LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Monday, March 03, 2008

Barry Morrow: Art & the Extraordinary Goodness of God

Barry Morrow brings over twenty years of experience in working in the marketplace with businessmen through teaching, consulting, and counseling. He has served on the staff of Reflection’s Ministries for the past eight years, and spent the previous fifteen years in pastoral ministry in a nondenominational church in suburban Atlanta. Reflections Ministries is a non-profit organization that focuses on men in the workplace, encouraging and equipping them to lead productive and fulfilling lives.

Barry’s first book,
Heaven Observed: Glimpses of Transcendence in Everyday Life, was published by NavPress in 2001. The book examines our desire and quest for meaning and happiness in this life, and examines the various avenues through which we attempt to find such fulfillment, such as our work and leisure. Occasionally Barry can be found exploring the haunts of C.S. Lewis and his Inklings companions when he can make his way to England.

LeAnne: You're a C. S. Lewis expert. What would Lewis say about the tendency of today's Christians to pull away from the culture into the safety of our own subculture?

I’m not so sure about being a “Lewis expert,” as you say, but unquestionably, he has greatly impacted my worldview and thinking on many subjects, including the Christian faith. I’m not sure what Lewis would make about this tendency of Christians to pull away from culture at large, other than that it is dreadful state of affairs.

In many ways, it is a form of Gnosticism, a philosophy the early church faced, a system of thought which gave preeminence to the “spiritual” over the “physical,” creating a dualism that is entirely unbiblical, and also denies the Incarnation—God becoming flesh (John 1). But there seems to have always been this tendency for Christians to either become assimilated into the prevailing culture or for them to develop their own subculture.

Lewis’ early comments in the Preface to Mere Christianity, where he defines what the term “Christian” means, is instructive as to the disastrous effects of withdrawing from the world. While the word “Christian” means “one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity,” more often than not it has become reduced to an adjective, instead of a noun. He points out that while the word “gentleman” has faced a similar fate, as it originally meant one who had a coat of arms and some landed property (stating a fact about him), now it has been reduced to paying someone a compliment if we call him a “gentleman.” In an earlier time, there was no contradiction in saying John was a liar and a gentleman, Lewis says. His point is that “gentleman” has now become a useless word, and the same could be said of the way people use the term “Christian” in an adjectival sense rather than using it as it should be used, as a noun. Walker Percy once mused that the word “love” no longer has meaning in our culture, and I think the same is true of the word “Christian.” It has become nonsensical, void of any true meaning. Today, we have “Christian” yellow pages, ”Christian” bookstores, “Christian” conferences, “Christian” music, etc. And sad to say, the Christian label is often synonymous with mediocrity. It is symptomatic of our retreat from the world.

LM: How can Christians be in the culture but not of it?

There is no easy answer to this question. The apostle Paul clearly had issues with Christians in the first century, particularly Corinth, in this regard. They thought they were to avoid all “immoral people” and misunderstood his comments to be about all people (1 Corinthians 5).Yet he reminds them that to avoid all immoral people, they would literally have to leave the world, and that he was actually referring to people leading immoral lives who called themselves Christians.

I’ve often used the phrase that we are to be “socially linked” or engaged, but “spiritually distinct” from this temporal age, which, as Paul reminds us, is passing away (1 Corinthians 7). And I think our Lord gives us the supreme example, as we see in the Gospels, of how He lived out His life in this fashion. The passage in Matthew 5 of Levi’s call to discipleship comes to mind. Immediately after his decision to follow Jesus, he throws a banquet at his home for all his friends (great sinners, them all, for who else would befriend a tax-collector?), and guess who’s there? Jesus and His disciples. How many pastors today, or for that matter Christians, would show up at that kind of party? Most Christians are too busy with their “religious” affairs to cultivate relationships with those who are not Christians.

But there is also the need for fellowship, sound teaching from the Scriptures, and support from other Christians, the body of Christ, lest we become assimilated into the culture. If we are truly seeking to live the Christian life, it is always going to be lived in tension, isn’t it? To live between that which is temporal (chronos), and that which is eternal (kairos)? To remember, as Tony Campolo says in his great sermon, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!!”

LM: Why do we need art and artists?

“Need” art and artists? If this were a purely utilitarian world, a mechanized universe where matter is all that has ever existed (the atheistic position), then we as humans would not need, not expect, art or artists. Art shows us, I think, the variegated Goodness of our Heavenly Father, who as James describes the situation, “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of all lights” (James 1:17). So I see art as part of the extraordinary goodness of God in our lives.

But on the human level, I would suggest that art, if it is well done and true to Reality, shows us what it means to truly be human. The great writers of the world, such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and others, portray the human condition as it truly is, as humanity in need of redemption. This was one of the primary reasons that led Malcolm Muggeridge to belief late in life, as he came to see the Christian faith for what it truly is, a “sacred drama” in which we are each playing out our parts before an audience of One.

I remember the playwright Arthur Miller was once asked how he recognized a great script when he saw it. He said that after he read it, he would always come away saying, “My God, that’s me!”

More from Barry Morrow on Thursday.

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