Brett McCracken. Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013. 260 pp. $14.99.
Although the spells of Harry Potter still cause some Christians to recoil, the millennial generation has become increasingly congenial toward pop culture. Brett McCracken’s Gray Matters examines the gray issues between Christians and culture. The goal of the book is to help believers think about healthy consumption that honors God, enriches life, strengthens community, and advances mission.
McCracken notes that the term “consumer” usually has negative connotations, but that’s “because we’ve cheapened the process of consuming. We’ve been bad consumers” (16). “Consumer” is actually a neutral word and, if done properly, consuming can contribute to human flourishing. McCracken, a Los Angeles-based author and journalist, covers four topics: eating, listening, watching, and drinking. Rather than fronting the summary I will interact with the topics individually, as each deserves separate treatment.
I was slightly confused by McCracken’s choice to start with eating or to include the topic at all. After all, most Christians don’t debate whether it’s right to eat or not, and if they do, they’re not around for long.
But McCracken is right that we spend a significant amount of time and energy participating in this activity; reflection, therefore, is appropriate. After tracing some key texts on food in the Bible, he goes straight into “wrong” and “right” eating. McCracken cautions against eating too much food, eating to escape, eating as merely fuel for the body, using food as a status symbol, and eating food that encourages injustice. He encourages his readers to eat for connection, with restraint, for wellness, with humility, and with a conscience. Balancing affirmations of both McDonald’s and also local foods, McCracken cuts a fine line between dangers on all sides of the drive-thru line. He critiques the “Whole Foods crowd” for using food as a status symbol, but he also encourages Walmart and fast food devotees to consider justice and to support local farmers.
One lingering question concerns the level of importance McCracken ascribes to food. Is he saying “Food is important in the Bible”? That’s hard to argue against. In some ways it is, while in others it’s not. It’s important because everything we do has significance. But we also do a lot of other things, and when everything becomes important, nothing is.
The biblicist in me desired more interaction with Paul’s words, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Is Paul merely saying to do all things to glory of God, or is he using the specific case of food since it has minimal importance? Obviously, Paul explicitly gives food more importance here, but is he not in some way suggesting it’s a means to an end? This struck me as McCracken critiqued those who use “food as fuel.” I’m guessing this is the natural experience of most around the world today and throughout history. Many people have lived (and still live) hand-to-mouth. What he says, then, should align with other cultures as well. I interacted with Brett about this point, and he mentioned he realistically had to focus on his audience, but he said this advice can cross socioeconomic spectrums. God didn’t have to make food tasty, but he did. Still, I think a more expansive view of Majority World countries and their interaction with food may have been helpful in McCracken’s analysis.
McCracken then turns to cover some of the more recent Christian approaches to music, starting with jazz and ending with the rise and fall of CCM (Christian Contemporary Music). He rightly notes that the “Christian” music label is slowly fading as more Christians accept that all music has the potential to be spiritual. McCracken is happy with the progress but also concerned it may have gone too far. Believers might need to be more discerning about what they’re consuming, in other words, as it’s become something of a free-for-all.
McCracken rightly points to a more holistic view of music than CCM presented. A more comprehensive theology of music understands the label “Christian” doesn’t equal “good”—and vice versa with secular music. He encourages “reading into a cultural text something that may or may not have been in the creator’s intention” (109). Although McCracken touches on verses about dwelling on what’s noble and true (e.g., Phil. 4:8), I wish he’d spent significant time offering constructing advice. Could a Lil Wayne song, for example, ever fall under this banner?
The chapter on watching is mainly about movies, though McCracken has a short blurb about TV in which he notes the increasing excellence of certain shows (think AMC). Like the previous chapter he gives a brief history of Christians and movies and then considers where we should draw the line.
Similar to his discussion on music, McCracken rightly advocates a more holistic view of movies that respects both form and content. Movies with moral messages aren’t necessarily good; we must consider how they’re presented as well. Additionally, web sites like Plugged In tend to feature a truncated view of films. Curse-counting and notes about all the content related to drugs, alcohol, sex, and spirituality treat movies like they’re PowerPoint presentations. But McCracken doesn’t mention that such “compilations” can be helpful for parents with young children. Still, I generally agree with him that the narrative and form of a film needs to be considered, and thankfully outlets such as World, Christianity Today, and Relevant are offering more balanced reviews.
So how should Christians discern what they watch? The worst thing to do is approach movie-watching as a time of passive, mindless entertainment. More specifically, though, concerning issues such as sexuality, profanity, and violence, Christians need to examine their own hearts and stay away from temptations. If you struggle with pornography, for example, don't watch movies with explicit sexual content.
Drinking remains one of the most contentious topics among believers. After covering a brief history of Christians’ relationship to drinking (noting it’s only a small slice of history when Christians completely opposed it), McCracken proposes some positives and negatives concerning drinking.
Positively, drinking can help foster fellowship, break down barriers, and allow people to let down their guard. On the other side, however, McCracken pushes our “accepting” Christian culture to think more carefully about what we’re doing and to not simply react against previous generations.
Balanced and Versatile
Gray Matters is a balanced and versatile book: while millennials will be challenged in their acceptance of all things cultural, Baby Boomers will be pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful reflection. Both need to think more about healthy consumption.
I particularly enjoyed McCracken’s focus on how all of these gray matters should bring people together, though I was admittedly hoping for more depth of reflection (of which I know he’s capable) having previously benefited from some of his specific categories such as “depiction is not endorsement.”
Doug Wilson’s words kept coming to my mind while I read the book:
The way others are to view your liberty is not the same way that you should view your liberty. Other Christians should let you do what you want unless the Bible forbids it. That’s how we guard against legalism. But you should use your liberty differently—you should be asking what the reasons are for doing it, and not what the reasons are for prohibiting it.
If you’re looking for an answer book, this isn’t the one for you. And good thing, too, since these issues are too complex for good/bad columns. McCracken gives us the tools to consume wisely.