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Posts Tagged ‘Discernment’

Toward a Christian perspective on art

Everybody warm up your proverbial right-brain.

I read J. Mark Bertrand’s “(Re)Thinking Worldview” recently (review pending). Among other useful elements, the book had me thinking again about the meaning and use of art in all mediums. Bertrand has much to say about employing one’s worldview as a filter to both create and appraise art. He further explains what it means to be an active evaluator of art, rather than a passive receptacle. All this combined with my own thoughts about art and the use of Christian liberty has helped me formulate a few points.

First we need a definition of the term, “art.”.

For the purpose of this discussion, I define “art” as any form of communication apart from the traditional use of language. “art” can include poetry, song, literature of every kind, painting, drawing, sculpture, music, photography and anything else you can think of. Yes, some of my agenda is layered into that definition but I think you’ll find it helps make better sense out of a controversial topic.

Working with that basic definition of “art”, let’s explore more. All art is grounded in truth. The purpose of art is to communicate. There is always a “point” or something to be understood. It may be straightforward, hidden, or obscure. The “point” may even be that there is no point at all. The message may be designed to be undetectable, or even nonsense. But in every piece of art there is a truth claim; art says something.

Part of the beauty of art is that it says something in so many different ways. In as many means as man can imagine, “the point” can be put across. As man is made in the image of God, he has proven to be endlessly creative.

What is the point of “saying something”?

Here’s another idea: Art is meant to create empathy. We enjoy art when we experience empathy. Empathy is understanding what someone else’s experience. It is easier to feel empathy when we have shared that experience. We have empathy if we see someone angry when we ourselves have been angry. But shared experience is not necessary to achieve empathy. We achieve empathy simply when we reach understanding. While I have never committed murder, a film may help me get inside the mind of one who has done so. I may abhor it, but I still understand what the murderer was thinking, what motivated them. Really, art accomplishes a direct line of understanding (not approval, mind you) between two people that have never met.

Out of this I build an important idea: good art must not be equated with moral art. In my opinion, art is good when it effectively communicates. It may communicate something immoral, but morality is not the issue. Communication, empathy is the issue.

In this sense, it’s better not to use the words “good” or “bad” in reference to art. I think that the better word is “effective.” this word carries the sense of function apart from morality.

It is at this point that we can draw some application. I listened to a song on a local alternative rock radio station. I like the station because they tend to play lesser known artists that are more engaging. One particular song they play a lot lately is a bleak, even violent imagination of the future. The language is not explicit or graphic, and yet the message is clear: the future is full of hopelessness and death. On one hand, I consider the song effective as art. The artist paints a picture of the future that is not true, and he actively rejects Biblical truth. Though I feel I have empathy for the artists outlook, I do not like the art. The message is immoral. I reject the “point” of the lyrics. I would not buy this music.

One important caveat: Just because art portrays immorality does not make it immoral. The thing to consider is how the consumer of art is asked to respond. For example, Steven’s Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List” portrays all kinds of evil by the Nazis on the Jews. Oliver Stone’s film “Natural Born Killers” portrays two violent criminals in love and on the run from the law. “Schindler’s List” despises the evil and “Natural Born Killers” revels in it. Spielberg’s film is one that I can watch again and again. Isaw Stone’s film as an unbeliever and I wish I never had. Yes, I would say that “Killers” is effective as art, but I reject it and refuse to consume it.

When we are evaluating art, the quality of that art should be based not on its morality, but on how effectively it communicates. Your taste for consuming should be based on its morality. To sum up, lets restate my points:

  1. Art is a form of communication.
  2. All art has a point, rooted is the assumption of truth.
  3. Art is effective when it accomplishes empathy.
  4. Empathy is not agreement.
  5. The morality of art is a separate consideration from its effectiveness.
  6. The portrayal of immorality is not necessarily immoral, what is immoral is being asked to agree with immorality.

THEREFORE:

  1. The act of consuming art is not sinful. The theology of Colossians is key here (Col 2:20-23 for example). Physical elements of the world do not perpetrate sin on the consumer. As active consumers of information, Christians can view and evaluate art.
  2. Simply considering art can be enjoyable even if we reject it (Rom 12:9) as we seek to line our thoughts up with Scripture (Rom 12:2).
  3. Because all art has a “point” Christians CANNOT be passive receptacles. Un-Biblical ideas are accepted when Christians do not critically evaluate the truth-claims of artists (Rom 16:19).
  4. Christians can consume art as a function of Christian liberty (1 Cor 6:12).
  5. The orientation of the heart toward art is the key (Jer 17:9) and here is the caution:

HOWEVER

  1. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should (1 Cor 10:23).
  2. What we consider the exercise of liberty can actually be sin (Gal 5:13). You must examine your motives for consuming art.
  3. Remember that your sinful hearts seek to use art as an occasion for sin. Guard against this. Even pornography is art. It is absolutely immoral. There is no provision for viewing this kind of art because it invites the heart to spiritual and literal adultery (Matt 5:28).

Ultimately, the critical evaluation and consumption of art can be used to glorify God. Evaluating the faulty truth claims of artists is an occasion for reflecting on Biblical truth. The beauty of empathizing with fellow human minds through art is a testament to man’s being made in the image of God (gen 1:26). The sheer creativity of man, even when he is being immoral, is a reflection of the mind of God. Even the act of creating art reflects God’s original creation, ex-nihilo (“out of nothing”, Genesis 1:1). Art , in all it’s forms, perverted and good alike, is an endless well that reveals the complexity of God in His creation, ultimately shedding light of His character, bringing Him glory.

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Here is a passage that is more often abused than used correctly:

“Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” (1 Cor 8:4-13)

In this passage, Paul is addressing the correct use of knowledge (also called wisdom). The correct use of knowledge is aways guided by love (1 Cor 8:1), as in, to serve others. In many cases we have freedoms in Christ, liberty if you will. However, sometimes we forgo our liberty for the sake of another. This is the essence of Christian living. After all, it was Jesus Himself who said that the whole law was summed up in two commandments, the first being “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. (Matt 22:37) and the second being “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF (Matt 22:39). The first commandment really sums up the whole law, but the second commandment sums up how the Christian can express the first law toward the world. Paul expands on this in Galatians 5:13 “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Translation: Liberty is first and foremost for the benefit of others.

That said, I’ve noticed in my life as a Christian that many people use this fact like a weapon…no, like a terrorist.

To explain what I mean, let me explain what the ‘weaker brother” (a la 1 Cor 8, quoted above) is NOT:

  1. He is not someone who understands Christian liberty. The weaker brother is still thinking of his faith as a list of things to avoid doing, rather than having been freed to pursue the desires of the indwelling Spirit.
  2. He is someone who does not trust in the sufficiency of God’s Word. Likely he knows that he has freedom, but insists on being narrower than the Bible.
  3. He is not someone who fully grasps the Biblical process of holiness. This person is often under the notion that things do something to you, rather than seeing the heart as a sinful user of things.
  4. He is not someone who is offended. The ‘weaker brother’ is someone who is tempted. The idea here is not that we avoid doing things that make others upset. The idea is that this person thinks that a particular behavior is sinful and is tempted to defy his conscience because he sees you do it. (For more on this, please get to know the entire book of Colossians.)
  5. He does not use outrage as a tool. Here’s the kicker, people play the ‘weaker brother card’ all the time because they ARE narrower than the Bible and they want to force you to be just as narrow. These people will eventually control the church with their legalism if left unchecked. This was PRECISELY the case in Galatians. In Galatians 2:4, Paul refers to a similar false teaching he’d just dealt with in Jerusalem, “But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.”

So how do we deal with these kind of liberty-squashing terrorists? In the name of love, we have to be careful not to disregard objections we may face. I suggest the following:

  1. DO strive to discern between the one who is tempted and the one who is offended. The one who is tempted will often say nothing.
  2. DON’T force the issue, ever.
  3. DO be sensitive to the conscience of the one who struggles with what is free to him as a Christian.
  4. DO try and help him embrace his liberty at another time, so that he might be free of self-inflicted bondage and enjoy his liberties.

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An open letter to rancor.

Recently I’ve been reading some response on this here internet about John MacArthur’s message at this year’s Shepherd’s Conference, titled “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Premillenialist”. Most of it was pretty negative. I’ve been to two Shepherd’s Conferences (2004, 2005) and they’ve been awesome. I’d go every year if I could. There have been some great messages, but none so eyebrow raising as this one. A friend who attended called soon after to talk about it, as the response at the conference, apparently, was immediate.

I’ve since listened to the message myself. Now, I’m not one to say that no feathers should have been ruffled. It was a pointed message on an important topic delivered at an influential time. It was his “home court” and yet there were plenty of non-dispensational types in the crowd, including guest speakers. John did not dance around the point, and in addition to all the surrounding issues of theology, he drilled on the key issue of hermeneutics. i don’t know that I could ever have the guts to do it they way that he did it, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. In any case, he did it.

Let’s be clear on one point: John MacArthur doesn’t need me to defend him. and yet, seeing the nature of much of the criticism out there, I have been really disappointed by the reaction. In light of this, there are several points that I would like to underscore for my Reformed friends (and I do mean friends):

  1. Many respondents out there need to back away from the accusations of arrogance, John is absolutely confident, absolutely sure of himself on issues like these. Given his place in the public view, he has no choice. He cannot afford to go forward on theses issues if he isn’t 100% in. That goes for any teacher worth their salt in the public eye. I’ve seen several of his Reformed guests at the Shepherd’s Conference speak the same way on issues such as Arminianism, “4 point Calvinists” and post-modernism. People who have not met him, or an person, should be careful about making such personal attributions.
  2. We all need to remember that the very reason John has Reformed theologians like RC Sproul, Mark Dever, John Piper etc, is because of their common stance on the doctrines of sovereign grace like election and the rest of Calvin’s 5 points regarding salvation.
  3. As a dispensationalist, John (and my church) is in the minority in his stand for those doctrines of sovereign grace. He has allied himself with them because these doctrines have everything to do with the gospel, and THAT has led him to split with those who SHARE his eschatology.
  4. While many were upset at John for preaching his own eschatology at his own conference in front of Reformed guests and speakers, other speakers have preached prophetic passages themselves at John’s conference. In 2005, while I was attending, Al Mohler taught on the subject of revival in the church from Ezekiel 37 (“the dry bones live”). When dispensationalism is taught, that passage is looked to as a classic example of diverging interpretation. I was sitting there thinking “I wonder if John knew he was going to preach that passage?”. I don’t think that he did. He did before the next session, however, politely underscore the dispensational highlights from the passage.

People seriously need to relax. Too bad most of them won’t.

Personally, before I had actually taken the time to own eschatology for myself, I was intimidated by Reformed people that I met. I tried to make it into a gospel issue. I probably would have declined to do ministry with them. My resistance masked my own ignorance. Since then I have studied it and made my decision.

Something else that happened to me was that I got into reading church history, and saw the way that most dispensationalists had also abandoned the doctrines of sovereign grace. By emphasizing the shift from the dispensation of law, they have rejected the holistic nature of God’s work in salvation and divorced moral regeneration from the new birth. THAT is something I cannot abide. THAT is something I will contend for and divide over. THAT is something that makes my blood boil.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that the hermeneutics issue between Reformed eschatology and dispensationalism (I’m am not classically dispensational, I acknowledge a greater degree of continuity), is VERY important. It’s something I care to discuss, in person, from time to time. I just want to remind so many that we must take great care to maintain our theological friendships for the greater glory of Christ in His gospel.

Whew. That’s enough CAPS for one day.

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Most of the time, sending my wife to the video store produces a similar reaction. Something like, “Uhh…ugh…OK. I guess that’s fine, honey.” It’s why I usually do the honors of selecting the movies we watch. The other night, my wife made a great choice; a film that I wanted to see but thought she might not be up for: “Jesus Camp.”

I told her we’d be left feeling unsettled afterward. She looked at me and asked what kind of movie this was anyway? In a word: unsettling.

“Jesus Camp” is a documentary that probes the agenda of the ultra-religious Christian right, and their intentions to impact the American political process. Mostly, the movie examines a Pentecostal youth camp in North Dakota which is dedicated to training children to be future foot soldiers in the political-religious war to sort of “take back America” (as thought it were ever Christian in the first place).

The film-makers have a clear agenda to paint these people as total whackos, dubbing slasher movie music over many of the scenes involving the children and the worship services. The people they are filming are more than willing to oblige them with eyebrow-raising material.

Now seriously, I could go on at length about the troubling things I saw inĀ  this film, but I will limit myself to a few:

  1. There is a great deal of spiritual arrogance in the preachers and in the children. Pentecostalism takes the major errors of Arminiansim (free will, etc) to seed. The leader of the camp, a female pastor brags about how quickly she can get people saved and have them speaking in tongues, like in a matter of minutes. A child who is being put on stage to “preach” imagines himself receiving praise from the crowd. Camp counselors pray, casting out demons including even Satan from chairs and electrical wiring and microphones. Pride and the commanding of demons, even in Jesus name, is a major hallmark of false teachers (Book of Jude).
  2. Typical to the charismatic movement, there is a betrayal of the sufficiency of Scripture. They talk a lot about the power of God’s Word, but they always sell it short by looking to visions and prophecies.
  3. Emotional drama and manipulation is a substitute for substance. This is the legacy of Charles Finney in the charismatic movement. Every night at worship, the children are worked into an emotional lather, breaking down crying, making overt shows of despair over sin and fear of judgment. Each following morning, they are carefree, silly little children, like they ought to be. These kids are so coached up, one can hardly believe that they really understand what they are saying or are actually changed by it all. And the adults just egg them on.
  4. There is an obvious and complete lack of understanding of the gospel. God is looked at as some kind of genie. The cross is acknowledged, but it has become a kind of spiritual snake oil. They are constantly praying the “blood of Jesus” upon themselves, as if His cross-work were not finished. Arminianism teaches that you can lose your salvation, and that fear is clearly exploited.

This film was scary. It was a reminder to my wife and I that children become exactly what you put into them, the good and the bad. If we teach our children to be actors, they will comply. It also is a reminder of what happens when the boundaries of the Scriptures are discarded; utter chaos as the Holy Spirit becomes an agent of confusion. There were many other threads that could be explored such as the morality of “indoctrinating” children (I’m for it, by the way, just what you teach is the real issue), but time does not allow.

Check this film out. The discussion to follow is well worth the five bucks., disturbing as it may be.

 

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Some pointers for would-be point-ers.

So you just heard some say “Put your faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sin.” without invoking the Five Points of Calvinism. Just heard someone else say that you are “lucky”? Maybe you heard someone announce their weekend plans without uttering the words “God willing.” What to do? Here are a few pointers:

1.) Don’t be hasty. Get to know a person before you make broad assumptions about their theology.

2.) Don’t over-analyze. True, their language may betray a lack of understanding of the sovereignty of God in their theology, but don’t correct them simply for NOT saying something.

3.) Be gracious. Understand that you do not have perfect theology. Every day we, ourselves, may be holding beliefs that don’t fit together but we just don’t see it yet. We may never see our own errors until we get to heaven. The same goes for others.

4.) Seek to teach, not just correct.

5.) Give a little. Does the sun rise? Or does the Earth rotate in it’s orbit? What I call “the language of appearance” is acceptable when we speak of Biblical matters to. Jesus did not qualify every invitation to salvation with a statements about the sovereignty of God. Sometimes He sure DID, but not always. Don’t demand that everyone always show both sides of a coin.

6.) Be loving. Ask yourself “How would I want to be approached if I was in error?” In most cases just asking this question will lead you away from embarrassing, angering, or alienating someone else.

Make no bones about it, doctrine is the glue that holds the church together, and the saints should always want to contend for the faith. Sometimes we just need to cool our jets a little. Honestly, I find that those people that are most overbearing about correcting others are those who don’t really know what they, themselves, believe. They just know what’s wrong and they are quick to point it out. Unfortunately, there are those who Do know there stuff and will divide over the smallest difference. This is the product of arrogance and a complete lack of humility. It is a spirit that seeks to exalt itself by using knowledge rather than using that knowledge to advance the kingdom.

In the meantime, contend for the faith, but do it in love: quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19). (Why didn’t I just wite that in the first place?)

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Cantankerous Calvinists have a conniption.

A few thoughts on the recent debate on a Francis Chan video over at Pyromaniacs:

Seems that a number of people had a problem with an evangelistic short film produced by Pastor Chan’s church. Not enough Scripture, too many unguarded statements, not enough Calvinism spelled out in capital letters. Whatever. people seriously had themselves a major freakout, essentially accusing him of Arminiansim and heresy.

The situation reminds me of a similar, self-inflicted dilemma I used to have when I was just getting started in teaching. I was so afraid of sounding Arminian that I added so much explicit Calvinism to my preaching such that my messages were getting confusing. I couldn’t make a basic appeal to salvation without invoking the sovereign call of God in election and referencing the first two chapters of Ephesians and the first eleven chapters of Romans.

The result was sentences with way too many commas and not enough periods if you know what I mean. I got pretty preoccupied with making sure nobody would challenge anything that I said. Being thorough got in the way of being clear.

This can be the case in many churches. By my observation, churches that are rigorous in their scholarship are usually Calvinist, and the sinful extension of scholarship is usually a hypercritical spirit. In these cases, Christians lose sight of the importance of pure doctrine and get caught up with not being wrong. It’s a recipe for home-brewed Pharisaism. Nit-picks replace compassionate contention for the faith. Humility is replaced by the arrogance of knowledge.

I’m not advocating a de-emphasis on doctrine-anything but that! Wisdom is essentially the proper use of knowledge. Without knowledge there is no wisdom. However, that knowledge is a double-edged sword that must be used with care.

Next up: some pointers on how to wield the sword, especially in the context of cantankerous Calvinists.

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Signs, signs, everywhere signs.

Read on a billboard in Omaha:

“If you must curse, use your own name. -God”

Heard from a passerby:

“Huh?”

I’ve seen this same series of billboards all over the city. Another one says “That ‘Love thy neighbor’ thing, I meant that. -God” Another says “Let’s meet at my house Sunday befre the game. -God.” Still another says “Keep using my name in vain. I’ll make rush hour longer. -God” White text on a black background. That’s it.

I find myself responding again and again in the same way: “What even is that supposed to mean?” and further “What is anyone supposed to make of that?”

The basic problem is context. Without any context people can and will take it to mean any number of different things. Who did this? What are they getting at? What God are they talking about? Without context, any message these people are trying to convey is lost. In a way it is like Scripture. Take a verse out of its place in the Bible and its interpretation becomes impossible. The verse becomes useless as it has no sure meaning.

This billboard campaign is worse that useless, though. It is careless, dangerous, irresponsible and fruitless. Suppose someone reads one of these billboards and is intrigued by its vague statement. What now do they do? Walk through the doors of a Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, 7th Day Adventist or Catholic Church?

More troubling is that the lack of definition probably indicates that whoever put these things up doesn’t care. A simple “by-line” would provide the critical direction, but it deliberately absent. It reflects the prevailing mood that doctrine is not important, and that anything that announces itself as Christian is good enough. So strong is the trend to emphasize common ground, that crucial distinctions are swept under the rug.

Problem is that those crucial distinctives are life and death issues. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was only a man, and that his death was a good example, nothing more. They believe that their good works will counterbalance their sin. As I told a pair of JW’s that came to my home once, they are dead in their sin because God requires a perfect sacrifice which only Christ the God-man could provide:

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; Their efforts would be fruitless. ” (1 pet 3:18)

With no context, the patrons of these billboards invite this generation to make God in their own image. Just like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who imagine Jesus to be a man just like them(Ps 50:21), these deliberately vague messages direct their readers to “seek” God, when in reality it allows readers to select a God who will serve them. This is the essence of idolatry.

Let it be said that there are no innocents in this game. Those who are vague refuse definition. Those who are passive refuse to take a stand. Those who are ignorant refuse to be informed. Consider these things carefully.

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