CategoryChrist and Culture

Is God an Environmentalist?

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At school, I occasionally I find an empty pop can in the garbage.  This is particularly distressing to me when there is a recycle bin right next to the garbage can.  This leads to an inevitable rant on the importance of recycling.  Following one such outburst, that moved quickly from beverage containers to SUVs, a student asked, “Why recycle if God is going to destroy the world anyway?”

“Because he’s not,” I said.

God is not going to destroy creation

In Genesis 1, God declares creation to be “good” six times and on the final day, it’s “very good.”   The created goodness of the world is a consistent theme in the Bible.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24).

God creates this beautiful and wonderful creation.  He loves it.

This is why Satan deliberately sets out to ruin it.

 In Paradise Lost he says,

To do ought good never will be our task,

But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]

Because God loves it, Satan delights in its destruction.

So let’s be clear–there is a force in the universe that loves the created world that wants to see it flourish, and another force bent on destroying it.   God is not going to destroy this world–to do that, he’d be joining the other team.

Which Side Are You On?

God’s love for creation as declared in the beginning, is consistent with what is presented in the end.

In Revelation 21 John describes the vision given to him by Jesus at the end of time.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’ (Revelation 21: 2-3)

The end, fits the beginning.  Because he loves this world, he is pleased to come live in it.  Heaven–God’s very presence–comes down.  He comes down to where we are, to be with us–in His creation.  This was his intention for the Creation, and it how it will be in the end.  Or, more accurately, at the new beginning.

God says in Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Darrel Johnson points out that God does not say, “Behold, I am making all new things.”  God is not destroying the earth and starting over, He’s restoring what he’s already made.

So what do we do in the mean time?  The task of humanity is to live in accordance with his purposes.  Notice again, Revelation 21:5.  It doesn’t say, I will make all things new.  It’s “I am making all things new.”

Stewardship

How is God making all things new?  It began with Christ’s death and resurrection–he died, not just to redeem people, but all of creation.  Colosians 1:19-20 says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Christ’s work continues through his people, the church until he comes again.

There are two forces at work in the world–one that would destroy the creation and one that would see it flourish.

So, those who wish to live and work in accordance with God’s purposes will start by taking recycling very seriously.

And that will be just the beginning.

Language, Sex, and Violence — Will We Watch?

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

“If it’s not appropriate for children, it’s not appropriate for anyone.”

I’ve always had trouble with this idea, because if I took that approach, I’d no longer be able to read my Bible.

I have been told by those who can read the original languages in which the Bible has been written that some of the language is pretty course, especially in the prophets. And you don’t need to read the original language to find sexual content both the beautiful stuff, like The Song of Songs, and the repellant, the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-36) comes to mind. There’s also plenty of violence. When I was young, my imagination played the tent peg story (Judges 4:21) and the murder of Eglon (Judges 3:12-30) clearly on the screen of my mind.

The good folks down at the Skeptics Annotated Bible give the following, tongue in cheek, review of the Bible using the same categories that some concerned Christian groups give to movies:

• Sex/Nudity: 197
• Drugs/Alcohol: no information
• Violence/Scariness: 957
• Objectionable Words/Phrases: 180

Their jibe does make a point.

Rather than using the naively using the MPAA rating system or a misunderstanding of Philippians 4:8, I would like to suggest a new standard by which discerning parents, can determine what movies to watch with their older children or patronize themselves.

A New Standard for Evaluating Movies

It is not the language, sexual content and violence in and of themselves that should keep us from reading the Bible. It is not the presence of Sex/Nudity, Drugs/Alcohol, Violence/Scariness or Objectionable words/Phrases that should prevent us from going to movies.

It is how these things are treated in the move. If they are treated as the Bible treats them, maybe we can watch them. Maybe we even OUGHT to watch them? You see, I’m not just looking for a loophole to get away with watching whatever movie I want.

Art—and movies are art—is a dialogue about what it means to be human. It explores the good and beautiful; it also explores the evil and sin, and it explores the need and longing for redemption.  All movies are about these things.

Experiencing art broadens and deepens our experience and, therefore our understanding of our neighbours. Understanding the language of film, and how to talk about it, makes us better able to attend to, and even contribute to, the dialogue and, thus, be more effective servants to God and neighbour.

Art has this serious purpose, but it can also be fun. This distinction is important when we talk about movies and some of the more adult content they often contain.

“Just for Fun” or “Getting Serious”

Movies have two functions that occupy points on a continuum. On one side are movies which are made to provide consumers with pleasure or entertainment. Commercial success is the primary goal so these movies are designed to help large numbers of people. This is not in itself a bad thing. Because they want to attract as many viewers as possible, they have to provide a good product, and they need a PG rating, so they don’t have strong language, nudity, or realistic violence.—if successful, everybody wins. I would classify The Avengers (2012) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as a film that occupies this end of the spectrum.

On the other end are movies that are made in the hopes that it may broaden, deepen or sharpen our awareness of the human experience. These have a more artistic purpose and they demand more from us in that they attempt to bring us more deeply into life’s joys and struggles, while they and often produce empathy in the audience. Precious (2009) or Ordinary People (1980) perhaps fit into this category.

Because this is a continuum, movies usually occupy some point between the two ends of the spectrum. Some lean toward the entertainment side but still tell us something about life—Finding Nemo. Others tell us something serious about life, but while they do it, they entertain—Little Miss Sunshine.

Too much sex, violence, and language?

How much language, sexual content, and violence we are willing to tolerate in a film has something to do with where it is on the continuum. Movies that are on the entertainment side of the continuum ought to have a minimum of language, sexual content, and realistic violence. These things are a means to an end, and they ought not to be an end in themselves. If they are presented as such, discerning viewers will avoid them.

But because language, sexuality, and violence are a part of the human experience, they can be in the sorts of films that bring us into reality. Context matters a great deal here. The nudity presented in Spielberg’s, Schindler’s List (1993) is much different than the nudity presented in American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006). The first shows the humiliation and abuse of women in a very dark time in human history, and the other objectifies women for the viewing pleasure of its male audience.

I have never been impacted by a scene of violence as much as the opening scenes of A Time to Kill (1993). 10-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally attacked by two rednecks. These two white racists are caught boasting about what they did to Tonya. Her father, played by Samuel L. Jackson is understandably distraught and, recalling an incident a year previous when four white men were acquitted after raping an African-American girl in a nearby town. He is determined that justice will be done. So he shoots and kills the smirking rednecks as they leave their arraignment.

The violence of the initial attack is intense, but it was necessary for us to share some of the horror and violation of the act so that we could empathize with the distraught father who killed the men who attacked his daughter. The rest of the film involves his trial for murder. There is no doubt that he is guilty, but we understand his actions because we watched the event that motivated his decision to kill. Had you read this story in the newspaper, you’d likely be able to offer a flippant opinion about who’s right in this case, but by your participation in the violence, the issue is at least more complicated and your empathy makes you a better neighbour.

The violence in this movie is not the end, it is the means to an end, and that end is the honest exploration of the human condition.

“Faking It”

There are some movies that seem to say something significant about life and human experience, but are really presenting sentimental and over simplistic views of life. One such movie is Remember the Titans, which the filmmakers would have you believe is a realistic representation of how a football team overcame issues of racism and hatred to win the state championship. Although, based on a true story, racism in the real world is not so easily dealt with and movies that tell us that it is are not doing us any good.

Food Analogy

The following analogy might be helpful.

  • The movies which are just for entertainment are like home-made apple pie with a scoop of good quality ice cream; they are really good, but you oughtn’t to have a steady diet of the stuff.
  • The artistic film that brings us into reality is like a well-balanced meal—I’m thinking turkey dinner here—they are good for the soul.
  • Then there are the TV-dinner type movies that pretend to be saying something about life, they got processed turkey and mushy vegetables, but they are really giving us such a simplified version of reality that we’re better off eating the pie.
  • The ones that are full of sex, violence, or base humour are analogous to chocolate covered dog poop—they might look good in the trailers, but you won’t like the taste it leaves in your mouth.

Art has this serious purpose, but it can also be fun. This distinction is important when we talk about movies and some of the more adult content they often contain.

Dog Poop in the Brownies: How to read Philippians 4:8

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“You must destroy your secular music!”

The speaker told us we had to get rid of all of our “secular” music.  I was in high school, and the speaker at the youth event was a youngish, cool youth pastor.  He said we had to destroy our albums; selling it or giving it away would just spread the evil.

He mocked the counter arguments leveled at him by those who loved the pagan lyrics and musical brilliance of Led Zeppelin and The Who.  One argument I remember, perhaps because it was mine, was that, although there might be some “bad” content in it, there was much that was good in the songs of my favorite artists – especially Pink Floyd.

His response to this argument was the dog-poop-in-the-brownies analogy.  It went something like this:

If I offered you a plate of brownies and I told you that I mixed a tablespoon of dog poop in the batter, would you still eat it?

I didn’t like this analogy.  For one thing, it seemed pretty convincing and I didn’t want to be convinced.

But, I also sensed there was something inherently wrong with this analogy.  I knew that Pink Floyd’s songs were artistically beautiful, which is more than could be said of most Christian Contemporary Music of the day.  What’s more, some of what the secular artists said was true.  I had a hard time reconciling the truth and beauty with the analogy.

I wasn’t so clever to reframe and ask, “Would he eat a plate of tofu and Brussel sprouts soaked in cod liver oil just because it had no dog poop in it?”

He said we were supposed to destroy our secular music, but I inherently felt that there was something wrong with his demand. I now know what it is. #Philippians4:8 Click To Tweet
Philippians 4:8

I still encounter this issue in my personal and professional life.  My musical tastes are now acceptable to most people except, possibly, my children.  Nowadays, I find myself in conversations around literature and movies like Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter; Shawshank Redemption and No Country for Old Men.

Those who question whether Christians should read/watch these often use an argument similar to the dog-poop analogy and they do so by invoking Philippians 4:8.

“[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I am almost certain the youth pastor who wanted us to burn our secular music used this verse as his scriptural back up.

After all these years, I can now declare confidently that I agree with Philippians 4:8 while at the same time I dismiss the dog-poop-in-the-brownies analogy.

Sorry, but there are no Poopless Brownies

Foundational to the analogy is the notion that there are things in this world that are purely good, and true and beautiful–chocolate brownies–and other things that are thoroughly evil, false and ugly–dog poop.

It is possible to agree with Philippians 4:8 while dismissing the *dog poop in the brownies* analogy. #Philippians4:8 Click To Tweet

This is a false dichotomy; not only logically, but also biblically.

All things were created by God and he declared it all, very good.  Later, with the Fall, the same “all things” were distorted by sin.  If this is true, then we don’t live in a world full of clearly evil things and clearly good things.  We live in a world where everything is fundamentally good and also profoundly distorted by sin; in other words, everything and everyone, is both good and evil.

When Paul tells us to think about things that are true and noble and right, we are doing so in a world where it’s all mixed together.  And it’s not simply that one song on the album is good and true and beautiful, and the other is not; the blending happens within the same song.

This complicates life, but complicated is good in this case.  We can end up doing a lot of harm when we start seeing the world in terms of good and evil.

I think the speaker of my youth was wrong when he suggested the Christian life meant burning all my secular music.  If he had understood Philippians 4: 8 in the light of Genesis 1-3, he would have told us to burn some of our “secular” albums, and we knew which ones he’d have been talking about, and then he’d tell us to listen to our Christian music and burn all the trite, simplistic and sentimental gunk that was far from true, excellent and admirable.  Which, at that time, would have been most of it.

Christians Must Tip Higher Than 15%

Photo by Sam Truong Dan on Unsplash

Overheard one morning in a New York Subway near Broadway:

“I only made eleven dollars last night because it was a gospel show and the people only wanted the complimentary ice tea and they wanted it now!”

This young man experienced what so many in the service industry already know—when it comes to tipping, Christians are cheap.  Servers do pretty well in tips during the weekday lunch hour because the shopping and business crowd are not cheap.  Evenings are even better for tips because lovers, friends, and partiers also are not cheap.  But the tipping pool dries up for Sunday lunch (and gospel concerts) because here come the Christians.

A friend of mine and an experienced server said that they had never met another server who wanted to work the post-church rush.  The reasons?  Customers on Sunday afternoons are “rude, impatient, and the least self-aware people [they] have encountered while working in the restaurant business.” And yes, Sunday afternoons are notoriously bad for tipping.

Here are some things you need to know if you ever go out to eat:

  • Servers make minimum wage or less.  Where alcohol is served they can be paid less because it is assumed they will make money on tips.
  • Many servers, especially when starting out, work few shifts and those can be as short as two hours.  In general, a server is lucky to get 20 hours a week in one restaurant.
  • Higher-end restaurants have fewer seatings, so, although the tips will be larger due to larger checks, the waiters make less money than they would in a restaurant with higher turnover.
  • The more courses you order, the more your server has to work on your behalf.
  • The person who waits on your table will split their tips with the kitchen staff.
  • In some restaurants, the kitchen tip is a simple 15% of the table receipts.  This means that if you tip only 10%, it is theoretically possible for the server to be out of pocket for the evening.
  • It is not customary to tip in all parts of the world.  The language of generosity is not the same everywhere.

My friend insists that there are some wonderful customers in her restaurant after church on Sundays, but she added that she “would rather work Friday nights with the drunk people than Sunday afternoons.”

What do these this firsthand experience with Christians say about us and our Lord?

1 Timothy 6:18-19 (ESV) describes Christians who can afford to eat in restaurants:

They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

What might we say about ourselves, and more importantly, about a life in Jesus if we were to follow the biblical teaching to be polite and generous customers?

My server friend is a Christian and she really enjoys what she does.  Perhaps it is because she is a Christian that she is such an excellent server.  It’s in how she views other people.  She works hard to facilitate their experience while in the restaurant.  She does this by showing respect and being pleasant.  She listens to what they say and tries to intuit what they need so that she can give them the best service possible.  This, for her, is the essence of the service industry, but is it not also the essence of living in Christ?  To love and respect people because they are created in God’s image and to put their needs over yours?

Regarding tipping: Yes, servers are paid to serve us, but Christian customers are commanded to be generous. Christian tipping should be noticeably higher than the standard.Click To Tweet

Yes, servers are paid to do this, but Christian customers are commanded to do it.  But there is an even more compelling reason—we have been recipients of God’s Grace and, so, out of gratitude we share that grace with every human being with whom we come into contact—including our server at a restaurant or at a Broadway gospel show.

I thought it was awesome that my wife’s reaction to overhearing the conversation in the New York subway was the same as mine.  We both looked at each other, I am convinced by the Spirit’s prompting, and whispered something like, “I want to do something about that.”  It turns out she’s much more generous than I am because she doubled what I had in mind.  When I gave him the overdue tip, I told him that we were Christians and that this means we take joy in giving.  And we were sorry he wasn’t treated more generously the night before.  His face was a combination of disbelief and joy, as was that of his companion.

My wife firmly believes that the cost of the evening is not just the meals and the tickets to the show; it’s the tips as well.  If people can’t afford both, then they can’t afford to go out.  It’s wrong to make your server subsidize your night out.

If you can't afford a generous tip, you can't afford to go out. It's wrong to make your server subsidize your meal. #Christiantipping #tipping #generousityClick To Tweet

For Christians to be considered generous, we need to exceed the standard.  The standard is around 15-20% in a restaurant, five dollars on the bed in the hotel every morning and at least a couple of dollars for every suitcase that someone handles for you.

And then, of course, we need to express the joy and gratitude that comes from living in the generous Grace of our Redeemer.  Perhaps then our servers would prefer spending time with us on Sunday afternoons, or better yet, Sunday mornings, than with the drunks on Friday nights.

Why Christian Education? (Part 1): Three Different Types of Christian Schools

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I was at a church service some months back and a guest pastor was, in essence, exhorting the congregation to get out of their Christian ghetto and do some good for the world.  He has a point, of course.  It’s easy to live in the suburbs and surround ourselves with other Christians who indulge in the same flavour of the faith that we do.

I agreed with the guest pastor completely until he suggested that this meant getting children out of Christian schools.  I was taken aback when some in the audience responded with applause and cheering.  Maybe I am a little sensitive, but I thought I heard some vindication in their applause.

As someone who has dedicated over 30 years to the furthering of Christian education, I was saddened as I drove home, first, because there seems to be a passionate opposition to Christian education in at least part of the congregation, but more so, because the minister’s comments were based on a complete misunderstanding of Christian Education as I experience it every day.

Many sincere Christian parents send their children to the local public school.  This may be because there is no local Christian school, or because of financial constraints.  These can be difficult barriers.

There are other reasons given for the renunciation of Christian Education.  There are some, like the guest pastor, that believe the children of Christian parents are to be salt and light in the world.  Other more philosophical types have told me that they wish to avoid a sacred/secular dualism.  Against these positions, I would like to push back and assert that the school that best addresses these concerns is the Christian school.  I don’t mean just any Christian school, however.  There are different kinds and I’m not ready to defend all of them with equal fervor.

There are many reasons parents send their children to a Christian school and behind these reasons is often a particular view of culture and the Christian’s relationship to it.  The various views of the relationship between Christ and culture will produce different types of Christian schools.  In his book Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr describes several Christian responses to culture.  These responses are useful for distinguishing different types of schools.

Different Types of Christan Schools

Christ Against Culture

One group of Christian school advocates sees an antithetical relationship between the culture and those who proclaim Jesus as Lord. Niebuhr calls this stance, Christ against Culture.  Adherents of this view believe that to be loyal to Christ one must reject culture.

Niebuhr identifies several problems with this stance.  The first is that separation from the world isn’t really possible.  Secondly, this view seems to presuppose that sin lies in culture and that by avoiding culture, one can avoid sin.  A final problem is that, at its root, the Christ against Culture model seems to suggest that Christ has little or nothing to do with culture—that the material world of which culture is a part, is at odds with the spiritual world, ruled by God.

It is not difficult to understand why adherents of this view of culture would seek a separate Christian education for their children.  The public school, like culture as a whole, would be seen to contain much that is in opposition to the ways of God.  The purpose of the Christian school, then, would be to further the separation of the Christian community from the culture as a whole.

Some Christian schools pull out of culture which they see as evil. This stance overemphasizes the fall and fails to see the creational goodness in culture. Click To Tweet
Christ with Culture, Christ of culture, or Christ Above Culture

Not all Christians frame the relationship between Christ and culture as an either/or proposition.  Many see much good in culture that may, or even ought to, be embraced.  Some of these views can give rise to the second type of Christian school.  In these schools, because of a positive attitude toward culture, there is little reason for the curriculum to be much different than that of the local public school.

It is a Christian school because various devotional practices have been added to the schedule.  These would be things like devotions at the beginning the day, weekly chapels involving corporate worship, religious instruction and prayer, and Bible or religious education classes.  We might think of the Christian aspects of this sort of school as the creamy icing spread over the already pretty decent cake that is the standard curriculum taught in the public school.

This view of the relationship between Christ and culture is perhaps at the root of many sincere Christian parents sending their children to a public school.  What the child learns at school may be considered as, at worst, philosophically neutral and the religious instruction and devotional activities that occur in the home and at church are considered adequate for the spiritual nurturing of the child.

Where the first anti-culture view underemphasizes the good in creation, the critique of this pro-culture view is that it under-emphasizes the extent to which sin has distorted God’s good creation—including culture.  The failure to appreciate the extent of sin’s corrupting effects often results in a corresponding failure to appreciate the scope of Christ’s redemption.

Some Christian schools maintain an open stance toward culture which they see as neutral. This stance overemphasizes the creational goodness and fails to appreciate the effects of the Fall in culture.Click To Tweet
Christ Transforming Culture

There is a third type of Christian school, one that is unlike the Christ against Culture model in that it has a far more hopeful view of culture.  It is unlike the second in that it places greater emphasis on the depth and breadth of the effects of sin.  The view of culture from which this school arises is what Niebuhr calls the Christ transforming Culture model.

Adherents of this third type of Christian school recognize three fundamental truths.  First, that culture is a manifestation of God’s good creation and a product of human creativity and community.  Second, that sin distorts every part of this good creation, including human culture.  Thus, there is nothing created, that was not created good, but there is nothing that has not been distorted by the Fall.  A third truth is that Christ is the redeemer of all that God created.  This process began with his death and resurrection, and continues, even now, by the work of his Spirit in and through his people.

The task of the Christian, then, is to explore what it means to live faithfully. This means that we strive to shape God’s world by enhancing and celebrating the creational goodness and also discerning the presence of sin and working to reduce its effects.  The role of the Christian, then, is to take care of the environment, feed the hungry and take care of the sick.  It also means to be involved in culture as movie-makers, lawyers, florists, plumbers and union leaders that bless our neighbours.  It means being available if God chooses to work through our meager efforts and transform our local communities, or even the world.

The work of Redemption is Christ’s, but we are invited to participate in it.  Rikk Watts of Regent College in Vancouver once left me with this analogy:  We are called to imitate Jesus, like a child who enthusiastically pushes his plastic lawnmower behind his dad when he’s mowing the lawn.  “Look Mom! We’re mowing the lawn!”

What kind of Christian School arises from this worldview?  It would not disengage from culture for that would be a failure to recognize the essential goodness of the creation found in it, but neither would it indiscriminately embrace the culture, for to do so is a failure to appreciate the distorting effects of sin that is present in all aspects of life.  This Christian school would explore all aspects of creation, including culture, and celebrate the creational goodness that we find there, but it would also train students to discern evil, not just “out there”—where it certainly is, but also inside our most intimate circles and within ourselves.

Not all Christian schools are the same. Some exist to escape the evils of the world. Others simply add a Christian veneer to a *neutral* curriculum. Still others accept Christ as Lord of all aspects of school life. Click To Tweet

Holistic Christian Education

It’s not just daily devotions, weekly chapels and Bible classes that make a Christian school.  Neither is the Christian content in the curriculum the full picture.  All aspects of the school fall under the Lordship of Christ: our understanding and use of technology, our approach to learning assistance and special education, the way discipline is carried out, how budgets are finalized and decisions about the programs we offer.

Human experience in this world cannot simply be divided up between good and evil where we, as Hamlet says, “Throw away the worser part of it, and live the purer with the other half.” Nor can we live as if Christ is something we can add to the surface of culture like icing on a cake.  Rather, Christ’s Lordship is at the core of every aspect of life—and this would include the way we educate our children.

Rather than isolating children, as the guest pastor supposed, a Christian education is about preparing students to meaningfully engage the world with a full understanding of the gospel.

Read: Why Christian Education? (Part 2): Three Objections to Christian School

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