Like plants we cannot flourish without light. And though Christ has already brought the revelation of His superabundant light, our arts and sciences are not the harvest of a righteous world, but an exceedingly wicked one. If the light offered by unbelievers is darkness, for we are all darkness before we have Christ, then should Christians reject all non-Christian culture? Or going further, if the public culture made available by the world is even a deception meant to ensnare us, then how should we be separate or on guard?
For some like me, to reject certain authors is like abandoning family. True that sometimes we outgrow authors, or they lose their spell, while others stay relevant. The vital testimony of a whole generation, of a soul, or of our humanity, can make reading such witness holy even when the author puts forth bad fruit. At least that is what I argue as part of my conclusion in Part 1 of this series.
In this effort to see in darkness, (and we must maintain the effort even in church, and with Christian media), we should expect to detect both good and bad, beneficial and potentially harmful things. Some work is too unwholesome or dangerous and should be avoided, at least that is what I conclude with alarm when I confront the material of Part 2 of this series.
Ultimately we will create a new Christian culture based on higher Truth, and filled with Life, and greater loveliness. And this must come into full flowering in the Peaceable Kingdom of Christ. God willing we can begin laying the groundwork by His blessing now.
And I want to just offer this video as a kind of demonstration of these issues, because it shows the matter in several poignant dimensions. Here James Baldwin, the celebrated novelist, debates William F. Buckley, the conservative intellectual and wit, on the issue of race in America. The actual motion of the debate proves somewhat hard to tack down, but the evening essentially becomes a referendum on the significance of racism in America, what toll it takes, and/or whether whites can be held accountable, or even for Buckley, whether they should be thanked.
Baldwin’s father was a Pentecostal preacher, and he was a preacher himself as a youth, though he grew up to reject Christianity. He seems invested with a gifted preacher’s eloquence; even referring to himself as a Jeremiah figure. He asks us, ‘isn’t your position in life what determines your morality, and your motives, and your convictions?’ This is true a great extent, both economically, and in terms of election. Were we raised slaveholders we would see the world one way; but if we were black in Harlem in 1950, we would see the world another way. Then in contemplating the human heart and seeking to love our neighbor as ourselves, what position is our neighbor in? What abyss is stretched a shadow out beneath our neighbor? If we cannot truly know our neighbor then we cannot effectively love our neighbor. Perfect love does not smile at a burning man.
And this fact was played out so dramatically in the debate. Buckley took strong positions all the time on his show, matching himself against very brainy people with his arguments and humor. But here he cannot help arguing the position that white people have not achieved the American Dream at the expense of the black people whose labor they exploited for hundreds of years, and while you could say, no, they achieved a nightmare at the expense of black people, we (whites) have had the privilege of inequality at every step. Buckley is caught in his position and it is terrible and amazing to see him squirm so much.But this is the thing about Buckley that night: it is okay to love him too. He is human too, and he is lovable too.
This series is called, “books unfit to read”, and here in this debate we see what this really means, though it is oral and ex tempore. Engagement often makes it possible for Christian ministry to take place, and this does not only mean evangelism. However, for culture to be dominated by anti-Christian products does no good. That is, thinking of the debate, reason and language can get us touched with goodness, with repentance. Reason and language can also enable us to contemplate difficulties we endure like prejudice.
When we use our human gifts to the full regnant Christ engages, enters our kitchen, our little fright, our holy sacrifice. Then we can be reconciled to the Absolute Light, whether as a friend of the King for a minute, or forever. Were not Ahab, and Balaam, friends with God, when they repented, when they said, “my heart is with God, and I will bless?” Possible as this is by engaging a relatively godless work, friendship with God flourishes in a godly society.
Finally I just want to say that this debate shows the inner workings of reason, more specifically, logos; they way the Word works in human beings, both in conversation and when we consider rhetoric privately. How moved and transported these young men and women were! This was because they revered a man who used his hard won power to set others free, as if his tongue were a hard forged instrument of liberation. And God’s own reflections on the Word are mixed with the logos we bear. Listen for the moment (around the 21:50 mark) when Baldwin raises his voice to make a point, as he turned poetic in the second block of text here. Did the outdoor speakers echo with that word?
“Now, we are speaking about expense. I suppose there are several ways to address oneself to, some attempt to find what that word means here. Let me put it this way. That from a very literal point of view, the harbors, and the ports, and the railroads of the country; the economy, especially of the Southern states, could not conceivably be what it has become, if they had not had, and do not still have, indeed and for so long, for so many generations, cheap labor.”
“I am stating very seriously.
And this is not an overstatement.
That I picked the cotton,
and I carried it to market,
and I built the railroads.
Under someone else’s whip,
“The Southern oligarchy which has today so much power
in Washington, and therefore some power in the world,
was created by my labor and my sweat,
and the violation of my women,
and the murder of my children.
This, in the land of the free
and the home of the brave.
And no one can challenge that statement.
It is a matter of historical record.”
God’s mind is a Supreme Glory. Because man can have a mind such as found in Baldwin’s oratory, it is like the prophets, and in that sense God-like, echoing, resonating with the Living God. We should have reverence for human culture, and our intellectual output, laboring to handle God’s scriptures rightly, but also handle the logos rightly in the world around us; rejecting some things, and embracing others.