Gray Matters: Navigating The Space Between Legalism and Liberty

December 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

9780801014741Brett McCracken, Gray Matters: Navigating The Space Between Legalism and Liberty. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, August, 2013. 272 pp. Paperback, $14.99

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Brett McCracken is a L.A. based journalist. His previous book, Hipster Christianity, I’ve interacted with elsewhere. Here he tackles this big issues 20-somethings wrestle with when it comes to cultural consumption. These four horsemen of are not surprisingly: food, music, movies, alcohol. Each of these gets a part of the book devoted to it, and for the most even space treatment (about 50 pages per part, less for food, more for music, movies, and alcohol not surprisingly).

Chapters 1 and 2 comprise the eating section. The first gives a kind of short biblical theology of food and eating, while the second explains where we go right and wrong in our eating habits. Central to the discussion is the “foodie,” which is someone who is really into food, not in terms of quantity (that’s a glutton), but in terms of quality. They relish all the different aspects that go into exquisite food and are frequently in search of phenomenal eateries and experiences. McCracken is a self-confessed foodie, and are many of his friends (33), so much of his advice hits that particular crowd more so than others. It also in generally undercuts people who are pretentious about what they eat (or more often don’t eat) and gives general advice for how to eat to the glory of God.

The next three sections are perhaps more in the controversial wheelhouse of American evangelicalism, and in progressive order of offensiveness. First, McCracken devotes 3 chapters to music. The first gives a kind of short history of Christians and “the devil’s music” (chapter 3), the second about the limits of what a Christian should (or should not) listen to (chapter 4), and the last is a short course in music appreciation (chapter 5).

The next section on movies follows a very similar trajectory to the section on music. First we get a brief history of Christians and the movies (chapter 6). Then, questions about where we draw the line when it comes to the movies we watch (chapter 7), before a final chapter on how to appreciate movies (chapter 8). I thought McCracken’s advice on how to determine the line in what movies you watch is helpful, though I would imagine many readers will feel he draws the line pretty far out there. The fact that he thought it might be ok to watch Salo (though he only made it a third of the way through before wisely ejecting it) will probably be disconcerting to any readers who know anything about that movie or the book it was based on (and if you don’t know, please don’t Google it, just consider ignorance bliss on this one. Trust me.) In general though, McCracken wisely points out that the line is different for everyone (though some things are clearly beyond for everyone), and that each of us, within the sphere of our Christian liberty, have the obligation to put some thought into our cultural consumption. The alternative is to disengage your mind and just draw an arbitrary line between what you’ll watch and what you won’t. And nobody wants that (except for legalistic fundies).

The final section saves the best for last and McCracken jumps into the fray of Christian discussions on the use of alcohol. Different than the earlier sections (or at least the two), McCracken starts with a chapter briefly surveying the biblical teaching on intoxicating beverages. This provides some initial guardrails for him to move into a chapter on the history of Christians and alcohol (chapter 10). The final chapter discusses the godly enjoyment of alcohol and McCracken gives his two cents on where, when, and how that can be done. He briefly touches on the potential godly enjoyment of tobacco products, but only in a sidebar. He notes though that much of the advice he gives regarding alcohol applies to tobacco as well. One key here is that your goal should be to “enjoy” not “use” these products. In other words, if you’re drinking or smoking in order to gain some other end goal, you’re potentially on the road to abuse. Enjoying in community and in moderation heads off many of the concerns raised against both products (though clearly not all of them).

Much of the book is autobiographical. You can tell that McCracken is writing to give young people wisdom on how they consume these cultural goods, but he is also writing about things that he really enjoys as well. As such, there are numerous sidebars or interludes that list things like McCracken’s food memories (48), transcendent music moments (112), select comments he received on his film reviews (151), and his summer of the pub (202). This kind of subjective intervention into the book will probably appeal to McCracken’s target audience (I find this kind of thing interesting), but might be a turnoff to older readers. Maybe not, since if nothing else it gives you an insight into how a now 30-something guy who grew up in a Christian home navigated the world of Christian college and beyond during a period of changing social mores in the evangelical world. It has value then as a sociological study, not just a guidebook for making ethical choices in the “gray areas” of cultural consumption.

On the whole, I think McCracken’s book is a valuable as a discussion starter, not as a final word on any of the subjects. It is a great book for introducing worldview thinking on cultural consumption in four key areas. For millennials, who seem like the target demographic and who probably haven’t put too much thought into how eat, listen, and watch to the glory of God, this is a good place to start the thinking process. Personally, I found much of McCracken’s advice on drawing lines simplistic, though not completely without merit. For instance, consider his five considerations for where to draw the line in what movies you will or will not watch:

  • What is your weakness?
  • What are the weaknesses in your community?
  • Is it beneficial?
  • Has the filmmaker earned the right?
  • Have you prayed about it?

All of these are good questions to ask, but they’re certainly not exhaustive (and I don’t think McCracken intends them to be). When it comes to a specific film, you should probably ask additional questions like “Why do I want to watch this?” and perhaps “Who would I be uncomfortable watching this movie with?” The first sheds light on motivational concerns, the latter on whether you might violating your conscience and actually making a bad choice.

I don’t think McCracken would quibble with questions like that, so really I’m just illustrating how his work can be a starting point that is expanded in actual discussion with other people. I think that’s what he would want, and is probably a good use of his book (and keeping with his emphasis on the importance of community that is evident throughout). I found the book interesting and somewhat helpful, but it seemed more geared toward people who have put less thought into these topics than I have. It would be a great resource for a parent-teenager dialogue, and especially a college students to small group leader dialogue as well.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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