Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

In the World But Not of the World (3)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Is there such a thing as a good film? Most of us would say, yes, of course. The same answer would be given if the question was, is there such a thing as good music, a good book or magazine? It all depends on the content of a film, book or whatever the art form may be. The subject matter, then, is a very important criterion when evaluating any product of our culture. We have looked at this aspect of our investigation of modern culture in our March editorial and we concluded that given the immoral and anti-Christian nature of most movies it is highly questionable whether anyone who professes faith in Christ can in good conscience view such materials. The same holds true, of course, of sleazy novels, magazines and much that passes for music today.

The Impact of Popular Culture
Yet there is more involved than content alone. While it is important to be cognizant of the content of the cinematic, literary and musical expressions of modern culture, we also need to be aware of the danger posed by the form in which they are presented. To mention the overworked yet still very important observation of educator Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. Charles Colson illustrates this point by comparing popular culture to what he calls high culture:

A sonnet or a symphony has a complex structure that takes some effort to understand. It challenges us; we have to work to appreciate it. ThatÕs why we study Shakespeare in English classes and Mozart in music appreciation courses. But who takes courses to understand Madonna? Who needs to? Who takes Soap Opera 101? Who needs CliffÕs notes to understand Harlequin romances?

These forms require virtually no intellectual discipline or effort. If anything, popular culture strives to avoid making the audience work. ItÕs intended to be simple, entertaining, and easy to understand, offering immediate gratification. It grabs our attention with catchy lines, loud intrusive music, and sensational visual effects, all designed to bypass the mind and appeal directly to the senses and emotions. (Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live? Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999, p.466).

Colson goes on to compare popular culture to junk food. It is just as addictive and causes one to lose oneÕs taste for more wholesome ÒbrainÓ food. But not only is the taste for substantial fare lessened--even the ability to engage in a challenging mental task is impaired. The long-term effects of ÒpopÓ culture are similar to those of drugs. Over time, it will greatly reduce the brainÕs intellectual capacity.

The worst impact popular culture has on us, however, is that it causes great, if not irreparable, harm to our spiritual lives. As Colson explains:

Attention to the spiritual realm requires an entirely different set of skills and sensibilities than do the easy distractions of pop culture. Studying GodÕs Word takes mental concentration and discipline. Prayer and meditation require focused recollection and the ability to shut out the jangle of everyday events. Thus, pop culture (even Christian versions of it) may erode the skills and disciplines needed for a robust spiritual life. (Ibid., p.467).

Can Secular Culture be Christianized?
What I said about the importance of understanding the form as well as the content of modern art forms applies to the entire range of pop culture. Take music for instance. Some naive Christians think they can ÒbaptizeÓ secular rock simply by changing the lyrics. And so record companies, always and only interested in profit, offer a generous selection of Christian rock and rap, Christian blues and jazz, and even Christian heavy metal. But changing the words is not enough because the form or the style is still pagan. As Colson says, ÒThe sheer energy of rock-the pounding beat, the screams, the spectacle-is intended to bypass the mind and appeal directly to the sensations and feelingsÓ (Ibid., p.470). Rock music aims at manÕs sensual nature as anyone who has ever watched even one minute of MTV knows.

This trend toward Christianizing secular culture--some would call it ÒredeemingÓ culture--can also be seen in the proliferation of Christian fiction. In recent years a number of novels written from an ostensibly Christian perspective have even made it to the best-sellerÕs list. Thankfully, many Christian novels are wholesome and provide harmless recreational reading, but also here it has to be said, not all that is called Christian is Christian. All too often this genre differs only marginally from its secular counterpart in that it also features Òalmost-steamyÓ romances. Christians who become addicted to this type of superficial literature also run the risk of losing their appetite for serious reading. It is not a good sign when most of the books borrowed from church libraries are Christian fiction. Even though we trust that no Free Reformed church library will stock questionable reading materials, the fact that Christian romances are more popular than Christian biographies or other books of a more serious nature, says something about our priorities.

Are We Living Only for Pleasure?
But everybody needs to relax sometimes! We canÕt always work and put our nose to the grindstone! Life is full of stresses and strains, so we need time to unwind when we come home from work or after taking care of the kids all day. WhatÕs wrong with curling up with a nice book or renting a clean video or putting on some easy-listening music?

It is all a matter of balance. Just as it is OK to eat a hamburger and fries at McDonaldsÕs once in a while, even once a week, so it probably does no harm to watch an occasional movie or read a novel for recreation. But donÕt make a habit of it. The warning of health experts against fast and junk foods applies also here. It you make movies (even carefully selected ones), light reading (even Christian novels), and contemporary music your steady diet, donÕt be surprised if you will develop spiritual anemia and become dangerously undernourished.

This should be of real concern to us. If we are true Christians we will not only desire the sincere or pure milk of the Word that we may grow thereby (I Pet.2:2), but also develop a taste for strong meat or solid food (Heb.6:12-14).

We have to be very careful lest we become like the world, which lives only for pleasure. Recreation or leisure, while legitimate as a means to an end, the end being the recharging of our batteries so we can perform our God-given tasks in optimum form, has become for the masses an end in itself.

People are willing to work five days provided they get two days off for recreation and what they call Òentertainment.Ó Living as we do, in this kind of climate, the danger for us is not that we donÕt spend enough time on recreation, but that we get too much of it! What we need is Biblical balance. There are two passages that are especially helpful in finding and maintaining such a balance. The first one is Ephesians 5:16, where the apostle Paul cautions believers to Òwalk circumspectly ... seeing that the days are evil.Ó The second passage is 1 Corinthians 7:31, where the same apostle counsels us to Òuse this world as not abusing it, for the fashion of this world passeth away.Ó

When recreation or leisure takes us from our spiritual duties, which Paul refers to as our Òreasonable serviceÓ (Rom.12:1), and prevents us from bearing much fruit for GodÕs glory (Jn.15:8), it becomes idolatry. The Lord does not call His people to pamper themselves or to amuse themselves to death (Neil Postman). Recreation or leisure is a gift from God, but its purpose is to equip ourselves for more effective service. As Christians we need to be stewards of our ÒfreeÓ time just as we are to be stewards of our money and all other possessions God has entrusted to us. This implies we should avoid as much as possible the ever-present snares of time-wasting and unprofitable activity.

Testing Ourselves by GodÕs Word
It seems almost trite to say it, but all our recreational activities, must be tested by the standards set by the Word of God. Let me suggest three passages of Scripture that may help us in making informed decisions regarding the propriety or impropriety of any recreational activity we might be interested in pursuing. 1 Corinthians 6:12. There, Paul writes, ÒAll things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient [or fitting]: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.Ó In 1 Corinthians 10:23, he repeats his earlier statement but he ads Òall things edify not.Ó What the apostle means is that there are many things that are not expressly forbidden or commanded in the Bible. These things fall into the category of Christian liberty and thus are left to the discretion of every believerÕs conscience. In his letters to the Corinthian and Roman churches Paul mentions a few examples of such adiaphora (indifferent things), namely eating food dedicated to idols and observing special days. Today we could add many other things that might qualify as adiaphora, although there will always be differences of opinion among Christians as to which item belongs on that list and which does not.

But all are agreed that there are many recreations, pastimes, hobbies and interests today that were not even thought of in Bible times. It is to this great variety of activities that are not in themselves immoral or wrong that the apostle refers when he says, ÒAll things are lawful for me.Ó

Notice that Paul does not draw up a long list of doÕs and donÕts, but that he, instead, explains the principles which are to guide us in our actions. Well, what about some of these recreations and pastimes that our culture offers to us? Most, if not all of them, may be lawful for us, the apostle says. But there may also be certain factors and considerations that make them unlawful and sinful, even if they are innocent in themselves. Here are the factors we should consider as we decide whether or not to engage in any recreational activity:

1. Is the activity contemplated expedient, i.e. fitting? Does it hinder our testimony? Will it offend a weaker brother? Does it involve spending more money than is responsible from the point of view of Christian stewardship?

2. Is it bringing us under its power? i.e., is it habit-forming or addictive?

3. Does it edify? i.e., is there any value or advantage accruing from it? Is it conducive to our spiritual growth? Does it benefit or harm my neighbour?

Scripture is our Infallible Standard
In addition to these three criteria for deciding what to do in these matters, I suggest we also look at another Pauline passage that may help us. In Philippians 4:8 we read, ÒFinally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.Ó These well-known words of Paul provide us with an infallible standard for all of life, including therefore, also our recreational and cultural activities. Let us apply this test to our favourite pastimes.

-- ÒWhatsoever things are trueÓ [as opposed to false]. Is the activity I am interested in honest or open? Or is it something that needs be kept secret? Would I be embarrassed if my wife, husband or pastor knew about it?

-- ÒWhatsoever things are justÓ [or fair]. Do I, in my pursuit of a certain hobby or pastime, take time away from my wife and other loved ones. Is it fair for me to spend hours and hours playing hockey, baseball or some other sport, while the church is begging for volunteers to help with various activities?

-- ÒWhatsoever things are pure,Ó i.e., clean, chaste, decent. Apply that test to TV viewing and you will be left with little more than the news and a few documentaries.

-- ÒWhatsoever things are lovely.Ó The word ÒlovelyÓ as used by the apostle here does not mean lovely to look at but rather things that bring out love and affection. ÒThis involves an attitude of mind which is gracious towards others and seeks to please them rather than ourselvesÓ (John Gwyn-Thomas, Rejoice Always, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust,1989, pp.80,81).Our recreational activities should be conducive to fellowship, as already noted, and benefit others as well as ourselves. Any pastime, whether it is reading books or watching television programs that promote violence and hatred, is thereby excluded.

-- ÒWhatsoever things are of good report.Ó Here the apostle encourages us to take up pursuits that by their very nature are wholesome and recognized as such even by morally upright non-Christians. As James Boice writes, ÒThe things that are acknowledged to be honourable by the best of men everywhere are also worthy to be cultivated by Christians.Ó (Philippians, An Expositional Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, p.285).

We are What we Think
It is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of professing Christians when they show a preference for entertainment that even worldly but thoughtful people condemn as garbage. ÒIf there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things,Ó Paul concludes. HendriksenÕs comments on this verse are worth quoting:

Nothing that is really worthwhile for believers to ponder and
take into consideration is omitted from this summarizing phrase.
Anything at all that is a matter of moral and spiritual
excellence, so that it is the proper object of praise, is the
right pasture for the Christian mind to graze in. Nothing that is
of a contrary nature is the right food for his thought (Wm.
Hendriksen, Exposition of Philippians, Grand Rapids: Baker Book
House, 1962, p.199).

Solomon says, Òas [a man] thinketh in his heart so is heÓ (Prov.23: 7). That means our thinking always governs our actions. If what we think about does not come under the headings of Philippians 4:8, we should get rid of such thoughts and fill our minds instead with the things of God and of His Son. All the virtues that Paul mentions here are wonderfully and gloriously summed up in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel therefore calls us to gaze upon His face instead of sitting glued to the TV or being completely absorbed by a romance or spy novel. If we hope with David to behold GodÕs face in righteousness after death and to be satisfied with his likeness upon awakening in glory (Ps.17: 15), we need to have some acquaintance with that face now. That reconciled face of God in Jesus Christ, ÒGives happiness and grace to all that are pure-hearted; to them is life impartedÓ (Psalter 423:7).

ÒBlessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see GodÓ (Mt.5: 8).

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