About two weeks ago, I linked to an article on Boundless that called into question Christianity Today’s review of Sex and the City, as well as CT’s defense of their review. And one of the criticisms levelled at CT by Boundless (and some of Boundless’ commenters) was their use of a quote by C.S. Lewis from An Experiment in Criticism. You can read the full quote in the CT article, but here are a few snippets:
We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs… even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved. …And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.
…My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. …In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Essentially, as CT points out, what Lewis is saying is that it is entirely natural to see through the eyes of others, and indeed necessary, in order to truly understand them. In the case of literature (or any of the arts, including movies), it allows the reader/viewer/critic to experience how the artist sees the world, to see the truths and views that they hold onto. And this is important because seeing through their eyes, however depraved their vision might be, lets us glimpse the reality of their existence.
Or, to use CT’s words:
It’s good to sometimes enter into the minds and worldviews of others, even of those we completely disagree with. It’s good to see what the world looks like through the eyes of even the depraved.
Not surprisingly, this ruffles the feathers of many good Christians, which explains the recent Boundless/CT kerfluffle. On the surface, this approach does seem to fly in the face of such verses as Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
and Romans 16:19:
…I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
However, we find evidence that this is exactly what someone like St. Paul did. In Acts 17:16 – 32, Paul is preaching in the city of Athens, a very pagan city. The city’s Epicurean and Stoic philosophers hear his teachings about Jesus and the resurrection and curious, they bring him to the Areopagus (aka “Mars Hill”), where the Athenian philosophers met to discuss the latest and greatest ideas of the day.
Paul begins to reason with them, and here’s where it gets interesting: his primary arguments come, not from Scripture, but from the pagan philosopher’s very own poets (verse 28).
It’s apparent that Paul, at some point, had become immersed in pagan/non-Christian culture and was familiar enough with it to lean on it when necessary. In other words, he had seen through the eyes of the depraved — to understand how they saw the world and find the Truth therein so as to minister to them more effectively. So, the question is, was Paul contradicting himself by exposing himself to pagan culture, in the form of their artwork? Had he somehow stopped being “innocent as to what is evil”?
(On a side note, I sometimes wonder if that word “innocent” is the best translation choice, as it’s a fairly loaded term. Is the innocence with regards to knowing about evil, or with regards to acting upon the knowledge of such evil. If it’s the former, than we are constantly living in error of that Scripture because it’s impossible, in this fallen world, to not know evil — we see and experience it everyday. But if it’s the latter, than whether we act upon that evil, or allow it to influence us and draw us down a darker path is another question.)
As Christians, we “see through the eyes of the depraved” every day. For starters, let us never forget that we’re always seeing through our own eyes, and as Scripture says pointedly in 1 John 1:8, we ourselves are depraved and sinful — even in the midst of our sanctification. Sounds cheesy I suppose, but it’s absolutely true (and the sooner we realize that fact, perhaps the humbler and more gracious we’ll become, Lord willing).
Furthermore, when we interact with someone who is not a Christian on any sort of meaningful level, we are seeing through their eyes — regardless of how depraved we think they might be. We must, to some extent, in order to understand who they are and what their story is.
When I discuss Christianity with my atheist friends, I must see through their eyes — I enter into their worldview even though I completely disagree with it. I do so out of respect, to ensure that I fully understand where they are coming from and don’t mischaracterize their statements, and in order to better address their criticisms. And I would argue that every Christian does the same, in countless ways every day.
This is especially true when analyzing and critiquing art, when seeking to understand books, movies, music, etc. in a meaningful way. In his recent Trinity Arts Conference lecture, Andy Whitman gives several examples of people who, by all indications, lived rather screwed up lives and yet, even in the midst of their depravity, have created music that is rife with Beauty and Truth.
And while it’s certainly possible to appreciate the Beauty and Truth without knowing the backstories, doing so gives a deeper appreciation for the reality that, as Whitman puts it:
It’s touched by God, it’s true, and it reminds me that in the midst of the wreckage and the carnage there are human beings who are infinitely loved. And, when I let it, it can shake me from my self-imprisonment and release me from the captivity of the Kingdom of Me.
Granted, going through this may not require witnessing gross depravity — as some state is the case when watching movies like Sex And The City. But the basic principle is the same, as are the implications.
Doing so doesn’t mean we are acting irresponsibly, or relishing sinful behavior. But it can mean that as Christians, we are attempting to engage people and culture in a meaningful and honorable manner — so long as we are operating within the confines of our conscience and the convictions given to us individually by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, I mentioned the “C” word, because it dovetails so nicely into this topic. As Christians “enter into other men’s beliefs”, to use Lewis’ verbiage, we must keep in mind the fact each Christian carries with them a different set of convictions. And part of that means that we are able to tolerate different things to different extents. This is what Paul writes about in Romans 14.
What may cause my brother or sister in Christ to stumble or sin may have no effect on me, and vice versa. As such, we must approach such things carefully, so that the “stronger” brother — the brother who is not convicted — doesn’t cause the “weaker” brother — the brother who is convicted — to stumble (and while one might be the stronger brother in one situation, they must remain humble because they are almost certainly the weaker brother in a different situation). At the same time, the weaker brother must not force his conviction onto the stronger brother out of hand, or in a reactionary manner.
(For a better analysis of this, check out Christ and Pop Culture’s article “Is this Web Site in Sin?.”)
I am, of course, talking about grace at this point because it is to critical in these stronger/weaker brother situations. We require the grace to understand that we are all wired differently, that we all see things differently even though we are guided by the same Spirit. And when we feel the need to correct one another, our first response must be in grace, and not with reactionary moral outrage and indignation. And we must listen to such correction in grace, so as to take to heart the words of our brothers and sisters and not respond in self-righteousness or pride.
It’s a tricky, convoluted, and messy process to be sure, so much so that some just might not see the value in it (I know that I don’t all of the time). It’s so much easier to respond quickly and off-the-cuff, to make righteous pronouncements that have the weight of Holy Scripture backing them up. And such tactics may have their place, just as a fire and brimstone sermon might be useful from time to time. And while it might get attention, will it really be fruitful in the long run?
I’d argue that 99% of the time, a gentler and subtler tactic — and a potentially messier and more difficult one — is ultimately the better way to go. Again, it requires seeing through the eyes of someone else, but this time, it’s not a “depraved” individual somewhere “out there”, but a fellow brother or sister in Christ — someone on the same “team”. And if you can’t respond to a fellow Christian with grace and understanding, if you can’t speak the truth to a fellow believer in love — if you can’t see through their eyes — than maybe you have no business doing it at all to anyone.