It is very clear that both good and evil power is present in Narnia. They do not come from the same source, nor are we ever encouraged to pursue interest in the dark arts. (Indeed, we see the very opposite in The Magician’s Nephew and Prince Caspian). Aslan calls the laws behind justice and atonement the “Deep Magic” and the “Deeper Magic”.

If fantasy just isn’t your cup of tea, no problem. No one requires that you like Tolkien and Lewis. But to shun Tolkien and Lewis for supposed occultic leanings would be misguided indeed. It would be to refuse two of the only contemporary Christian mythologies on the mistaken basis that they are courting and encouraging involvement with the fallen spirit world. To lump Lewis and Tolkien with the abundant occultic R-rated material coming out of Amazon and Netflix would be poor judgement of the first order.

The same could be said of many of the fairy tales that emerged from folk cultures. Most of them are morality tales, mixing in various amounts of the supernatural as part of the story. I have yet to come across a fairy tale that encouraged active and real-life disobedience to Deuteronomy 18.

Frankly, in a world that despises and discounts talk of the supernatural (except when it suits it), I think it is helpful and important for a child to have plenty of stories with the supernatural in them, told from a Christian point of view. We want to overturn the materialistic narrative of the Darwinists and naturalists, and Christian stories with magic are some of the best ways to do so.

But what of the objection that fantasy is encouraging false notions of unreal worlds? Lewis answers this objection:

“But why,” (some ask) “why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?” Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality. One can see the principle at work in his characterisation. Much that in a realistic work would be done by “character delineation” is here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit. The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale? In the book (The Lord of the Rings) Eomer rashly contrasts “the green earth” with “legends.” Aragorn replies that the green earth itself is “a mighty matter of legend.”
The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by “the veil of familiarity.” The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat. If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.

 

Christian at the Movies (2)

The laziest form of “discernment” about movies or television looks for the easy targets of occultism, sex, nudity, bad language and gratuitous violence. Certainly, Christians are right to avoid these things. But as we have seen in our last post, discernment is not as simple as using VidAngel or Clearplay to eliminate the objectionable. Nor is it a matter of avoiding any and all references to the occult.

Thus far, we have considered four questions we should use to evaluate film and TV.

    1. If it portrays real life, what kind of world does the movie/TV show claim we live in? Is it true?

    2. If fantasy, what kind of other world does the movie/TV show create? Is it similar to God’s true world? If it’s better, how? If worse, how?

    3.    Does this movie/ TV show make fun of, or glorify, something that God hates?
    4. What kinds of actions and characteristics does it glorify or celebrate? Does it celebrate what is shameful? Does it invite unlawful curiosity?

Here are the next six.

5. What sort of man or woman do you want to be after you have watched it?

What virtues has it pushed you to aspire towards? What vision of masculinity or femininity? As “cool” as James Bond, or as sacrificial as Sam Gamgee? As sultry and alluring as some female superhero in tights or as wise as Abigail? Do you want to mimic being cocky and streetsmart or being noble and chivalrous? Do you want to be a sacrificial servant or a sexual siren? If our boys want to be playboys instead of knights, and if our girls want to be covergirls and Barbies instead of Blandina or Perpetua, then we know who have become their cultural mentors.

6. Does it use spectacle (excitement, violence, nudity) to grab and keep interest?

Spectacle is using what is visually magnetic. We are drawn to scenes of great action and noise (explosions, battles, chases). We are also drawn through bloodlust to see the human body broken, torn or killed. We are also drawn through prurient curiosity to see how much nudity or sexual activity someone will reveal. Directors know this, and use it. It is a technique, a tool, a method: to grab and keep interest. If we endorse it with viewing it, we should at least admit that we are being manipulated.

Yes, here is where we should either simply avoid some films altogether, or use technologies to filter out the morally objectionable of these elements. Sometimes, an otherwise good story is marred by the brief presence of these, and filters come to the rescue. Sometimes, the whole movie or series is so depraved and grotesque that it is unjust flattery of such trash to filter anything out and watch it.

7. Are the characters flat or real?

Do the characters embody the real human condition: fallen people made in God’s image, capable of good by common grace, and also capable of great evil? Or are they flat, two-dimensional placeholders, like no one we know or will ever know? Are they just sock-puppets for a lazy screenwriter to put words into their mouth, or use them for some gratuitous sex, violence or evil? Are they empty stereotypes, mere cliches that end up demeaning our view of our fellow image-bearers? Hollow characters mean we are watching something that is really a waste of our time.

8. Does it flatter me or challenge me?

Poor and useless stories do not cause aspiration; they cause wish-fulfilment. In other words, the best stories ennoble us and leave us desiring to grow. The worst stories are experiences in narcissism: we pretend we are heroes, sexual goddesses, superhuman conquerors, and dwell in that fake experience for the duration of the film. It is cinematic self-abuse: pleasuring ourselves with ourselves, with no real growth in love, honour, or goodness.

9. Did I recognise everything or did I learn anything? Was it predictable or transformative?

Poor movies use formulas and and stereotypes. A formula is a particular story or character cliche. We all recognise where this is going, and like it so. The familiarity of the formula makes no demands on us. We watch and consume, lightly amused by otherwise inconsequential twists in a story we can loosely predict. Movies and TV shows like this are just chewing gum for your eyes and ears. They don’t change you, because demanding art is usually not popular, and therefore hard to sell on commercial film and TV.

10. Did it make me think about my emotions and about what I should feel, or did I just “feel my feelings”? 

Good art not only evokes deep emotion, it is even able to deepen your emotions. It gives you emotional knowledge, showing and revealing the depth of the human experience, the nature of reality, and the power of symbols and analogies. Poor art does not do this. It is more like a mirror, showing you yourself, and making you feel very emotional about your feelings: be they happiness, sadness, excitement or fear. The whole experience is shallow and self-focused. You don’t deepen your affections; you just feel momentarily weepy or elated, and then it’s over. Good art doesn’t just tickle and scratch: it forces you to think, wrestle, imagine and change. Your affections are grown, strengthened and deepened by an encounter with good art.

***

Yes, you can ask whether a movie has sex, nudity, profanity and violence. You can ask about fantasy and magic (more on that next time). But I strongly suggest you ask these ten:

1. If it portrays real life, what kind of world does the movie/TV show claim we live in? Is it true?

2. If fantasy, what kind of other world does the movie/TV show create? Is it similar to God’s true world? If it’s better, how? If worse, how?

3. Does this movie/ TV show make fun of, or glorify, something that God hates?

4. What kinds of actions and characteristics does it glorify or celebrate? Does it celebrate what is shameful? Does it invite unlawful curiosity?

5. What sort of man or woman do you want to be after you have watched it?

6. Does it use spectacle (excitement, violence, nudity) to grab and keep interest?

7. Are the characters flat or real?

8. Does it flatter me or challenge me?

9. Did I recognise everything or did I learn anything? Was it predictable or transformative?

10. Did it make me think about my emotions and about what I should feel, or did I just “feel my feelings”?

Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thess. 5:21-22)

Christian at the Movies (1)

I was about ten when the first Rock ‘n Roll evangelists came to town. They weren’t proselytising on behalf of Iron Maiden. They were there to tell us about the rampant satanism and occultism in contemporary rock and pop.

To rapt audiences, they played snippets of songs backwards: “[ssshkp]…[ssshkp]…[ssshkp]…meeshnar eep… [ssshkp]… eeg zatan… [ssshkp]…’There! Hear that?'”. We heard about the backmasking and subliminal messages embedded in most songs. It was terrifying to know that Satanists were manipulating us with hidden and even inaudible messages. As a child, it made me want to block my ears and run out of most shops.

And it wasn’t only the music. The Smurfs were satanic because it had Gargamel the wizard and a cat named Azrael. Gummi Bears was satanic because Zummi would cast spells by saying words backwards. Thundercats and He-Man were satanic because of Set and Skeletor. Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was just as bad. Ditto for The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. Playing Dungeons & Dragons was tantamount to holding a seance.

Of course, there was (and still is) occultism in popular entertainments, just not to the level the evangelists suggested, nor in the conspiratorial way that alarmist evangelism thrives on. When all that blew over, besides having made Fundamentalism look goofier than ever, it probably harmed believers in a far more serious way. While looking for the frontal assault of satanism, Christians became oblivious to far greater dangers in popular entertainments, to which they gave a free pass.  The concepts of sentimentalism and trivialisation seemed tame and silly compared with the roaring lion of occultism. The ideas of implicit morality, worldview, and celebrated or denigrated ideas went missing. Moral universes, characterisation, Christian or non-Christian imagination – these were (and still are) alien concepts to most Christians. And besides, it’s easier to spot the occult than to judge something for its beauty or worth.

Consequently, in this scheme of things, the cornpone silliness and trivialisation of the Rapture in A Thief in the Night was ignored, while the witches in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty made those films clearly wrong. The bawdiness in The Princess Bride was no problem, but Pokemon was clearly a tool of Satan. Characters smooching each other on a weekly basis was fine (as was the formula in 80s and 90s TV shows), but the mention of spells, magic, dragons, witches, wizards was insidious occultism grooming our children for a future career in the occult. We could trivialise the entire faith in Veggie Tales and cartoons of Bible accounts, but those were “safe”, as opposed to how Disney would slip in supposed satanic salutes. In short, Christians learnt how to strain out gnats and swallow camels at the movies.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I still find Christians operating at the same level. The films and TV series have changed, but the criteria of evaluating them seems to be the same: is there occultism? Is there bad language? Is there sex and nudity? Is there gory violence? If these are absent, then the film or programme is “innocent”. (Indeed, for some Christians, even these are no hindrance to their watching a movie.)

So you will find believers watching completely anti-Christian films, discipling their children with sentimental (and therefore anti-Christian) visions of reality, and loving their choices because they score 1 out of 10 on the SNVL rating, and have no mention of magic or fantasy. Conversely, you will find the same Christians avoiding decent or even helpful visions of ultimate reality because of some reference to magic or the presence of evil in the story, and choosing rather to wallow in saccharine portrayals of reality.

Maybe you are one of those fortunate Christians who has managed to raise a family with nary a screen in site. Maybe you have acreage aplenty, and your kids can roam free in the great outdoors till mama calls ’em in for supper. You have my admiration and righteous envy. For those of us in the city, and for those of us in cities with high walls and electric fences, screens are both a part of life and a survival tool for parents. While my children probably watch a fraction of what most children today watch, they still encounter movies and TV shows, and it is my duty to teach them discernment.

To that end, I wrote out ten questions for them to consider as they come across films. At this stage, my wife and I still strictly control and filter what they see. But that cannot last forever. One day, they will be independent, and have their own internet connection. By then, I hope that what will keep them pure will be not merely VidAngel or Covenant Eyes, but their own consciences shaped to love what is true, good, and beautiful. Here are the first four.

  1. If it portrays contemporary or historical life in this world, what kind of world does the movie/TV show claim we live in? Is it true?

  2. If it creates a fantasy world, what kind of other world does the movie/TV show create? Is it similar to God’s true world? If it’s better, how? If worse, how?

These first two questions ask what kind of moral universe the movie creates. Every film is a mini-cosmos, a world that the characters inhabit. We are asked to enter that world, and view things from its perspective. The important question is, what sort of world is it? Is it a godless world? Are humans intrinsically good or evil? Is the morality like that of Scripture or is it inverted? Perhaps it is deliberately amoral, nihilistic and purposeless. Is there good and evil, truth and lies, ugliness and beauty? Do you emerge from this world, fantastical or realistic, with a clearer vision of the true world that God has made, or is it somewhat distorted? A fantasy world is not a false world; it is an alternate world. A false world is one which distorts good and evil, Creator and creation, truth and lies, whether it uses realism or fantasy. A false world reshapes the very lens of perception with which we come back to our own world.

3. Does this movie/ TV show make fun of, or glorify, something that God hates?

4. What kinds of actions and characteristics does it celebrate? Does it celebrate what is shameful? Does it invite unlawful curiosity?

One of great powers of theatre and spectacle is its immersive character. Writers such as Augustine and Pascal warned about the power of theatre to envelop us in the action, until we sympathetically feel what we should not feel. We desire the married woman to elope from her abusive husband with the kind stranger. We want to see the hero take violent revenge on his evil persecutors. We long to see the romantic tension defused in some act of on-screen sensuality.

We need to ask, does this film make us lustful, envious, covetous, or vengeful? Do we laugh at immorality, pride, arrogance and conceit? Do we begin to admire the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life? Are we drawn in to covet another man’s wife or husband, to desire what we are told not to desire? Within the movie experience, are we sympathetic and supportive of sinful behaviour? Do we become contemptuous of wisdom and righteousness? Then the film is shaping our conscience away from God.

Many of the protagonists in modern movies are, by biblical definition, fools. They are immoral, proud, self-directed, profane, irreligious, immodest, bloodthirsty, violent, and ungodly in their speech. Yet they are the “heroes” of the tales. If we think that these heroes are not shaping our children just because we filter out the worst bits of nudity, violence, and language, we are straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

The next six next time.

Preference and Amorality

Adiaphora (indifferent matters) are misunderstood on two grounds. First, evangelicals misunderstand the term indifferent to mean unimportant. Second, evangelicals conflate the moral neutrality of adiaphora themselves into morally neutral actions once they are used.

First of all, “indifferent” things has nothing to do with feeling indifferent about a matter. Adiaphora does not mean “matters of little consequence”. The term originates from ancient Greek schools of thought, where it referred to the inability to differentiate two things logically, or the inability to differentiate whether morality demanded a thing or forbad it. In other words, the “indifference” was not a feeling of apathy or boredom with the issue. It had to do with the difficulty of differentiating, not with the unimportance of the issue.

Indeed, consider how formative are those matters which are commonly considered to be preference. Music shapes character and forms the Christian imagination. The observance of days of worship or rest has profound effects on our godliness. Food and drink can be used for asceticism, gluttony, drunkenness and broader immorality. Forms of recreation, leisure activities, what we watch and listen to, the places we frequent, the clothes we wear, may indeed be matters of preference. This hardly makes them inconsequential for godly living.

Second, “indifferent” things do not remain morally neutral once used by a moral agent. Certainly, food by itself does not commend us to God one way or another (1 Cor. 8:8). The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Ro. 14:17). Yes, the heart is established by grace, not by foods (Heb.13:9).  And yes, what goes into a man does not defile him, but what comes out of his heart (Mark 7:18-23). All of this establishes that certain substances, objects, sounds, periods of time, and places are neither intrinsically good or evil.

Once used, however, these things become instruments of faith toward God, or unbelief (Ro. 14:23b). This is Paul’s project in 1 Corinthians 8-10: to show the Corinthians that morally neutral food can be used to glorify God or to please self sinfully. It can glorify God in thankful participation, and it can be used to glorify God in deferential and considerate abstention. It can be used selfishly by eating wantonly in front of a believer whose conscience has not stabilised, and it can be used selfishly by eating in front of an unbeliever who associates the food with idolatry. It can be used selfishly by abstaining with a proud and haughty attitude, or by eating with a scornful, in-your-face attitude. The food itself is simply part of “the Earth which is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. It is what moral agents do with the morally neutral food that makes their action moral or immoral.

The childishness found in evangelical circles is to assume that morally neutral objects, substances, materials, or colours somehow transmute the actions of people that use them into morally neutral actions. Yes, not every action carries the same moral weight and consequence. But “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We may have different preferences on food or days, but we both share the same obligation to convert our preferences into worship. “He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks” (Rom. 14:6).

Put simply, morally indifferent things almost never translate into morally neutral actions, or morally neutral agents. We are required to take those morally neutral objects and discern their nature, their associations, their use, their dangers, their possibilities. We may find that certain morally neutral things, such as the musical notes C, D, or G, or the chemical substance alcohol (C2H6O), are no longer morally neutral once combined into a musical language, or an inebriating drink. To rightly use adiaphora, we are to consider a number of questions, mentioned in an earlier post in this series.

1) How is this thing typically used? What activities, actions and ends is it used for?
2) Does it make provision for the flesh (Ro 13:14)? Are you fleeing from sin and lust by doing this? (2 Tim 2:22)?
3) Does it open an area of temptation or possible accusation which Satan could exploit (Eph 4:27)? Are you taking the way of escape from temptation by doing this (1 Cor 10:13)?
4) Is there a chance of enslavement, or addiction (1 Cor 6:12)?
5) Does it spiritually numb you, and feed the flesh or worldliness within (Ro 6:12-13)?
6) Does it edify you (1 Cor 10:23)?
7) With what is this thing or activity associated? Does it have the appearance of evil (1 Thes 5:22)? Does it adorn the Gospel (Tis 2:10)?
8) Could an unbeliever or another believer easily misunderstand your action? Does it lend itself to misunderstandings (Ro 14:16)?
9) Could your action embolden a Christian with unsettled convictions to fall back into sin (1 Cor 8:7-13)?
10) Could your action cause an unbeliever confusion over the Gospel or Christian living (1 Cor 10:27-28)?

In other words, out of the three areas that God reveals His will (commands, principles, adiaphora), it is ironically adiaphora that require the greatest discernment and the greatest wisdom. Far from being a third-tier, unimportant area of life with little to no moral consequences, adiaphora turn out to be areas that will affect vast swathes of our lives, and shape us profoundly. Perhaps one of the remaining differences between conservative evangelicals and mainstream fundamentalists is that many fundamentalists still recognise the moral importance of adiaphora, while evangelicals insist that matters of preference are to be given little attention.

Indeed, there have been those [fundamentalists] who elevated their preferences to inviolable standards for all. But Romans 14 warned us against this. Yes, there have been those [fundamentalists]  who converted their conviction into commandments for others. But Romans 14 teaches precisely the opposite. The abuses of adiaphora by those who ignored Scripture’s teaching on the conscience does not warrant the current dismissal of adiaphora as unimportant and morally inconsequential. They are precisely the opposite.

Preferences and Adiaphora

God reveals His will in Scripture in three ways.

The first is by explicit command or prohibition. God simply mandates certain behaviours and forbids others.
The second is by principles. Principles give truths, usually in timeless, axiomatic, or generalised form, which must then be properly connected to the specific circumstances that a believer is in.
The third is by allowing areas that He neither requires nor forbids explicitly in His Word. Theologians have called these things adiaphora, from the Greek which means ‘indifferent things’. These refer to matters where Scripture has not told us one way or another. Here careful judgement is needed. The meaning of the thing or activity in question must be properly understood, and then linked back to Scriptural commands or principles.

It is this third area that we must understand in order to correctly use the term preference. One characteristic of modern libertarian Christianity is its tendency to adopt an inverted legalism. In order to justify its ‘freedoms’, it makes an appeal to the letter of the law. That is, it shaves down the actual obligations of a Christian to explicit positive or negative biblical commands. It wrangles free of the implications of many biblical principles, claiming exemption from them with the post-modern’s motto: “that’s just your interpretation.” Finally, when it comes to adiaphora, it looks incredulously at the one seeking to form a judgement on any such matter. After all, if God hasn’t said anything about it, then the matter is meaningless, morally neutral, and without any serious moral implications. By a weird abuse of sola Scriptura, the only admissible judgements are the first category of explicit commands and prohibitions. The rest of life, it seems, does not matter to God. Finally, with rich irony, these legalists brand anyone who offers a moral judgement on any of the adiaphora with the term – you guessed it – legalist.

It ought to be obvious to us that God did not aim to write an exhaustive manual detailing His will on every possible event. The Bible would then fill several libraries, and be an ongoing work.

It ought to be equally obvious to us that God does want us to glorify Him in every detail of our lives (Col 3:17, 1 Cor 10:31). He has a perfect will, and He wants us to know it (Rom 12:2, Eph 5:16). Therefore, it ought to be plain to us that what God has supplied in the Scripture must be applied to life using information not contained in the Scripture.

Why are Christians so intimidated at the thought of getting grounds to apply a Scripture from outside the Scriptures? Probably because they have confused sola Scriptura with nuda Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture alone is the final authority for life and godliness. There is no higher bar or court of appeal than the Bible. There we find God’s will revealed. No information outside of the Scripture is to be considered as authoritative as Scripture itself.

However, nuda Scriptura is the idea that Scripture can come to us unclothed, apart from the understanding imparted from the believing community of faith and the Christian past, apart from the progress of theology through the centuries,  and apart from any other accompanying information from beyond the Scripture, even if it be true and given by experts or authorities in their fields. Scripture’s authority becomes limited to the naked black-and-white text, and nothing more than its own explicit applications will be admitted. In supposedly wanting nothing more than the unadorned statements of Scripture to guide his life, such a person ironically destroys the authority of Scripture to speak on life in general. Scripture’s protectors become its captors, not merely keeping competitors out, but keeping its own authority locked within the prison of its own two covers.

Most nuda Scriptura practitioners are unaware of how inconsistent they are with this attitude. They oppose abortion, but the Bible nowhere explicitly says that the killing of an unborn child is an instance of murder. They oppose taking God’s name in vain, but they cannot point to a single Scripture which gives an explicit application of that command. They regard recreational drug use as sinful, but cannot find a verse which links drug use to principles forbidding addiction or harm to the body.

And yet they oppose these things. That’s because they unwittingly violate their nuda Scriptura ethos, and supply outside (non-Scriptural) information to make a valid application. They find out from doctors that life begins at conception; they reason that using the actual name of God in an everyday slang fashion is to treat it in an unworthy manner; they find out information on the addictiveness and physical effects of the drug in question. In other words, Scripture does not give them either the application, or even the link to the application. They do, through the use of reason and outside information. We do this all the time, and God expects us to do so.

I think the disingenuous attitude of “the Bible doesn’t say that” really begins once a cherished idol is under fire. The person lives by sola Scriptura in every other area of his life. However, should one of his loves be challenged – his music, his entertainments, his dress to worship, his use of disposable income, his reading matter – suddenly he reverts to nuda Scriptura. Now he wants the Bible to speak explicitly to the matter under question, or his supposed devotion to chapter and verse will throw it out. This is a lying heart.

Adiaphora are not areas where the lordship of Christ does not apply, to be exploited for our own convenience. All of life is to be lived for the glory of God, including those areas where Christians can come to opposite conclusions.