August 2, 2013
Friday Five: Brett McCracken
How should Christian leaders navigate the "gray matters' of faith and practice? We asked the author of a new book.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Brett McCracken. Brett is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN.com as well as a variety of theological journals. Brett serves at Biola University where he is an adjunct professor of journalism and managing editor of Biola Magazine.
Brett is also a frequent contributor to Christianity Today. Check out his book and movie reviews here.
Brett has authored two interesting books. In 2010 he released, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide and just recently Grey Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty.
Today we talk to Brett about Christian hipsters, Millenials, and navigating the “gray matters” of the Christian life.
Your first book Hipster Christianity took issue with the evangelical church's obsession with being relevant. It's interesting that Millennials seem to hold two things in tension: they don't like being marketed to, yet they don't like the stuffiness of the evangelical church. How do you reconcile those two ideas?
I think the thing Millennials dislike most is inauthenticity. I don't know if it's marketing in itself that they dislike as much as marketing that is condescending, annoyingly obtrusive, or just plain lame. Likewise, I don't know that the church's "stuffiness" is as big of an issue for them as when a church inauthentically tries to be something it's not. I suspect that some Millennials would prefer a sincere, old-school, pews-and-hymnbooks church over a church that is actively (but awkwardly and inauthentically) trying to be "relevant." This is where the annoyance of marketing and the annoyance of "wannabe cool" churches meet: both are condescending to the youth. They think they have figured out what young people want—a futile, "chasing after the wind" endeavor.
Pastors and church leaders wrestle with this question all the time—making decisions on worship styles, programming, and their own personal choices. What advice would you give to church leaders as they seek to navigate the tensions?
I would say that all of those decisions are worth talking about—just not too much. And certainly not at the expense of focusing on what really matters: being a gospel-centered community of worship and discipleship where people feel welcomed and Christ is glorified. I think that pastors and church leaders often assume that people want church to be more than it is. But mostly people just want a church to be a church; to embrace its tradition, the richness of doctrine, sacraments, and life together as a community of Christ-followers. Flashy graphics, smoke machines, high-tech videos, and hip worship leaders may get people in the door, but they are not the things people will stay for. And they are certainly not the things that are going to be transforming peoples' lives in the long term.
You got a bit of pushback on Hipster Christianity from all over the evangelical spectrum. Do you think you tipped a few sacred cows?
At its heart, Hipster Christianity is a bit of a self-critique about the way evangelicals (myself included) have in recent years offered too-simple answers to the question of cultural engagement. The book addresses the pendulum swing of younger evangelicals away from the "culture is evil!" separatist approaches of prior generations, which was in some ways a healthy correction that went too far.
Hipster Christianity touched a nerve because I was willing to step out as a culturally literate young evangelical and question whether we had actually adopted a mode of cultural engagement that was as simplistic as its predecessor, just in the opposite direction. Perhaps we embraced culture too much and for the wrong reasons.
Some critics of the book put words in my mouth and tried to suggest that I intended to disparage any theology of culture or the entire project of cultural engagement. This was and is not my aim; I was simply suggesting that a proper approach to culture must go deeper than the "Christianity can be cool! We love culture!" veneers of so many contemporary evangelicals desperately seeking to repair Christianity's PR problem in the larger culture.
I want to talk about your new book, Gray Matters. You seem, in this book, to be offering almost a sequel, a guide to the questions you raised in Hipster Christianity. Is that true?
Yes, I think Gray Matters is in many ways an answer to some of the questions raised by Hipster Christianity. Namely: How do we engage culture in between the extremes of "culture is bad!" legalism and "culture is amazing; drink up!" libertine-ism (which is the extreme discussed at length in Hipster). If Hipster was mostly a description of a phenomenon and a bit of prescription (in general terms) of how we can get back on track, Gray Matters is the how-to guidebook to be a more thoughtful, healthy, God-honoring consumer of culture. As a slice-of-life look at a particular moment in evangelical history, Hipster will likely be outdated soon (though I think the book's core question of Christianity's "relevance" is one that every generation addresses in its own way). But Gray Matters outlines principles of cultural engagement that can help Christians wherever they are.
It's more important than ever that Christians think critically about what and how we consume, when it comes to culture. Because the world is watching. How we go about engaging and consuming culture is more visible than ever, and it says a lot about what we value and the "good life" we envision. If we go about it recklessly, reactively, or simplistically, what does that communicate? And what are we missing out on ourselves?
Isn't some of this subjective? What is legalistic to some might seem an appropriate boundary to others.
Exactly. That’s why the book is called Gray Matters. Culture is very much a gray area. The Bible gives many general principles on how Christians should relate to culture, but not as many black and white "dos" and "don'ts" on the particularities of culture. Passages like Romans 14 emphasize the individual conscience in these matters: what's okay for one person may not be for another. Insofar as a cultural activity is not directly forbidden by Scripture or does not prove to be a stumbling block or stepping stone to sin, there is a lot of latitude and liberty given to Christians.
But there are certainly limits. It's clear, for example, that one's community should be a factor in one's individual choices—even if it's "okay" for you to do something, should you do it if others in your community struggle with it? It's also clear in Scripture that the lifestyles of Christians should be distinct and set apart from the surrounding culture. We are called to holiness, to be salt and light. What does this mean for us as we think about how to engage culture?
The answers are not simple or easy, but that's the point. The more we think about them and discuss them—not shrugging them off as "subjective" and leaving it at that—the more we will begin to formulate a more robust theology of culture that will bless us individually, advance the witness and mission of the church, and bring glory to God.