03 June 2013
addressing the vulgarity
Among the younger ages in our culture there is an almost-completely-missing respect for others, authority, property, community, or even self. We see this in the immodest dress that our children display (and - even worse - that many parents deem acceptable), in the language that is commonly used among them, and directed towards adults, and the blanket inability to be responsible caretakers of common spaces in society. It appears as though we have lost respect on many fronts, perpetuated by a disposable culture of get-all-that-I-want-for-myself.
What is worse still is that the church has itself become a participant in this lifestyle on many fronts. More and more churches, in their ongoing quest for relevance, are willing to approach the lines of vulgarity, all in the name of being 'real' or genuine. Once again it might be good for us to ask: Should we not be more concerned about our ministry being done for the sake of the gospel, rather than for the sake of being relevant? This type of misdirection undoubtedly contributed to the church in my corner of the country which recently ran a billboard advertisement for the upcoming sermon series: Fifty Shades of Grace. While they wanted to build some sort of semi-pornographic bridge to the curious unchurched, I wanted to puke in both religious and non-religious ways.
There are other examples of this which abound. Frankly, there are too many pastors and would-be preachers who become too giddy when they discover the earthiness of Paul's language in 1 Corinthians 4:13, salivating to emphasize to their congregation the full meaning of scum. We think that we are breaking some evangelical fundamentalism when we incorporate this type of 'realism' (i.e., crudeness), when in fact we are, in large part, displaying the shallows of our sanctification. (And, no, I do not have a problem with explaining that Paul is using shocking language to make a shocking point. My statement here is simply a consideration of how much emphasis is placed upon Paul's language - which we think is 'cool' - versus the meaning about being completely given over to the work of the gospel, otherwise known as the point of Paul's sentence.)
We could include all sorts of sermons about sex, thinking that we must be as much of a Showtime congregation - since we've conveniently dismissed our children to another section of the building - as we can get. I fear that once we have anesthetized to this level of rhetoric, we might become more of a Cinemax church culture before having to have a ratings system for Sunday morning messages. There are the sermons built around a month's worth of sex with your spouse (I still cannot find the appropriate biblical passage for this), or the whole XXX Church thing, among others. Obviously, the case can be made for the positive ends which are reached, though it becomes quite disturbing to have to justify such means.
All of this behavior becomes difficult to reconcile with the admonition: "... whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things." And perhaps one might say that our means get us to the ends of thinking about such things that transformation may then occur. But if our speech of such pure and lovely things is vulgar, then are we not soiling their holiness? We begin to look like a group of people who are not so different in their words and deeds than the rest of the world. And if we are not so different than the world, why then am I a part of this kingdom in the first place? It's very much like the churches who advertise by claiming that you come as you are and we aren't going to change you. Fine, then I might as well go golfing instead.
To be 'real' has become quite the ideal for modern evangelicalism. I contend that there is nothing more real or relevant than the gospel message - the one which is so radically different that it stands at odds with our world every bit as much as it did through the ministry of Jesus. It is the gospel which is not defiled by our human filth and fallenness, but which does not require our vulgarity in order for it to transform the dirtiest we have to offer. It is the gospel which is so compelling that we now see the redemptive beauty in all of creation - a beauty that needs to be revered and valued, for it is the world which was fashioned by our Creator, which he himself finds so wonderful and lovely that he would go to such sacrifice to care for it and bring about its restoration.
Those who want to appeal to Paul's sometimes harsh and shocking language may find themselves to be shocked that he taught us more so: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."
This type of holiness - or piety, as many traditions refer to it - used to be the worldview that made believers quite conscious of their behavior and speech. Yes, sometimes this led to overly fundamental and constrictive behavior, but my point is that the pendulum has gone way too far the other way. At the turn of the century Brethren did not allow themselves carpet in their homes because it was an expensive luxury at the time. When my parents were young many stores were not open on Christian holidays or Sundays. When I was young we didn't have organized sports on Sunday, nor did we mow our lawns. Can we identify anything that modern evangelicals do today that makes a public statement of our faith - that we are in the world, but apart from the world? And such attitudes are becoming even more lax (in those few places where there is anything left to give!) as time moves forward.
Yes, it is time to reconsider our current course.