Culture wars diminish and distract from Gospel witness

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in church with the lines:

They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

I’m not disputing that most Christians I know are, in fact, genuinely lovely and loving people. However, many of us have managed to produce a public face that does not look so much loving as angry. Possibly bigoted (which may be accurate of true Christianity, depending on a. how you define bigotry and b. how you define true Christianity). But not necessarily loving, and not necessarily filled with the love of Christ.

Today, I read the piece by George Takei (of Mr Sulu fame!) criticising the practice of Indiana and some other US states to allow business owners to refuse services to people on the grounds that so doing would contravene the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs. Given that bar owners technically already have a legal responsibility to keep people from getting drunk, the only application for this that I can think of is if an unmarried heterosexual couple or a gay couple wanted to spend the night at a hotel owned by a conservative Christian/Jew/Muslim (most likely Christian, quite frankly).

There is a variety of responses to this, but the one that hits me first is: Where is the uncompromising love and the Gospel witness at a moment such as this? Is my job as a Christian to police the morality of my fellow citizens? Or is it my job to love them effluously while at the same time being a strict policeman of my own morality?

It’s not just the battle over what sorts of relationships the secular government wants to extend certain protections to that is distracting, though — so don’t let the George Takei piece blind you to other issues.

Elsewhere in the USA, a politician has apparently said that rape is beautiful if it results in the conception of a child. It is one thing to say that, regardless of how a child was conceived that child has a right to live and a mother a duty to carry the child to term, and quite another to use complimentary adjectives about a heinous, hideous, destructive act that can leave serious emotional, psychological, and physical wounds in a person. Even if this may be a misquotation, it is a very clear instance of how culture wars distract from the Gospel, in my opinion. Whatever the politician said, this is what the world heard.

Rather than scoring points in a culture war, shouldn’t we be providing refuge for the victims of terrible acts of male aggression? How many rape victims would feel safe in churches associated with such rhetoric? How many young women who have had abortions would feel loved in churches who rail against the practice vociferously? Where is the Gospel witness? Or are we just moralising yet again?

These Dinosaurs certainly existed.

Science has also come under fire in the culture wars. One woman goes so far as to say that dinosaurs never existed. I’m not kidding. The video is here, at ‘Crazy Christian Mother Thinks Dinosaurs Never Existed.’ American anti-establishment culture combined with a variety of evangelical anti-intellectualism has led to people making us look like a bunch of idiots. A friend commented on Facebook concerning the dinosaur video that either religion makes you stupid, or if you are stupid, you’re drawn to religion. (Or something along those lines.)

A disconcerting moment came to me whilst listening to the Newsboys album God’s Not Dead. The beginning of the title song is either recorded live at a concert or from the film (which I’ve never seen). Michael Tate (of former DC Talk fame) is talking to the crowd about ‘scientists’ telling us there’s no God and all the usual stuff, and in his dismissal of the naturalists/atheists, getting big cheers from the crowd. But when he moves to Gospel proclamation, when he starts proclaiming the power of God to save us from the power and penalty of sin, evil, and death — then the cheers dimish a little.

A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)
A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

Shouldn’t these be our biggest cheers? Not only that ‘God’s not dead’, not only that there’s a Creator (I mean, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and certain Buddhists can claim the same), but that He is the God of unconditional love who chooses to spill over into our mundane (world-bound) history and raise us to heaven, not simply in spite of our own sin and wickedness, but precisely because He loves us more than we can imagine. That’s Good News! Shouldn’t our proclamation of the Gospel of Grace be the loudest, clearest message we send to an unbelieving world?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold firm as individuals to a traditional, scriptural viewpoint on issues of ethics. But what is the public faith — the public face — of the church? Are we (figuratively) washing the feet of unbelieving neighbours or (sometimes literally) yelling in their faces? Are we telling them the resplendent glory of the story of the God Who became a man to set us free, or are we telling them all about how they’re sinners (and we, presumably [as they think it], are not)? Are we preaching Christ crucified, or simply some pat answers and apologetics?

I realise that even broaching these topics can bring a firestorm of activity in a blog’s comments. So, please, take a breath and think carefully about what you’re going to post, and please keep to the main thesis of this post, which is not whether gay marriage is right or abortion is right or evolution is true, but whether issues like these are distracting us from authentic Gospel witness in Anglophone Christianity — if you disagree with me on that issue, feel free to do so lovingly. If your comments are uncharitable or libellous, I reserve the right to remove them as moderator of my blog.

Haydn’s Creation

I am listening to Haydn’s Creation (1796-1798) right now.  It is the Representation of Chaos, when the earth is formless and void.  After this powerful representation, the angel Raphael shall begin the tale of how God spoke the universe into being.  It’s all in German, and I don’t have the libretto, but I know when he says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,'” because then the orchestra produces something more glorious than the power of Chaos.

It makes the sound of light.  There is no other description for what the strings do at that point of the oratorio.  (It just happened.  Tingly.)

Shortly before CBC butchered Radio2, I heard the beginning of this magnificent oratorio.  The announcer mentioned that many people don’t like the Creation because they think it naive.  Yes, naive.

I don’t really know how an oratorio can be naive.  Now, the reason for the alleged naivete of the Creation is the fact that it recounts the six-day creation of Genesis.  Due to the polarisation of popular opinion in the ill-starred Creation-Evolution debate, people are blinded when they come to a piece of art such as this.  They think, “Sure, the music is nice, but the content — so naive!”

I would like to argue that there is nothing naive in Haydn’s Creation at all.  My first reason is that the claim is utterly ridiculous.  If the literal six-day creation of Genesis 1 is simply Hebrew mythology, to make a piece of art representing this story is not naive, as the Creation‘s critics imagine.  It cannot be, unless we are to therefore declare Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and countless other operas naive because they represent mythology.  If you disbelieve Genesis 1, this does not mean that art based on the creation story is naive.

Second, you cannot say that an oratorio or an opera is naive because of the contents of the words.  In oratorio, the words are an important aspect.  Handel’s Messiah would be far less potent without the force of the words combining with the force of the music.  Nevertheless, the music is at least, and in some opinions, more important than the words.  Haydn felt that an oratorio based on the biblical account of creation was a worthy piece of art.  Whether he believed in a literal interpretation of this passage or not has nothing to do with the piece of art ultimately produced.  He produces music to enrobe the words of Genesis, to encapsulate them, to imbue them with a life that the word on the page lacks.  There is no naivete here, my friends.

Finally, this question raises the question of the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis.  Is it necessary to believe that something must be literal in order for it to be true?  I would say no.  I would say that if it turns out that God chose to create the universe over billions of years rather than six days, Genesis 1 is still true and relevant to our lives and our art.  Myth can be true without being literal (history cannot; is Gen 1-3 myth or history?).

Genesis 1 speaks a deep truth about the universe.  Almighty God brought it into existence out of nothing, ex nihilo.  He is creator of all things that are, were, and ever shall be.  He brought order to chaos.  He hung the stars in the sky.  His word went forth, and things were made.  He looked upon all that he had made, and each stage of creation was individually labelled as good.

The God of the Bible is a Creator God.  What he has created is good.  These are the foundational statements of the doctrine of creation.  And from these and other biblical passages stream the Christian ethic of creation.  And God’s creative action in bringing the universe into being, that story we see in Genesis, as a doctrine, has nothing to do with the debate between “creation” and “evolution.”

How, therefore, could Haydn’s Creation be naive?  I would argue instead that its critics are naive in saying such.

NB: This is the post promised at the Random Ramblings.