Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nice or Vice? Part 1

I do a lot of things differently than fellow evangelicals with our freedoms in Christ.

There. I've said it. I know it makes me an oddball Christian, but that's the way I am.

My parents raised my brother and me with relatively strict guidelines about what were and weren't appropriate behaviors for followers of Christ. And yes, that helps explain what some might call my prudish mindset today. My parents taught us that it was acceptable to deny one's self pleasure, a concept which has practically vanished from popular consciousness. Today, I refrain from drinking, smoking, dancing, gambling, and doing yoga. I hardly ever go to the movies. And fellow Christians think I'm weird.

I don't do these things because I believe they'll keep me from going to Heaven. Nor is my lifestyle a direct hold-over from when my parents controlled my habits. Rather, the maturation process I've been undergoing as a person of faith has forced me to evaluate why I would or wouldn't continue in the behavioral path laid out for me by my parents. And while, yes, I've ended up making some of the same conclusions they did for their own lives, I haven't done so with a regimented mindset tempered by mere traditionalism or fear.

Instead, a more accurate estimation of my behavior would be to say that I've developed my own rationale for choosing to participate - or not to participate - in certain things for one reason: honoring God.

I'm Not the Prude You Might Think I Am

Now, before you think I'm getting all holier-than-thou, trying to take you on a guilt trip or crush you with layers of legalism, let me explain.

There comes a time for all of us when we make decisions about whether we're going to drink, dance, go to movies, and all the other vices that society at large used to frown upon, but now embrace as part of modern life. While in the evangelical church a wide range of opinions still exists regarding the appropriateness of such activities, the tide has definitely turned towards a wider practice of them, mostly in reaction to the generations of fuzzy logic which prohibited them.

You know what I mean: the hell-fire and brimstone preachers who damned anybody to Hell who drank so much as a glass of beer or wine. The Sunday School teacher who warned nice girls not to compromise their virtue by going to the movies. Back in the olden days, a lot of rules were based on real concerns about societal mores, but the rationale behind them seemed to lack its own integrity.

And although it may not be readily apparent, that is the crux of the issue when we make decisions about the activities in which we choose to engage. Most of what used to be considered vices aren't actually wrong in and of themselves. Rather, the mindset with which we participate in them can speak louder than the actual activity.

I'm not here to preach against any of these things, or to set up parameters for salvation whereby you or I can determine if somebody is saved or not based on whether they do them. While I'd love to lay down the gauntlet and insist that everybody needs to share my perspective on these issues, I realize the plank that is in my own eye may be obscuring my ability to remove the speck that may be in yours.

Instead, as I've journeyed along my path contemplating the holiness of God and how we are to serve Him with our lives, I've had to cross a number of bridges spanning legalism, habits, propensities, and historical tradition to come up with rationales for why I do what I do and don't do what I don't.

So just let me tell you how I've reached the decisions I've made for myself.

Oral Fixations

Interestingly, one of the vices mentioned in the Bible but receiving very little attention today concerns overeating and gluttony. For years, I scoffed at Christians who'd drink themselves under the table, while I scarfed down as many pastries, pizzas, and whole pints of Ben & Jerry's as I could. Of course, now that I've got a belly the size of Rhode Island, it's finally hit me that gluttony is as much a sin as drunkenness. It's just doesn't kill other people like alcoholism can.

And as for drinking, I can't say people who drink wine with dinner or have a beer at a ballgame are sinning. I have to assume that the Bible accurately describes the wine Jesus created at the wedding feast as a vintner's bouquet. I don't deny that the apostle Paul advised Timothy to medicate his upset stomach with wine.

No, my reason for not drinking is twofold: first, my grandfather was a dastardly alcoholic, and I'm not convinced that the propensity for alcoholism isn't genetic. Second, since I have such an oral fixation on food, I hate to think how I'd treat booze. Some people say a good meal isn't perfect unless accompanied by the right wine, but I already have a problem with idolizing food, so how might adding liquor to the mix solve anything? Others say Holy Communion is best celebrated with fine wine, so as to echo the Bible's many metaphors about the fruit of the vine, but unless you're using the most expensive wine available, isn't grape juice just as good? North Americans benefit from healthy, safe water from the tap, so wine isn't necessary to satiate thirst. No, it's just more prudent for me to abstain, and so far, I've been able to.

Interestingly, for those of you who do drink alcohol, one of the best guidelines for doing so comes from none other than liberal actor Alan Alda and his character, Hawkeye Pierce, on M*A*S*H. Towards the end of the series, he told his cohorts at the 4077 he had learned to drink when he wanted to, not when he needed to. Needing something indicates the control of that something over you; drinking when you want to generally will help keep you from overdoing it, because you'll probably be at an event you'll want to enjoy and remember.

I'm More Flexible With Movies

When I was growing up, my parents didn't want my brother and me going to the movies, and that lasted until we were in high school. By that time, however, I'd realized how destructive my daily doses of television had become to my ability to concentrate, read, and use my imagination. So I've intentionally moderated my movie intake, especially since you have to pay for movies, as opposed to free TV (I've never had cable).

Some people can spend hours discussing cinematic stories, but not me. It's not a sin to go to the movies, but I question the merit of spending so much time consuming so much that, in the grand scheme of things, isn't necessary. Sometimes when friends become engrossed in movie talk, I try to tally the hours they've spent watching these flicks; not that I can judge if their expenditure of time is any worse than how I spend my own free time, but rather, how differently we view our options for time management. I prefer being outside, good conversation, or even running errands at a leisurely pace to sitting in a dark room for two hours being spoon-fed somebody else's interpretation of a story. Entertainment is one thing, but needing so much of it - and of such oftentimes questionable quality - seems to speak more to a conviviality with the world than a respectful acknowledgement that we should be separate from it.

Not that I didn't enjoy "Toy Story 3" this past summer. But it was the first movie I'd seen in about a year. My favorite movie is the first Airplane, with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as a close runner-up. The only chick-flick I've ever enjoyed is Crossing Delancey, but mostly because the grandmother in the movie reminds me so much of my father's mother. I've never seen Star Wars - an admission which draws gasps from most people - yet I consider Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, despite their raw content, must-see's, if for nothing else than their historical importance.

I also think the last half of the epic Titanic is worth it for the phenomenal animation. But that's about as far as I go with movie talk!

Shake that Groove Thang

Dancing presents a far trickier line of logic. Because I don't deny that dancing is referenced in the Bible, I obviously can't say that dancing in and of itself is sinful. Indeed, as you'll soon discover, I actually think it can be beneficial in the proper context. But we have some ground to cover before we get to that point.

We at least need to agree that the dancing which took place in Biblical times was directed to the Lord and the mighty deeds God had accomplished for His people. With the possible exception of King David's dance witnessed by his jealous wife Michal, during which the modesty of his attire was compromised, the civic exuberance displayed by the gyrations of those dancing honored God and were set in the context of a wholesome celebration.

However, we need to draw a distinction between celebrating the goodness of God and moving our bodies to music not designed for God's pleasure. If you don't accept that music doesn't exist in a moral vacuum, then you're not going to agree with anything I say further. But if you affirm the qualitative properties of music, then you can appreciate the lines I'm drawing.

While dancing itself isn't necessarily sinful, it can be a slippery slope. As an activity, dancing can invite bodily movements to both non-edifying (secular) and Christian music, which can generate lustful thoughts, which can corrupt its participants. I know that involves a lot of assumptions and sounds old-fashioned, but it's true, isn't it? Of course, dancing a waltz can be far removed from the primalness of hip-hop or hellish cacophony of hard rock, but if you're not dancing to a legitimate song of praise to God, then you should at least seriously monitor the music to which you're dancing. And how you move your body.

Why? The human body is a beautiful assortment of sexually provocative curves and appendages, which we often forget in our carnal world. While some women can spark lust in a man just by walking down the street, many more women can take men on a fantasy ride with a little subtle help from the poses their body strikes while dancing.

While women don't seem to have as much of a problem with lustful thoughts while dancing as men do, it's not unheard of for women to develop sexual thoughts while males gyrate provocatively to human-focused music. Call me a prude if you like, but I'm not really the one making up the rules here, am I? Biology and psychology play greater roles than we like to admit.

Personally, I believe that dancing is an activity best left to a husband and wife, because I don’t think spouses can have sinfully lustful thoughts of their covenant partner. Actually, judging by the marriage relationship some of my friends have, a healthy dose of "lust" for one's spouse could work wonders! As a single man, however, I know that for myself, I have enough problems with lustful thoughts in ordinary situations than to attend a dance of any kind, because society tends to import all sorts of sexual innuendo at most types of dances.

Next: Abstinence frees you from both need and want. At least, if you really want to exercise freedom.

1 comment:

  1. I feel and try to live exactly the same way and find that very few understand. But that's ok with me!


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