Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Linkathon returns to Phoenix Preacher, I return to a rant about "engaging culture"

Carl Trueman's piece on complementarianism shows up.  Doug Wilson's reportedly snarky reply to Trueman does not (which does not leave me particularly heartbroken).

Thabiti Anyabwile's expression of frustration at "gospel" this and that is also featured.  One of the reasons that the explicit gospel may seem wearisome for some of us who are not really tired of the good news of Jesus (so much as we are weary of gospel-pancakes-cooked-on-a-gospel-griddle-covered-with-gospel-butter-and-gospel-syrup) is that "gospel" has often become a code-word that is really a shibboleth for a bunch of things that simply don't have anything to do with that theological topic usually known as "soteriology".

This is why I will likely roll my eyes and groan at things on various Christian websites that talk about the tortured beauty of the cross because this is really a pretext for rambling on about your art or music or literature or, more often, the stuff you think is super cool or kinda weak.  Now if you read this blog at all you know I love me some chamber music, Batman cartoons, Miyazaki films (and a bit of anime), Pixar movies. I obviously make a concerted effort to illustrated how I, as a Christian, can appreciate those things.  But one thing I won't do is explain the theological richness of Miiyazaki films because he's a pantheist who contests the most basic confessions of the Christian faith.  I'm not going to propose that Batman "is" gospel anything.

While Paul quoted pagan poetry in his address to the Athenians and described them as "one of your prophets" to the Athenians Paul did not conflate their statements, symbols, and art with the narrative of the good news of Christ Himself.  He used what they  got right as a transition into the still better Way.  Since Paul used a comparable methodology and line of argument on those Christians in Corinth we can see that Paul had a method to what he did.  Contemporary Christians who try to contextualize their tastes in pop culture so as to keep liking what they like tend to have a method that seems more like madness.

A lot of what I've seen passed off as "engaging culture" in neo-Reformed or pseudo-Reformed circles is bending over backwards to explain how much you can, as a Christian, admire stuff that you could admire for personal and aesthetic reasons that can't be backed up by chapter and verse.  John Piper had his attempts to explain how a Christian can appreciate Ayn Rand.  Mark Driscoll has his bit where he explained how Jack Bauer is a type of Christ. Now if a person wanted to say that simple cosmetic narrative and thematic resemblance means a Christian can and should appreciate something I have got just the South Park episode you are, by that rhetoric, now morally obliged to watch.  Whether it's Piper on Rand or Driscoll on 24 in both cases these are guys who could have (and should have) explained what they like about Ayn Rand and the TV show 24 without having to even bring Jesus into the discussion, even though both these guys are pastors.  I'm not a pastor so I don't get to throw that weight behind my endorsement of anything, thank God. In fact I'm going to suggest that a pastor endorsing a pop culture artifact needs to be even more careful about endorsements.  Why?  Simple  ... because whether it's endorsing a political candidate or a pop cultural artifact the pastor is even more apt than the lay-person to potentially make an endorsement that actually takes the Lord's name in vain.

Say what?  Do I mean it's taking the Lord's name in vain to say a TV character is a Christ type?  Do I mean to say that plugging for this or that author takes the Lord's name in vain? Well, it depends on why you brought Jesus' name up.  If you are looking at a work of art as a Christian and considering how you, as a believer, can endorse or disagree with something based on your understanding of Christ's teaching then, no, that's not taking the Lord's name in vain.  If you can use a work of art to illustrate or refer to theories of being and ethics that's its own thing. If I were to, say, use a couple of Batman stories to highlight narratives in which synergistic and monergistic redemption from evil occur that's dealing with two admittedly abstract concepts.  I can use fictional narratives to show how certain concepts work as narratives.

An atheist friend of mine was told me that it drove him crazy when he'd hear youth pastors in the last ten years say "Aragorn is a type of Christ" and hwo this shows we need a good king.  This atheist immersed himself in Tolkien and C. S. Lewis enough in his old days as a believer enough to know Tolkien wouldn't have been happy with that allegory/typology stuff.  Not only was there no "type" at work but even invoking Aragorn as a "type" went against Tolkein's approach.  Mileage and interpretation may vary but where I'm going with this observation is to say that when we make a comparative observation about something and Christ or Christian teaching we should be clear what the comparison actually is, where it starts, and be aware of where it ends.

But if you bring up the name of Jesus so that you can explain why you like something then everything is backwards.  You're not using what is available and true in a given setting as a way to move toward Jesus, the Truth.  You're using Jesus as a way to endorse something you like that you happen to like for reasons you may not have really thought through and that you could describe liking on other grounds.

It's okay to admit to liking something, even as a Christian, for reasons that don't always have to come down to a "gospel" reason. For instance, I could say I like Dostoevsky because his writing points to Christ and our desperately lost condition as humans.  That's even a sustainable case with Dostoevsky..  On the other hand, I could also admit that I love Dostoevsky stories because they include crazy criminals doing outrageous things amid debates among aristocrats and soldiers about what the nature of a just society is.  It comes as no surprise, dear reader, if it happens that I also love Batman, does it?

But I'm never going to defend My Neighbor Totoro as something Christians should appreciate because it shows the beauty of the natural world and how creation reflects the grandeur of God with some quote from Psalm 19.  I know Miyazaki's a pantheist. I also know that the story in the film imagines a Japan that didn't get into World War II, which is kind of the ultimate 20th century Elseworlds continuity for Japan, isn't it?  It's tantamount to what a Christian might describe as a story of an essentially prelapsarian cosmos that, as such, has no connection to the world we live in.  But the real reason I'll say you should watch the movie is that it's simply beautiful and very cute. For Christians who care about family values you're not going to find a film that more beautifully and sweetly depicts family values ... which also happens to have been made by a pantheist who sincerely believes Christianity has done a lot of harm in the world.

But here's the thing you anime fans already know, My Neighbor Totoro was also featured in a double-bill with Grave of the Fireflies, the harrowing animated story of a brother and sister who become orphans, outcasts, and then die of starvation in the wake of the firebombing of Tokyo. Most American Christian art in American evangelicalism has aspired to Totoro and failed in the last few decades.  The hipster Christians who are shooting for something more like Grave of the Fireflies are just as doomed to fail.  Even in Totoro the specter of disease and death looms in the background and in Fireflies there is behind the death and misery a recognition that people could choose to value children as children and not just on their contribution to a war effort. But I have clearly deviated far from the initial observation that "gospel" this and that gets annoying, haven't I?


JS Bangs said...

I think your observation about making everything "gospel" takes God's name in vain. I think that you've hit a really important point there. This trend also demonstrates the ongoing Evangelical inability to simply appreciate that something is good without having to relate it to some religious, preferably evangelistic purpose. You're correct in observing that the obsession at MH and similar churches with finding "gospel" applications of pop culture is basically more of the same. It's slightly more sophisticated than the general Evangelical approach to culture and aesthetic, but only slightly.

And now I'm remembering some of the really, really ridiculous discussions we had at the MH movie nights...

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

was the gospel-pancakes thing overdoing it? I wasn't trying to actually take God's name in vain there.

It's struck me that another problem with profligate use of "gospel" is that not all good news was the kind of good news Christians reflexively think of. Which "gospel" is significant here and on that, obviously CHristians East and West don't always agree. In the history of the West, After all, announcing a new Ceaser could have been "good news" for Romans and really bad news for Christians depending on the historic occasion.