I believe that those who refuse to read certain books, or listen to certain types of music, on the basis that they are not “Christian”, are on dangerous theological ground. Such refusal reflects – in my opinion – a fundamental misunderstanding of the Biblical concepts of law and grace. It also neglects to take into account our agency in cultivating Godly behaviour, and gives undue power to art to shape who we become.
I am going to quote a fairly lengthy Biblical passage to illustrate what I am saying. I am deliberately quoting a lengthy passage, because in order to understand the Scriptures properly, we need to understand that Paul’s letters were argumentative in nature. In other words, a hypothesis is being postulated and defended. Context is important. We tend, nowadays, to treat the Bible like we do MacDonalds – convenient spiritual fastfood, gleaned from individual verses, often hoisted out of context and made to justify whatever prejudices we cling to. It is much more difficult to misconstrue an argument, so I will quote a lengthy passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Chapter 3. Once you grasp the full import of his argument, it will revolutionise how you see Christian morality.
1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
4 Have you suffered so much for nothing–if it really was for nothing? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? 6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. 10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
15 Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.
19 What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one. 21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. 23 Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. 24 So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
And a slightly shorter passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, to prove that this is actually a central (not a peripheral) aspect of Paul’s theology:
20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?
22These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Salvation can come from the grace of God alone. Anything else would mean salvation by works. Paul has made this categorically clear. There are no conditions attached to salvation by grace. It is the gift of God. There is nothing that we can do – or not do – to earn us a place in God’s favour. In fact, Paul contends that God’s purpose in providing the law was not to impose on us an unattainable standard by which to earn His approval, but to help us realise how far we are from God and how much we need His grace.
Once we understand this, all other things come into perspective. While art and music and literature, sport and academics, abstinence and pure speech and obedience, outreach and good works are all noble things, they are not God. All are subservient to Him and find their meaning in Him. None of these things can save us. Only God’s grace can do that.
“Nothing can be enjoyed fully unless it is enjoyed properly, and to enjoy something properly means to understand and accept its relative importance within the whole scheme of things.” (Nigel Forde, The Lantern and The Looking-Glass). Literature is no exception. It must always be lower than God. It should also – like any other manmade thing – never be given the power to control our God-given wills. If a man commits murder with a knife, it is not the knife that is to blame, any more than the knife can take credit for the peeling of a potato. It is a tool. To credit the tool with more power than the one who uses it is to abdicate moral responsibility. A tool can only do the will of the one who wields it. It is the reader, therefore, and not the work of art that will determine whether or not the artwork is beneficial (Note where Paul puts the emphasis in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 6 verse 12: “Everything is permissible for me”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”–but I will not be mastered by anything). We are active participants, not passive and pliable clay, in the process of determining what is beneficial and what masters us.
We live in a fallen world. Because literature is created by humans, it will of necessity be flawed. The notion of “Christian” literature is nonsensical. We cannot completely disregard texts that affirm Christian values simply because they were not created by Christians, any more than we can assume that a text affirms Christian values simply because a Christian wrote it. To attempt to create a sinless literature when we are by nature sinful, is deluded. To attempt to find a sinless literature is, in effect, making literature God. It is not. It is a flawed human creation, but one which we can use to help us to see ourselves and God more clearly. Literature is not the end in itself, but is a useful tool, if wielded correctly. It is important to state this, because we are aware that there are different Christian understandings of how Christians should approach the controversial issue of literature. All would agree, however, that literature must keep its place.
The real issue here is how we should approach literature in a God-pleasing way, not whether literature is inherently good or evil. Literature is not God, but can be a useful tool. The question is, how do we use it in such a way that we can understand ourselves and God’s call on our lives better?
We start by seeing what is there, as opposed to what – in an ideal world – should be there. A responsible Christian reading of literature should not require the false comfort of a “perfect” world (if we needed that, we would need to excise large portions of the Bible); instead, we should be trying to better understand how to live Christian lives in a fallen world. If literature is a product of a fallen world, but also a product of humanity’s God-given ability to create, then it has much to offer us in terms of guidance.
It should be noted, at this point, that when Jesus approached humanity with the greatest message of all time, he did so in the form of stories, and very few of those mentioned God at all. They were quite secular in their plots, but contained immense spiritual truths.
“We do a disservice to ourselves and to the world if we underestimate the darkness that surround us and, instead, seal ourselves into a sterile capsule of deliberate ignorance and inaction which we dignify with the lie of Christian ‘integrity’ and whereby we hope against hope that the virus of being human will never be able to infect our lives”(Nigel Forde, The Lantern and The Looking-Glass).
Art should – when used properly, in a godly way – function as both a mirror and a lantern. When we look into it, it should show us the truth about ourselves and our condition, and should light the way towards God. I will explore this further in my next post.