Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Book Notes; Worldliness by C.J. Mahaney

"Worldliness" is a term rarely heard in churches these days. Of course, such language used to be standard Christian vocabulary in a previous generation who framed discipleship in terms of withdrawal, separation from society and avoidance of its tempting wiles. Christians then considered themselves to be escaping the sin of worldliness by their avoidance of such apparent menaces as alcohol, dancing and the cinema! The critique of such views, largely accepted by the churches over the last few decades is that such an approach misreads the bible significantly, not least because it is not a vision of life which resonates with the life of Christ on any level! Furthermore, complete withdrawal cuts the church off from relevance to society, plus raises the unhappy spectre of legalism and the smug suggestion that those who have so withdrawn might regard themselves as morally superior to those who have not. Needless to say, such an approach is a travesty of the gospel of sinners saved by grace!

Why then a new book on 'worldliness'? The answer given by C.J. Mahaney and his co-writers is that the church has rightly moved too far in the other direction, and in running as far as it can from the sin of legalism has instead embraced the error of lack of discernment. This book then asks Christians to think through what they buy, wear, listen to and what media they consume (etc) to asses its value, embracing what is good, but rejecting what proves to be spiritually unhelpful. This is challenging stuff.

Thankfully the writers avoid most of the dangerous pitfalls which lurk at every side of a balanced discussion of such topics. The first is that they manage to hold onto a vision of the Christian life which depends on grace, not works, but grace that inspires discipleship. They avoid the glaring error that Yancey's otherwise Amazingly Gracious book does, where he rightly rejects legalism as a basis for relating to God - but then assumes that a saved-by-grace believer should not go the bible to discern right from wrong! They also avoid the pitfall of advocating a complete 'other-wordly' withdrawal from life, commenting positively on art, music, and creativity from many cultures as being valid (a mistake made into a book called 'Pop Goes the Gospel' that some of you may have had the misfortune to read). Furthermore they also recognise that we are not in the business of drawing up absolute lists of approved or banned music, films etc (to hide smugly behind our legal lists!) but each believer can in their own cultural context, make responsible decisions about what they consume.

The clarion call of this book is for discernment not legalism - as the titles of the chapters such as "God, my Heart and Media", "God, My Heart and Music" etc indicate. It's about cultivating a heart and lifestyle that is spiritually helpful as we as fallen people follow Christ in a fallen world. Each author stakes out a bold thesis in his chapter, some of which I instinctively enjoyed, others of which I disagreed; but all of which made me stop, think and assess.

There are a few things which didn't work though - and most of these I think are because they have been worked out in the American context and contain ideas or applications that uneasily travel. Piper's introduction is dreadful and almost put me off the book - but I am glad I persevered past it. Mahaney's wife and daughter's contribution at the end of the book in the appendix undoes some of the good work of the book by crossing the line between principles of heart in cultural context and rule-lists, which is perhaps unfortunate. This -to be fair - is an appendix which has been lifted from another publication and might be seen as ways in which one family has sought to outwork the principles discussed.

One reviewer says that this book is "so specific it will be controversial". How true! But sometimes I reckon when someone has the brass-neck to write a really provocative thesis, it is just what we need to make us really stop in our tracks and think our own position through more carefully - even if we don't agree with every element of their conclusion. So while it's true that this book is too American, too dogmatic at times, too prescriptive on occasions, it is also timely, helpful, relevant, biblical, up-to-date and just the provocation I needed!

The title of this posting refers to 'the world', and the conclusion that believers should be in it, but not of it - and that element of the book is maybe its most helpful contribution.


Jerry J. said...

I'm sure my comment on this subject will reinforce Solomon's wisdom when he said that, "there is nothing new under the sun"! But it is offered in love.

Legalism is when your desire for your actions overtakes your desire for your Savior.

Worldiness is when your desire for your personal satisfaction exceeds your desire for personal holiness.

Godliness is when your love for Christ Jesus who shed His blood for your sins exceeds your love for ALL else.

To THM, thank you for reminding us that personal holiness is still a relevant subject for the body of Christ to ponder.

That Hideous Man said...

Thanks for the definitions Jerry J!