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By Nick Olson
On the surface, one of Jesus’ oddest statements recorded in the gospels has to do with consumption. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Setting aside what exactly is going on when believers come to the Lord’s Supper — not to mention what exactly is going on in Bram Stoker criticism focused on vampires and the Eucharist — we here have our Lord and Savior employing one of his more memorably strange metaphors.
Generally, when Jesus begins any statement “truly, truly” (or “verily, verily”), you want to sit up and pay attention. What on the surface is off-putting, cannibalistic nonsense is in fact a profound statement about belief as consumption. We eat and drink so that we can live; these are primary sources of life. So when Jesus says that one must eat of his flesh and drink his blood to have life, he eventually clarifies that he’s talking about “true food” and “true drink,” with the implication that he is talking about attaining true life. The suggestion is that if we consume Christ — if we trust in him as we trust food for sustenance — then we find a contentment that even food can’t supply. (It may be helpful to think also of the Apostle Paul writing to Philippi about the idolatry of self-worship: that for some people, “their god is their belly.”)
One of Brett McCracken’s smartest maneuvers in framing his book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space between Legalism and Liberty is that he offers a defense of the word consumption, particularly as a metaphor for partaking in cultural artifacts. McCracken notes, “Consumer is a four-letter word to many in the world today, mostly because of its association with the concept of ‘consumerism,’ the great bogeyman of capitalistic society that leaves a trail of trash, credit card debt, high-fructose corn syrup, and candy wrappers wherever it goes.”
McCracken goes on to suggest that “capitalism run amok” doesn’t have to mean a disavowal of the common phrase “cultural consumption.” For not only is commerce a potential gift rather than something necessarily indelicate, but the ingestion of food for life is also a useful metaphor to express the vitality inherent to cultural participation. Human beings can’t do without culture; we are constituted by it.
McCracken’s reclamation of this “neutral word” speaks to another effective way that he frames his approach to the gray matters of cultural consumption: he has a strong, C.S. Lewis-like approach to navigating the space between excessive consumption and legalistic abstention.
First, he says that the goal of freedom (and therefore our potential consumption) is to find joyful contentment in God. Second, he says we have the idolatrous tendency to replace this ultimate object of consumption with something else, and that this tendency can manifest itself in either unhealthy consumption or unhealthy abstention. Both of these approaches – the libertine and the pharisee – are unhealthy because they leave the person nauseated either from a bad meal or from hunger; in either case, their desire isn’t being met with the true source of life.
Consumption also makes sense for McCracken’s approach to gray matters because it fits the framework of his argument, which is bookended with chapters on food and drink, with chapters on music and film in between.
According to McCracken, food, music, film, and drink all present unique opportunities to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” This divine sensory injunction is not unrelated to the Christology with which I began this review (in his introduction, McCracken, too, talks extensively about the Eucharistic table), for according to Paul and Timothy in their letter to Colossae, Christ is the embodiment of reality, both in his role as Creator and Redeemer.
Christians — McCracken included — view the world as creation, a rich source of general revelation in which we might taste and see that Christ, the creator and incarnate God, is good. Further, this sensibility has an eschatological shape to it: we sense these truths in the positive and the negative, both as they are and as they ought to be. The point, though, is that when we seek out and enjoy the various pleasures of culture — its delectable gifts — we are led with gratitude to desire and pursue the Giver. Yet McCracken is also quick to say that this foundation for the purpose of cultural consumption doesn’t exclude non-Christians: “[b]elief in God, after all, isn’t a prerequisite for enjoyment of his creation.”
The other notable thread to McCracken’s book is that cultural consumption is best enjoyed in community. This is because much of our cultural participation should be about interpersonal commitments. In Gray Matters, the integration of belief, food, and community means thanksgiving. It means imitating Jesus who “came eating and drinking” and dines with sinners. It means enjoying Jesus himself with others. It means gathering around a table for laughter and feasting. It means eating with a measure of restraint. And it means eating with a good conscience.
The integration of belief with music and community means asking if music points you to God. It means taking into consideration the opinion of others. It means enjoying — dancing and singing to — music in the company of others. It means subjecting oneself to various genres and cultures to attain a better sense of the music and rhythms of God’s creation.
Belief and film and community means observing artistic images together. It means being entertained together. It means cultivating a moviegoing purpose — a willingness — to think and be challenged by the films we choose to see. It means not shunning the popular simply because it’s popular, and it means not avoiding the unpopular simply because it’s unpopular. It means appreciating beauty together.
For belief and drinking and community, it means avoiding the sin of drunkenness. It means enjoyment and merrymaking. It means anticipating together a future when wine will be in abundance. It means knowing when it’s appropriate or helpful to abstain from alcohol. It means rarely drinking alone. And it means enjoying new tastes together.
One thing holds belief and community and cultural consumption in common in all of these chapters: discernment, which paradoxically varies with the individual, but is also best cultivated in the context of a community. Wisely using his central metaphor, McCracken talks quite a bit about taste as it relates to discernment. That is, we ought to desire that which is good and grow in our desire for that which might be better.
Desire for the best things in life is rarely instant; it’s more often cultivated over time by the experience it gives. Our consumption of Christ — our belief in and enjoyment of him — likewise has an instant quality initially, but we also believe this relationship gets better with time, reaching depths that we’ll plumb for eternity. To have taste is to recognize a truth through experience, and some of the best take time to develop or grow better. Taste leaves no room for a haughty form of elitism, because a good consumer is interested more in enjoying a gift than in any supposed associated status and how this makes for a comparison with others.
Further, McCracken also shows the importance of history for developing discernment and cultivating taste. To understand the fashions, pressures, and tendencies of one’s current culture, one must look to the past and what led to one’s current cultural conditions. It’s never good — whether in a culture at large or in (Christian) subcultures — to presume that what is is what ought to be. With a humble but critical eye, McCracken considers the history of how Christians have interacted with various aspects of culture.
Finally, the author urges us to “be consumed” — namely, with Christ. If we are primarily consumed with him, we will “begin to enjoy things more profoundly.” Within that Christological context, our enjoyment of all that we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell begins to make more and more sense. Over time, a longing develops that is both fulfilling and waiting to be fulfilled — a longing to enter together into the glorious presence of the Giver of good gifts.
In that glory — the signs of which we see all around us, and practice faintly even now — we will sing and dance and watch and listen and smell and gather around the table together. We will worship undeterred, tasting and seeing — as never before — that the Lord is good. And the grays will give way to brilliant colors.
Nick Olson is Assistant Professor of English at Liberty University. He’s a contributing writer for Christianity Today and Filmwell. He’s also written for Books & Culture, Mere Orthodoxy, Think Christian, and Curator.
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