Friendly Racism

I was asked to speak about racism again, this time for an audience of South African Christian teenagers. I decided to base it on some excellent resources that I came across recently on the subject of covert prejudices. The following is the text of my speech, plus some of the key slides. I think it is a particularly important topic, given South Africa’s growing racial tensions, white supremacists in the USA, anti-immigration movements, the All Lives Matter movement, and Donald Trump in his totality. Most of us agree that racism is wrong, but most of us are also unaware of the degree to which small, seemingly-benign biases colour our vision.

(Note that for ease of reference, I refer only to black and white race groups. It is admittedly clumsy, and I mean no offence either by those terms or by the exclusion of any groups that don’t identify as either.)

* * * * * * * *

There are any number of illustrations that I could give from the last 400 years of our nation’s history that would illustrate how heavy a role racism plays in our pasts. I was going to choose the example of a British guidebook that described the inhabitants of this country as:

Unwilling to work and unable to think, stupid, with no mental resources whatsoever. They were cowardly, devious and cruel to animals. They are active only in mischief; and crimes against morality meet with applause if in the end they are successful. (Barrow’s travels, Paraphrase)

Because in this case their racism was directed against the Afrikaner, which goes to show that hatred moves around in circles, looking for a new target, and that our problems as a country in this regard are likely to be far from over.

But I returned to a more recent example, the famous case of Matthew Theunissen who was very upset about the sports’ minister’s ban on international sporting events in 2016 and he said this:

(For non-South-African readers, the ‘K’ word is the most violently racist word we have.) I’m sorry if this is a bit shocking, but this is a good example, because Matt T is a born-free—he was born after the end of Apartheid—he lived in wealthy Noordhoek, and he has a Master’s degree. He was not alive in the Apartheid system, he’s not disadvantaged under the new system, and he is not stupid. How can he still have this much of the Old South Africa in him?

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Grudem’s Strange Support for Trump

I frequently urge our theology students here in Cape Town to be willing to disagree with the celebrated commentators and theologians whom they read, because our natural state is to revere those scholars who have major published works and who have become household names, and defer to them as authorities instead of testing what they say.

It was surprising (on one level) to see one such celebrated scholar coming out in support of Donald Trump this week. Wayne Grudem is well known here for his accessible Systematic Theology, and for partnering with John Piper on the less-good Biblical Manhood and Womanhood stuff. But he has ably demonstrated his human fallibility by radically over-correcting the anti-Trump sentiment that he detects among some of his peers. His article featured on Town Hall is an attempt at an ethical argument in favour of Trump, but it is deeply disappointing on several levels.

I must say up front that I am not American, not particularly knowledgeable about politics or economics, and I do not have much expertise when it comes to speaking about Trump or Clinton. And disdain for Trump is in no way to be read as support for Hillary. Right at the start of the primaries I joked at how ridiculous it would be if the Americans had to choose between these two arch-demons, and now a year later or so (and one Brexit under the belt), here we are. Democracy this year keeps delivering the theatre of the absurd.

Christian or Republican? Pick one

As an outsider to American culture, I feel I am at least well placed to see what is harder to recognise from the inside, and one seemingly regular problem in the States, and a pervasive one in Grudem’s article, is the unfortunate confusion of Republicanism and Christianity.

For example, Grudem speaks as though it is Christian duty to support big business over big government, to affirm that government spending on healthcare is bad and that government spending on America’s big military is good. These are big Republican issues, but they seem to me to be preferences and not Christian issues.

It seems to me that Christians can support (well enough) several of the positions of either party as being compatible with their Christian faith. The Republicans can’t, it seems to me, keep claiming that all their preferences are the Christian ones, just because they are policies that are broadly thought of as conservative. And it is certainly true that Christians need to be Christians first and party-members second—it is not an article of the faith to be on the right wing.

Freedom

The second issue concerns freedom. His slippery-slope argument that Hillary would install ‘liberal activist judges’, who would then curtail freedom of speech and religion, promote more odious abortions laws etc.—if true—was the most persuasive reason for voting Trump (though Hillarophobia is still not an argument that Trump is a good candidate). He provided several anecdotes of tendencies in American society to vilify anyone for holding to religious or moral convictions that have recently become unpopular. If that is a fair assessment, it is worrying.

But his column is also angling for ‘Christian’ government (headed by Trump! Can you imagine that?) so that there can be prayer in schools, or on the football field before games, Grudem specifically adds, and other explicit government-backed promotions of Christianity in public.

I am confused as to why it is the government’s job to promote one religion to a people that clearly are not of homogeneous views on the matter. It’s all very well for Grudem when it is a ‘Christian’ party that stands to inherit the throne, but how would he feel if it were a Muslim party? Would he be advocating the government’s role in promoting respect for the name of God then, or would he be talking up the importance of pluralism and government sticking to secular policy and not meddling with religious freedom?

By all means advocate that Christians should be allowed to be Christian in public, but making non-Christians observe prayer times etc. seems like a wrong turn to me. That’s not religious freedom. It’s religious constraint of which you happen to approve.

Trump’s Promises

Perhaps the worst thing about Grudem’s article is its disingenuity. He is happy, it seems, to parrot Trump’s ludicrous campaign promises as though they were fait accompli, and to paint Clinton’s campaign as though she were Jezebel herself.

Trump is full of big promises and talks eagerly about the wonderful end product (America will be great again!), but has no political experience and rarely will be drawn on how he intends to reach these idyllic goals. And when he is, lest we forget, the solutions tend to be one part racism and one part nonsense. Ban all Muslims from the US. Build a wall on the Mexican border.

For an ethicist, Grudem is remarkably uncritical about this. In fact, he specifically approves of the idea that acts of terror and immigration policies are connected (“Trump has repeatedly promised that he will finally secure our borders, an urgent need to protect the nation from ever more terrorists and drug smugglers.”), and says things like this:

“Trump will not let China and Russia and Iran push us around anymore, as Obama has done, with Hillary Clinton’s support when she was secretary of state. If Trump is anything, he is tough as nails, and he won’t be bullied.”

Trump doesn’t seem tough to me, he seems insecure, but even granting this, how does one ‘get tough’ with China or Putin in constructive ways? Getting ‘tough’ with Al Qaida led to expensive and unpopular wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, and rather than resolving the tense anti-American atmosphere in the Middle East, we now have yet another anti-West group in Isis. But Grudem remains convinced that Trump knows the answer; the answer is to defeat them:

“Trump has pledged to aggressively attack and utterly defeat ISIS”.

That’s it. No plan (but for another implied ‘big push’); just a declaration of the nearly impossible end result.

Bravo

The fact that Trump’s policies often represent a convenient about-turn on what he has claimed in the past, and the idea that he was motivated to run because of his concern for America’s poor, and not because he was mercilessly humiliated at more than one White House correspondent’s dinner, these are things for which Grudem also gives Trump a free pass.

Trump’s character

Grudem is aware that Trump is a man of weak character. He concedes:

“He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages.”

What I find odd is that, as a Christian, Grudem can see these as matters of little consequence. Leaving aside that marital unfaithfulness was enough evidence for Republicans that Mr Clinton was unfit for office, the Bible is witheringly critical of people who are proud and lovers of money. Pride and avarice are not uncommon in politicians, but Trump is the eager epitome of each of these things. This is a man who refuses to forget that the editor of Vanity Fair called him a “Short-fingered vulgarian” in 1988. Pride is not a small problem; it is a crippling danger in leadership, which is why it is telling that the greatest biblical leaders, especially Moses and Jesus (cf. Num. 12:3), were characterised as humble, and the wicked kings and Pharaohs are proud. The Bible repeatedly says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Grudem fails to mention how often Trump has been caught out as a liar, and he fails to mention dishonest and exploitative business ventures such as Trump University in which he made clear promises about the quality of the programmes on offer that were never kept.

To call him a “good candidate with flaws” is a galling whitewash. Speaking of whitewashing…

“On the other hand, I think some of the accusations hurled against him are unjustified. His many years of business conduct show that he is not racist or anti-(legal) immigrant or anti-Semitic or misogynistic – I think these are unjust magnifications by a hostile press exaggerating some careless statements he has made.”

Mr Grudem, if he says bigoted things in unguarded moments, it pretty much means he’s a bigot.

Clear argument fallacies

And finally, the reasons given why Trump is good in spite of all appearances to the contrary are often remarkably devoid of critical thinking. Grudem says:

“Many who have known him personally speak highly of his kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity.”

Dave Barry answered this one several years ago:

Dave-Barry

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person. Or as Jesus put it: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). Someone who is able to be pleasant to those to whom he has an interest in being pleasant is not a remarkable person. It is the person who is able to be kind and generous to those who are opposed to them who is genuinely praiseworthy. Trump is clearly and publicly not that guy.

Grudem also says,

“These American citizens recognize that Trump has built a business career on listening to experts, solving problems, and getting things done. They realize that Trump didn’t earn $4 billion by being stupid, and their instinct says that he might be exactly the right person to solve some of the biggest problems in a nation that has for too long been headed in the wrong direction and stuck in political gridlock.”

I am again surprised that Grudem confuses being rich with having virtue and competence. Apart from anything else, Trump  earned $4b by inheriting it from his dad, if I am not mistaken. But even if he is good at making money, there is no reason to expect that it is a transferable skill, or that Trump is reliable in other areas. Convincing a fellow capitalist that you can make them lots of money and convincing Iran not to build nukes have very little in common. (Also, if riches and problem solving make Trump a good candidate, why not Pablo Escobar?)

As for the comment about political gridlock, that problem seems to me to be the result of the long-standing refusal of Republicans and Democrats to work together, largely, it seems, because the rhetoric that one side uses of the other (as this column typifies) is routinely full of prejudiced, fallacious views of the other’s position. I expected that Grudem would show his opponents the charity of representing them fairly, but he uses the same polarising, us-and-them tactics that he thinks Donald Trump will fix.

The only way that Trump will fix political gridlock, and this really is a reason to vote for him, is that surely this time Republicans and Democrats together will be united in undermining their president. Already some Republican leaders have admitted that they will vote Democrat, because sometimes the party has to come second.

Grudem argues in his column that some Republican Christians “may feel it is easier just to stay away from this messy Trump-Clinton election, and perhaps not even vote. But the teachings of Scripture do not allow us to escape moral responsibility by saying that we decided to do nothing.” He is incorrect that not voting is the same as doing nothing. Not voting can also be a statement that the system that produced Donald Trump as a viable candidate is terminally ill. It is a statement of protest against the prejudicial propaganda that delights more in spoiling the opponent than listening to them and that has led to the political gridlock that he mentions.

It is disappointing that Grudem has encouraged Christian support for Trump, not because Christians should rather support Hillary, but because Christians should represent integrity and love for their enemies, and they can’t do that by supporting a ‘Christian’ candidate of patently anti-Christian character, and they can’t do that by perpetuating the divisive rhetoric that has led to the sorry state of affairs that America seems to be in. In my opinion, an article about the Christian vote in the upcoming election should rather be characterised by mourning and much searching of heart.

 

*****

I have subsequently been linked to an article that fittingly does just that. It is well worth reading: http://samuelwhitefield.com/1811/four-issues-to-consider-before-you-vote-trump-what-is-really-at-stake

Californian ‘Pastor’ on Florida Massacre

In the news today, a Californian ‘pastor’ found his biggest ever audience after his message about the attack on the gay club in Florida went global.

In his message, he called for ‘normal people’ to stand up against wickedness—a call that I think I ought to answer.

He also claimed that the uproar about his message is an attack on free speech, but this is incorrect. Free speech encourages the testing of ideas in the market of public opinion; it is the same free speech that allows him to say such things that also allows the rest of us to respond with vitriol and abhorrence—a response to which I think I would like to add.

The substance of his message is that Romans 1 identifies homosexuals as wicked and deserving of death, and thus we should not mourn at the death of 50 ‘sodomites’, but should see it as ‘great’. We should rather mourn that someone didn’t ‘finish the job’.

Somehow he also manages to claim that the Bible says that all homosexuals are predators and pedophiles, which it doesn’t, and he encourages his listeners to find the verse where Paul says that the wicked ‘receive in themselves the due penalty for their perversion’, and next to it write ‘AIDS’.

You can watch the nauseating highlights package here.

There is so much wrong with what that man says that I imagine that most of us think it is self-evident from a Christian perspective. Yet this is an occasion on which I think it should not go without saying. So let me make a few corrections first of the theory:

  • None of what that man says is ‘the word of God’, as he claims. Preachers throw that phrase around far too much. The Bible may well be the word of God, but interpretation of it is the word of man. Stop pinning the idiotic mess of an interpretation that you’ve made on God.
  • Homosexuality may well be a sin, according to the Bible, but look more carefully at what Romans 1 is saying. Paul gives dual realms in which rebellion against God leads to debasement: the first is bodily (1:24) and the example given is of homosexuality (for reasons not worth going into now). The second realm is in the mind (1:28) and note what expressions of debasement it leads to: the full gamut from murder to gossip, slander and disobedience to one’s parents. It is the end of these people that is death (1:32).

So according to the argument of the text that this ‘pastor’ claims to be using, sin is idolatry (the rejection of God for substitutes); it expresses itself in various ways, including covetousness and gossip; and everyone who sins has a death penalty over them. So if we’re to rejoice at the death of the homosexual, then we must rejoice also at the death of the nice gossipy old lady who sits in church every week.

And indeed, if slander is among these crimes worthy of death, what must be done with the man who slanders homosexuals by claiming that they are all predators and pedophiles?

Let’s take further issue with the manner of that man’s sermon. Leaving aside his slander, how is it that one can read the Bible and still be arrogant towards those who sin? Has he not realised (if he has indeed been forgiven) the magnitude of his own debt from which he has been released? Perhaps God will spare him that penalty of death, but does he deserve it any less?

Oddly, in spite of choosing a text from this section, he has failed to understand the overall (and very obvious) point of Romans 1-3, namely, that there is no one who is righteous before God, but that everyone is under the penalty of death—even the self-righteous law-keeper who delights in condemning the sins of the outsider (Romans 2:1-24).

Listen to what Paul says about homosexuality elsewhere:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1Corinthians 6:9-11)

It’s all very well railing on the ‘sinner’ deserving death, but if Christianity is about one thing, it’s about seeing oneself in that hopeless position, not railing on the outsider.

In fact, Paul makes this explicit just a chapter earlier. It is often said that Christians should not judge, but Paul disagrees. We should judge, he says. Only we should judge those within the church. Observe:

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of [Christian] if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. (1Corinthians 5:11-13a)

I wish Christians would put this verse on a fridge-magnet. Why do we never hear  fiery evangelical sermons on this subject? Perhaps Verity Baptist Church can consider this passage for their next sermon series? The sinner that the church should be interested in judging and expelling is this revolting pastor. God will determine what is to be done to those on the outside.

Homosexuality is regarded as a sin in the Bible, but the same Bible tells us to love the sinner and mourn for those who die far from God. Anyone who thinks that God approves of their hate best beware:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

 

White South Africa and Racism Presentation

Speaking about racism is a little daunting, because it personally took me a long time to recognise my own racism—and I like to think of myself as an introspective person. My attempts in the past to convince fellow white South Africans that we have a racism problem have not gone too well—we don’t see it, and we do our best to avoid seeing it.

It is almost as if we have amnesia about Apartheid—none of us approved of it, none of us were really influenced by it, and it was more than 20 years ago; haven’t we all got over it by now?

So having to try to persuade an audience (in 10 minutes or less) that our own racism is something we need to take seriously seemed a difficult task.

But then there was Matthew Theunissen.

Matthew Theunissen is practically a born-free. He was born in ’92 or ’93, I think. He went to a small private school with pupils of all races. He is privileged enough to have achieved two masters’ degrees, and in spite of being unemployed, he is able to live in the pretty middle-class suburb of Noordhoek. He has no reason to be racist or angry.

Matthew Theunissen recently went on FaceBook to let the world know that he thinks of the present government in the most racist and vulgar terms possible. There is nothing he could have said of a racial nature to be more hurtful to black South Africans. Why? Because the minister dared to touch his love for sport.

But then he did a beautiful thing. Seeing the response to his racism blow up to monstrous proportions, he went on a radio show to apologise. He heartily agreed with the interviewer that people who are not racists do not say such words—that it doesn’t even occur to a non-racist to use this language—and then with almost his next breath, he proceeded to insist that he is not actually racist.

Why is it that—even when there is indisputable evidence of it—almost no one can admit to being a racist? Why could even Matthew Theunissen not bring himself to say, “I am racist”? It is as if he has an image of himself as a good person, and so doing something deliberately awful, as he did, must be accidental—some strange intrusion into his character—but not who he really is. Even when his racism is plain to see, he wasn’t able to own it.

So perhaps the first reason why people don’t recognise their own racism is that we know that racism is bad—and being labelled a racist is a disaster—and we think better of ourselves. We’re not bad people; when we think or say racist things, it’s an exception to the rule, not really who we are.

The second reason why we I think we can’t own up to racism is that we think that racism must be accompanied by hatred, or hostility towards people of another race—it is something that you have to do. So if I were to ask you, “Are you racist?” many of you would answer ‘no’ on the grounds that you haven’t used the K word, or  assaulted a domestic worker, or whatever other prominent example from the media you might want to choose.

The problem is that racism is much more than just behaviour. On a social level, racism has more to do with how society is structured—the place that various race groups occupy in society. On a personal level, racism has more to do with our attitudes towards others—the place that members of various race groups occupy in our thoughts and feelings.

Racism is not active hostility; it is the passive assumption that whiteness is better, and that blackness implies some sort of moral or intellectual or social inferiority. Racism is not a matter of hate; it is a matter of prejudice.

The word ‘prejudice’ is made up of a prefix (pre-) that means ‘before; in advance’, and ‘judice’—which is the same root from which all of our judicial words in English come—is about judgement. ‘Prejudice’ was not originally a word that referred to hatred or unfair treatment, but merely to a pre-judgement—an opinion about someone that is formed on the basis of some superficial quality, and without reference to who they actually are or what they are like. So also, racism need only be this sort of superficial pre-judgement for it to be damaging.

One of the key moments for me, in which I realised that I was this kind of racist, happened only about 10 years ago. I was driving through Constantia heading to work, and I noticed a team of manual labourers working on the road. It may have been that one of the labourers was white, but one way or another, it occurred to me that I would have seen a white labourer as unusual, and working in some way below his station, whereas black labourers would be normal.

For the first time, I really understood how deeply that Apartheid way of seeing the world was ingrained in me. I didn’t act racist; I just realised that I saw a sort of rightness about black people occupying a lower station. I wasn’t violent, or angry—I had no ill-feeling towards anyone at all—but I did something that is at the heart of all evil behaviour—I put a different value on one person over another for completely arbitrary reasons. That makes me a racist at heart. Or, the label that I now prefer to use, I am a recovering racist.

Racism is not only a matter of what we do or say; it is an internal issue that has to do with how we see the order of society—it is the pre-judgement of someone’s worth or intelligence. It affects who we trust; who we employ to do jobs that require certain levels of responsibility or expertise; who we look to for advice or guidance.

So a racist is that lovely friendly mum at school who still thinks nothing of referring to an adult worker as ‘the girl’ or ‘the garden boy’.

Racism is what made the white American cashier—in a story I heard recently—refuse to take payment by cheque from a black woman right after taking a cheque payment from her mixed-race sister-in-law because she looked white.

Or if we use a sporting example to make Matthew Theunissen happy, racism is why white supporters grumbled about Alviro Petersen as a quota player (i.e. a player chosen to make up race quotas and not primarily on merit) when he was selected for the Proteas cricket team in 2006, even though he had broken several domestic batting records in the year leading up to his selection. Racism is why every under-performing black player will be dismissed as a quota selection, and why under-performing white players “should be given time to show their worth”.

Racism is why the murder of a white girl usually makes the headlines, and why the murder of a black girl almost never does.

Racism is not about hostility; it is a prejudice that affects the trust that we put in people, and the value that we place on their work or on their lives.

The Bible doesn’t use the concept of race very often, but it is certainly aware of the damage that prejudice does.

This is what James 2 says about favouritism:

“2:2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?…

He goes on: “8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

By pre-judging the worth of people on the basis of superficial things such as their skin or their wealth, James says that we have become judges with evil thoughts—that we have failed in our duty to love others.

So, to get back to Matt Theunissen—he had no good reason to be angry, and he isn’t some grizzled member of the broederbond who bought into decades of apartheid propaganda. He’s a normal white South African. He is also clearly racist, and yet he is the only one who can’t see it.

So what about you? Why do I want you to identify yourself with Matthew T? Racism is clearly harmful to our country, and when we fail even to recognise that we have a problem, we unconsciously blunder our way into causing more hurt and more division.

But even more importantly, racism is also a barometer of a deeper problem. Racism is a clear fact of our national past and our national present, but in spite of it being a fact, it is a problem that we almost universally are unable to acknowledge. If we can fail to judge ourselves enough to see racism, what other prejudice and corruption lives within us undetected?

If you’re not a Christian, one of the main reasons why you should look into it more carefully is that racism is not the only hidden corruption that we fail to acknowledge about ourselves. And the more accurately you see yourself, the more you will start to realise that we all are carrying damage and we need to be re-created from the inside out. This is a big part of what Jesus came to do.

If you start to look at your own inner life more carefully and honestly, I think a lot more of what Jesus said will start to make sense.

This has been adapted from a presentation given at St Stephen’s Church in Claremont, Cape Town, on 22 May 2016. Click here for my presentation and just the questions aimed at meClick here for unedited audio of all three presentations. 

Watch What You’re Watching

[This was published earlier this year in the Student YMCA’s The Good News Magazine].

If you’re anything like me, you’re counting the days until the cinematic release of Katy Perry’s new biopic, ‘Part of Me’, in 3D. Exciting times.

Having seen the TV promo, I could relate to Katy-and-siblings’ reminiscences about their upbringing – how their Christian parents wouldn’t allow them to eat Lucky Charms (because ‘lucky’ comes from ‘Lucifer’, the Devil), or to watch The Smurfs. Back home my family had that attitude to luck and Smurfs too.

Katy’s brother and sister aren’t able to hide just how nuts they think their parents were, and over-protectiveness seems not to have done dear Katy much good. It’s easy to mock people for fearing The Smurfs, but how nuts were they? Now a parent myself, I want to protect my kids from a lot of things in this world, including morning cartoons. I think I’ll let them use the internet unsupervised around the same time they get a driver’s licence.

But it’s not just the emotional scarring of our kids that we have to worry about. All Christians are called to be holy and our consumption of entertainment media can be a threat to our holiness. But how do we determine when exactly we’ve crossed a line?

The extremes

There are two extreme approaches that you could adopt.

Avoidance

The first is to completely avoid everything ‘worldly’, to completely remove yourself from non-Christian culture. Certain groups of monks and nuns have taken this as far as it can go, and the Amish are extreme in their own quirky way. Perhaps Katy’s folks could be classed as moderate avoiders.

People in this category seemingly have the support of the Bible behind them:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable… think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. (Ephesians 5:12)

If we’re supposed to think only pure thoughts and speak about only respectable things, it might mean that our entertainment choices are limited to Little House on the Prairie or movies starring Kirk Cameron.

But there are a number of problems with the avoidance strategy.

Incest, rape, sodomy, gruesome violence, death, deceit, child abuse, witchcraft. These are exactly the kinds of disgusting things that the Bible is full of, often in graphic detail. So when Paul says in Ephesians 5 that we must not even mention what people do in secret, he is also well aware that, among other horrors, the Bible mentions a husband cutting his dead wife into twelve chunks because men had gang-raped her to death, only after having been prevented from raping him. Whatever Paul means, it’s not that we are forbidden to think about and discuss sinful acts altogether, otherwise we would not be allowed to read the Bible.

Secondly, avoidance is virtually impossible to practice. It is easy to say ‘I won’t participate in anything too sexy or violent or vulgar,’ but how do you actually do that without being utterly arbitrary?

Let’s take dramatised violence for example. If one end of the continuum is kids playing The Three Little Pigs and the other end is, say, Ichi the Killer, how do we decide when we’ve crossed the line into morally corrupt territory? Is violence fine if there is no death, such as in the A-Team; or death but no blood, like in Narnia movies? Why?

Or what about nudity? Most find the nudity on the Sistine Chapel acceptable even for church, but nudity in movies wrong. Why?

So what about the other extreme? Can Christians completely immerse themselves in popular media?

Immersion

When we consume entertainment media we’re usually passive; and we’re just engaging with ideas: stories, lyrics, images. They aren’t even our ideas. Does it matter what ideas we engage with as long as we do the right thing?

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-32), Jesus teaches that even thoughts are open to judgment, because what we see can produce attitudes in us (such as lust) that are opposed to Godly relationships. Holiness is firstly an internal state before it ever becomes outward practice. So it does matter what we think and not merely what we do. Ideas have the power to influence our inner life, and that is as important to God as our behaviour. It’s what we are inside that makes us unclean (Mark 7:17-23).

Clearly, some forms of media are ruled out by Jesus’ words in the two passages mentioned above. But as soon as we try to become more moderate, we’re stuck with the same problem of making arbitrary decisions about where lines should be drawn.

Should we just follow our feelings? Is being slightly more moral than the average citizen good enough? Sometimes we just follow the rules of our preacher, which at least spares us having to think, but may mean an end to eating Lucky Charms while watching The Smurfs. Can we lay down rules, and if so, what is the principle according to which we do so?

The moral principle

The trouble with describing a Christian approach to entertainment media is that we tend to demand rules to govern our behaviour, and in the case of something as broad as the arts, it simply isn’t possible to make practical rules that will do for every situation, or that can be the same for every person. So although the following isn’t as comfortingly defined as rules, here’s what I’d suggest:

The basic principle, I think, is to avoid content that provokes immorality within you. This idea is derived from Matthew 5:27-29, in which Jesus teaches us to recognise whatever causes us to sin and cut it out of our lives. We don’t have to avoid the content on screen that would be sinful if we were doing it; we have to avoid the content that produces sinful attitude or behaviour in us by watching it.

Being violent is generally immoral, but watching someone on screen be violent is not necessarily so, because you are not always thereby being caused to sin. Sex and nudity are different, however, because they usually only work if there is audience participation on some level. They are meant to cause lust.

This principle places some responsibilities upon us as media consumers:

#1. Know your weaknesses

You have a responsibility to know your own weaknesses. One of my favourite films is The Big Lebowski. It contains a breath-taking amount of swearing, none of which affects me in the least. But there is also about 10 seconds of toplessness, which is much more of a stumbling block. I can’t therefore decide that you also shouldn’t be bothered by swearing, or that everyone must avoid all nudity always. You need to know the gaps in your own armour, not mine.

If fashion magazines or shopping malls or the latest Apple brochure provoke envy or covetousness in you, you should be ruthless; avoid the things that cause you to sin. If your girlfriend is easily susceptible to bogus views of romance in movies, then you have a godly reason not to ever let her make you watch Twilight.

We need to be self-critical and honest about our weaknesses, and courageous enough to avoid problem-content.

#2. Know the purpose

Be aware of purpose, the function of media content. For example, violence is bad behaviour, but in stories it can perform a valid role, such as symbolising justice or judgement or evil. But some violence may intend for the audience to enjoy the cruelty or goriness of it. Enjoying cruelty is an attitude that crosses a line, in my opinion, even if the viewer doesn’t leave the cinema and actually hit someone for fun.

#3. Know the threat

Finally, it is important to know what is truly threatening about the content you are consuming. I find Christians to be remarkably bad at analysing their entertainment. We tend to look out for the censor’s big categories (SLVNP) as if those markers of offensiveness-to-children are the only possible moral categories. Twilight has no explicit sex in it, but it has a terribly warped view of love and romance. Harry Potter is accused of glorifying witchcraft, but far more people will learn rebellion and distrust of authority from its main characters than magic.

We often forget that our entertainment is communicating ideas and attitudes to us, and some of these can be far more threatening than the means by which they are communicated. We’re often outraged by gritty content but asleep to the messages that have far more influence.

Entertainment shapes the way that all of us think. It tells us all sorts of ways to find hope and happiness and salvation and prosperity. But how will we avoid the dangers to our thinking in the media if we are unthinking consumers? And how will we help our friends away from those dead-ends and towards Christ if we fail to notice those ideas and attitudes for ourselves? If we’re to become God-honouring consumers of entertainment, we need to be more awake and really watch what we’re watching.

FakeBook and Friends

Perfect idea for fake birthdays: fake hamburger cup cakes.

I’m currently in the middle of my first fake birthday. It’s like my real birthday in that I don’t care about it, and my email inbox is full of FaceBook greetings; but it’s unlike my real birthday in the sense that my wife didn’t fall for it, and so I got no presents.

Today I’m running the sort of experiment that idle-minded procrastinators do on a whim. I changed my FaceBook birthday to a random day to see who would notice. I intended to do it every week or two to see how long it took for the greetings to dry up or be replaced with abuse, but FaceBook is obviously tired of fake birthdays, and so limits the number of birthday changes one is allowed to make.

It’s not a clever joke, and the results are not surprising. Predictably, I have received about 30 birthday messages, and only 3 non-family-members have noticed that it’s not actually my birthday. My favourite messages have wished me ‘many more’. (I’m trying, people, but FaceBook won’t let me.)

In no way is this meant to be an accusation or an indictment on anyone who believed the lie. I would have. I don’t expect you to remember my birthday, and you can be certain that I don’t know yours, unless you belong to my immediate family. I’m useless. I don’t know my grandparents’ birthdays, my in-laws, my nephews and nieces; no one. So I’m grateful that FaceBook tells me these things.

But I do think that there is a reminder in this. We allow things like FaceBook to take over the details of our relationships so that we don’t have to make the effort to remember the important dates and numbers connected to the people that we really care about. It’s nice to know that my FaceBook friends care enough to wish me happy birthday, but it’s not a lot of care. For how many people would you actually pick up the phone and speak to them on their birthday? When last did you write someone a letter, as opposed to emailing a funny cat picture to a group? You can’t automate relationships; time and effort are unfortunately key ingredients.

For this same reason, the greetings that we send each other also tend to lose their meaning. Because I know very well that the FaceBook message that I get on my real birthday is as prompted and generic as the one I get on my fake birthday, it tends not to mean very much. I have 300 or 4oo friends, and about 10% responded to the prompt and wished me happy birthday. Only 1% were aware that it is not actually my birthday. The same will be true in January when the messages come in again. How touched should I be?

So, keep those messages coming. Maybe even throw in a FarmVille gift or something. But I certainly need reminders often enough that real friendships require proper cultivation and commitment, and we’re not exactly set up these days to go much beyond the fakery of FaceBook. Figure out who your real-life friends are, and invest deeply in those people.

Freethought and Bullying

There is a popular website called Freethought Blogs — a meeting point for secular thinkers — that is currently embroiled in a bullying row.

The mudslinging seems to have arisen out of a post or two about sexism within the atheist movement, which in turn prompted certain commentators to disagree that the specific problem was as broad or as bad as key figures on the site made out. This led such commentators to be villified, insulted, expelled, even seriously threatened. Respected secularist figures such as PZ Myers became involved, incurring criticism for abusive language, pulling rank, being arrogant, choosing sides, being irrational, and so on. It seems to be that for some time, popular writers on the site have constructed a status quo, and dissenters from it have been shouted down. This bullying behaviour is now being outed. You can google the subject for more information.

I know I shouldn’t find it funny, but I do.

Firstly, it’s obviously amusingly ironic when a place that names itself ‘Freethought Blogs’ decends into virtual riots over what people are allowed to think or say, and how ‘lesser thinkers’ should be treated. Such a title was always asking for trouble, I suppose.

In any event, I think this all demonstrates that no-one’s thinking (no-one worth listening to anyway) is ever really free; you can be free from one set of norms and restrictions, but you merely adopt another. We think in obedience to different masters. It’s an open question whether your master is better than mine.

Secondly, atheists (rightly) catalogue the hypocrisies of the religious when they behave badly towards unbelievers, so much so that I think they may have started to believe that atheism is a step of evolution beyond ‘less enlightened’ religious folk. It’s nice to see occasional demonstrations that even greats such as PZ Myers can be just as idiotic as the rest of us.

Finally, the truth is probably that both sides have a point, and both sides have reason to claim the moral high-ground when it comes to the the thing that they’re defending (whether anti-sexism or anti-bullying). But it is wonderful to watch the world’s cleverest people injuring themselves in an attempt to learn the principle, ‘The ends don’t justify the means.’

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EDIT: Perhaps worth pointing out that I have no idea who is ultimately right, whether or not PZ Myers, for example, is the good guy or the bad guy, whether he is justifiably harsh, whether party x or y is lying or not. But clearly even clever people can have wisdom failure, being nasty tends to make things worse, and apologising is hard.

EDIT 2: Spelled Myers as Meyers before. Sorry. I think Austin Powers 2&3 broke the part of my brain that likes to spell that surname that way.