Gray is the new orange, or the new pink, or the new black. It is the explicit color of the hour.
However, this particular shade of gray is explicit in a different provocative way.
Rather than undulating toward black or white topics, Brett McCracken addresses four points of contention that are inherently ambiguous in his soon to be released Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty.
McCracken uses seven themes – mission, stewardship, community, worship, taste, discernment, and moderation – as lenses by which Christians should re-frame their perspective over four “gray matters.” The book’s aim is that we, as believers in the Christ, would become wiser consumers of food, music, movies, and alcohol.
It was a pleasant surprise for me to see “Food” as the first point of discussion. For far too long the church has focused on the Pauline sin lists (e.g. Gal. 5:19-21) while ignoring food, our daily subsistence, as a matter to be preached upon.
Up until recently the United States was the fattest nation in our half of the world. The fattest. Not fastest. Jamaica has that title. Mexico recently grabbed that weighty (<-Ha!) crown. No doubt this unhealthy trend was one reason McCracken had food be the introductory topic of his book.
There is, however, much more to food than health. Health is merely a facet of the wonderful jewel God created in food. Food is a means to see our creator more clearly, an avenue that community is built by, and with practice using a plethora of available ingredients a delicacy to be enjoyed in worship of an Almighty God.
McCracken has a volume of recommendations throughout his book, but one of my favorites is his “Remembering” portions in which he recalls meals that left him an indelible impression. My meal of remembering took place 4 years ago at an old saloon in Western Oregon. I ordered a prime-rib with a side of grilled asparagus with sea salt and garlic red potatoes. The prime-rib was served with a fork. When I asked for a knife the waiter said, “You don’t need one.” And he was right! The fork sliced through the meat with ease; the meat melted in my mouth. It was absolutely transcendent. God blessed me with that meal. It was a taste of heaven!
When I ask people what their hobbies or interests are more often than not, ambiguous the answer may be, they reply, “Music.” Music brings meaning and purpose to people. Music begets a rhythm for life. A favorite song can carry us through our highs and lows. Even hearing a favorite song in a foreign land will move our heart and mind back to the time and place we were impacted by it’s melodies.
McCracken walks through the history of Christian dissension over pop-music in America from it’s roots in jazz to the anthem riffs of modern rock. Popular music has been a point of contention among Christians for decades.
He cracks a joke about the youth groups, one of which I was a part of, that built bonfires to set ablaze the pagan paraphernalia. I did re-buy those Incubus and Linkin Park albums. They were good. It makes me wish my parents, youth pastor, and Sunday school teacher had read this book back in 1999.
Aside from the Psalms any argument over what music is or isn’t Christian can’t be answered this side of heaven. The question that should be asked about music is, “Does it draw me to God?” If it is destructive, uncreative, inflammatory, and profane we may choose to avoid it. But there is, as McCracken suggests, music that is composed by people who might not worship Jehovah God that can pull us deeper into love with God. Certainly Sigur Ros’ Takk is one album that, though the lyrics are seemingly jibberish, takes my spirit further toward devotion of Him.
McCracken admonishes us to feel and think about the way music speaks to us because it is a gift from God. Even music that isn’t played by your Sunday morning worship team. He lists 19 “Secular” songs with Sacred Potential that I highly recommend you listen to while reading this section.
Movies are a national past-time for my generation. Long before Netflix or On Demand hit our T.V. sets going to the movies was THE thing to do on Friday night. Save your pennies fellas because Friday night, with your lady, was the time to splurge on pop-corn, coke, and two tickets the newest blockbuster to hit the silver screen.
The great movies Hollywood has produced has also brought along an abundance of moral dilemmas the Christian community must address. McCracken says we must approach movies with five considerations in mind. The first is, “What is your weakness?” If there is a struggle with nudity, then we need to be honest with ourselves and avoid films with it. The second question is, “What are the weaknesses in you community?” Using Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians we should not make one another stumble, being conscious of other’s consciences. The third question asks, “Is it beneficial?” While a film could be enjoyable does not make it a “must see.” Doing the appropriate homework on a review site can help us make the right decision. We are called to be IN, not OF the world. The fourth question asks, “Has the filmmaker earned the right?” While a film can ask good philosophical questions, does it cross the line of morality to unnecessarily prove a point? That might be a good qualifying question. The final question we should ask is, “Have you prayed about it?” Simply put, we should come to God first to hear His direction and be guided by His Spirit regarding all gray matters.*”Watching” isn’t simply about movies, but also television. There are many quality television shows that tell wonderfully engaging stories. We would be amiss to not do our due diligence to find one that we can watch. I am a fan of The Office, Community, Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, and occasionally Mad Men. I cannot recommend all of these to you, but for me and my wife, they fit the mold for creative stories we can connect with. There are times we hit fast-forward to avoid unnecessary sexuality, but skipping them hasn’t hindered our viewing experience. I ashamedly admit I was watching “The Bachelorette” while writing this. Sorry Brett.*
Certainly the most controversial portion of this book, and in American Christian history, the subject of alcohol elicits a few contrasting responses.
Response A: Don’t touch it. Don’t look at it. Don’t think about it.
Response B: Drink too much. Drink too often. Drink. It. Up.
Response C: Moderation and balance. In all things.
The historical attitude has been to swing far toward Response A or B, yet there is a young generation of believers beginning to preach moderation as the legitimate viewpoint. Scripturally, the only wrong response is B. Drunkenness is repeatedly listed as a sin. It is a gateway sin that, by weakened inhibitions, leads us to say or do things we would never do in a sober frame of mind. When having ONE drink leads to MANY sin is prevalent. As Christ followers if we do not have self control then abstinence is the best course of action.
However, as McCracken writes, “beer is a gift,” to be received with thanksgiving in the community of believers with similar strength of conscience. As I wrote this blog I consumed a delicious shandy in a frosted glass. The sun was setting and the crisp ale’s hint of lemon sealed the books on my palate and day. I drank one. Only one. I do not drink in the presence of others who do not drink. I do not gloat my liberty in front of non-drinkers, as I would hope a non-drinker would not boast of their liberty, to not drink, over me. I rejoiced in the vivacious flavors dancing among my taste buds with each successive drink. I praise God for making hops, barley, lemon, the fermentation process, and men who unraveled and perfected the mystery of brewing.
Brett admits his writing on the topic is not exhaustive, but relieves the reader of any serious research by listing numerous books to dive deeper into the subject of Christian drinking. It is a subject that requires our deepest thoughts and prayers to answer how we might properly embrace or renounce alcohol for personal use.
Application: Christian Consumers
Gray Matters is a remarkable exploration of valleys many books do not address. Rather than unearth the pearl for us, McCracken exposes our inner-being to a choice. An open ended choice. We may choose to live by law or license but, in the end, we may find our decision settle in the bed-rock of equilibrium. McCracken pens in the final chapter,
“There is a middle ground. It’s not a place of lukewarm compromise. It’s a hard but rewarding place to be: settled in a nonreactionary mode of living where it’s simply about being a faithful disciple of Christ. It’s a place of being openminded about culture but also willing to say no to things. It’s a place of thoughtfulness and restraint, where what we do and why is more complicated than a list of moralistic rules and more coherent than the ‘anything goes’ alternative.”
My hope is that you will pick up this book with a group of friends and journey through these topics exploring what it means for each one of you, personally. That you will go to the uncharted waters and unknown lands of your spirit to uncover a beautiful jewel to live by. And who knows…maybe Brett McCracken will offer a study guide to go with it!
— Brett McCracken (@brettmccracken) July 27, 2013
Remember, friends, all things in moderation. All things.
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Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and has writtenfor The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today,Relevant, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas and Conversantlife.com. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches & conferences.