House of Cards vs. Game of Thrones

Lots of discussion lately about watching sin in movies and television series.  The reason appears to be the new season of Game of Thrones.  That genre interests me not at all so I haven’t seen any of it, and I’ve only watched one episode of House of Cards (more of the original).  Too many episodes of West Wing and Friday Night Lights still to see. (And now there’s Hinterland.)

After watching last night with colleagues and students in the German literature department Run Lola Run, I started wondering again about viewing sin on the screen.  Kevin DeYoung and Nick Batzig argue for caution when watching movies with nudity and sex.  Even Katelyn Beaty finds her inner Nashville Statement when it comes to watching programs that include rape scenes.

But what about Lola and Manni from Run Lola Run? Here we have a guy entangled with drug dealers (likely) needing to pay them their money after having lost it on a subway.  And we have his girlfriend who robs a bank to help her man.  And we have a viewer (me) rooting them on.  Should I have worried about breaking the ninth commandment?

And is it more heinous to watch a movie that portrays violations of the seventh commandment compared to one that depicts breaking the ninth commandment?

Is the Larger Catechism of any help?

Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
A. All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.

It looks like what qualifies as more aggravating than something else has a lot to do with the person offended and the time of the offense. Watching a show of a disreputable nature on the Lord’s Day might be worse than seeing it on Wednesday night (as long as your not skipping prayer meeting, of course). And if you watch something the king thinks you shouldn’t see, that carries more weight than — sorry Kevin — your PCA pastor.

But what about point three — the nature of the offense? There it sure looks like stealing from a bank to pay your re-election campaign staff is more heinous than simply stealing from a bank. But maybe I’m wrong. I also see nothing from the catechism to suggest that sexual sins are more heinous than fiscal or false words.

If that’s true, it looks like a lot of people obsess about what is simply looking at entertainment serious art. Whatever might these people make of Michelangelo’s David? A fig leaf, please!!

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Is Neutrality Anti-Religious?

The insightful Bruce Froehnen offers a standard brief against neutrality:

The lie of a neutral public square, in which we can debate important issues on the basis of “public reason,” is at its heart an anti-religious lie. It rests on the notion that we can set aside our faith and discuss important issues on the basis of reason alone. But faith and reason are not distinct categories of thought and action. Faith and reason are intimately bound up with one another and with a more generalized approach to the world—the imagination. Historically, the vast majority of people have seen the world as intrinsically moral, that is as made up of structures and choices that have intrinsic moral importance. Ethics is central to life, on this view, and is bound up with our general approach to both daily and life-changing issues such as whom to marry and what to demand of government, community, local association, family, neighbor, and self. This conception of life is intrinsically religious, for it rests on recognition of a natural order to our being that makes sense, has moral importance, and calls us to virtue, despite our own failings and limitations. It is a vision that has been under attack for more than two centuries, however, as a seemingly secular vision rooted in human emotions and impulses has sought dominance. This latter view, often termed the “idyllic” imagination and ascribed to Rousseau, sees the intrinsic goals of life as bound up with self-expression and self-actualization. It blames the injustices of life on social structures deemed oppressive or unjust and sees duty as something to be imposed on other people and especially on institutions.

But where would Froehnen put Calvinists who have a distinctly different estimate of humans’ moral potential? Is it possible for Protestants who affirm the following to have a place in Froehnen’s dressed public square:

Q. 25. Wherein consisteth the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.

Q. 26. How is original sin conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity?
A. Original sin is conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity by natural generation, so as all that proceed from them in that way are conceived and born in sin.

Q. 27. What misery did the fall bring upon mankind?
A. The fall brought upon mankind the loss of communion with God, his displeasure and curse; so as we are by nature children of wrath, bond slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come.

Such an understanding of human nature post-fall certainly qualifies Froehnen’s sense that ethics are “central to life” or that we all share an understanding of existence that “calls us to virtue.” If neutrality is deceptive, so too is an ethical public square if it leads people to think they can be good “naturally,” apart from grace. And if Froehnen wants to claim that goodness only proceeds from grace, then what does he do in the public square he envisions with people who don’t have grace? Do they need to leave? Or does he expand his understanding of grace — as so many western Christians have done while holding the keys of the establishment — to include everyone as a recipient in some sense of grace? (Say hello to Pope Francis praying with Hindus and Buddhists.)

So maybe a “neutral” public square is not so bad after all. It doesn’t mean having to cut and paste Christian orthodoxy in order to include non-Christians in a common ethical endeavor. Let the civil realm be the civil realm, and the church the church.

Politics of Inclusion

Matt Tuininga calls for the gospel politics of inclusion even while excluding some — ahem — from the Reformed camp. But let’s not go there.

Let’s go instead to an apparent confusion of categories that invariably happens when you make the gospel (Jesus Christ died for sinners, there’s not one square inch, man’s chief end is to glorify God — which is it?) the basis for society. (And if the gospel is the basis for society, where are non-Christians supposed to go? Theonomy with a smile and a hug is still a state that makes little room for non-Christians.)

A few excerpts:

Embracing the call to be conformed to the image of Christ means not that we parade around trumpeting the lordship of Christ, but that, like Christ, we take up the form of a servant, humbling ourselves if necessary even to the cross. Thus we fulfill the law not by enforcing its every jot and tittle at the point of the sword, excluding from the political community those who refuse to tow the cultural, moral or religious line, but by loving and serving those with whom God has placed us in community, paying particular attention to the needs of the poor and the weak, the marginalized and the oppressed.

So what does this say about immigration policy and undocumented aliens? Is the gospel thing to do, the inclusive policy, to include immigrants? Or might a recognition of national sovereignty, strains on certain communities, the good of the economy, cause politicians to take factors other than the gospel into account?

Another excerpt:

It is true that the Gospel does not immediately erase all distinctions of nation, gender, or economic status, but it is equally true that the unity of all things in Christ does call for the rejection of their unjust abuses. It is true that we must be realistic about what can be achieved through politics, but our realism should lead us to champion the weak rather than the strong who oppress them under the cover of law. It is true that we may not be silent about what God’s Word teaches, even when it comes to such controversial matters as human sexuality, but it is equally true that our judgment regarding how God’s will should take expression in politics is fallible, that we must learn to love, serve and work with fellow citizens who disagree with us, and that our public rhetoric is only Christian if it is infused with the grace of Christ. Finally, it is true that salvation only comes to those who place their faith in Christ, and about that we must always be clear, but it is equally true that as believers we are called to embody that salvation socially by bearing one another’s burdens, forgiving one another’s transgressions, and caring for one another’s needs.

Unjust abuses? Did Christ reject the cross, which was unjust? Did he tell Christians to turn the other cheek? Does that mean an end to capital punishment? But what about prisons? Don’t they receive persons we “exclude” from civil society?

Learn to work with fellow citizens with whom we disagree? Is bi-partisanship really a gospel imperative when practically every oped writer for the Times and the Post promotes crossing the aisle in Congress? Do we need to gussy up bi-partisanship with the gospel? Is that why Christ died?

Bearing one another’s burdens? So a Christian politician should have banks forgive all debts?

One more except from another piece on “gospel” politics:

. . . the gospel should affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class. It should call us to organize these structures, as much as possible given the constraints of the present evil age, in light of what the gospel teaches us about human dignity, about justice, and about love. That requires wrestling with the nature of each type of human relationship that involves some sort of inequality or hierarchy. . . .

There are several types of social relationships. Some of them, such as marriage and the relationship between parents and their children, are grounded in creation and ought to be protected and promoted by human beings. The key questions here revolve around how to preserve these relationships in ways that acknowledge the fundamental spiritual and moral equality between men and women, between adults and children. Obviously parents must be in authority over their children, but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to treat their children like slaves or property. Men and women will typically perform different gender roles by virtue of their different embodied nature, but that doesn’t mean men should domineer over women.

There are other types of relationships that are not rooted in creation but that have emerged, at least in the form that we know them, due to the fall into sin. They are not evil, but their very form demonstrates that evil does exist in the world. Here I am thinking about the coercive state. Christians should support this sort of hierarchy because it is absolutely necessary for a modicum of order in this life, let alone for human flourishing. But questions remain. How do we set up political authority such that it is not tyrannically abused? How do we ensure that those who rule are held accountable to those who are ruled? How do we ensure that even where there is political inequality, all recognize a more fundamental level of moral and spiritual equality?

I’m not sure that Calvin or any of the Reformers were fans of equality. Again, a Reformed source like the Larger Catechism (but maybe the Dutch don’t consider the British Reformed) makes quite a lot of hierarchy and inequality in social stations:

Q. 127. What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?
A. The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

Q. 128. What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?
A. The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonor to them and their government.

In fact, I wonder if Matt knows how much his logic about the future reality of the new heavens and new earth breaking in to present social arrangements was one of the most used theological rationales for ordaining women in the CRC. That’s not a scare tactic. It’s only an instance of where an egalitarian stance can lead, especially one that doesn’t recognize differences among church, society, and family (sphere sovereignty anyone).

But when the gospel becomes the modifier, out goes all the differentiation that makes modern society run (and makes it secular). Matt asks, “How do we set up political authority such that it is not tyrannically abused?” Studying the framers of the U.S. Constitution might be a better place to start than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Still not sure what gospel Matt is proclaiming in his social gospel mode.

Postscript: apologies for the image to those with weaker consciences, but sometimes it’s good to be remembered of what happens to women in combat — their dresses fall off.