Thursday, January 03, 2008

Building a Culture of Faithfulness (Part 17)

[Note: I was unable to complete this series last year, so I will wrap it up with two more posts.]

“Cultural” Virtues

In those areas of life that are most often associated with civilization, Christians can operate by showing love to God and to others, as well.

In architecture, classical architect Quinlan Terry has argued that traditional construction is authoritatively superior to modern architecture in eight ways. (1) Materials – Traditional materials (brick, lime mortar, stone, stucco, slate, and wood) can last for hundreds of years and can be repaired and reused indefinitely. Besides durability, they are also superior to modern materials in their thermal expansion properties, so that buildings which use these materials are easier to heat and cool. Thus, although their initial cost is higher, traditional materials are much more cost effective over the life of the building. Furthermore, they are more pleasing to the eye and they fit better with their surroundings. (2) Construction. (3) Windows. (4) Span of rooms. (5) Roofs. (6) Symmetry – Everything that is beautiful is symmetrical. This provides the necessary discipline for the designer’s imagination. (7) Beauty in forms – The five Classical Orders - Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Composite, and Corinthian – embody enduring natural revelation. (8) Beauty in mouldings – Mouldings capture the interplay of light and shade which is pleasing to the eye.[i] Terry believes that the classical orders are more than merely natural revelation. He argues that they can be seen in incipient form in the revelation God gave to Moses for constructing the tabernacle.

I believe Terry is on to something important here. Given the debacle of twentieth century architecture, I believe Christians would be wise to refresh themselves at the springs of classical thinking for inspiration for future building projects.

In art and music, Christians of all people should promote the good, true, and beautiful. This requires the discipline of developing a discerning eye and ear for the world as God has made it and intends it to be, interpreting it properly according to a biblical understanding (see Section 1). It will also require us to submit to canons of goodness, truth, and beauty which are superior to ourselves. Thus we must discuss both the effects of art and music and also whether or not any given work is a proper object of aesthetic interest. That is to say, does it elicit proper sympathies in us that engender righteous patterns of judgment, which in turn help us to know God more? Also, we must ask if the form of the artwork or music is capable of sustaining and maturing the message it intends to communicate.

Music is an indispensable part of the Christian life (Psalms; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Jas 5:13), and thus we should be keenly interested in developing our musical abilities and our musical understanding. Over fifty years ago Frank Gaebelein asked, “Can it be that we evangelicals are not only aesthetically immature but that we also insist upon remaining so?”[ii] Sadly, the intervening fifty years have answered that question in the affirmative, as we seem to do little in our music other than follow the latest trends in pop music.

When it comes to literature, literary skills are paramount to Christians, simply because we have a Word-centered faith. We should strive to see to it that all believers can read skillfully.[iii] Moreover, verbal skills are critical to communicating our worship to God and our faith to others. Engaging classic literature from a biblical perspective is one of the best ways to deepen our understanding, broaden our perspective, train our affections, and sharpen our thinking.

Education is a perennial issue. We have already noted that the family setting is the fundamental context for learning how to learn and to have wisdom. But what about “advanced” education? I put “advanced” in quotation marks, for even that way of stating the topic is slanted toward our modern presuppositions that the university or academic model is the best way to become educated. The reality is that our universities have fled from their historic role of training people in the meaning and purpose of life toward training them as technicians. I suggest that in many cases technical education could much more profitably and cheaply be carried out by the companies who need their employees to have such skills. Engineering firms could apprentice aspiring engineers to give them the practical skills necessary to their trade. Law firms, manufacturing firms, retail firms, and so on could do the same. Independent research labs could provide the services companies need without relying on government money to do it. This would allow the trainees to benefit from productive labor while also benefiting their companies through their work.

I am not saying that there is no place for a university type of education. It can be done in a proper way and for the glory of God. Nevertheless, this one model of education has become virtually the only model Americans seem to recognize, and thus it has taken on roles that are ill suited to its nature. I would particularly recommend that the training of ministers be taken out of a university context and put back into a church context.[iv] I do believe we need to encourage Christian scholarship, and it is this kind of endeavor which the university setting can foster and encourage.

Our mode of dress may be one of the most visible aspects of our cultural virtue, and judging by the looks of things, Americans do not have much cultural virtue in this area. In other words, our tastes in dress are not directed by love for God and love for others. As Christians, our love for God and for others should lead us to dress in ways which reflect eternal standards of beauty and good taste. Such taste must include the virtue of modesty, that is, an unwillingness to flaunt ourselves through gaudy or indecent attire. The Christian’s goal is to point people to Christ, not to a personal “attitude” or to bare flesh. I believe this rules out basically all contemporary swimwear and even much sports attire, not to mention what sometimes passes for classy evening wear. Furthermore, cleanliness and neatness are important aspects of our concern for others in our dress. Christians must always maintain sexual distinctions and boundaries in our dress. That is, men should dress distinctively like men, and women should dress like women. This includes such things as short hair on men and long hair on women.[v] We should avoid faddishness and the inauthentic “brand identity.” Our personal dress should reflect a transcendent ideal beyond the cult of the personal statement or personal comfort. This will show itself, for one thing, in having the discernment to wear what is appropriate to the weight of any given occasion. T-shirts and jeans are entirely appropriate to chopping wood on the back forty; they communicate something very different, however, when worn to a state dinner or to Sunday corporate worship. This discernment will also show itself in a recognition that clothing has functions beyond the personal. It is inevitably a public item, so that what we wear has public effects which are either beneficial or detrimental to those around us.

Menswear designer Alan Flusser, who is not a Christian, writes of “permanent fashion,” which is something few understand today. Indeed, as Flusser says, “when fashion is taken to mean a commitment to risk and change, mating it with the idea of permanence is bound to cause confusion, if not downright controversy.”[vi] Nevertheless, Flusser maintains that there are permanent principles of good taste in clothing, built on the basic realities of color and proportion. The wisdom of Flusser’s approach is that he recognizes basic created realities within which all human taste must function. Anything outside of these boundaries shows a perverse attempt remake the world in our image. It is an attempt to say, “I am my own man” (usually done in concert with a whole herd of people saying “I am my own man”), rather than, “I am a man humbly enjoying God’s gracious creation and seeking to elevate those with whom I interact because of my appearance.”

We cannot leave this area without at least touching on entertainment. Since we do live in such a wealthy society with so much discretionary time and money, every one of us will be faced with decisions about proper entertainment. The particular issues are so varied that we cannot hope to encompass them all here with any list of principles. I would urge the reader, however, to passionately pursue the application of biblical standards of righteousness in our leisure activities. This would include making the amount of time, effort, and money we spend on them proportionate to their eternal value. We would do well to promote enjoyment of the permanent things in all of life versus the fleeting indulgence of excitement. Pop culture is antithetical to these values, so we must partake of it with great discernment. Even those things which are seemingly innocent (no drugs, violence, and sex) are still often saturated with the ethos of immaturity, irreverence, and impermanence. For example, Russell Moore recently stated, "I would almost rather my children see an episode of Desperate Housewives than an episode of Veggie Tales because it would be easier to deconstruct the one than the other." This is keen discernment that all Christians should practice.

I realize that this whole area I have called cultural virtues is highly complex and highly debated. This, however, does not mean that Christians should be afraid to wade into it. These areas say more, perhaps, about the true sensibilities of our souls than our doctrinal statements do. If we are to build a culture of faithfulness, it will inevitably require us to make decisions here. We must strive to make those thousands and millions of decisions which will shape our souls in ways that make them most like the Savior.

Philosophical Virtues

For our purposes, I need not say much here. I do, however, want to include this just to remind us that loving the Lord our God with all of our minds will require us to think like Christians. In all branches of philosophical inquiry, whether metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics and aesthetics, we should build rigorous systems of thought that are in keeping with God’s special revelation in the Bible. We do believe in genuine truth which can be known and followed. Faithful thinking is thinking that is full of faith in God’s inspired Word.

[i] “The Authority for Architecture and How It Should Develop in the Future” in Quinlan Terry (London: Academy Editions, 1993), 134-5.

[ii] The Pattern of God’s Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 78, cited in Paul Jones, Singing and Making Music (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2006), 294.

[iii] Everyone should read Mortimer Adler and Charles VanDoren’s classic, How to Read a Book. You may well find out that you don’t know how to read as well as you thought you did!

[iv] For one thoughtful proposal along these lines, see John M. Frame, “Proposal for a New Seminary” available at

[v] Contrary to what some commentators assert (e.g. Fee, Garland), 1 Corinthians 11 clearly teaches by analogy that it is part of the natural order of things for men to keep their hair short while women keep their hair long. Fu,sij (physis) is used 14x in the NT, 11x by Paul, and it typically means the way things really are by reason of their intrinsic characteristics. This natural law provided universal moral standards, according to the Stoics and Hellenistic Jews. Paul uses the term in exactly the same way, except without some of the philosophical baggage that would have attached to the non-Christian conceptions. There is no basis either in the NT or outside of it for making physis culturally relative. In 1 Cor 11:14, Paul assumes it to be a universal natural characteristic that men are to keep their hair short and women are to keep their hair long. It is true that this was the Roman custom of Paul’s day, but that is definitely not the basis for Paul’s argument. It takes some fancy relativistic footwork to turn Paul’s assumption into its exact opposite, but this seems widespread among modern interpreters. The reason mankind does not always read the natural revelation rightly is the noetic effects of sin.

[vi] Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 14.

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