Are you a moralist?
If so, you are likely the sort of person who bleeps cuss words, or skips sex scenes in movies. You don’t drink alcohol or smoke. You don’t buy R rated movies.
This misses the point. Aside from its inconsistency (you probably are ok with violence, greed, and divorce in movies), it fails to understand the purpose of morality. Why should I not have sex before marriage? Because the Bible forbids it? That’s not an answer. Why does the Bible forbid it? It is forbidden because having sex before marriage means you are joined to someone with whom you have not made a commitment before God to love and protect for the rest of your life. It creates a spiritual, emotional, and physical bond, and then treats that bond like it is worth little. This is dehumanizing.
That’s what all morality is about. Showing us what is dehumanizing. Morality is not about the rules or the taboos.
Which brings us back to my question. Are you a moralist? This is an important question. If the answer is yes, it means you care about following rules for their own sake. More to the point, however, is that you consider other people following the rules to be very important as well. Indeed, you might seek to influence society in such a way so that your conception of morality is imposed so that everyone can obey the rules.
I don’t think you should be a moralist. I think you should live morally—not for the sake of rules but empowered by the Holy Spirit so that you are conformed into the new humanity that was inaugurated by Jesus—but I don’t think you should try to impose your morality. Imposing your morality is oppressive and a form of dehumanization itself. Like the death penalty for sodomy in Uganda. Or the prohibition of alcohol in the United States.
Let’s go a bit further. I don’t think you should be a moralist. I also think that you should find value in those cultural objects which, themselves, showcase immorality. And I don’t mean moralizing them. Moralizing them bastardizes them and robs them of their inherent worth. It is a form of oppression. Simply watching a movie, taking the parts which are about people helping each other, and doing away with the parts about people cheating each other is naïve and ignorant of the way plot works. It threatens the integrity of the piece. Christians cannot merely divide up secular works into parts they like and parts they don’t like.
Secular art, like anything, needs to be evaluated on its own terms. What I don’t mean is not picking apart art based on ideological grounds (like Feminism or Marxism or Christianity) I mean that Christians cannot merely evaluate a piece of art by how well it moralizes. Nor do I think Christians should create such moralistic art, mostly because the results are, shall we say, less than stellar. The reason is, of course, because they aren’t art. Just propaganda. Just look at “Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof,” “Left Behind,” Bob Carlisle, and Kirk Cameron, but that is beside the point.
In a post a while ago I talked about the notion of meat sacrificed to idols. I won’t repeat everything here that I said there, but I will say this: Paul is explicit. He says, quite clearly, that you can knowingly consume the meat sacrificed to idols if, by doing so, you are giving thanks to God. If, that is, you find the resurrection, redemptive, or beautiful meaning in the meat. All meat, after all, is God’s meat. The same is true with artifacts of art. All art, so long as it is true to human experience, is God’s art. I don’t mean, of course, moralizing the art. I do mean, though, meeting art on its terms and discovering what insights it has into the human condition without worrying too much that it doesn’t meet your moral standards.
What brought this on, you might ask? Well, here’s the deal: I’m a huge John Mayer fan (I know some of my music snob friends are not. They’re wrong, but that’s ok). He has a song entitled: “Your Body is a Wonderland.” When I am listening to John Mayer with a certain group of people, we always skip this song because it is “inappropriate” because it is about sex, presumably outside of marriage. I get that. It’s fornication. But its also beautiful. The poetry of the song is wonderful. A true sense of beauty and appreciation and love for one’s lover is communicated very well in non-tacky language. It is a gentle and true depiction of love between two people showcased in sexual intimacy. Now, I suppose I could approach this song in a few ways:1. I could say, “John. Look. Stop fornicating. True love waits.” Somehow I feel like that is antithetical to the point John Mayer is making.
2. I could skip the song and never listen to it because I don’t want to listen to a glorification of fornication since I am supposed to be pure. Somehow I think this misses the integrity of the piece as well.
3. I could find the beauty in the song, realize that Mayer is not a Christian and doesn’t claim to be, appreciate his point of view and his insights, affirm the talent and craftsmanship, and still manage to not have sex before I’m married. I vote for this option.
This is but one example. Other examples exist as well. I’m a fan of Eminem’s music. I like a lot of underground rap. The sex scene in 8 Mile is not gratuitous, it is actually necessary for understanding the integrity of the movie. I get it if you yourself would be tempted to sin because you see or hear something that would be sinful for you to do. Paul says that you are the weaker brother, and we should work to preserve your virtue. But, the point remains: God is operative and present in unique, beautiful, and dynamic ways outside of our moralistic bubble. I, for one, am going to stop skipping “Your Body is a Wonderland” anymore when it starts to play.