That’s Entertainment

The recent release of the Deadpool movie causes mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, they put one of Marvel’s most entertaining characters on the big screen (chimichangas optional). On the other hand, “The Merc with a Mouth” is exactly that: a mouthy, vulgar, profanity-laden anti-hero. I find it telling that when typing “Deadpool review” into the search bar, the second autocomplete option is “for parents.” If you try “Deadpool ch” (like you’re searching for Deadpool with the aforementioned chimichangas,” the third option down is “Christian review.” As fun as the movie may be (I haven’t seen it), it raises some issues about propriety, parenting, and the theology of media.

We live in a world saturated with media. Everywhere we look, everywhere we go has some sort of image/song/video. We haven’t been safe in the car since the invention of the radio, and now DVD players are prevalent in “family vehicles” (which I put in quotation marks because I operate under the assumption anything labeled “family” involves spending time with one’s family, not isolated into individual consumption of Loony Tunes or Spongebob Squarepants; but I digress). While you’re stationary, there are a variety of options: the cinema, Netflix, smartphones (another way to avoid talking to anyone), the Internet (in all its beautiful and horrific glory), iPods . . . you name it. It’s little wonder the average person encounters 600+ advertisements a day as a conservative study estimated. No matter where we turn, we’re bombarded with media and the ads which keep it going. (And the ads are frequently more vile than the actual programming.)

Several obvious questions arise from all of this. How do we decide what to watch/listen to? Are there biblical guidelines about mp3s and Internet usage? If something is labeled adult, can I watch it in good conscience as long as I keep it away from my children? How much swearing, sex, and violence is permissible until I’m obligated to change channels or leave the theater?

I think the simplest answer is simply to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and maintain an attitude of constant discernment (and constant vigilance). In order to do that, however, we should take a look at a few keys verses:

  • Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
  • A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.  (Luke 6:45)
  • What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. . . . Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them. (Matthew 15:11, 17-20)
  • Be holy, because I am holy (Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16

In our world, many things compete to fill our hearts. The entertainment industry is a major player, seeking to shape our thoughts and opinions just as much as it tries to take up our time and provide amusement.  When our hearts encounter evil things on a regular basis, they slowly change to reflect that input. And while it may give you nightmares or anxiety, there are far more dire consequences than that. Think about it: do you tend to swear more after you’ve been around people who swear constantly, or do you use more profanity after studying your Bible? Are you more likely to come home drunk after a night at the bar or after a night playing board games with your small children? Do you become so desensitized to violence after watching episode after episode of a particularly violent show that you forget seeing such gore is not normal in the real world? Do you crave violent, abusive sex after watching reruns of The Brady Bunch, or does that come from prolonged usage of pornography?

What we let inside our hearts and our minds eventually gets reflected in our souls. Our personalities can change simply because of the movies we see, the books we read, and the songs we listen to. Once that internal change happens, then the things which defile us — murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander — start showing up in our external lives. You didn’t mean to become a habitual liar; it just sort of happened after binge-watching __________.  You were horrified your toddler used that word . . . and then you remember where he/she heard it. Repeatedly.

For this reason, Paul says we should dwell on things with are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. When we let these things into our lives, our hearts become oriented towards them, just like the negative things. We become receptive to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit shapes us into people of holiness, we begin to show the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The garbage is cleared away, the weeds are torn out, and we become a fruitful people who live lives pleasing to God.

Don’t get me wrong: you can’t hide from everything which might potentially be offensive. It’s important to maintain a critical attitude of discernment to determine what is and what isn’t appropriate entertainment. If you follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I believe you’ll make the right choices about your media consumption. Just take time to consider what you watch and listen to, always with an attitude of holiness. And if all else fails, remember two things: God will always love you, and every television comes with an off switch.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

The Beatles may be famous for singing “All You Need Is Love,” and Bon Jovi may have thought “You Give Love a Bad Name,” but I have to wonder if it’s possible to truly understand all those “love songs.” As much as I love my native tongue, English can be infuriatingly limited at times. Just consider how to properly pronounce the following sentence: “I have read red books, but I want to read red books not previously read.” Really? This is the best our language can do? Tenses orthographically identical and a weird pastiche of homophones? Then we have to face the fact English simply doesn’t have words other languages do. We (well, maybe only I) laugh when someone trips and falls. In order to describe that particular feeling of “HaHA!” we’re forced to borrow “schadenfreude” from German, a word roughly meaning “pleasure from others’ misfortunes.” It’s all too easy to understand, then, that English has a single word for love — which is, oddly enough, “love.”

Think of the way we use that word. It’s common to hear the word used for any particularly strong feeling of attachment to something, and it’s far from unusual to hear it used for even a fleeting admiration for something else. “I love my wife.” “I love your earrings!” “This book is amazing; I love it!” See what I mean? “Love” is used so incredibly broadly its meaning gets diminished much of the time. When it’s used accurately, however, it’s arguably the most powerful word in the English language, capable of saving marriages, friendships, and even lives. (Never underestimate the power of saying “I love you.”)

Biblical Greek is a bit more flexible on the subject, and there are multiple words used to denote various shades of loving. There’s a word for the love between friends, for example, and there are words for romantic love, family love, and others. The word for God’s unconditional love for us — and for the type of love with which we should love those around us, incidentally — is agape (ah-GAH-pay). When God so loved the world He gave His only begotten son, it’s “For God so agape-ed the world” (well, the verb form of that noun). When we read “God is love,” it’s “God is agape.” The love of God towards us is limitless and unconditional. There is nothing we can do to destroy that love. God will love us even when we don’t love Him.

Using that sort of love as a basis, many Christians (particularly evangelicals) love the saying “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (see what I did there?). I don’t want to get hung up on the phrase itself, but I do want to discuss the distinction it makes. You see, the vast majority of people in our world, or at least in America, seem to think unconditional love means we love everything someone does. It moves beyond a love for just the individual herself/himself and encompasses every belief and action the person believes and does. It is for this reason so very many well-meaning Christians are branded homophobic, for example. The world doesn’t believe it possible to love a homosexual while considering same-sex activity to be sinful.

But it is.

Since God is agape, we look to the divine nature as the paragon of unconditional love. Every action God performs is done as an act of unconditional love. And yet the Bible clearly describes a God who hates sin. This is a holy God, a God in whose presence sin cannot stand. He cannot sin; He is holy; He is love. When we read passages such as Hebrews 12, then, we must keep these truths in mind to understand what’s really going on. Hebrews 12:4-10 says this:

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

The word again is agape: “For the Lord disciplines the one he agape-s.” Unconditional love, then, means caring so much for the person that you can’t sit by and watch them do things which are self-destructive. Any parent can tell you that. There’s not a mother or father in the world who truly loves her/his children and would let them deliberately play in traffic, or lick a light socket, or point a loaded gun at their heads. Why? Because parents love their children.

How much more, then, does a holy God, the Father of all, love His children? And how much more will He act to preserve His children, disciplining them and shaping them into a path of holiness? That’s true unconditional love: caring so deeply for someone you wish them to be holy as He is holy. (Maybe, just maybe, unconditional love is holy love.) So when we can say we love homosexuals but don’t approve of same-sex marriage, or we love mothers who have had abortions but want abortion outlawed, or even we love addicts and murderers and rapists but not drugs or bloodshed or rape, we’re not lying. We’re not stating we can do the impossible. We’re saying we love those people with a holy love, a love which absolutely cannot give tacit approval to sin, sit idly by while it destroys them.

I’d even argue the converse is true: a laissez-faire love which will let anyone do everything isn’t love at all. It’s apathy.

This is not to say we should pass judgment on the immortal soul. It’s not to say we should launch one-person crusades against all of our friends, sending texts every five minutes about how they really shouldn’t have told that one guy to shut up or that a particular shade of lipstick is an abomination unto the Lord. But I do believe all Christians are called to speak the truth in love, sharing the love of God while calling our neighbors into a relationship of holy love with the God who is love. Only then will we truly be able to show the love of God — and His holy hatred of sin — to a world which has forgotten both.

Hunger Pains

Of all my various research interests (and believe me, I have a plethora), one of the top three is Christian worship. I love liturgy, the work of the people coming together in service to God. I love the sacraments. I love the “smells and bells” of high church worship, and I love simple services ending with an altar call instead of the Eucharist. Exploring all of that and how it has changed over the course of two thousand years is one of my favorite things to do. If I were telling the truth, my passion for worship and liturgics is probably due to a single professor I had in seminary, the man who taught my first worship class (and my course in church music). His passion for liturgy was infectious, and I caught the bug. But aside from that, he repeated a single phrase over and over again, a saying which has reverberated in my brain for several years now: “The greatest gift God can give a believer is a hunger for more of Himself.”

Therein lies great wisdom, my friends.

When we come to God in worship, we should never do so out of a sense of obligation. It should be out of a desire to become closer to the One who made us. The One who saved us. The One who is at work in our hearts and in our lives so that we become willing vessels of the gospel of Jesus Christ and go into the world, baptizing and teaching and making disciples. We should hunger for God more than we hunger for food, crave spiritual nourishment more than even physical sustenance.

Moreover, it should be a constant hunger, one which never gets sated. I really don’t think anyone should ever wake up in the morning, blurredly stare at the ceiling, and decide in our hearts, “Nah. I’ve had enough God for one lifetime. Time to do my own thing.” It’s a daily commitment, this walk with Christ. Luke 9:23 puts it this way: “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'” Did you catch that? This is a daily thing. Not one day goes by when we can be a committed follower of Jesus and put aside the cross of self-denial and run around helter-skelter doing as we please. (Can I still say “helter-skelter”?) I’m not saying we can never do what we want, nor am I trying to paint God as some divine dictator. But if we want a life pleasing to God, we lay aside our own desires in favor of God’s desires for us. We stop hungering for our selfish wants and hunger for God Himself.

This, I feel, has become the dominant problem in westernized societies. Atheism, etc. aside, those who do profess a belief in God and in the atoning work of His Son on the cross don’t actually live like it makes any difference to them whatsoever. American culture is self-indulgent, not self-denying. We would much rather hang a cross on the wall to show how Christian we are than to take up our own crosses every day and display our faith by our works (as James says). Instead of hungering for God, we hunger for anything else which we think will fill that God-shaped void in our life. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes,

 “What Satan put into the head of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

And he’s quite right. By hungering for power, or sex, or status, or even happiness for the sake of happiness, we have invented unspeakable evils such as those Lewis lists. If our society continues to desire other things above God, then we will continue a steady decline into precisely these sorts of atrocities. War. Famine. Pornography. Poverty. You name it. And let’s face it: our culture doesn’t even want to want God. We’d rather want those other things, our bread and circuses, and continue a downward spiral involving conveyance in a handbasket.

Until such time as we truly hunger for God, until we take up our crosses daily, until we truly strive towards personal and communal holiness, then we will have an existence plagued by the pains of a hunger which will never be sated. Today, of all days, we must be about the Father’s business, sharing the gospel with those who need it, encouraging one another in holiness, and working for the poor, the neglected, and the oppressed.

 

Sacrée et Profane

The blog apologizes for having been gone for two months. 

I like classical music. Music of all types has long been part of life, even before taking up my first instrument at age ten. It’s part of my heritage from both sides of my family, really; practically everyone with whom I share blood has musical talent or a deep appreciation for it. I grew up in a household where one could hear practically every genre in existence: George Strait would give way to Dvorak, who in turn would take a seat as Meco, the Gaither Vocal Band, Helen Reddy, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Alabama, Queen, or one of a hundred others got their chance at being heard. It’s no real surprise, then, that I love almost any kind of music you can play. With that said, art music still has a special place in my heart, and it’s my go-to genre of choice. Claude Debussy, a French composer in the nineteenth (and early twentieth) century, composed a set of pieces known simply as Danses Sacrée et Profane — Dances Sacred and Profane. They live up to their names, on the whole, but it’s the distinction between the two in the rest of the world I’d like to address.

To be perfectly honest, this isn’t something which gets a lot of “air time” anymore. Most liberal theologians and probably a similar majority of postmoderns theologians and otherwise) see the sacred-secular divide as a false dichotomy. Nowhere in Scripture or in proper readings of the great works of the Church, they claim, is any distinction made between what is holy and what is worldly. In Christ, all things have been redeemed, and any attempt to split the two is a reversal to an Old Testament sort of legalism — or so the argument goes. Others, ignoring the concepts of original sin, the fall, and total depravity, read the creation narrative in Genesis 1, note that God has called all things good, and declares that if God called it good, who are we to disagree? Surely all things are holy. At best, trying to say otherwise is simply a poor attempt to juxtapose a sort of Platonic/Aristotelian dualism onto a Christian view of reality.

Well . . . no.

Concepts of holy and unholy, sacred and profane pervade both Testaments of Scripture. The entire book of Leviticus is dedicated towards creating a priesthood and a community of faith which is holy. Even though a portion of Leviticus, namely chapters seventeen to twenty-six (or twenty-seven depending on your perspective) is called the Holiness Code, personal holiness is truly the theme of the entire book, from the opening chapters on sacrifices onward. But the concept of holiness doesn’t start so late in the game as the third book of the Bible; it begins in the second chapter. Genesis 2:3 says, “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” The seventh day is holy: it is different, special, “other” than the first six days. It is a day which is blessed and pleasing to God. Of course, immediately following chapter two is the account of the fall, the first sin of our first parents. From Genesis 3 onward, the Bible becomes the record of a holy God seeking relationship with a sinful people and through that relationship make them holy as He is holy.

In fact, that’s an explicit command of the Holiness Code: “‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2).

Several times throughout the rest of the Bible, God states His holiness. It is given as the reason for specific calls to action, and it’s given as a model for us to emulate. Skipping ahead to the New Testament, Jesus in Matthew 5:48 calls us to holiness again: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 1 Peter 1:13-25 is all about calling Christians to live a holy life, and v. 16 is even a direct quotation of Lev. 19:2. We are to be a holy people if we are to truly be Christians. So what does the holy look like?

Defined positively, it is to bear the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (bonus points if you just sang the song in your head; I know I did). Striving to be Christ-like is another way to look at it. Both of these are possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within every believer (I mean, come on: “Holy” is literally in his name!). To be holy is to demonstrate the qualities which makes God holy.

Defined negatively, holiness is the absence of sin, the forgoing of what is considered unholy/profane/desecrating/secular. Paul loves his lists, so just as he listed the fruit of the Spirit in his epistle to the church in Galatia, he also gives a list of things which are inherently sinful: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21a). The list here isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but paradigmatic; things like these would also be considered sinful and unholy. Paul’s point is that human behavior can generally be classified into one of two categories: that of the flesh (or world or devil) and that of the Holy Spirit.

Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul also discusses the relationship between the Christian and sin. The short version is that Christians shouldn’t have a relationship with sin other than “Yes, I used to do these things, but now I am free from their power and dominion.” Romans 6:1-14 is a key passage in this discussion, but I want to quote only a single verse directly: “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness” (v. 13). After the great virtues of faith, hope, and love, I would say personal holiness is paramount in keeping a proper relationship with God — and I believe such holiness will flow out of faith and love (and probably hope, too). Christians can no longer act the way they did before salvation; they cannot act the same as the rest of the world. We must act in ways which are holy, ways which allow people to see the Holy Spirit who lives within us.

Okay. That part is simple enough, you may be thinking. But what about the rest of the noun categories? Can places and things be holy? Can they be profane? In short, is my toaster (which requires a whole burnt offering every time I try to use it) truly evil? (You weren’t thinking that? Just me? Oh.)

I believe Scripture also teaches about the distinction between sacred and secular space. The Temple is holy; the tabernacle is holy; the heavens and inbreaking kingdom of God on earth are holy. The question becomes whether they are holy because of the presence of God is localized in them or if everything is now holy since God resides in us. And to answer that, let me relate a story of my own experiences last summer when job hunting. One of my first in-person interviews was at a church in rural central/east-central Kentucky. As soon as my foot touched the tile floor of the narthex, I knew something was horribly wrong. Churches were supposed to feel holy; the years spent in worship and dedication to God hallowed them, made them sacred spaces wherein one can commune with Deity. None of that was true at this church. The presence of evil, of the profane, was overwhelming; I almost ran straight back out the door (and I did hop straight in the shower after returning home in an attempt to feel clean again). That space was unholy. Other places which have been explicitly used for evil — pagan temples, places of ritual sacrifice, etc. — those are unholy. And anywhere someone routinely uses for something other than the glorification of God Almighty might just be profane, too. Again, I think this is biblical. I think the whole of Scripture gives us a dichotomy between what is holy and what is not, and it is revealed to extend beyond people and behaviors to spaces, too.

Things can also be sacred or secular, I’d wager. Something tells me an issue of Playboy or the vast majority of  websites on the Internet could never be counted as something pleasing to God, never be something He would call blessed and holy. I believe things can be properly termed holy when they are consecrated to the worship of God, whether explicitly in a ritual or whether by repeated usage. I’m not going to say every pastor has a Holy Recliner dedicated to Sacred Nap-Time, but I still think things can be holy by dedication to the service of God (much like the tools and implements of the Tabernacle/Temple in the Old Testament or the communionware used by churches today).

When we fail to see the difference holiness makes, we fail to acknowledge the grander spiritual reality undergirding the very fabric of existence. To refuse to see a division between the sacred and profane is to make everything one or the other — and when everything is holy, nothing is (at least on this side of the end of the age). We worship a holy God, one who by nature can only be holy, who hates sin, and who loves His children with a holy love. May we be holy people who do holy things in holy places; may we be holy people who make places and objects holy in the name of the holy God; and may our holy lives point others to the One who is holy.