Moving beyond the ‘Christian’ label

When I was a new Christian, I eagerly devoured anything with a ‘Christian’ label or prefix: Christian books, Christian music, Christian radio, Christian festivals and conferences, Christian clothes and accessories. (I also ‘Christianised’ household articles by slapping a fishy sticker on them, though I never put one on the car – my driving’s never really been an advert for the faith.)

There’s nothing wrong about this of course. It’s a normal phase for new Christians to go through, one which helps in forging a new ‘Christian’ identity. It’s a conscious way of separating yourself from your old ways of life and surrounding yourself with positive, supportive, instructive or inspirational Christian messages and symbols. And at the same time it’s a way of nonetheless maintaining some continuity or connection with your former tastes and activities. For example, ‘Christian rock’ is musically the same as the secular version (more or less), but the lyrics are all about good ‘Christian’ things instead of the usual rock’n’roll themes of romantic love, sex, death, rebellion etc. (There’s an argument that with rock the medium is the message, but that’s another article.)

Christian subculture

So I’ve got no problem with this for a season. At some point though – perhaps at the ‘Chrysalis’ stage of faith development – it can, I think, start to become problematic. For one thing there’s a danger of isolationism and ghettoization. If we only listen to Christian radio and Christian songs, and only read Christian books, we can lose touch with the realities of the world and people around us. We are in danger of becoming separated and irrelevant, rather than engaging positively with our culture and communities as salt and light.

The world of Christian books, music and media can become a separate subculture with its own dress, social rules and jargon which all serve to isolate its members and exclude others – the very people we say we want to reach out to. It can also support a merely commercial consumer enterprise with its own merchandise targeting a particular ‘Christian’ market. And, like any subculture, the Christian subculture is a very narrow and limiting one, excluding so much of life and the world and reality. Yet of course it’s God’s reality and God’s world that we’re actually excluding.

The crucial point is, the whole of life and nature and the world is God’s. There isn’t a ‘Christian’ part of life or of the world and then the rest; it’s all God’s. There isn’t really ‘Christian’ music and other music (or Christian arts and secular arts); it’s all God’s. Though some music and art acknowledges and honours God directly in its subject matter while other music and art seems to reject or oppose him, at a deeper level it all comes from and belongs to God. There’s something of good which can be redeemed in all of it.

Redeeming the secular

My view increasingly is that God is not so much interested in so-called Christian sub-genres of music, literature or art as in engaging redemptively with the so-called secular ones. I believe we need to engage in ways that are informed and inspired by our faith in, our relationship with, the One from whom all music, art and literature come. I’m certainly more interested in that.

So for example I’m more interested in a straightforwardly ‘secular’ album with spirit and integrity (whether by musicians influenced by Christianity like U2, Moby or Athlete, or by a band with no obvious faith like the Arctic Monkeys) over a specifically Christian sub-genre record aimed primarily at the ‘Christian’ market. I’d prefer a book by Dostoyevsky, Tolkien or J.K. Rowling – or indeed any good author, Christian or otherwise – that’s informed by a spiritual perspective but is not overtly preaching or proselytising.

What makes something ‘Christian’?

I’m certainly not saying that there’s no place for ‘Christian’ music or art, for worship CDs and devotional books.  I’ve written plenty of songs with Christian lyrics myself, and this whole blog is a ‘Christian’ blog, in that almost all of its subject matter is around Christian theology. We need music, liturgy, books and art appropriate for congregational and devotional purposes. It’s perfectly legitimate to create works with specifically Christian themes – Handel’s Messiah, MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, or Bach’s St Matthew Passion; Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper or Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son; Marilynne Robinson’s excellent novel Gilead. All I’m saying is that works do not have to have a specifically Christian or biblical theme or lyrics to be Christian in a deeper sense.

So in my view, taking a tune and putting Christian lyrics to it does not necessarily make it a deeply Christian song. Rather, one that is born out of our souls, out of our deep experiences of life as connected to God can be far more truly and satisfyingly Christian, even if it doesn’t once mention Christ or the cross or salvation or any other religious terms.

We don’t ‘make’ something Christian by sticking a fishy label or a Bible verse on it, or by adding some Christian words or symbols to it. It’s more about seeing and responding and creating in a new way, a way that’s informed and inspired by the redemptive power and presence of God in us and – when we see it – in other people and events and things in the world around us. It’s about seeing sacramentally – seeing the whole of reality as potentially sacramental; a channel through which God’s grace can be received and imparted.

Living sacramentally

I think this principle also applies to prayer and worship and mission, and to other acts of Christian discipline or devotion. True prayer is not just saying some Christian words, it’s bringing your whole self into contact with God’s reality. Sometimes the form of words and rituals can help us in prayer and worship, which is great. Other times they can hinder and limit, imposing other people’s or other ages’ understandings and expressions on us when our hearts wish to speak freely to God in their own language; deep calling to deep.

The whole of the world, the whole of life, the whole of reality is God’s. We can approach God and meet with God and find God in and through all (well, most!) things. Admittedly in this present world many things are darkened and twisted and marred – indeed, to an extent, all things are, including our Christian jargon and rituals and forms of worship. Not everything in this world directly reflects or expresses God, but in almost all there is some kernel or spark, however dulled or distorted, which can speak to us of God. Even evil could not exist without goodness, nor lies without a foundation of truth. And some of life’s unpleasant realities turn out to be blessings in disguise, God’s strange works.

Even the mundane and everyday is full of God if we can but see. I love the Message paraphrase of Romans 12:1 ‘Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering’. It’s in our everyday lives that God is to be found most of all; this is where true worship begins and is made real. It’s about incarnation: God’s presence made manifest in and through our lives, including in the rubbish and mess.

There’s so much more to Christ than Christendom or Christianity in its visible, obvious form. There’s so much more to Christ than churches and denominations and hymns and missions and services and slogans and prayers and theologies and moral codes and liturgies and all the other countless ways in which we try to sum up and serve him. There is something of Christ in very nearly everything and everyone, however buried or disguised.

This is not a call to ditch Christian services, songs, prayers or books – all of these can be good and helpful and even vital. It’s simply a call not to be limited or bound by these things, however good. It’s a call to think and live outside the Christian box; to be creative, to think and see bigger and deeper, to find new ways of worshipping and praying and witnessing that involve the whole of us, our whole person and drawing on our whole experience of reality.

God is the God of both quantum particles and quasars, of both microscopic amoeba and blue whales; of both reason and emotion; of science and art, music and maths, logic and stories; of bodies and dance and eating and even of sex. He is the God of the great and of the mundane; the awesome and the familiar. A merely church-contained or Christian-subculture God is only a dim shadow of his full reality.

Not sola scriptura?

I would even argue that if we’re only prepared to listen to God through the Bible, we are missing out on much of what he has to say and to show us. The Bible is of enormous importance; it is the most direct and clear statement of God’s character and purposes that we have. But it is not God’s only book; it is not the only means of his communication and conversation with us. ‘Day and night the heavens pour forth speech…’

Without the Bible I might look at the beauty and wonder of a tree in blossom or a flock of birds in flight or a night sky crowded with stars, and my heart would be drawn to grateful awe but would not know who I had to thank, who the beauty was from or pointed to. Because of Christ and the record of him in the Bible, I do know, so now all of these things can be sources of truly Christian worship.

If Christ truly lives in me, any place can potentially be a sacred space, any second a holy moment. We’re human and forgetful, so very often we do need specifically Christian words and pictures to remind us of the truth. But if ‘Christian’ media is our sole diet, we’re missing out on so much of the greatness and wonder of God.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Arts, Emerging, Incarnation, Spirituality, The faith journey and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Moving beyond the ‘Christian’ label

  1. Liam Harron says:

    “Reason and Emotion” by John Macmurray contains a set of lectures dealing with the function of the emotions in human life, about “emotional rationality”.
    I have never forgotten the first sentence, which stills retains enormous depth … “An enquiry must have a motive or it could not be carried on at all, and all motives belong to the emotional life”. I sensed the truthfulness of this immediately, but it took a long time before I felt I understood why.
    Many years on, I believe that knowledge exists on at least three levels. There is knowledge of the mind, knowledge of the heart and knowledge of the soul. Sometimes we “know” through our heart and soul. In fact I believe that there is a knowledge of the heart and soul that cannot be fully grasped by the mind.
    Macmurray explores these ideas through his reflections on science, art and religion.
    There is no “clash” between science, art and religion – there are just three ways of knowing and they are all complimentary and each has its unique strength. Ironically the “weakest” form of knowing is science. As I increasingly realised, science is based upon ignorance, perhaps the study of ignorance (perhaps art and religion also are the study of ignorance).
    All science does is disprove – it never proves. Scientists create theories to explain empirical facts and eventually each theory is disproved. There is still no universal “theory of everything” and if Macmurray’s thinking is right, there never will be as science cannot ever fully explain the knowledge of the heart and soul.
    In the development of human knowledge to date, perhaps relatively little progress has been made in our understanding of the knowledge of the heart and soul. If emotional development is particularly about improving one-to-one human relationships then religion can be understood as being about people learning to live in full communion with one another and with our Creator. Followers of Jesus have a very special responsibility to contribute to humankind’s progress in this understanding.
    At one point the Roman Catholic Church lost considerable credibility because of its refusal to accept developments in scientific knowledge. Perhaps the best known case is that concerning Galileo and the eventual apology, one of many, that Pope John Paul II made in the twilight of his papacy.
    There is a danger that the church might also lag behind in its engagement with developments in emotional understanding and then not be listened to in the area of spirituality, an area where it should have a very special expertise.
    There should be no “clash” between science, art and religion – these are just three complementary ways of knowing, each with its unique strength. Science explores the material world. Developments in scientific understanding have brought about enormous material advancement, but have these been matched with development in our emotional and spiritual understanding?
    I believe that we have a long way to go before we even begin to match the developments in scientific knowledge with developments in emotional and spiritual understanding; and it is only as we develop our emotional and spiritual understanding, that will be able to use our scientific knowledge more wisely.
    An example in our society is where a wiser use of material resources, including more on human development and less on weapon development, will surely benefit everyone.
    A second example is in the area of managing conflict. One of the roots of conflict is a failure to understand emotionally the viewpoint of those perceived as opponents. An ability and willingness to listen with and to emotions, can help to change a conflict situation into a creative situation. Even when we know this, we do not always find it easy to put our emotional knowledge into practice, especially in challenging or stressful situations. We do not always find it easy to “be mindful”.

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    • Hi Liam, thank you for your thoughts – there’s a lot to think about here! I strongly agree that there is no inherent clash between science, religion and the arts, and also that we need to develop in the areas of our emotional and spiritual understanding. I find it encouraging that emotional intelligence is increasingly being recognised alongside academic intelligence, and the idea of spiritual intelligence has also recently started to gain favour. The John Macmurray book sounds very interesting, and yes that’s a profound opening sentence!

      Another post I’m currently working on is titled ‘Moving beyond goodies and baddies’, and touches on a similar point to the one you make that ‘one of the roots of conflict is a failure to understand emotionally the viewpoint of those perceived as opponents’.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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  2. dsholland says:

    As I read you post I was reminded of a period where art (music, movies …) that were not “Christian” were “worldly”. Remember playing the records (the big black CDs with the small hole) backwards?
    As you say, it is a stage a necessary one – first we come out, then we go back. When we get stuck out where its safe, that’s when we fail to bring the truth back. I think this is what you are talking about when you bring up isolation, and even “the world” recognizes that for what it is.

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    • Thanks David! I still have quite a few of those ‘big black CDs with the small hole’, though I don’t currently have anything to play them on! And yes, I well remember speakers at our Christian Union at school warning us against the dangers of listening to music by Queen, KISS, AC/DC or Led Zeppelin.

      Of course, we need to be wise in our engagement with culture and the arts; some things won’t be helpful to us, and some may be actively harmful. But these things may vary from person to person, and from culture to culture. And I might now argue that some of the most unhelpful things I’ve read have been ‘Christian’ books with an overly narrow, bigoted or plain bonkers view of the world. At least with secular culture you know it’s not ‘the gospel’, but you may just be blessed through it; with ‘Christian’ stuff you expect it to be helpful, and often it isn’t.

      Re the isolation thing and bringing truth back, I see it as a two-way process. We bring truth back into the secular world, but we also receive God’s truth through the secular world in surprising and unexpected ways. God isn’t limited to the church, or the Bible, or to Christian preachers and writers and musicians. He’s acting and speaking, living and breathing everywhere we go.

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      • dsholland says:

        I did not mean to imply a difference between Sacred and Secular truth. I do mean to imply that unregenerate man may say true things but that isn’t the same as knowing the truth 🙂

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        • Fair point, and spoken like a true and good evangelical. I suppose I’m less convinced these days about straightforward divisions between the regenerate and unregenerate, as well as between lower-case truth and The Truth. That’s my liberal side coming out. 🙂

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