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.

The Protection of Preference

Scripture loves unity among the saints, but does not mandate uniformity. Somewhere Tozer points out that a hundred pianos all tuned with the same tuning fork will all be in harmony with one another. So believers, when conformed to Christ and submitted to the same sound doctrine, will find their Spirit-given unity (Eph. 4:3).

But within the Body of Christ, we will necessarily be different from one another. Indeed, as unpopular as it might be to say this out loud, we will not even be equal. We will be different in both the degree and the kind of giftedness we possess. We will possess and receive different amounts of honour (1 Co. 12:23-24). We will have very different functions in the Body (Ro. 12:4).  We will supply different portions of what is needful (Eph. 4:16). Our differences make us neither useless to the Body (1 Cor. 12:15-18), nor autonomous and self-sufficient (12:21-22). We are mutually interdependent.

Scripture speaks often on this theme because of equal and opposite errors. One is to expect that unity must flatten out differences and enforce a uniformity of ability, appearance, opportunity or even outcome (as the social justice warriors now demand). This ends up destroying the church’s true diversity through legalistic taboos, and making unity a matter of outward similarity. The Bible wants us to accept that we are different and yet unified.

The other error is to turn our diversity into a kind of conglomerate of preferences, with each competing with the others for its space in the sun. The church becomes a mall of consumeristic “tastes”, and everyone demands some shelf-space. Here, preferences turn into protected islands of private property, guarded fiercely, and sometimes even paraded proudly. Here Scripture simply rebukes us for selfishness. A difference in preference can be exploited by the flesh into despising or judging (Ro. 14:3, 10). We can parade our preference causing sorrow in another (Ro. 14:15). We can flaunt our liberty in front of one whose conscience is still unstable, leading him to choices that will destroy him (Ro. 14:13, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:7-13). But these are proud responses, selfishly insisting upon our own preference at the expense of another’s. Essentially, we assert our differing preference as more important, or more valid, than another’s.

This ends up destroying the church’s true unity through a foolish tolerance of selfishness, making diversity a matter of mere multiplicity of competing preferences, regardless of how the co-exist. The Bible wants us to accept that we are one body, with differences submitted to that unity.

Protecting the submitted differences within the church involves several beliefs and practices.

First, believers need to embrace the differences and “inequality” as part of God’s created order and redemptive purpose. We do not need to set up quota systems in the church. No one should ever be excluded on the basis of race or wealth or sex. Diversity, when yielded to the lordship of Christ, is beautiful.

Second, believers need to understand the meaning of “the weaker brother” (It does not refer to someone with a stricter conviction than yours). Protection of the conscience of others always trumps my own liberty.

Third, believers need to know that liberty is always loving, not self-assertive. The strong protect the weak (Ro. 15:1-2). Personal rights and privileges can and should be suspended, delayed or forgone entirely for the sake of winning others and upholding a blameless testimony (1 Cor 9:1-27).

Fourth, believers need to understand that certain areas of life allow for opposite conclusions and practices by Christians, with both sets of Christians pleasing God (Ro. 14:5-6). Certain matters can legitimately have more than one approach by very different Christians, and these responses can all be acts of holiness. Identifying and distinguishing these from matters of clear moral prescription or prohibition is where we now turn.

Ten Mangled Words : “Taste”

De gustibus non est disputandum, said the ancient Romans. There is no disputing over taste, meaning that in matters of personal taste and preference, there can be no profitable dispute, and therefore there ought to be none.

There’s much truth to that. If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, and have no time for fantasy, then we have no quarrel. If you’re partial to Elgar instead of Bach, then live and let live. If seafood floats your boat, and red meat turns you off, then to each his own. Jack Spratt could eat no fat, and all that.

The problem with the word taste is that it refers to more than one human experience or ability. Because we use the same word for these very different things, we run the risk of equivocation when we use the word: speaking in two voices. We may mean one thing, but seem to mean the other. We may find ourselves alternating between the two meanings in the same conversation. This not only brings confusion to discussions, it can also be manipulated by the dishonest. To heal this mangled word, we need to separate the competing or differing meanings, and find synonyms to use alongside taste.

The first meaning is the one meant in the Roman maxim. Here, taste refers to individual preference. The creation is awash in a variety of colours, tastes, fragrances, textures, sounds, shapes, words, ideas and the infinite combinations thereof. Part of the variety is the individuality of the human being, who at the earliest age begins to demonstrate preferences, likes and dislikes. Differing tastes encourage more variety, more experimentation, and more innovation. It is in this sense that the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is loosely true: individual preference finds pleasure where others do not.

Within the sphere of what is upright and pleasing to God, differing taste ought to be a source of curiosity, enjoyment and fascination. Learning what another enjoys in something I do not will either initiate me into beauties and pleasures I had not known, or at least fill me with new regard and enjoyment of another fascinating human made in God’s image. Scripture certainly encourages believers to show deference to one another’s preferences, when those preferences fall within the bounds of what is pure, true, just, upright, noble, virtuous, lovely, etc.

The second meaning was very far from the minds of the Latin creators of that maxim. Taste in this second sense was used from around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to describe a faculty of judgement. Philosophers and aestheticians of the time were grappling with the question of the subjective and variable experience of beholders and the properties of what is beheld. The question of “good taste” and “bad taste” became an important one, even to sceptical empiricists like David Hume. Here taste does not refer to preference, but to discernment. As a trained palate can distinguish subtle flavours, so a person of good taste can distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate, beautiful and gaudy, classy and tacky, art and kitsch. The mark of one who has learned and absorbed the accumulated good judgements of thousands of people who have now already died, is that he is “civilised”, “cultured”, “a man of discrimination”, “a man of good taste”. The fact that you can already hear the watchdogs against elitism barking after that last sentence tells you all you need to know about the current attitude towards these ideas.

But in fact, Scripture has just as much to say (in fact, much more) on this second meaning of taste. It does not use the term taste (just as it does not in the first meaning). It uses the terms discernment, judgement, wisdom, understanding, and conscience. It gives rather elaborate instruction on how to cultivate this kind of taste, how to use it and not abuse it. And in fact, this kind of taste can only develop through some kind of “disputing”. Comparison of judgements, disagreement, discussion and debate is how these judgements are formed, shaped, chastened and refined. To fail to compare, criticise and communicate about these judgements is to leave them in the dark, unwatered and away from sunlight.

Our study of this word will require a few steps. First, we’ll need to understand where taste as personal preference is encouraged and protected in Scripture. Second, we’ll need to become alert to how this matter of preference is applied in illicit ways in the modern church. Third, we’ll need to understand how taste as good judgement is commanded and commended in Scripture. Fourth, we’ll need to see how good judgement is developed both in the world and in the Word.

 

Votes From the Democracy of the Dead

The idea of ordinate affection is not welcome today. Narcissism has become a celebrated virtue, and is now even given the monikers transparent, authentic, and real. The two ditches of sentimentalism and brutality now take up most of the road and a slender middle path of appropriate love is known by few and trod by fewer. Amusement is now the dominant mode for transmitting and receiving knowledge, so if it doesn’t entertain me, it may not be true. A life of vicarious wish-fulfilment in popular movies and music keep us feeling our feelings, while nostalgia and familiarity in pop culture keep us feeling full, even when we’ve not been fed. A culture of despair and nihilistic boredom is anaesthetised through constant diversion.

To speak to this culture of ordinate affection, right loves, orthopathy or appropriate sentiment is to invite everything from indifferent dismissal to scorn to incensed outrage. It’s not uncommon to have the discussion of affections labelled “ideological”, “elitist”, “esoteric”,or “speculative”, even by professing Christians.

But, he who knows only his own generation remains forever a child, said Santayana. Ordinate affection is neither a novel nor an abstruse concept. Consider:

Augustine (354-430):

“When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately… So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love; and on this account, in the Canticles, the bride of Christ, the city of God, sings, “Order love within me”.” (City of God, XV, xxii).

“Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake.” (On Christian Doctrine, I, xxvii)

“He loves thee too little, who loves anything with thee which he loves not for thy sake.” (Confessions, IX, xxix)

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153):

“We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable.” (On Loving God, I)

“You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love.” (Ibid.)

The anonymous author of Theologia Germanica, (late 14th century):

“And where a creature loveth other creatures for the sake of something that they have, or loveth God, for the sake of something of her own, it is all false Love; and this Love belongeth properly to nature, for nature as nature can feel and know no other love than this; for if ye look narrowly into it, nature as nature loveth nothing beside herself. But true Love is taught and guided by the true Light and Reason, and this true, eternal and divine Light teacheth Love to love nothing but the One true and Perfect Good, and that simply for its own sake, and not for the sake of a reward, or in the hope of obtaining anything, but simply for the Love of Goodness, because it is good and hath a right to be loved.” (Theologia Germanica, XLII)

Thomas Traherne (1636–1674):

“Can you accomplish the end for which you were created, unless you be Righteous? Can you then be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours; and you were made to prize them according to their value: which is your office and duty, the end for which you were created, and the means whereby you enjoy. …For then we please God when we are most like Him. We are like Him when our minds are in frame. Our minds are in frame when our thoughts are like His. And our thoughts are then like His when we have such conceptions of all objects as God hath, and prize all things according to their value.” (Centuries of Meditations, First Century, XII)

François Fénelon (1651–1715):

“Men have a great repugnance to this truth, and consider it to be a very hard saying, because they are lovers of self from self-interest. They understand, in a general and superficial way, that they must love God more than all his creatures, but they have no conception of loving God more than themselves, and loving themselves only for Him. They can utter these great words without difficulty, because they do not enter into their meaning, but they shudder when it is explained to them, that God and his glory are to be preferred before ourselves and everything else to such a degree that we must love his glory more than our own happiness, and must refer the latter to the former, as a subordinate means to an end.” (Spiritual Progress, III)

Henry Scougal (1650–1678):

“The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love” (The Life of God in the Soul of Man).

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

“For if we love him not for his own sake, but for something else, then our love is not terminated on him, but on something else, as its ultimate object. That is no true value for infinite worth, which implies no value for that worthiness in itself considered, but only on the account of something foreign. Our esteem of God is fundamentally defective, if it be not primarily for the excellency of his nature, which is the foundation of all that is valuable in him in any respect. If we love not God because he is what he is, but only because he is profitable to us, in truth we love him not at all.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, On Original Sin 3:144)

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963):

“The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, coarse or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful.” (Surprised By Joy)

And to bring it into this century, with no evangelical axe to grind, here is philosopher Roger Scruton:

“for a free being, there is right feeling, right experience and right enjoyment just as much as right action. The judgement of beauty orders the emotions and desires of those who make it. It may express their leisure and their taste: but it is pleasure in what they value and taste for their true ideals.” (Beauty).

 

Affect or Effect

The difference between affections and emotions is seen in what art is used in worship.

Since worship uses art, worship leaders can use it in precisely one of these two ways: to affect us, or to create effect.

They can work with poetry, music and the spoken word to work with the imagination. There the worshipper can contemplate the invisible God for who He is, and be affected by truth. As Edwards pointed out, this “impression” is made during corporate worship:

“The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart in the time of it; and the memory profits as it renews and increases that impression.”

Once corporate worship is over, the worshipper is returned to regular life with his desires and inclinations more focused on the kind of God he claims to know and love.

Conversely, worship leaders can also work with poetry, music and the spoken word to simply achieve effect. They can aim to create an experience in which the worshipper experiences  immediately–and one might say viscerally–the supposed experience of God. God is not contemplated with the understanding; the appetites and feelings are targeted directly, and the resultant experience is associated with God. The worshipper leaves corporate worship and returns to the rest of his life with the creation of an addiction: he will need more of the same next week to feel anything for God. Ironically, these descendants of the Reformers have created a kind of evangelical Mass: the presence of God is only known and felt at church. This time, the Presence is manifest not when the priest rings the bell, but when Dude strums his Fender Stratocaster.

There are almost limitless ways of creating an effect: the effect of dreamy intimacy with God achieved by a breathy worship leader narrating a quasi-romantic prayer to Jesus over softly playing chords, the effect of sympathy for the cause of Jesus by impassioned pleas for people to come forward while a sentimental hymn is played in the background, the effect of jubilation achieved by a sweaty worship leader literally jumping to the pulsating physicality of music played at volumes only possible with electronic amplification, and so on. If an effect is needed, a technique can be engineered. However, there is a simple term for this kind of approach, one that many contemporary worship proponents would bristle at: manipulation.

There is nothing accidental here. Worship leaders know what kind of art will produce what kind of result. Philosopher Roger Scruton tells us the difference between real art and manipulative art:

Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own. (Beauty)

Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation. These actually help us to pursue realities, precisely because there is a distance between us and the things we contemplate. Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfilment of desires. Real art takes us out of reality, teaches us, and returns us changed: our desires are more focused on the worth of objects in reality. False art takes us out of reality, mimics it, and gives us substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification. It also returns us to reality different: our emotions dissipated through a substitute reality, and a little more dependent on or expectant of such manipulative techniques to feel anything. One kind of art actually grows our affections, the other shrivels them.

When Scruton speaks of the distance that true art creates between us and what it portrays, it reminds one of the way Yahweh has set up worship in contrast to the orgiastic worship of the pagans. In the Old Testament and the New,  God simultaneously respects the rational humanity of man and calls for a true worship of Himself grounded in the understanding. He does this by portraying Himself in serious, non-manipulative works of imaginative art: the narratives, psalms, metaphors, prophecies and commands of Scripture.

When believers have followed God’s pattern, they have written songs, poems and prayers that reach the understanding through the imagination, which slowly (painfully slowly, sometimes) move and shape the affections. For the one for whom worship has become an itch that needs to be scratched weekly, God’s approach is intolerably slow and dull. Such a man wants a clamorous appeal to his appetites, which respond automatically, sensually and ephemerally. Esau would like a bowl of soup now, please. What good do these hymns, promises and principles do for my bored & achin’ heart right now, man?

By contrast, the result of a slow and patient appeal to the imaginative understanding of regenerate man is a deeply grounded love for God that is ordinate, not a fleeting response that evaporates once the marionette strings stop tugging.

We’re told that the worship wars are over and it’s obvious which side has lost. So be it. As Eliot said, “We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”