[This post is part of the Ethics of Contextualization series]
From the outset, I just want to make sure you don’t misconstrue this post as an attack on Perry Noble’s character. He just happens to provide a clear cut example of the problem I’d like to address. I’m not thoroughly familiar with his ministry or his church, but he strikes me a possessing a zeal that is not according to knowledge. I could be wrong, but that’s my first impression after hearing him speak in this video.
In that video, Noble discusses his choice to use AC/DC’s Highway to Hell as prelude music for an Easter service. While a dated event, you can see in the video that Noble still ardently defended his choice on the grounds that it was “redeemed” because at least one person felt that God was getting his attention through the music and subsequently professed faith in Christ. A red herring in this discussion is whether or not Noble lied about his reasoning in The Elephant Room video (see this for videos and this for a rebuttal). Let’s just charitably assume that his two explanations (one to his church, and one to the other pastors at The Elephant Room) are reconcilable and that the latter is typical of how he thinks of the task of contextualization. I think he is well-intentioned and believes he is thinking and acting biblically.
I am just questioning whether he’s right or not.
For any kind of ethical action, you need to evaluate it by three things:
- The intended goal (situational end desired by the action)
- The person’s motivation (their reasoning behind the action)
- An objective standard of right and wrong (the norm by which you evaluate the action)
Those familiar with John Frame’s triperspectivalism will recognize this tri-fold parsing of ethics (in order they are the situational, existential, and normative perspectives on ethics respectively). He derived it from Cornelius Van Til, who in turn derived it from the Westminster Confession of Faith, the authors of which in turn derived the idea from Scripture (I’ll come back to this in a future post).
According to Noble’s own explanation in a sermon, they choose Highway to Hell for the goal of pissing off religious people. At the Elephant Room, he spends more time fleshing out the motivation, which was to build a bridge to the un-churched to then preach the Gospel, as well as the additional goal of seeing the lost saved. I think he flirts with contradiction, but you can have more than one goal for a specific action (and we already decided not to chase that rabbit). For the sake of continuing the argument, let’s assume his motivation and goals were on track.
What he overlooks is whether or not the performance of the song itself is an acceptable action, regardless of the end goal or motivations. Noble argues ardently, yet incoherently, that God “redeemed” the use of Highway to Hell because at least one person felt that God grabbed their attention through that song, and they later professed faith in Christ. The song was “redeemed” because now that guy thinks of his salvation experience whenever he hears Highway to Hell. The assumption is that the end justifies, or redeems, the means.
This is incoherent for at least the reason that to “redeem” something is to buy it back from slave market and set it free. It is to take something from a sin-driven use and move it to a God glorifying use. When God redeems us, he buys us back from slavery to sin in order to serve our original purpose of glorifying him and enjoying his presence forever. To “redeem” an action or activity implies that the thing is rightfully appropriate for Christians and has been tainted by the world. You are in essence, “buying it back” for its rightful use, glorifying God. The song Highway to Hell can’t itself be redeemed since the meaning of the song still remains when it is used for different ends. In other words, the song celebrates going to hell. Putting it to a different use doesn’t erase what the song means.
This would imply that, in determining whether a course of action is appropriate, the content of the means is just as much a factor as the goal and the motivation is. As Matt Chandler brings up in the video, a guy at the Village came to Christ because his mom died in a car accident but there are currently no plans to start that particular ministry. Someone may come to Christ while watching a porn (that’s a stretch I know) but that wouldn’t justify the activity of either making or enjoying pornography.
To use a biblical example, while Jesus’ death and resurrection achieved the most glorious end possible, that end does not justify the behavior of Judas, the Sanhedrin, the Roman soldiers or anyone else who sinned in order to get Christ on the cross. And if the best end possible (securing the salvation of the elect and atoning for the sin of the world) cannot justify or redeem sinful actions, then what what is to be said about the choice of using a song celebrating hell to intro the celebration of Easter?
It says that the content of our act can be atoned for, but not necessarily redeemed or justified if that action itself was wrong. Atonement refers to covering an offense. In Noble’s case, perhaps God atoned for his song choice by bringing someone to faith in spite of it rather than through it. Love covers a multitude of sins and I think often God brings about glorious ends in the face of our poor choices of contextualized means. While Noble mistakenly believes that God was glorified through their song choice (think about that for a minute and let it sink in), it actually flies in the face of Scripture’s teaching on what brings glory to God. It is also rather presumptuous to assume that because something good came of our choices that automatically “redeems” and “justifies” our actions. It may atone for our sinful choices, but it doesn’t make them right.
So, can a song celebrating going to hell be “redeemed”? It can be atoned for, but it certainly cannot be justified or redeemed, at least in the biblical sense of either of those words. While the band was performing the song, even though it was not their motivation, nor their goal, the action of playing that song was celebrating going to hell. In other words, while the intention of the action was not to celebrate hell, the meaning of the action is still tethered to the fact that you are singing a song celebrating hell. So, in the name of contextualization and building a bridge to people bound to hell (and/or pissing off religious people), Noble’s church chose to start off a service that is supposed to celebrate the Gospel, by celebrating the anti-Gospel. That’s not just building a bridge, that’s crossing it and playing the part in hopes of showing the unsaved you know what’s up so that maybe they’ll wanna come check things out on your side of the bridge.
That, hopefully we can all agree on, is a total contextualization fail.