One day, after coming home from school, I anxiously turned on the television to watch what was at that time one of my favorite shows: Alfred Hitchcock Presents. My sister, who was a far better student than I, was visibly annoyed when I turned on the television. I asked what was wrong with watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and she suggested that it would be better if I spent my time reading the Bible. Given the choice between watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents and reading the Bible, what Christian could reasonably argue for the television show? Even a Christian show would have a hard time competing with reading the Bible, so a show that centers on themes bizarre and macabre doesn’t stand a chance. There will never be a time at which I want to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents where I couldn’t read the Bible instead. From this it seems to follow that I should never watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
This finding seems to be confirmed by what I hear at church. I’m told that my relationship with God is the most important thing in life. Everything else is secondary. What can I do so that I will grow in that relationship? Two things, I’m told, read my Bible and pray. So as I sit before my television and have to choose between working on that which is the most important thing in life or watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it’s pretty clear which I should choose.
On the wall of my Sunday school class there’s a poster which reads “God first, others second, me third”. I face my television and ask myself which activity is favored by this poster, watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents or reading the Bible? It seems clear that reading Scripture falls in the “God first” category whereas watching a television show is in “me third”. Is there any doubt, then, what I should do?
I go to another Sunday school room, hoping for a little more insight, and this time I read “Do what Jesus would do”. This seems a bit more promising since Jesus is fully human, but it is far from clear that Jesus would ever take the time to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I’m not sure I know what Jesus would do, but it’s easier to imagine him walking past the television set so as to pick up a Bible and find a quite place where he can be with his Father in heaven.
Of course, as I hear about how I should love my neighbor, there’s some hope for television. Perhaps I can describe watching television in such a way that I’m doing it in order to love my neighbor. To my shame, I must confess that I used this approach once. A parishioner was alarmed that I, a minister, spent a good portion of my time watching movies. I responded by pointing out that movies reveal the thinking of contemporary culture and that I watched movies so that I would better know how to communicate the Gospel to the world around me. The parishioner was more satisfied with this response than was my conscience. Nevertheless, this approach seems promising. Perhaps I can watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents in order to better understand and love all the other people who watch it. The only problem with this is that I end up watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents for entirely different reasons than most people. Jim, the atheist, can sit down and watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents in order to be entertained. He might enjoy the strange stories and the intellectual stimulation. When I watch the same show, however, I’m doing so in order to find evidence of what’s wrong with Jim’s world view.
If Alfred Hitchcock Presents were the only casualty of this kind of teaching, it could be readily sacrificed. A little thought, however, will show that not too many activities can stand in the face of such questioning. I’m, at present, trying to learn how to play the harmonica. I want to discover all of the rich ways that I can express myself with this instrument. To do this well takes time. Learning to play the harmonica seems to be a better use of my time than watching television. At least, when I play the harmonica I’m actively creating rather than passively watching. Is my playing the harmonica, however, more important than my relationship with God? Of course not. How then can I justify spending time learning how to play the harmonica when I could be using that same time reading the Bible? I might try arguing that playing the harmonica is a way of loving my neighbor; I’m seeking to bring music to my neighbor. Unfortunately, however, it appears that by bringing music to my neighbor I’m tempting him or her to listen to music when it would be better to read the Bible. My only justification, or so it seems, limits me to use my harmonica in order to communicate the truths of the Scriptures (Christian songs?).
I’m not suggesting that most Christians live this way, but I do believe that many think this way. When this kind of thinking is combined with the lives that we actually live the primary result is guilt. Rather than enjoying rich lives filled with the goodness of our Lord we find ourselves in an unending state of guilt believing that our activities have entailed not choosing God as the center of our lives. This can and often does lead to hostility towards the arts. The arts are seen as temptations, moving us to choose God second rather than first. In Whitfield’s day, the main objection to the theater was that it was a poor use of time, a form of idleness. Compared to the great value of reading the Bible, it would seem difficult to find any artistic endeavor that wasn’t a waste of time. From this vantage point, it’s a small step to seeing the arts as temptations to evil, and hence, to be feared. Though I can’t prove it with my meager knowledge of history, I suspect that the following pattern has occurred many times within the past two thousand years. Christians view one of the arts as a form of idleness and discourage participation in that art. The result is that Christians withdraw so that most of the creative work is done by non Christians. Non Christians, as they are prone to do, express their non Christian views using that art. This, then, leads to the conclusion by Christians that the art is worse than idleness; it’s evil.
Though it’s easy to see that something has gone wrong with our teaching of what it means to put God first, it’s not so easy to see what. After all, no one would deny that our relationship with God is more important than anything else in life. I suggest three considerations which should at least point us in the direction of where this kind of thinking goes wrong. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether or not these considerations are strong enough to justify a half hour with Alfred Hitchcock.
First of all, when we affirm that God should be at the center of our lives we need to take into account the richness of life itself. We are created in God’s image. We are meant to live in community. Community includes activities like building, creating, telling stories, writing, drawing, talking, working and playing. Putting God first is not so much a turning away from such activities as it is making sure that whatever we do, we do in His presence and love. We are not called to live life less, but to live life more. We learn from the Scriptures not so much what needs to be simply known (in fact, this tends to puff us up) but what needs to be lived. Notice the many ways that God communicates with us in the Bible. If we evangelicals were to write a Bible (and it’s a good thing we haven’t) we would probably start with a list of truths that need to be believed followed by a list of commands that need to be obeyed. We would then make reciting those beliefs and commands one of the highest of life’s activities. Though the Bible contains truths and commands it is radically different in structure than what we would produce. It has long sections of history which are conveyed in the form of stories with drama so compelling that it is imitated even in the works of those who have rejected it. It has poetry and songs. It has prophecy with vivid illustrations in the life of the prophet. It has dreams and visions. It has preaching. It has letters written by people to communities and to individuals. Our Lord himself used stories, parables, object lessons, miracles and his own life to reveal his Father to us. Some would argue, and I think convincingly, that his teachings, especially the parables, are in poetic form. All of these very human forms speak powerfully to us that the great truths of the Bible are intended to be lived not in some abstract way but in the midst of human community.
Secondly if we focus just on the command to put God first, we find a bit of a surprise. Jesus tells us that the first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind and soul. This is as we expect; we are to put God first. Then Jesus indicates that the second commandment, love your neighbor as yourself, is like the first. How, we might wonder, is loving my neighbor related to loving God? Simply put, a large part of loving God is loving my neighbor. The idea that I can love God and not love my neighbor is flatly contradicted by the Scriptures. God calls those who are faithful to Him to live out their lives in churches. We sometimes act as if we can simply focus on our relationship with God and somehow that will magically translate into a love for each other. Life doesn’t work that way. In the context of loving my neighbor (not in some romantic way but in living in community with real people and all the real problems and conflicts that flow from that) I truly love God.
Thirdly, God reveals himself to us both inside and outside of Scripture. In theological terms, we speak of special revelation and general revelation. Special revelation is God revealing himself through Christ and, by extension, God revealing himself through the Scriptures which testify to Christ. General revelation is God revealing himself through his creation. It is true that general revelation has limits. We cannot by general revelation alone find salvation. This is because of the effects of sin on the world and more importantly, the effects of sin on our own minds and hearts. It does not follow from these limitations, however, that general revelation should be ignored in favor of special revelation. General revelation is still revelation. In fact, special revelation speaks within the context of general revelation (God sent his Son into the world and his Son teaches us how to live in that world).
One might object at this point that I have conveniently left out a central teaching of the New Testament in my analysis. The New Testament teaches that this world is passing away. Doesn’t it follow from this that I should deny myself the pleasures of this world (like watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents) in order to prepare myself for the next. Let goods and kindred go.
There are two things we should keep in mind as we think about what the passing of this world and life means with respect to how we should live. First of all, notice that this world is to be replaced with a new world. We are not created to live in an ethereal world-less state. In the new world we will live in a new community. How much our activities in the new world will resemble the ways we live in the present world is difficult to say. We can say, though, that there will be activities which clearly manifest God’s goodness and love.
Secondly, though we live for the next world, we live in this one. If the lives we live now have any meaning at all (and I think they have much meaning), then living for the next world requires us to work out the truths of God’s revelation in this world. Running from the richness of life in this world doesn’t prepare us for anything. We may be called to sacrifice our lives for the cause of the Gospel, but that doesn’t mean that we are to intentionally end our lives. We may be called to sacrifice some of the great things in this world, but these sacrifices are not good in themselves. They have meaning only in so far as we give up what is good in order to carry out faithfulness to Christ in the lives he has called us to live.
Participation in the arts is one part of the vast and good world in which our Lord has called us to live. It is part of the complex of life which God has given to us and of which he is to be the center. Far from being a distraction to knowing him, it is one of the arenas of that knowledge.