Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm always a little perplexed by the lay atheists who are really into their atheism, and who spend countless hours expounding upon their atheism. If I were an atheist, I'd be too busy working at a hedge fund*, drinking and chasing women to think much about my atheism. But tonight, my purpose is not to talk about atheism, but to talk about Christian morality. My hypothetical remark gets at a very important question - is religious restriction all that stands between religious people and brazen immorality?

Let's look at my case. If I had entered college an atheist, I would not have had any strong moral objections to the dominant campus social culture, which consisted of drinking oneself into a stupor, promiscuity, and training for the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. In all likelihood, I would have adopted that culture as my own, and would probably have continued in a similar lifestyle for another decade. Having adopted that culture, I would be a fundamentally different person than I am now, one whose view of goodness would be an adolescent hedonism.

As it stands, I entered college a Christian, resisted the dominant culture, and became a person who genuinely believes that greed, binge drinking and cheap sex really do not have a part in a good and happy life. The question posed earlier derives from what I think is a misunderstanding of Christian morality, one that Christians have sometimes perpetuated. It is the idea that Christian morality is designed to restrict and diminish pleasure in order that one may demonstrate one's obedience to God. Of course, Christian morality does place restrictions on pleasurable behavior, but when it does so, it does it toward the end of securing deeper and more lasting pleasure. The Bible condemns adultery - this is to secure the love that can only be found in lifelong marriage. The Bible condemns drunkenness - this is to prevent the foolish behavior in which very drunk people engage. It condemns greed, because greed is destructive to self and to others. And beyond these, it tends to condemn behaviors that are hardly pleasurable to anyone.

Now, this is not to say that I do not want things that are sinful - quite the opposite. But when I recognize them as sin, I recognize that having them would not really contribute to my deepest well-being, and this thought sometimes leads me to reject them, though far, far less often than it should. The point is that Christian morality is not like an invisible fence keeping sheep from the open pasture. To me, it is more like a good teacher, whose pupils leave his classroom not only knowing more, but as different people who want different things.

*There are many fine people who work in finance because they enjoy the challenge of investing. At the same time, there are few professions better suited to the avaricious.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Brief Theory of Modern Church Music

The most common criticism levied at traditional church music is that it is entirely disconnected from the realities of modern life. It is too careful, too remote, too complicated and passionless to ignite the spiritual desires of modern man. It establishes a dualism between life in and out of the church building. What the church needs instead is simple, accessible, welcoming music that does not break with the day-to-day rhythms of the congregation. The continuity of sound will, at its best, inspire continuity of practice inside and outside of the church service.

There is some credibility to this argument. The language and harmonies of Psalms and hymns now sound archaic, and popular taste seems to make the window of what is contemporary smaller every year. Very well then. Historically the rhythms of American popular music have been those of everyday life: on horses, next to the train tracks, at work in the factory. Let us write church music in a style that mimics and then transcends the lives of church patrons.

Unfortunately, art imitates the monotonous suburban life in which everything is clean but nothing is elegant, where there is no terror and no beauty. What we are left with is music with none of the unbearable grandeur of God enthroned, and none of the bloody indignity of God on the cross. One of my favorite films is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose soundtrack is probably more popular than the film itself. The soundtrack is filled with traditional American songs of praise and worship, songs that retain their truth and power far outside their time and place of writing, rugged and dirty tunes that captured the intersection of the present and the eternal. This is what contemporary church music writers ought to strive for.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Selfless Love, Selfish Purity

Two outlooks on Christian decision-making: In the first, one sees the good that might be done, and the abilities one has to realize that good. One acts to maximize the good. In the second, one looks at the corruption and blemish that one might incur by following different courses of action. One acts to minimize the bad.

How this might play out*: Parents are choosing where to send their bright and talented son to high school. They are considering a top-rated public school where their son will meet a racially, economically and intellectually diverse group of students, take challenging courses and have the opportunity to participate in a wide range of activities. There are not many Christian students or teachers at the school, and there is substantial drug use and promiscuity. Alternatively, they consider a small church-affiliated high school where their son will easily be a top student, all students and teachers will be white Christians and there will be few extracurricular opportunities. Parents with the first outlook would most likely focus on the benefits of the challenging environment and choose the public school. Parents with the second outlook would most likely see the potential bad influences of public school students and choose the Christian school.

Reasons why the first outlook is best: There is no precedent among the early apostles for the Christian isolationism that inevitably results from the second outlook; rather, their work carried great risk of physical and spiritual harm. The greatest moral commands are to love God and to love others, not to preserve one's own purity. Finally, the beauty and terror of creation and the bloody facts of the incarnation demonstrate that God himself will permit and suffer great evil in order to bring about great good.

Now, this does not mean that we should chase after every idea we have for doing good. It is, as unfortunate experience has taught me, foolish to date someone with the hope of evangelizing that person, or to attend anonymous lewd parties with the hope that one's mere Christian presence will impart a magical transformation on the place. We cannot calculate odds, but we must act with clear, important objects that have a reasonable chance of succeeding. The alternatives are foolish indulgence, and selfish fear of sins already cleansed.

*This scenario is fictional. The correct decision would obviously depend on the details of schools and people.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pew Religious Knowledge Quiz: Commentary

The intrepid researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have recently published the results of their study on American religious knowledge. Average scores were pretty lousy. The obvious response is a self-righteous rant about how ignorant this country is, but really, what does that teach us? There are more important issues that we should address before concluding that these scores are tragic.

The big preliminary question is what kind of knowledge is most important for people to have in order to have good personal and public lives in a religiously pluralistic society? And my answer is that they need enough knowledge to understand, discuss, compare and evaluate the fundamental values of the most prominent religions, including their own. Shapeless as this answer is, it seems to degrade the importance of the Pew study. The study asked multiple choice questions about religious teachings, scriptures, famous figures and about legal issues surrounding religion. A person could correctly answer each of these questions and nevertheless lack all of the soft skills I listed above.

However, the reverse is not true. These weren't exactly $64,000 questions; they tested very basic knowledge of religious issues that a mediocre high school education and occasional newspaper reading would easily provide. They tested the sort of foundational knowledge that is necessary to have an intelligent discussion about religion and its role in public life. Of course, the importance of the questions varied - one can probably understand Judaism well enough without knowing a thing about Maimonides, but one cannot compare Christian and Muslim views of scripture without knowing the name of the Islamic holy book. It is probably safe to say that people who are unable to answer basic factual questions about world religions cannot compare and assess them either.

If there is a uniquely Christian reason to concerned about these results, it is that the Christian Scriptures themselves are preoccupied with the competing religions of the times in which they were written. From the creation narrative, to the plagues of Egypt, to Elijah's encounter with the prophets of Baal, to the books of poetry and prophecy, the Old Testament presents the God of Israel in contrast to the gods of paganism. John begins his gospel with allusion to both Genesis 1 and the Greek philosophical organizing force of Logos; Paul's evangelism at Mars Hill acknowledges Roman religious life. And our ability to follow these examples begins with a foundation of fact.