Thursday, January 13, 2011

Legalists Watch "The Hangover"

When asked why they believe it is not a sin to watch a raunchy film or listen to an obscene song, I have noticed that Christians invariably appeal to some variation of the same basic claim: “It doesn’t affect me.”

If understood literally, this claim is clearly false. If the film truly had absolutely no effect on the Christian, then the Christian would not have watched it. If the film did not humor, thrill, or entertain the Christian in any way whatsoever, then he would not have wasted his time. The Christian would not have sat watching the film for the same reason that he would not have sat staring at a blank wall.

However, this claim is not intended literally. The claim, “It doesn’t affect me,” is really intended to mean, “It does not (adversely) affect the way I behave.” This claim is perhaps na├»ve, but more importantly, this claim reveals one of the most fundamental and devastating misunderstandings of the Christian life. The argument, “It does not adversely affect the way I behave; therefore, it is not wrong,” is built on the pervasive assumption that the Christian life consists in good behavior.

Ironically, the Christian who considers it a sin to watch certain films is often viewed as a legalist, while the Christian who watches everything is the last to receive this title. Such a distinction would be valid if a legalist could be defined as anyone who condemns a specific activity not explicitly condemned in Scripture. However, this is a very anemic definition of a legalist, and on such a definition, all Christians who condemn slavery, pornography, or abortion would be legalists, because none of these are explicitly condemned in Scripture.

A true legalists is one who believes that righteousness consists in the external. Legalists have clean hands but filthy hearts. Legalists are "white-washed tombs." The essence of legalism is the attempt to drive a wedge between inner and outer, between heart and hands, between soul and body.

The popular slogan, “What Would Jesus Do?” fails to capture the goal of the Christian life, which is nothing short of total conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29, Eph. 4:13). Such conformity does indeed include our actions, but it also includes our affections. Not only are we to do what Jesus would do, we are to enjoy what Jesus would enjoy. As Paul explains, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).

In reality, therefore, the Christian who watches everything is the true legalist. Such a Christian can view immorality as “comedy” or torture as “thriller,” and yet feel self-righteous because he has not committed either act himself.

Nowhere is this division between the internal and the external seen more clearly than in video games, where the player is allowed to act freely in a virtual world. I have overheard friends laughing about beating a prostitute to death with baseball bats in order to get their money back. I have watched a friend pummel a homosexual to death so that he would stop flirting with him. I have listened to the screams as another friend gunned down a crowd of civilians with an automatic rifle.

In such games, the Christian commits a series of unthinkable acts, experiencing many of the same emotions and sensory perceptions that would accompany these actions if they were performed on real human beings; then he turns off the console and walks away, without believing that he has made any moral choices. In his mind, an activity which is not external, and therefore does no harm to another person, is not subject to moral categories. In short, he is a thorough legalist.


Keith said...

Good thoughts, Murray.

c. said...

Hey Murray!

Annalyssa and I just read your blog today and thought it was fantastic. We were both just so thankful for the great way you articulating this. Ran across this quote in a book for class the other day and it seemed to kind of go along with what you were saying. Maybe? Anyway, here it is:

Tertullian: “Why is it right to look on what is disgraceful to do? How is it that the things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, are not regarded as doing so when they go in at his eyes and ears- when eyes and ears are the immediate attendants of the spirit? If you are going to forbid immorality, you’d better forbid the theater. If tragedies and comedies are the bloody and wonton, the impious and licentious inventors of crimes and lusts, it is not good even that there should be any calling to remembrance the atrocious or the vile. What you reject in deed, you are not to bid welcome in word.” (De Spectaculis, 17)

Murray Vasser said...

Thanks, Charisma! That's a great quote. I came across it in Hellerman's "When the Church was Family" and thought it was very relevant for today's entertainment-driven world.

Jessica said...

Wow is all i have to say. The logic makes it clearer than anything else i. Have heard about this subject. Thank you.