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On Beauty and Christian Freedom Part 1: Choosing Slavery and the Hunt for Beauty

Lust Lust Lust

One of my favourite records is called Lust Lust Lust. It's a wonderful album by the Raveonettes who I once described as being like Buddy Holly in a blender. And Lust is this melodic cacophony of reverb-soaked surf guitar drenched in a sea of thick, dense, beautiful noise. Anyway, the point is, how do you feel about that? Does that sound like an appropriate admission for a Christian, let alone an elder of a church? I mean - lust. Not just once but three times. If you know your Bible, you know that lust isn't something to joke about or glory in. This is the stuff you wanna flee from - just read 1 Corinthians. On the surface, it sounds so godless and unnecessary, right? But the thing is, if it's wrong for me in principle as a Christian to listen to something named after something deadly serious and sinful, well, that doesn't stop me from enjoying it. It's music, and it's exactly my taste, and I really enjoy it. So, is that a problem?

I pose the question because I want to try and discuss the nature of Christian experience when it comes to engaging culture. It can be difficult for us as Christians to discern right and wrong, particularly with cultural engagement. And the fiercest conflicts in our consciences can often arise when we discover we enjoy something we feel like we shouldn't. So here are a few ideas that I have found useful myself in my attempts to understand what a Christian can and can't/should and shouldn't. I'll use myself and my experience as an example throughout. So why not search YouTube for Lust Lust Lust, and give it a listen whilst you read on? If your conscience will allow, of course!

The Image of God is in Everything

The first place to start is to think about the nature of creation and the image of God. And it's important to know that the whole of creation is made in the image of God. I know that Genesis 1:26 reveals man as specifically being made in God's image and likeness, and there is something unique about mankind in that regard, that nothing else in creation can claim. But, by virtue of having been created by God and proceeding directly from his imagination and ability to create, all things that have been made necessarily bear something of the image of God. In the same way that my children bear my image more so than a mere photograph of me, so does mankind bear the image of God more than a tree, for instance. However, a tree still bears something of the image of God, just like a photograph still does of me. Everything I create bears my image to some degree. Everything God has created bears his image to a lesser or greater degree. This is important. Because when we bring a verse like John 1:3 into the mix, we understand that Jesus claims responsibility for the origination of everything that has been made. Obviously, we interpret this sensibly. God didn't 'invent' the iPhone or the car or even many breeds of animals (like those ugly little messed up dogs people keep as pets in handbags). But without his imagination at the foundation of the world, and his governance over the perpetuation of it, none of those things would be possible. Therefore Jesus has created all things. Including this album that I'm so fond of. Without Jesus, none of the conditions necessary for its conception and creation would be possible. Taking into account also the fact that God is sovereign and knows all things at all times including future events and is in control of those events, we must understand that a record like Lust Lust Lust, even with its gratuitous title, exists by permission and even facilitation.

And it's true. If you think about it carefully, Lust Lust Lust, just like every record ever made, retains certain aspects of the image of God. It's creative. It's imaginative. It's sensitive, even a bit romantic. It utilises the inherent rules and structures governing the metaphysical phenomenon of music - the very same that God wove into the fabric of nature. The same ones that David soothed Saul's mind with. The same ones that our church hymns use. And this is a form of obedience, is it not, to the laws of nature as designed by God? This obedience, whether intentional or not, glorifies God because he created the rules and they are being used because they are beautiful. And no matter how godless a person is, if they create music, they obey God. Now, of course, Lust is not an idea to be celebrated, and it is at this point that we start to see the image of God being tarnished and diminished. And quite frankly, the record in question is really not perfect. It's often noisy, quite non-musical and at times, almost rebelliously so, pursues a sort of destruction of musical convention. But do you see? Even if you have to look for shreds or shards or scraps, you will be able to find elements of the image of God in anything. We must look harder in some places than others, but it will always be there. Because of this, we can say that there are traces of beauty in everything. If nothing can exist without God's imagination, will and power, then everything that exists, exists because of these. Therefore everything that exists, retains something of the image of God. The image and the beauty of God cannot be so diminished as to be completely absent, or that thing would cease to exists. If we think in terms of a percentage, we could say that the image of God could never reach 0%. Within anything that exists, there would always be something about its condition that retains that image and beauty. And so, there is much for me to genuinely admire and enjoy about Lust Lust Lust.

The greater problem we have when it comes to engaging culture is not that we might be tempted to enjoy things that retain a lesser degree of the image of God, but the fact that anything less than 100% is not good enough. The moment sin entered the world, it became cursed and fallen. Still beautiful, still brilliant, but significantly and detrimentally altered. God's perfection became less. The image of God in man marred, broken, damaged, though not destroyed. So, we could ask the question, is anything good enough? When God demands perfection, is anything we can offer good enough? Because if what God demands is perfection, then not even 99.9% is good enough. And in a sense, how is a hymn full of biblically affirming, intentionally god glorifying lyrics, composed by a musically gifted mind, played by a brilliant musician a better or more worthy expression than the songs on Lust? A Christian composer is still a broken, damaged, imperfect person suffering the effects of the fall as much as anyone. They are still a sinner. If we ignore the nuances, it gets lumped in the <100% category, along with The Raveonettes, and all the other music I like (and dislike). Drawing lines is a tricky thing to do. So I think the place to start, is to be bold enough to recognise that there is beauty in everything, even stuff our consciences wince at. Because, Christian, we're actually free to do so.

The Freedom of the Christian

It's a bit like eating meat instead of vegetables. Daniel didn't do it, but, according to Paul and Romans 14 (which is actually a really helpful read alongside this post), Christians are in fact free to eat meat, should his faith allow him. Paul calls the people who eat meat (which, in the context of Rom 14, was being abstained from by those who clung to traditional Jewish food laws) strong in their faith. Strong meaning, they are really, really sure that it is ALL of Christ that they are saved. In a similar passage, 1 Corinthians 8, some weaker brothers wouldn't eat food offered to idols before being sold at the market. But the stronger believers did. They reasoned that idols aren't real, that the purveyors of such meats are worshipping falsely, which is no worship at all and of no real significance on the part of the consumer. After all, what kind of God would accept a person based on how their food was prepared? If I told my kids I wasn't willing to hug them unless they obeyed some obscure weird rule, what would that say about me and how I really feel about them? But some are weak, as Paul says. They still have faith, of course, but, being a little more superstitious, perhaps and probably having a propensity for doubting and feeling insecure generally, these weak believers are wary of eating food because of its association with pagan rituals. They are a bit like my mum the time we got back home from the States on holiday. Of course, I couldn't sleep very well that night. But, instead of remembering that jet lag is a thing, my mum was quick to suggest that my insomnia was due to the Jimi Hendrix poster I brought back and promptly hung on the wall - it was a poster of the Axis: Bold As Love album cover, the one where Jimi looks like a Hindu deity. But that's not how justification works.

You see, before we're saved, we're guilty before God according to his law. And we have a conscience as a bit of an inbuilt moral guide to help us instinctively figure out what that law is without actually having to have studied the letter of it. For instance, no-one told Cain not to murder Abel. But he damn well knew it was wrong. Surely he was battling a guilty conscience. In his pride, he seemed to ignore it, but he will have known to a lesser or greater extent, that what he'd done was wrong, without anyone having articulated that to him. Thus he proved himself to be a transgressor. He proved himself guilty and culpable. How sin affects us is not just in our actions but in our inclinations. We are sinful before we have committed any sinful act. You may know this idea as original sin.

How justification works is that Jesus keeps the law on our behalf. And we put our faith in that. We trust that.. He kept the law, fully and perfectly. His death takes away the guilt of sin, his perfect life adds the positive righteousness we need to gain. Death only and we'd be neutral beings, still needing to acquire positive righteousness. (But Adam and Eve didn't get on very well with that, so how could we expect to)?

So, once a Christian has been justified, with his righteousness sealed up within Christ and the perfect earthly life that he unchangeably lived 2000 years ago, we are now free. Free in a sense from the law. That means, in a way, we get away with sin. Now that's a bold thing to say, and not quite the language the Bible uses, and probably something I'd only say in an academic context or specific pastoral context to nail home the point. But we do. It's true. Being immovably justified through faith in Christ and all that HE has done, I no longer acquire further guilt when I sin. I will sin, inevitably, without thinking or intending to. I can't help it. To lesser and greater extents, I allow myself to sin, give in to temptations and even choose to sin to a certain degree. Yet I accrue no more guilt. I'm free to sin. I'm free to listen to an album called Lust Lust Lust. I can have a flash in the pan moment and choose to be selfish and not love my wife or children as I ought, yet I'm guiltless. Actually, according to Paul, anything not done in faith is sin. Which, really, is pretty hard for us to get our heads around. Because that assumes a certain level of consciousness about our actions. I mean, do I fill up my car with petrol in faith? Perhaps, last month, when I filled up before the light turned on in order to keep within last month's budget as a way of trying to steward my money well. But not usually. I just fill up and drive off. Often cringing at the price, often frustrated at the queue. But I'm Christ's so I'm guiltless. I stay justified. I, therefore, in a sense, get away with sin. Wow. I'm free to listen to whatever music I want to. Which is helpful. Because I think for most people, for most Christians, we listen to more 'secular' music than 'sacred' music. And even if none of your favourite bands like to explore themes such as lust simply because it's historically taboo, they probably have enough about them for your conscience to throb. Taylor Swift promotes LGBT issues, C'eelo Green has been abusive to women, John Lennon everyone knows was as godless as anyone. Elvis Presley died on the toilet from a drug problem. We can find fault anyone. (I use those examples because everyone has heard music by those people). So it's a helpful starting place to know that we're free to listen, or at least hear. If we understand our faith and our salvation in this way, we are strong, and therefore free. Our consciences allow us greater liberty and give us the ability to see and even enjoy the beauty in places we otherwise might not tread.

Results in slavery to Christ

Now, I hope what I'm saying make you think "should I go on sinning that grace may abound". Because, I want to make the point that, well, the more we sin, the more grace does abound. That's the incredible thing about it, right? That's the scandal of grace. I want grace to be that shockingly, freeingly wonderful to you. However, with Paul's help again, we know that we should not go on sinning that grace may abound, because, actually, the fact that grace does abound the more we sin, should motivate us not to sin. (Not that it's sinful for me to listen to the music I like, I hope we've established that).

I shared this with a colleague at work once. We got to this point. But she couldn't get her head around why people wouldn't use grace a licence to sin... It's like this, though: you have surgery, after a car crash, which saves your life. From thenceforth you actually stick to the speed limit when you get back behind the wheel. If you don't, you're an idiot. You don't go out driving recklessly again in order to get in another accident just to give the surgeon another opportunity to employ his skills and save another life. To be sure, grace does not make sinning ok, it reveals God's kindness. To go on sinning is to exploit that kindness.

You see when we become Christians, and as we grow as Christians, we become totally free, but we tend not to take advantage of that. We actually limit the freedom we have, in order to glorify God and serve other (weaker) Christians. We also limit our own freedom because of taste, or desire or affection. What we love and enjoy, the beauty we appreciate begins to line up more and more what we believe about Christ and the beauty we see in him. I wrote about it in this post a couple of years ago, but I'll give a more relevant example now. The experience of the strong Christian is usually something like this: I love the band the Knife. I've seen them live and I've probably not listened to anything else more than I have the Knife. It hits the spot every time. Karin Dreijer is half of the band. She's also known as Fever Ray for her solo stuff. The first album was great. Critically acclaimed and different, yet similar enough to the knife to be really worthwhile. As time goes on, though, so her political and philosophical views grow. She divorced her husband and is careful to practice what she preaches  - symbolised by the trademark t-shirt she wears on stage that has "I ❤︎ Swedish Girls" printed on the front. (She's Swedish). Her latest music is really filthy. It's explicit. It's queer propaganda. I mean, don't search for it on YouTube. You really won't like the content. But, it's brilliant music. It might be wrong, but it's intelligent, beautifully composed and constructed - very creative and imaginative. No one else makes music like it. I listened to the whole record. Just once. I may listen to it again at some point - though, probably not. But I couldn't buy that. It's the antithesis of what I stand for as a Christian. It seeks to completely abstract the boundaries of reality as we know them, obscuring truth, morality and convention. It's not something I want to endorse or be seen to be endorsing. And what's more, I just don't enjoy it. Of course, I could ignore the moral dimension of it and delight in the music, to a certain extent. But, as I mention in that old post, the moral informs the aesthetic and so the music is pretty much ruined for me. I see so little moral beauty in it that I have no pleasure in the aesthetic part of it.

That's my line. I reached it. Not because I'm weak and wary of the association with ungodly content, but because I know how much God's grace abounds in me, I am strong. Strong enough to not eat meat, strong enough not to listen to Fever Ray. The experience of the true, growing, strengthening Christian is one of finding greater and greater enjoyment in things like are directly concerned with God and HIS own personal beauty in Christ. The further I commit myself to him, knowing that all I need is in him, other things become less of a concern to me. And I in effect, have my ear pierced with Christ's awl, and I commit to slavery to Christ, over freedom to the world. Done not out of duty, but out of choice; of affection and delight and joy. Read Deuteronomy 15. This was something a Hebrew servant might choose to do upon being released from his servant duties after his time of service was up. Every master had to allow freedom after the allotted time. However, if the master was such a good master and provided so well for that servant and his family, the servant was allowed to choose to stay. He would then have his ear pierced through with an awl, symbolising that he was happy under this master, suggesting that the free life was not as good in comparison. And this is what Christians do. We are thankful for the freedom we have, but we want to ensure that we never drift from Christ. We want to cling to him as a loving master, and so we pierce our ears by abstaining from things such as meat or music or whatever it is for you. And we don't feel like we're missing out! Funny, isn't it? The freedom of the Christian results in slavery to Christ. The limitations and boundaries of that look different for each according to conscience and faith, of course. But the principle remains. The sign of a Christian who is being sanctified is that their love for Christ and holiness grows stronger and stronger and their love for the world grows colder and colder. Not because the world isn't beautiful, but because, in this momentary life, we realise how unnecessary it is for us. We're free to give it all up, because Christ is better.

Noble things

And there is much wisdom in this self-denying slavery to Christ. Firstly, because our hearts are deceitful above all things. When we sense our enjoyment in one area, we have to be careful that we don't end up loving something that really is ungodly. There is always the danger that we will end up fixating on the minor beauty we discover within the created order, and forget the greater beauty it should lead to, of the God who created it to bear his image. We are weak people. Suffering the burden of a sinful existence in a sinful world. Legally justified, but not yet fully free from the experience of sin. We need to guard our hearts. We need to, as Paul says in Philippians 4:8, think about the true, the noble, the right, the pure, the lovely etc... Because our ongoing confidence, our assurance, and the strength of our faith is based on a joy in Christ, which is cultivated by thinking about such things as Paul mentions because he is all of those things. All of those things ultimately lead us to him, and warm our hearts to him. God designed us physiologically to respond positively towards such things. I love truth and hate lies instinctively. Jesus says "I am the way the truth and the life". Do you see the logic there? And it's not just logic, it is the Christian experience. This method will work. Saturate your heart and mind in things that reflect the glory of Christ, match that up to what is revealed about Christ in scripture and you begin to learn how to use means to aid your own sanctification. And you can work out what those things are on your own, there is an element of subjectivity here. But for me, it ended up with me finally listening to Christian music. Not that Christian music is any better than 'secular' music, but because as my heart is being changed, my desires are also changing.

I don't own a lot of Christian music. Usually, I hate it. It's boring as hell to someone like me who really enjoys abstract experimental sounds. You just don't get that in Christian music. Lion of Judah doesn't even do it for me (sorry guys - says more about me than it does you)… But I do like Psallos. Psallos is a music project seeking to put every New Testament book to music. They've done Romans, Hebrews and Jude so far. And I do love Psallos. It's exquisitely well composed. Very well arranged, sung and performed. And the best thing about it, especially with Romans and Hebrews, is that it's lyrically so faithful to the text. Which makes for slightly unusual arrangements sometimes, but I dig that. There is some literal stuff there, that's great to hear sung - God's truth that excites my regenerate heart. But also some first-class interpretation. I've used a line or two from Hebrews in a couple of talks I wrote, so good are the lyrics at summing up biblical truth in an easy to understand and powerful way. And I listen to Hebrews quite a lot. It's my favourite book of the NT. I listen to it because it gives me such direct access to God's word delivered in a creative way, which is a response to the truth found within. You see, the aesthetic form of the record might not be quite what I'd expect or choose from 'secular' music but, like discussed earlier, I so enjoy the moral component of the music that I'm learning to love even the aesthetic parts I wouldn't usually enjoy so much. It's the exact reverse of my experience with Fever Ray. And it's the exact experience of every thoughtful Christian. I think this is a typical experience, or at least should be. And this is why we choose slavery. Because the secular stuff just doesn't get us to Christ quick enough. I get greater satisfaction from things directly related to Christ - Word-based stuff - than I do from other areas. So I find that as I grow, I just gravitate towards Christian content. Or, if it's not available in a way I like, I generate my own.

In my first year at uni, I lived at home. I commuted into the CU events every Thursday night, though. As you can imagine, I became known for being into music. I listened to stuff others just didn't. And to be honest, I probably loved it more than anyone else I knew. Being really honest, uni was probably the time I really started to love God more than music. Anyway, when I moved into the city to live near uni, I had to choose a church. And being known as the person most passionate about music, I got quite a bit of stick from CU members for choosing to attend the church which had, shall we say, the most simple and traditional style of music during worship services. A Piano, some brass perhaps and a bit of drums, and I played the guitar. Some good singers. It wasn't modern, it wasn't ambitious, and the drum kit wasn't big or loud enough to fit behind a plexiglass surround like it did in the church everyone thought I'd go to. But, I'll tell you now, there was not better preaching happening anywhere in the country. I'm not the only one to have thought that at the time. It was the kind of preaching that I'd hear, as a spiritually developing student, and have to leave quickly after the service ended just to go home and pray it all through. It was powerful stuff for me and I knew it. Thanks be to God. That's strength. That's maturity. That's the Spirit at work in a Christian life. That made me abandon one love for a greater love. The more I understood of my freedom, the less I wanted to take liberties with it, and the more I wanted to cleave to Christ, being as close to his love and care as possible. You see, I could take liberties. As I mentioned earlier, I could go on sinning and grace would abound. That's election and predestination. But that's dangerous territory. Firstly,  because God uses means to sanctify us and those greatest means lie within the Word and the church. The Holy Spirit works in us in conjunction with the word and other Christians. Jesus will love me and sustain me through spiritual decline that isn't terminal. But he wants his care to take place generally, in a Christian context. If I abandon that, I'm at risk. Secondly, the influence of the world would eventually overcome me. It's dangerous to play with this stuff so frivolously. Hence the line drawn in the sand with that Fever Ray record. When we put our energies into loving the world, into consuming culture that is not pure and right and noble and true, we set a trap for ourselves. The more worldly we become, which is the danger, we lose our spiritual sight. We drift into doubt, lacking assurance, lacking joy. We then cease to practise spiritual disciplines and end up wondering why God isn't responding to us. It's at this point that God will do something drastic to bring us back if we are his, or we'll abandon him and (likely) end up discovering we were never his in the first place. It's not sin to listen, or to look, necessarily (though when it comes to looking, give into your conscience quickly. Some things affect us more than others and images certainly more than sounds). But the more you do it, especially without a heavy compensation of strong Christian living to tip the balance, you might find either your heart won, or your mind turned by a joy or an idea that leads you astray.

Hunting for Beauty

So that does beg the question, then, should we go hunting for beauty beyond the safety and security but also the genuine joy of a Christian context? Right or wrong, should I even bother listening to Lust Lust Lust?

Yes, of course. Worldy stuff is all around us. Especially in this country. You just can't help but encounter it. So, engage with it. We're called not to be gnostics or monks. True Christianity does not consist of sitting on a pole in the middle of a desert or of the seclusion of a monastery.

Plus, as discussed near the beginning, there is beauty in the worldly stuff! The image of God is always retained, however little there might be. There is value in being able to trace his image in all places. This can be a way to strengthen our faith, as it has mine, by showing us that you just can't escape God, his design, his ongoing power and influence and his love. Suffering in the world, as C.S. Lewis said, is God's megaphone to a deaf world. The brokenness, you see is allowed partly in order to show us how horrible sin is. But the beauty in the world is left there so that by way of comparison, we might find hope and call out for a saviour and seek our maker. Beauty is also a megaphone to a deaf world. As Paul says in Romans ch1, there is enough revelation of God in creation to condemn us for not acknowledging him. There isn't enough general revelation in creation to save us through knowledge alone, but there is enough there to give us hope that God himself might make a way. There is enough to give us hope. And so it is good to look for those glimmers of hope. It's good to be encouraged and gain confidence by their existence and to enjoy the tasters of God himself that they are.

I like to use my commute time as music listening time. I can usually get through an album in a couple of days. And, as my knowledge grows and my thinking develops, I do find myself responding differently to the music I enjoy. The closer I grow to Christ, the more these instances of encountering beauty, such as music, become meaningful worship experiences. I knew my heart had changed (more) when I found myself in awe of a new record I'd bought a while ago. Instead of merely enjoying it, I spontaneously gave thanks for it. I was glad that under God's sovereignty, this item of beauty had come into existence. Again, from the artist's point of view, this was entirely ungodly music. But from my point of view, I recognised that this couldn't exist without God and that it necessarily reflected the image of God, whether the artist intended it too or not, and in that, I could rejoice. It was a symbol of beauty, of hope and of the love of God. And what is not to delight in about that? Of course, we can and perhaps should grieve about the context in which so much beauty is imagined and created, but that is just one side of the coin. To see light shine out of darkness is an entirely Biblical idea. The cross is the most grievous miscarriage of justice that ever there was. God himself tortured to death. Yet, out of that bleak darkness comes the foundation for any hope to exist. Such horror became such beauty, as that dying son of God gave up his life to bring life to his people.

So do feel free to dig around a bit and look for those glimmers. Some things will just be unnecessary, but each to his own conscience and faith. But do it in connection with a robust spiritual life. You will only be capable of engaging culture in proportion to the strength of your faith. And remember, the stronger your faith does grow, the more likely you will be to cling exclusively to Christ. You may discover an ability to find beauty in obscure places, but, as in my experience, if it is truly the beauty of God you see there, you will love him so much that tiny scraps of beauty won't be enough, and you'll become more and more inclined toward feasting on the actual Word of God himself. I might be able to enjoy an album called Lust Lust Lust, I might be able to worship through it, and thank God for it - genuinely. But because it is God I am truly enjoying, it just doesn't compare to the Word and prayer, to my spiritual disciplines and to church and fellowship. It's the difference between the quick fix from a chocolate bar, versus a three-course meal at your favourite restaurant. Of course, a Bible study, for instance, isn't a directly comparable activity to listening to music. Music has its place. As does art, literature, entertainment, sports etc... But when you're growing, you know what's good for you. And you know what feels good. You can tell when you've prayed well. You can tell when you've studied well. You can tell when God has been at work in you and it's a glorious thing that nought else can compare with. After all, back to 1 Corinthians 8, for a moment, you might have to forego what you enjoy, not for the sake of your own conscience, but for the sake of others who are not able to see as you see, whose faith is a little weaker. But I would encourage some to explore the depths of culture around the world. Engage with art, engage with politics, engage with literature and music, with fashion and more... Get to know it, understand it, enjoy it if possible. Trace God's image in it and if appropriate, help to ease the conscience of a weaker believer. Not to go against Paul in Corinthians or Romans 14. If people struggle we must never force them to go against the conscience. The stronger should always oblige the weaker. But, what I mean is, don't put up unnecessary boundaries. Don't tell someone they shouldn't do something if biblically they can. For instance, if your kids want to listen to heavy metal because their friends are into it and they enjoy it, let them (guide them, give wisdom). Help people develop and grow. Because if we are growing into strong mature Christians, this shouldn't be a problem. We'll know our hearts, we'll know the world, we'll know our conscience and we'll be capable of drawing the right lines.

I'll end with these words of wisdom from William Gurnall:

"God's word is filled with good things for your soul. He wants you to have them all, so see to it that you are a wakeful and attentive student. Strive to be like Lydia, who 'attended unto things which were spoken by Paul' (Acts 16:14). When you go to church, try to fix your quicksilver mind and set yourself to hear the sermon. Above all, make sure your heart is consumed with love for God, and your will is in submission to his desires. The mind foes on the will's errand; we spend our thoughts on what our hearts propose."


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