Liberty or License: Reflections on The Standards

“The arts belong to the Christian life.” So writes Leland Ryken. It probably comes a shock to some that a professed Christian would have such high regard for the arts. Such is the state of historical senility that pop-Christianity has found itself in. For Christianity and the arts have a long history of integration. Likewise Christianity and culture have been interacting since long before Richard Niebuhr. Ryken adds, “If Christians are to be a force in shaping the contours of their society and evangelizing people in it, they will have to come to grips with the culture in which they inevitably live and move and have their being” (The Liberated Imagination, 11). I agree with Ryken, and a host of other theologians. I agree with them in regards to both the value of culture and art, and in the importance of understanding it for ministry. There are, of course, those who adamantly disagree with me. This series, then, is an attempt to reflect Biblically upon the nature of Christian liberty.

The tension that exists here for the Christian is a real one. It is not merely a perception of antiquated mentalities, for Jesus prays that we would be in the world but not of the world. There’s a difference in the divine perspective. So the question that faithful Christians must answer is as follows: what makes something a matter of Christian liberty and what makes it a matter of sinful license. In order to answer such a question we must accept that God gets to determine, and therefore our standard must be found in what God says. Far too often Christians determine the answer to this question by means of some arbitrary rules. What makes something good or bad, liberty or license, is based solely on the standards of their sub-Christian culture. Does this song have swearing? Well as long as they don’t drop too many “f-bombs” or “take the Lord’s name in vain” then it’s okay. Does that movie have violence? Well as long as it’s not too graphic it’s okay. A movie about infidelity is bad, a movie about lying is funny. A movie with a happy ending is good, a movie with a tragic ending is bad. A song by a so-called Christian is good, even if it’s theology is horrendous. These standards are not Biblically based and lack a number of important nuances.

The danger here is that we can judge people based on their artistic selections because they either conform to our black and white standards or they don’t. And nuance is an important word to consider when reflecting on our standards. So, with that said let me set out some simple reflections on the subject of standards.

1) The Christian’s objective standard is the Bible. The Bible tells us very plainly that some things are sin. We will never have something that is rightly called “Christian pornography.” Cultural trends and changes that fly in the face of the clear ethical teachings of Scripture will find no room in the Christian’s life. There are plenty of matters that are clearly outlined as sinful and to take part in them is to indulge in sinful license.

2) The Bible does not give us a rating system for our art. The “R” rating in a film is purely the creation of a committee of men and women, men and women who often can’t agree on what rating a film should get. When discussing film or evaluating a painting we can’t simply look for its “rating” and then make a decision about its morality. The Bible doesn’t give us a rating system. So before you judge someone for watching a film, reading a book, or going to a museum think carefully about what you hold against the specific cultural element.

3) The Bible itself is rife with content that Christians find morally objectionable. The examples of sin listed, sometimes in great detail, in the Bible are numerous. They cover everything from rape, incest, murder, and adultery, to idolatry and blasphemy. If we were giving out ratings the Bible would receive a warning of explicit content. But, we see that the authors of Scripture, indeed the Divine author, saw that there can be an important and valuable purpose behind discussing and describing sin. Be careful about the judgments you make. This is not a license for all indulgence, but it is a reminder that nuance is important in our evaluations.

4) Finally, all culture contains sin. It is not enough simply to point out the “big” ones. Often Christians want to point to the sins of abortion, homosexuality, lust, and blasphemy. But why is it wrong to listen to a song about getting drunk and okay to listen to one about being your own savior. Why is it okay to watch a comedy with lying and deceit but wrong to watch one with nudity? We can’t pick and choose our ethical dilemmas. We must wrestle with the fact that all culture contains sin and unless we are going to isolate ourselves from the world (something Jesus expressly prays against in John 17) we have to learn better how to deal with sin in the world.

None of this is to suggest that being in the world but not of the world is some how easy. In fact, I want to stress the exact opposite. It’s not. Note that I have not given you lots of specific guidelines here. I’ve tried to provide more general reflections because this is a difficult task. Far too often Christians want everything to be in black and white. We are often far too reductionist in our approach to culture. The standards are there for us to judge by, but sometimes our judging is not as simple as we think it should be.

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