19 June 2010

Common Grace Culture

updated 29 June 2012

The other day I stumbled across a blog post related to music, 'pagan beats' and its dangers. I tried to post a comment, but it won't come up. Maybe they didn't like what I had to say? I find very few Christians interested in genuine discussion. It seems like Christian news and a lot of Christian radio programs are kind of hack jobs or at the very least misleading. The way the discussion is framed you can immediately tell what conclusion they want you to come up with. I hope that's not the case with this particular website I interacted with.

Attaching the term 'pagan' to a category of beat assumes the categories of sacred and secular music are valid. I would argue they are not.

Things pertaining to the Kingdom of God are by nature Holy or Sacred. They will transcend the Eschaton and continue in the eternal state. There are other things which are specifically unholy. These things or more particularly individual men and angels are destined for eternal punishment. Unholiness is a category of sin. There is a third category….common. The common grace order, the venue for the Kingdom of God to work in/expand in…is neither in and of itself holy or unholy. There are elements of holiness…Christians and their ideas, the pilgrim-people who are ambassadors of a Holy Country, and the Unholy, children of this world and of wrath, who only have hope in this present evil age, the fallen world. These Unholy (of whom some will become Holy)…are given a delay, a period of the longsuffering mercy of God. If they don't repent, this mercy will later become Judgment, because they received a blessing and cursed in response.

Man is an idolater and will almost by instinct (a fallen instinct) try to build again the Edenic Kingdom ingrained in our hearts but lost to us. God restrains sin and thus keeps everyone engaged in these attempts from reaching the ultimate crisis of Genesis 6. Many Babels come and go, broken by the Hand of Providence. Part of the restraint apparatus is the ordinance of Government, a tool of Providence, a means of restraint.

But also due to this restraint, man attempts to find and attach meaning to the universe and communicate ideas. This is culture. Because man is idolatrous, he often turns culture to wicked uses. But because man bears the image of God and a subconscious memory of Eden, and knowledge (though flawed) of his Creator…he also is able to know right from wrong, speak some truth, and create many beautiful things…which are still flawed but are not valueless.

Anything can be turned to evil. A piece of chocolate cake can be a good thing. Eating nine pieces in one sitting turns it into something bad. The answer is not to forbid cake. The answer is to have wisdom.

Culture, like cake, will pass when Christ comes back. It will burn up. I don't believe as many Kuyperian Dominionists do that we will have Rembrandt, Bach, and Gothic architecture in heaven. I sure hope not. I think in the New Heavens and the New Earth with Resurrected Bodies, our work, and the pure art of God's Creative Hand will be more than sufficient…but in the end, we just don't know. It's all speculation.

I don't think we need try and conquer art or music or movies for Christ. We can take it or leave it. The criterion is wisdom. Some things are profitable, though flawed. Some things are flawed, not intrinsically sinful, but must be used sparingly. Other things are worthwhile, especially if one is granted gifts. If you can paint, then do it. You art doesn't have to be explicitly Christian themed. Just be a Christian and paint pictures. No doubt something of your character will be revealed.

Only God has the authority to declare something Holy. Just because we say this is Christian music or art (or a nation) doesn't make it so. It's not Holy…but because you've attached the name Christian to it, I have to judge it differently than something that's not.

For example if I read Dr. Zhivago by Pasternak, I'm not looking for Pasternak to teach me Christian theology. He was a lost man, telling a story about lost people during a fascinating epoch in history. Yet there are things to learn from the book, not only about history, but about people. It's worthwhile. For someone else, they may not want to read it, or maybe parts of the book cause them to stumble or whatever. Fine don't read it. That also may be wisdom.

What I'm saying is……if Pasternak was a Christian and had written the book, that too would be okay. Immorality is hardly glorified. It has terrible consequences… but that's how the world is. It seems like a lot of Christian moviemaking has what my wife and I call a kind of Hallmark World quality about it. Everything is kind of plastic, clean, nice, pretty….even when something bad is happening…it doesn't seem real.

Jeanette Oke's books are marketed as Christian books. Are they? Well in one sense they certainly are, but are they somehow Holy? Of course not….so what does it mean that it is a Christian book?

Is so-called Sacred Art really set apart, Holy? Of course not. Actually most of it is sacrilege if not outright blasphemy. Sacred Music? The Old Testament had sacred music, ordained by God. The instruments were typological, holy. How do we know? They were played by Levites. So they with the incense, sacrifices, vestments, altars, temple, and the rest have been fulfilled…an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness. (Hebrews 7)

There is no sacred music in the New Testament. So what about Christian Contemporary Music? Well, like the other types of arts…when it is Christian themed, I have to judge it by a different criteria, and most modern Christian music (CCM) is found wanting.

What about the beat? This assumes that Sacralist culture determined certain types of art and music are right and proper…moral, and others are not. Art and music are common. They CAN be immoral, but are not in and of themselves. There's nothing sinful about rhythm type, nor anything morally good about another rhythm type. Does some music make someone violent? Music is very emotional which is why we must be wise, but it affects people in entirely different ways.

Some people find Gregorian Chant moving….I know too much history and it makes me think of the abomination of medieval monasteries and sodomite monks and the sham of it all. I think of wicked Pope Gregory. I can't listen to it positively. It is very negative music to me. I don't find it moving at all. Is this because I lack training? Couldn't I say those who like it lack an understanding of its origins?

Some really like 'good old down home' Bill Gaither-type music. I find it completely sacrilegious and evokes in my mind images of American Sacralism. It makes me think of the sad history of Christianity in the backcountry settlements, imperialism, romanticism, bad theology, holiness movements and camp meeting revivals.

Some find Bach to be the pinnacle, the paragon of Christian High Arts. I find Baroque to be tedious, mechanical, dry, and uninteresting.

Francis Schaeffer would have you scoff at modernist music…but I find Rachmaninoff inspiring and evocative of sweeping scenes in Russian culture and history.

Enescu or Wagner should offend our Christian sensibilities due to Romanticism's irrationalism and quasi-mysticism, its celebration of the primal. Yet, I love Romantic music. It tells a story. It's moving. Perhaps if it was making me into a Byron I would need to reject it. It doesn't, but it reminds me of history, stories, and is evocative of landscapes and scenes of sublime beauty. Gliere's 'The Red Poppy' can bring tears to my eyes.

Woody Guthrie was hardly a Christian but his music is authentic and reminiscent....and I like it.

Ken Myers would have me despise authenticity based on scholastic and medieval notions of what is beauty and good music. Generally he's a good two-kingdoms adherent, but turns hard Sacralist when it comes to culture. The very questions assume culture is Holy or Unholy. I'm not saying it is amoral…I'm just saying it is not part of the Kingdom of God. WE are….so that affects how WE interact with IT.

Armenians who claim the oldest national Christianity have an ancient sacred music based off entirely non-western scales. They would be quite surprised to find out that Western/American Christians think Gaither is good but Armenian Duduk or Oud music is bad. It's arbitrary.

Indian music, especially Hindustani Classical Raga is based off entirely different scales focusing on melody and beat with almost no concept of what we would call harmony….to many that is immoral. Why? It's different. Oh, because it grew out of a Hindu-Sacral context? Well, I'm not a Hindu and the Sitar isn't teaching me karma or samsara so I can listen to it….and enjoy it. And I do, immensely.

Incidentally, though I would prefer Indians used no musical instruments in their worship as per the New Testament, they often do use the sitar or a sarod or a kamancha…maybe even with some tabla. I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I Christians arguing that a piano is okay, but a guitar is bad. Once you've crossed the line you've already agreed on the ethics and theology of it…you're just arguing style and preference. Oh, I'll admit an acoustic guitar is perhaps more reverent than an electric guitar….but again it's all subjective. I'd rather hear a Tembur than a bad tavern-ish upright piano. I'm not with Dabney on many things, but he was correct on the organ (entering the Southern Presbyterian church in the 19th century)…it sounds more like a carnival or circus than something we should use to worship God.

If it is wicked to listen to Sacral music, then I would say Gregorian Chant is just as bad.

If we are only to listen to explicitly Christian music, whatever that is, view only Christian themed art, read only Christian themed books….well, that's fine, that's consistent, but I would say you're misunderstanding culture and Paul certainly didn't share that view. By binding where Scripture doesn't bind you are the weaker brother. When you bind others you become a Pharisee.

Some Christians abuse this doctrine in practice. Others abuse it on ideological-Dominionist grounds. They think all of culture is Holy so they have to capture it. It has to be the Jesus Movie Theatre, the Jesus Book Store, the Jesus Art Gallery. Separatists think all of culture is holy so they have to flee unholy culture and live like monks.

All the same theological forces at work in the middle ages to create Roman Catholicism are at work today in American Evangelicalism. The culture is different, so these ideas manifest themselves in a different form in our setting. Rather than hardship pilgrimages, relics, monasteries, crusades, Gregorian Chant, and prayer beads, our Americo-global mongrel McCulture produces WWJD bracelets, air conditioned bus tours to Israel, complete with a re-baptism in the Jordan, Gettysburg pilgrimages, flag and cross lapel pins, Vietnam, sacrilegious Christian tee-shirts, Veggietales, CBN, Newsboys, and our modern monasticism….legalistic Baptist/holiness piety. It's just a different culture, but the disease is the same.

I wanted to write this because recently we met some people who considered us non-Christians because we believe horrible things like predestination, Amillennialism, and paedobaptism…but even worse….far worse…I had the audacity to say that sometimes it was okay to listen to secular music. They started talking about pagan beats and what it does to your spirit. Pity Paul didn't warn us about that.

Their whole thinking lives in this tiny little late 20th century American world. American Christians have to be some of the most ignorant people on the planet. They sit and focus on pieces of cheap Americana, politics, pop culture, and sports and largely seem to know nothing about the Word of God, History, Ideas…

Kind of like peasants in the middle ages.

That's one of my concepts…Spiritually we are in the middle ages once again.

I think there may have been more Christians then, than there is today. At least in terms of ratios.


Anonymous said...

Getting through all of your articles, glad I pulled this one up today. Had to laugh out loud in several places, and laugh at myself in some cases.
Speaking of Rachmaninoff,and I have to speak of Rachmaninoff.. about, oh 24 or so years ago, had the pleasure of attending a concert, Have racked my brain trying to remember the philharmonic-can't. Wonderful evening. Now just listen to Sergei and others, and that's the bulk of what I listen to.. albums and record player!
Anyway, this writing so, so good, can't stand it.
While I'm thinking of it, have you read,"Jesus, Made in America', by Stephen J. Nichols? Interesing read. Thought of that because of your mentioning of WWJD bracelets and so forth.
Thank you for the post.

Protoprotestant said...

I heard an interview with Nichols regarding that book, and it sounds very interesting.

Record player? What's that? Just kidding.

I had one of those moments awhile back. We were in a secondhand store (Goodwill) and this kid picked up a Polaroid...the exact one I had when I was a kid. He turned to his dad and asked, "What is this thing?"

I felt kind of old...and I'm not that old yet!

But I most certainly remember record players. Mine received quite a bit of use.

That Nichols interview was at The Reformed Forum. I'm not the kind of person who likes to just sit and listen to sermons, lectures, or books...but I love to listen to them while driving or if I'm doing some kind of work that doesn't require too much concentration.

But if you're into theological discussions etc...The Reformed Forum has some pretty good stuff. As with anybody...it's not ALL good, but generally pretty profitable.

I think I'll put that book on my list, though I think I will find it upsetting.

Thanks to you, I had to dig out my JC Ryle today. Good memories. A couple of biographical points I remember....

I don't know if you've read about it, but his son totally went of the deep end, took a totally liberal view of Scripture etc...

If I recall...another interesting tidbit about Ryle. He was married 3...maybe 4 times? They kept dying on him...but he obviously didn't want to be alone!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for info on the Reformed Forum, will go take a peek.
Would love to hear what you have to say regarding Nichol's book, so whenever you have the chance, maybe post a few comments if you would feel so inclined?
It's been so long since I've read about Ryle, will have to brush up. Married 3-4 times, yea, I'd say he didn't want to be alone! Have forgotten specifics, do remember about son.
Thanks to the reminder about Iain Murray's book on Pink, ( you had left a reply about it on my blog), had ordered and am reading that at the moment. When I closed book last night, Pink was wrestling with Ironside!
Grabbing this writing, Common Grace Culture, and posting it, along with others that I've been meaning to post.