Liberty and Holiness

In a Facebook discussion recently on a mildly contentious topic, a friend brought out a line of argument that has me ruminating. Here’s what he said:

I think there is a lot to be said for the liberty we Christians have to partake of things, but there are certainly things the world has devised that are inherently unpleasing to God in any form. The question is – are we certain enough – do we have enough firm evidence that these [disputable] practices discussed above are absolutely not going to offend God that we can participate in them with a clean conscience? I know this – I have been bought with a very high price – the blood of Christ, and all too often, I do not reflect that in my conduct, but I should. I hope that we all are moved by that high price to think not of how far out to the boundaries of God’s permission we can roam in our conduct, but how near to Christ we can get.

This is a familiar argument in many ways. (How many times have I heard this as the preferred answer to lusting teens asking “how far is too far?”!) And indeed, it seems almost foolhardy to try to argue against the “how near to Christ can you get?” position. But on this question of liberty and holiness I think we could frame things up a little differently.

First, liberty and holiness are not two ends of the same spectrum. Here we need to distinguish between liberty in permissible things and freedom to sin. Freedom to sin using the excuse of abundant grace is clearly out of bounds (Romans 6:1). But liberty in matters of conscience is something different. When Paul instructs the Corinthians about meat sacrificed to idols, there is no suggestion that meat is OK, but not eating meat is more holy. There is holiness in exercising liberty.

Second, all good things come from God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17). Paul tells us that “God… richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). God has not called us to be dour ascetics. Rather, he has called us to explore and enjoy His goodness to us in His creation. Which leads me to my last thought.

While I can hardly criticize a desire for holiness, at times I wonder if people may stress this desire to hide an underlying sense of fear or unease: fear of God moving in unexplained ways, fear of the Holy Spirit speaking unexpectedly, fear of seeing things that look like God working outside of the careful boundaries we’ve come to expect He should work in. And while we need to be ever sensitive to the Spirit’s leading when some particular idea or practice might be truly too far, we can do ourselves a disservice if we approach each experience or opportunity with suspicion instead of expectation. If, for example, the steak from the pagan butcher or the unfamiliar lectio divina is partaken with a prayer of expectation and a request for God’s blessing, why should we fear it?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)

My friend’s argument in questionable areas, if I can paraphrase, seems to be that “the default answer should be ‘no’ unless you’re really, really sure that it can be ‘yes'”. What I’d like to advocate for, though, is to turn that around; that we can, without fear, start with a default answer of ‘yes’, trusting that the Holy Spirit will make clear when the answer should instead be ‘no’.

Finished reading: several more

It’s been a while since I’ve put a post together, but I haven’t stopped reading… recent books:

Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings by Josh Larsen

Larsen is the co-host of the essential Filmspotting podcast, as well as being an editor at Think Christian. Larsen explores the overlap of his two interests with an insightful look at how movies can be expressions of prayer. Larsen goes deeper into the theology of prayer than I expected, with insightful results. As also happens when I listen to Filmspotting, I came away from Movies are Prayers with a bunch of movies to add to my to-watch list.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

Bauckham explores the Gospels and makes the case that their content was primarily from eyewitness testimony. He spends quite a bit of time exploring how oral histories were passed down through various cultures, and how the gospels bear many of the hallmarks of such oral tradition based on eyewitness information. He also suggests that part of the reason some characters (including some very minor characters) are explicitly named in the Gospels is because they were known living people who could be referenced as eyewitnesses. (What a fascinating thought!) This definitely gives me a new perspective when reading the Gospels.

The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

A winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Alexievich interviewed hundreds of Soviet women who fought (often as teenage girls) in the Soviet army during WWII. The details are made even more horrific by the narrative telling. War is hell. Terrible, real, and heartbreaking.

A Colony in A Nation by Chris Hayes

A short volume documenting the discrepancy in policing and justice between blacks and whites in America. Not exceptionally surprising after all that I’ve read the past couple years, but tragic and infuriating none the less.

Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, & Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama by Kenneth L. Woodward

Woodward was the religion editor of Newsweek for decades, in which role he had opportunity to interview many of the major religious figures of the 20th century. A devout Catholic, Woodward provides a measured view of Billy Graham and other early evangelists, the rise of Evangelicalism and its political efforts, the changes in the Catholic church after Vatican II, and the evolution of the Protestant mainline. Woodward’s easy prose felt familiar in some way; finally I realized it must be the deft touch of a newsman similar to that of the late Steve Buttry who I read regularly for nearly a decade until his untimely death last year. All told, a good history of religion in America.

Book Blame, Volume 1

I write regularly about the books that I have finished reading. What I don’t often do is assign blame credit to those who (often unknowingly) prompted me to buy or borrow the books in the first place.

So with this post I will start assigning, with much appreciation, Book Blame. (Because hey, “Book Credit” doesn’t have the same appealing alliterative ring to it.)

The most recent book to travel from Amazon’s warehouse to my to-read pile is A History of Modern Palestine by Ilan Pappe. For this one I have Chuck Pearson (@ShorterPearson) to thank, via this tweet:

My most recent purchase (still on its way from Amazon to me) is thanks to Kenneth L. Woodward, who in his book Getting Religion recommends Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness, a biography of the 20th century rabbi by Edward Kaplan. Heschel sounded like such a fascinating figure that I couldn’t really pass up a used copy of his biography.

If you, dear reader, have books you think I would be interested in, by all means let me know! One day you, too, could be gratefully mentioned in an edition of Book Blame.

A little random follow-up

Nearly a year ago I wrote a post dismayed about a church looking for a part-time Director of Music with almost unbelievable qualifications. Just to recap, they were looking for:

Significant musical experience in performing and directing a contemporary band along with experience in songwriting and production.

Must be able to incorporate strings, percussion, and other instruments into contemporary-band driven arrangements

Ability to work with and train vocalists in singing of parts

Ability to incorporate backing tracks and loops into regular Sunday and special services

Minimum of bachelor’s degree in music and/or 5 years’ related church or industry experience. Possessing an MDiv or MA in theology is ideal.

All that in a part-time, pay commensurate with experience position.

I ran across my old post at random this morning and decided to revisit that church’s website to see if they had ever found such a Director of Music.

So far as I can tell, the position remains empty; the job posting is still there, with only one small edit from last year: the “Possessing an MDiv or MA in theology”, while ideal, was perhaps a lot to ask, so it has been removed.

I wonder how long they’ll have to keep looking?