Discernment Is Not A Dirty Word

Back in 2003, I bought the first Evanescence album at a Lifeway Christian bookstore. “Bring Me to Life” was dominating the airwaves, and the band was quickly the next ambiguously Christian rock big thing. In young evangelical circles, the late 90’s / early 00’s were dominated by discussion board debates of whether the likes of Creed and 12 Stones were REALLY “Christian” bands. The lyrics of the songs were so ambiguous so you might be able to squeeze an ounce of Christ into them if you squint your eyes the right direction. A few months later, Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody raised eyebrows by dropping the f-bomb during an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “We’re actually high on the Christian charts, and I’m like, ‘What the f— are we even doing there?” Soon thereafter, Wind Up Records removed the Evanescence record from Christian bookstores, citing that the record label courted Christian markets within their expressed consent. Then rose the inevitable question: “Should I be listening to this record at all?”

Today, the frenetic pace of social media seems to stir up controversies regarding the efficacy of Christian art on weekly (if not daily) basis: The Shack; Jen Hatmaker; Reckless Love; the theology of Bethel Church; Heaven Is For Real; etc. This week’s case in point has been the recent Christian lifestyle book Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis, who is a popular Christian lifestyle blogger. Despite over having over six thousand 5 star reviews on Amazon.com, the book has been absolutely savaged by virtually every Christian book reviewer of note for its message of self-care and personal happiness being antithetical to the Gospel. Many of my friends and church members have asked me the question: “Should I be reading this book?”

Whether it’s Evanescence or Rachel Hollis, the question is worthy: How do we know whether anything in “Christian” art and entertainment is good, true and worthy of consumption? On multiple levels, it would seem odd that this question even needs to be asked. Why can’t a Christian author determine what is Gospel affirming? Why can’t a Christian publisher discern the content of what it’s publishing? Why can’t a Christian bookseller better regulate what is sold on its shelves? And – ultimately – why can’t the Christian purchaser figure out what books are healthy to buy and consume?

The core theological problem is that sin has set us adrift from our moral compasses. Romans 1:21 summarizes the conundrum of mankind: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” When God spoke his creation into existence, everything was good in character and quality. Then mankind sinned, unleashing the disease of evil into the very DNA of the formerly good existence. Unnervingly, our sin has blinded our innate sense of good and evil, leading us to see shades of grey where black and white once existed. Wrong is right. Down is up. Crooked is straight. Moral ambiguity reigns. Sin makes us blinded to truth. We tend to see and seek what our hearts desire. The Gospel seeks to bring us glasses to see the world according to God’s clarity of design, but, where sin exists, we are stuck in a morass of verisimilitude. Alas, our bodies of death set us adrift from moral clarity. 

And so the problem is twofold:

  1. Everyone producing art has a broken moral compass. 
  2. Everyone consuming art has a broken moral compass too. 

Simply, we are broken people consuming art produced by broken people. And this stain of the brokenness of sin leads to uncertainty and moral ambiguity in how we worship and what we seek. Our fractured flesh sneakily draws us towards deceptively untrustworthy messages that coddle our worst desires. We’d rather have our vices reinforced than challenged. We’d rather have books that reinforce our desire for personal happiness than sacrifice for the glory of God. We’d rather have books that reinforce our own skewed vision than help us see with the eyes of Christ. 

If the taint of sin mars everything that we produce and consume, then what’s the solution here? Romans 12:2 presents the key: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” First of all, the transformation of the Gospel initiates the divine process of the ongoing renewal of our minds. Over time in Christ, the blindfold over the moral compass of our minds slowly get removed. The thick fog over our sense of right and wrong gets lifted. As we grow in spiritual maturity, the divine activity of God restores our minds to be able to discern what is good and what is true.

In addition to the divine sanctification of our minds, Romans 12:2 also speaks of believers testing what is the will of God. Therefore, we should not blindly accept everything as good and true. Instead, Christ commends believers to be shrewd as snakes amidst of a world of ravenous wolves (Matthew 10:16). Believers should test ideas to determine if they’re good and true. We should be morally discriminating so that we don’t throw our pearls of the Gospel before swine (Matthew 7:6). 

So how do we test to see what is the will of God? I think that Philippians 4:8-9 helps us here: “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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Simply, we must measure anything “Christian” against the Gospel that has been entrusted to us by the apostles (Jude 3-4). We practice what has been divinely passed down as recorded in the Word of God. We hold the Gospel tight to protect against deception. Without the light of the Gospel in our lives, we run the risk of dipping back into the quagmire of darkness. We need the Gospel to check the disruptive desires of our flesh. We need the Gospel to reveal the schemes of the Devil. Without the Gospel, we are fools drowning in our own torture traps.  

So here are two extremely broad thoughts on how to apply discernment to how Christians should intake “Christian” art and entertainment:

1. Just because we’re loving doesn’t mean we can’t be critical.

In the end, Girl Wash Your Face is a book sold by a publisher looking to make profit on behalf of an author attempting to impact the reader’s worldview. Books have ideas. Books have agendas. And ideas and agendas have consequences. Aside from maybe the thesaurus, books are generally not neutral in moral and ethical decision-making. Similarly, art, music and entertainment – even mindless drivel like The Real World and Cheaters – are typically not void of ideas and agenda. 

So our goal as believers is to match any ideas and agendas against the heart of Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 11:4, the apostle Paul scolds the easily swayed Corinthian church: “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.” So therein is the goal: Believers must be wary that a different Christ, Spirit or Gospel is being preached under the banner of the church. Ideas can be deceptively innocuous according to cultural standards but can be hazardous when measured according to the light of the Gospel. So when a book like Love Wins by Rob Bell comes along, we should contrast the book’s universalist claims against the Bible’s posture regarding sin and judgment. We must protect the Gospel that has been entrusted to us (Jude 3-4). 

Frankly, I love the song “Reckless Love” Cory Asbury, and I lead worship at my local church with the song often. However, I also think that the Internet debate on whether the term “reckless” should describe God’s love has been generally healthy and efficacious. Whatever you think of the song’s melody or arrangement, believers should evaluate whether the song’s description of a “reckless love” of God is a different Gospel than Scripture. Since I think that the song mirrors the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:1-7 (“leaves the 99”), I think that the term is appropriate to sing. But the point is that I’ve personally evaluated the song’s themes against Scripture. And you should too. 

We should debate the efficacy of “sloppy wet kisses” versus “unforeseen kisses.”

We should wrestle with whether the maternal figure in The Shack should represent God. 

We should argue about whether that one kid really went to Heaven for real. 

We should have serious conversations whether the worship song Oceans actually makes a lick of comprehensible sense. 

We debate these things because the Gospel has been entrusted to us. And the Gospel is valuable, because the Gospel brings life. 

2. Just because we’re critical doesn’t mean we can’t be loving.

There is danger to the anonymity of the Internet. When folks disagree with us, we tend to get behind our screens and keyboards to clack out our opinions in lengthy blogs and scathingly hilarious memes. Facebook comment sections turn into war zones where family and lifetime friendships are lost. We wind up saying things online that we’d never say to someone’s face in a million years. In the process, we wind up being the clanging symbols that 1 Corinthians 13 warns us about. It’s entirely possible to be totally right, act like a sanctimonious butt and lose everything in the process … Just ask any married man. If we have lots of head knowledge, solid apologetic argumentation and literary eloquence but we don’t have love, then we really have nothing at all. Ask the question: “Do I really love the people I disagree with?” 

After all, we still look at creation through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). As the perfect has still not come yet, our knowledge is not complete. Our moral compass is still defective. Our hearts are still entranced by our flesh. Our eyes are still tempted by the Devil. In a spirit of humbleness, we must acknowledge that we probably don’t have all of our motivations right in our lacking spiritual conditions. We must be humble, imperfect servants pointing towards a perfect Gospel.

While we are protecting the Gospel, I think we would also do well to remember Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” In Christ, it is possible to be gentle with other believers that we disagree with. In fact, gentleness should be the fruit of our relationship with Christ. We are altogether too quick to speak and too quick to anger while we don’t understand the heart of the person behind the ideas. In the end, our hearts should be seeking reconciliation with Christ  over harshly pushing people out of the fellowship of our Christian clubhouses. Too often, the collective Christian sphere of the Internet tends to resemble the pitchfork wielding mob from the movie Frankenstein, seeking to quickly dispatch things that they don’t clearly understand. We love to jump on the pile after the tackle has already been made.  

In the end, I’ve begun reading Girl, Wash Your Face too (even though it’s a women’s ministry book). And I think that other Christians should read the book too. But we must read it through the proper lenses of the Gospel to make sure our moral compasses are aligned to what’s good and true. I’ve found some things in the books that I find extremely unhelpful and patently unbiblical – particularly its perspective on personal happiness, depression and anxiety. If you’re a Christian reading this blog, I think you will find unhelpful and unbiblical ideas too. So let’s take her ideas and debate them. Let’s ensure that Hollis isn’t preaching another Christ, Spirit or Gospel. Let’s see if her ideas are true, honorable, just, lovely, pure and commendable. And let’s find encouragement in the divine pages of Scripture before the fallible pages of any book.

And as we interact with and challenge these ideas, let’s be gentle, loving and kind – not only with one another – but also with Rachel Hollis as well.