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“IN IT BUT NOT OF IT”: CHRISTIAN VIRTUE IN A CORRUPT WORLD

This is a talk I gave to the SE District Conference of the Evangelical Free Church of America in Gainesville, FL, Feb. 23, 2012.   I think it has relevance for all of us who write–or read–literature (or any other art form) in today’s world.

“IN IT BUT NOT OF IT”:

MAINTAININIG CHRISTIAN VIRTUE IN A CORRUPT WORLD

I would like to speak today on a difficult and controversial topic: the Christian and Entertainment.  At the risk of not being entertaining, I would ask you to entertain in your minds the even more basic issue which is logically prior:  The Christian and his relationship to the world in which he is called to live and to which he is called to minister, a world that throws a lot more at us than just “entertainment.”  How do we maintain Christian virtue in a corrupt and corrupting world, one which is dangerous to us but which we must know and touch in order to reach?  I want to look at three passages which are foundational to any biblical view of these issues, make some simple observations about their teaching, and then try to draw some general conclusions from them.

I.  IN BUT NOT OF (John 17:14-15).

”I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  I do not ask thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.”

This passage is where we get the formula “in the world but not of it.”  I have three observations about this passage: what is forbidden in it, what is often attempted in response to it instead, and what is actually commanded by it.

What is forbidden are, by implication, two approaches to the world:  identification with it and isolation from it. We are to be “not of” the world (hence identification), but Jesus does not want us removed from it (hence isolation).  Now, there is a sense in which we do identify with the world.  We identify with it in its need and in its suffering, as our Lord modeled for us when he accepted a Baptism for the remission of sins which he did not personally need.  But we do not find our identity in the world, we do not allow it to define us, and we do not allow ourselves to be forced into its mold (Rom. 12:1).  In that sense, we identify not with the world but with Christ.  He defines us, he transforms us, and we find our identity in him.

Unfortunately, the easiest way to avoid identification with the world is to try to withdraw from it as much as possible, that is, to practice isolation from the world.  We create our own little Christian ghetto and withdraw within its borders so we will not be corrupted.  We Evangelicals think our Fundamentalist forebears had a problem with this, but we don’t.  I wonder if we have just made our response more subtle?   We write our own music and books and create our own TV, most of which somehow turn out to be strangely cheap imitations of what the world is doing but without the grosser forms of immorality.  But this is a false approach, and Christ makes it clear he does not mean us to take it, both by his prayer here and by his example, hanging out with publicans and sinners and scandalizing the religious conservatives of his day.

Somehow we must be “in” and “not of” at the same time.  But that is difficult.  What we often attempt is the much easier task of taking one of the two prepositions in isolation from the other.  It requires no effort at all to be “in” the world; the path of least resistance will suffice to accomplish that most efficiently.  And, while it requires more effort, it is also possible to be “not of” the world.  Here we create our (partially) insulated parallel universe, with borders guarded by ever-increasing lists of Rules.  “We don’t cuss, drink, smoke or chew, / and we don’t go with girls that do.”  But we can pursue either of these prepositions in the flesh.  We do not have in ourselves either the wisdom or the strength to be “in” and “not of” at the same time.  That requires the wisdom and the power of God; that requires discernment and dying to self.  And so, of course, it is not to be thought of by half-hearted Christians; and so it is seldom seen.

Yet that is precisely what is commanded:  not isolated prepositions in the flesh, but the integration of the two prepositions in the Spirit.  But how can we do that?  A good question: it leads us to the next verse.

II.  WHATEVER IS TRUE (Phil. 4:8)

”Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence, and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.”

My observation about this verse is a question:  What kind of command is it? Answer:  it is a positive command.  It is about what we are positively supposed to dwell on.  But what interests me is the fact that in our application of it we have almost universally turned it into a negative command, about what we are not supposed to read, watch, or listen to:  “Oh, this is impure, so I’d better stay away from it!”  Why have we managed to be so inattentive to what the Text actually says?  We do it because the negative approach is easier.  It is easier to boycott all movies (or all movies of a certain rating) than to use discernment; it is easier to swear off of “secular” music or “rock” than to listen critically to what the world is actually saying through these media, understand with empathy the cries of its lost voices, but then choose the good, and dwell on that.

I repeat:  this verse says not one word about what we cannot read, watch, or listen to.  It says not a single word about what we must turn a blind eye to, pretend isn’t there, or be ignorant of.  It says a lot about what we should nourish and feed our minds on.  Contrary to the T-shirt, Nietzsche isn’t peachy; he is actually very preachy, and what he is preaching is straight from the Pit.  But he has been very influential and he is important, and even in his evil he can teach us some things.  Therefore I was not disobeying this passage when I read him, even though he is rightly described by none of the adjectives (except possibly “excellent,” in the sense of “outstanding”) that the verse recommends.  But that is not the kind of thing I feed my mind on constantly.  On the other hand, I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings twice in 1968, the year I discovered it, and have read it annually since.  That is what the verse is talking about!

I am not saying that there is nothing that is so raw, so evil, so corrupting that we should not expose ourselves to it.  There is unfortunately plenty of material out there of which these things are true, including but not limited to pornography. What I am pointing out is that our main strategy for dealing with these problems is too often negative, while the Bible’s is positive.  And I am pointing out that understanding this truth makes Phil. 4:8 the answer to the dilemma raised by Jesus’ words in John 17.  How do we live “in” the world without becoming “of” it?  Do not focus primarily on what you can not read, watch, or listen to.  Do not use ignorance as the path to safety!   Rather, really feed your mind on what is Good, True, and Beautiful, and then it will respond rightly to the rest.

III.  HANDLE, TASTE, TOUCH?  (Col. 2:20-23)

”If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’  . . . . These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

It is not just that the negative approach is less valuable than the positive one I have recommended (and Paul commanded).  The Apostle says here that the negative approach is of no value at all!  Why?  Because you can abstain not only from Rock but also from Country (all those “cheatin’ songs”!)–hey, Mozart and Wagner were supposed to be immoral people, so we’d better abstain from Classical too—and what about all those divorces?–better add Contemporary Christian to the list.  You can abstain from everything except the Psalms in the original Hebrew sung to Gregorian Chant, and still be proud, envious, wrathful, slothful, greedy, gluttonous, and lustful.  The absence of the Evil (or even of the Questionable) simply does not equate to the presence of the Good (or of Virtue).  A negative photograph of the “world” is not necessarily a positive portrait of Jesus.

O.K., so what does work?  What is of value?  Phil. 4:8.  The cornerstone of our approach to being in the world but not of it, i.e., to maintaining Christian virtue in a corrupt world, should not be all the things we do not read, watch, or listen to.  It should be a mind really fed on and nurtured by the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, as we find them in Scripture and in the best of the Christian and classical traditions.  You cannot keep the “impure” out of your mind.  But you can keep the fresh, pure mountain spring water of Scripture and the rest that is good flowing strongly through it, so that the impure is constantly being washed away.  And that is the only way to keep it pure.

CONCLUSION:

I often ask my Composition students to write an essay on “Why I came to Toccoa Falls College.”  It’s slightly less boring than “What I did on my Summer Vacation,” and besides, I want to know.  Over the years the results have been very consistent. The one answer that I get more than all other answers combined is, “To escape the evil influence of the secular university.”  This has always troubled me, and in preparing for this message I realized more clearly why.  It is a negative answer, not a positive one.  We came to a Christian college to hide.  Why hasn’t anybody ever given the answer I’m looking for: “Because Toccoa Falls is the West Point for Christian Soldiers.”  If there is anyone reading this who has that mentality and who is considering college, I want you in my classes next Fall!  So I want you to understand:  If you came to a Christian college, or to a Christian day school, or to your church to hide in the Christian ghetto, this is not the mentality of Conquerors for Christ, but of people who are defeated already before they ever enter the battle.  Christians are not called to be afraid of the world or ignorant of it; they are called to be different from it.

Understanding this, Milton asked, “What wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil?  He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer what is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.”  And he therefore concludes, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies forth to face her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

What shall we say, then?  Feed your mind on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, as we find them in Scripture and in the best of the Christian and classical traditions, and then it will respond properly to the rest.  Develop uncloistered virtue: positive, discerning, unafraid.  Then we may say with Bunyan’s Pilgrim, “Apollyon, beware what you do; for I am in the King’s highway, the way of holiness; therefore take heed to thyself.”  And the gates of Hell will not prevail against us.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of NE Georgia.  An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America, he has spent many years in pastoral ministry and several summers training local pastors in Uganda and Kenya for Church Planting International.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008), Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  His website is http://doulomen.tripod.com.