In his 2010 book, Hipster Christianity, Brett McCracken explored the dynamics of a particular cultural movement in (and against) modern evangelicalism. In his new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, he pulls the lens back, focusing on how the church more broadly ought to approach culture, particularly when it comes to consuming it.
Though McCracken’s book focuses on just four areas — food, drink, music, and film — his basic framework and the surrounding discussion offers much for Christians to ponder and absorb when it comes to cultural engagement at large.
In an interview with On Call in Culture, McCracken was kind enough to answer some questions on the topic.
Early on, you explain that your book is not about “making culture,” but about “consuming culture well.” Yet you also note how consumption and creation can intersect and overlap. How does our approach to consumption impact our creative output?
In order to be a good creator of culture, one must be a good consumer of it. We will never make great films if we don’t love the greatest films, know the greatest films, and understand why they are great. The best chefs are the ones who love food the most and take the time to consume it well — to pay attention to flavor profiles, to savor tastes that go well together, to understand what cooking methods work and don’t work, etc. The great artists in history didn’t just make their masterpieces from some innate mastery of technique. They studied the masters first and did the work of understanding why one painting or symphony was a masterpiece and why another one wasn’t. They were good consumers before they were good creators.
Christians have often skipped the whole “being good consumers” part in their rush to create culture. There is a lot of talk about how important it is for Christians to make culture, how the worlds of film, literature, music, etc. desperately need Christian voices of influence. But Christians will not make any real difference in any of these cultural areas if they aren’t first informed and engaged consumers, able to discern quality, knowledgeable of what has and hasn’t been said, and who has said it best. If we skip that part, it’s very unlikely we will create anything of any significance.
Furthermore, from the creator’s point of view, the consumer is essential. Unless a musician has a supportive fanbase of good consumers who buy music, attend concerts, and enthusiastically spread the word about quality music, it will be hard for them to keep creating. Great art needs great interpreters, passionate appreciators, and willing patrons. An environment where quality artists and culture-makers flourish is one where there is no scarcity of quality consumption.
For many, the basic act of “consumption” is born with destructive implications, stirring images of materialistic Black Friday shopaholics and credit card addicts. In what ways have we cheapened our approach to consumption?
“Consumer” is fundamentally a neutral word. By birth, by nature, we are consumers. We must eat and drink to survive. We consume. “Consumer” has become a terrible four-letter word in our society because we’ve gone about it all wrong. As fallen people, we’ve cheapened the act of consumption in a variety of ways. We’ve consumed as a means of escaping our lives and fleeing problems. We’ve consumed too quickly, or to excess (gluttony, drunkenness, Black Friday!). We’ve consumed primarily as a status-marking activity of conspicuous consumption, or as a means of rebellion where it’s not about the goodness of culture as much as how our consumption of it is subversive. We’ve consumed simply to amass “stuff,” which we often discard quickly anyway because we grow bored of it. All of this is because we are fallen people, prone to go consume things selfishly or destructively. But I believe that healthy consumption is possible and, for Christians, something that can glorify God.
You describe that alternative quite poetically, writing that “a healthy, wonderful activity that contributes to personal growth as well as broader human flourishing.” What are some big-picture distinguishers of healthy consumption? How did God design it?
One big thing is that healthy consumption happens not solely as an individual activity; it happens in community. Many of the ways consumption has gone wrong for us is that we’ve over-individualized it, stripping culture of its inherent ability to connect us to others and instead turning it into a predominantly solitary experience. The iPod/iPhone/iMac model of media consumption today only makes the problem worse. I believe healthy consumption not only happens in community (watching films and going to concerts with friends, eating great food with others, etc.) but also is best understood in community. I love talking with my friends about their thoughts on a film, or agreeing with my wife that the dessert we just ate was so good it rendered us speechless.
Finally, healthy consumption includes consideration of its implications on one’s community, and even the wider world. How does the way I consume alcohol at a certain social event impact the recovering alcoholic in the room? How does the type of coffee I buy support fair or unjust economic practices all the way down the supply chain? Again, we have to get outside of the iModel of solitary consumption to think through these questions. Consumption shouldn’t just be about me, me, me. It should be a way that we connect with our fellow man — the producers of the culture, and our fellow consumers of it — as well as the gracious God who created it all and called it “good.”
You reference Abraham Kuyper throughout your book. How has Kuyper’s work influenced your thinking in this area?
Kuyper’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty over all creation has been huge in informing my own theology of culture. I grew up with a pretty defined sense of “sacred” vs. “secular,” and like many in my generation of evangelicals, I grew up consuming mostly “Christian” music, books, movies, etc. But Kuyper argues that we should have a broader view of what God can redeem. Sacred and secular are categories that can narrow our view and close us off to experiencing God in all corners of creation. I love Kuyper’s famous saying, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” When I first read Kuyper, it confirmed what I had felt to be true: that God can speak to us everywhere and through anything, not just in what we might traditionally call “sacred” places.
I also have resonated deeply with Kuyper’s belief in “common grace” — the idea that by God’s grace there is residual good in the world (beyond the “particular grace” of Salvation) that infuses all things and causes even unregenerate fallen humanity to potentially grasp truth and reflect the glory of God. The notion of common grace has broadened my view of where and how God works in the world. He isn’t relegated to only the realm of the “spiritual.” He doesn’t just show up in churches. As Nigel Goodwin has said, it is important to remember that “God in his infinite wisdom did not give all His gifts to Christians.”
Kuyper’s work — with its emphasis on common grace and the necessity of Christians working in every sphere, for the glory of God — not only broadens our view of culture and its potential to glorify God, but it also gets us out of our separationist cloisters and into the world, into the conversation. These concepts have been valuable for me as a cultural critic, for example, as I encounter goodness, truth, and beauty in sometimes very “secular” films, music, literature, etc. It has opened up my world greatly and enhanced my faith, giving me a framework wherein almost everything I experience in culture can be an opportunity to praise God and learn about him.
The subtitle of your book is “navigating the space between legalism and liberty.” How does an understanding of Christian liberty influence the way we consume culture?
I would hope that it would open us up, expand our horizons, and give us the freedom and impulse to explore the vast repositories of goodness, truth and beauty in culture. At its best, Christian liberty should animate our desire to know God more and glorify him through the way that we enjoy creation and culture. Christian liberty isn’t just an excuse to go wild and live hedonistic lives of consumption. That’s a path that leads to emptiness and cheap consumption. Liberty helps us flourish and leads to joy when it exists within the larger confines and call of the pursuit of Christ. Our liberty should always be measured against the big picture standard of the holiness we are called to. All things are permissible, yes, but not everything is beneficial. We must work on cultivating wisdom and discernment to know when to say “no” because something isn’t beneficial or in harmony with the set-apart people we are called to be. But we must also allow our liberty to open up the possibilities for how, and where, we can worship God in culture.