Calibrating Christian Eyes

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A War of Pictures

A battle is raging. You may not know about this battle — if so, you may be more likely to become a casualty. What is this battle? It’s the battle of depiction.

The church’s mission is to call people to faith and worship; however, the stories our culture tells depict faith and worship less than favorably. When was the last time you saw a person of faith depicted on screen with whom you would like to be associated?[1] Devout, as depicted on screen, is not something you want to be. In addition, and more generally, good is depicted as evil and evil is depicted as good.

How World View(ing) Works

Hold that reality next to, for instance, the statistics that we are accustomed to hearing concerning the number of youth that walk away from the church after graduation. We acknowledge those statistics and often rush to engage in worldview fortification; we make sure they understand right and wrong, and we make sure they have Christian answers to common questions. This is important, to be sure, but what if there is another front in the worldview battle? James K. A. Smith explains that story and depiction are critical in shaping what we often call “worldview.” This is how he puts it:

Much of our action is not the fruit of conscious deliberation; instead, much of what we do grows out of our passional orientation to the world—affected by all the ways we’ve been primed to perceive the world. In short, our action emerges from how we imagine the world . . . We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us. Thus, much of our action is acting out a kind of script that has unconsciously captured our imaginations. And such stories capture our imagination precisely because narrative trains our emotions, and those emotions actually condition our perception of the world.[2]

Smith is saying that your beliefs and your perception – your mind and your eyes – are two different organs. Additionally, we know from experience that the two can be at odds with one another. Often temptation can be summed up as a moment when your eyes perceive as good and desirable what your mind believes is bad and dangerous. Smith helps us to see that a Christian can believe the right doctrine and ethic, but if he has been captivated by the wrong stories, he can still easily be trained to perceive his Christian faith in a way that makes him walk away from it. He may believe that his Christian faith is true while being made to perceive it as regressive, smallminded, superstitious, weak and bigoted. Bad eyes can be attached to a good mind (one full of Christian doctrine and morals). The weeds of wrong perception can grow up with the wheat of right belief.

This is nothing new. C. S. Lewis warned us about this in the very first letter from Screwtape. The trainer-demon writes this to the demon-in-training:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.[3]

Jargon is an effective weapon, according to Screwtape, and depiction through stories is jargon for the eyes.

Churches are tasked with building not only Christian minds, but also Christian eyes.

Tools for the Task

Churches are tasked with building not only Christian minds, but also Christian eyes. In a recent book, David Brooks says, “The person with good character has taught herself, or been taught by those around her, to see situations in the right way. When she sees something in the right way, she’s rigged the game.”[4] This is a broad task, but the first steps are simple.

Step 1: Tell the True Story

The story of the Bible (i.e., the story of creation and new creation, the story of the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God’s Son, the story of redemption, the story of the gospel) is the only force strong enough to calibrate Christian eyes and inoculate them against the acids of modern stories. Acknowledging the presence of this battle of stories and depictions should drive us beyond “Christian principles” to the story of the Bible. Principles, answers, exhortations and morals must be constantly situated in the true story of the world.

Books on biblical theology (not to be confused with systematic theology) are some of the greatest resources for this task. Bible interpretation often drives us into the weeds of parsing words and breaking sentences down, but the discipline of biblical theology takes us back up to 30,000 feet to see how the story fits together, with all of its many threads and themes. Familiarizing yourself with some of the many helpful resources on biblical theology will help you see the story as your read the scriptures, and tell the story as you preach and teach them. There are many helpful books with which to start.[5]

Step 2: Get Apocalyptic

Much of the apocalyptic literature in the Bible is offered when the kingdom of God is under threat—when competing stories threaten to recalibrate the eyes of the believing community. The Greek word “apocalypse” simply means “to reveal.” Apocalyptic battles are battles fought to show how things really are. In John’s gospel, he writes so that you may believe (John 20:30-31). In John’s apocalypse, he writes so that you may see (Revelation 1:1).The goal of apocalypse is to depict the world around you as it fits within the biblical story. For instance, nations may appear powerful and advanced at first glance, but an apocalyptic look shows that they may be beastly and stand on brittle feet.

This effort to peel back the curtain of appearances in order to show hidden realities did not stop with the last book of the New Testament, for both Christians and non-Christians have engaged in efforts that could adequately be described as apocalyptic. You can see a powerful, modern example in the anti-smoking campaign. Instead of spitting out more statistics about the dangers of smoking, the recent anti-smoking campaigns have determined to apocalyptically depict the “real cost of smoking.”[6] What if we as Christians sought to depict the “real cost of sin” in the stories we tell, in the sermons we preach, and in our creative endeavors?

If we want to build up the church, we must calibrate Christian eyes that see the world rightly, that see sin not just as wrong, but as ugly, and see the gospel not just as true, but as beautiful.

[1] Consider Sheldon Cooper’s mom on The Big Bang Theory, Glenn on Superstore, Angela Martin on The Office, Marcia Langman or the Reasonablists on Parks and Rec, or Meyerism on The Path (originally titled The Way – let the reader understand). This is not to say that Christians should avoid all of these television programs. We can learn to “eat the meat and spit out the bones,” but first we must broaden our perception of how to instill a Christian worldview

[2] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 31-2.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1-2.

[4] David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011), 127.

[5] Helpful volumes include the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (especially G. K. Beale’s volume on the temple), T. Desmond Alexander’s From Paradise to Promised Land and From Eden to the New Jerusalem, John Sailhamer’s Pentateuch as Narrative, Warren Austin Gage’s The Gospel of Genesis, Wellum and Gentry’s Kingdom through Covenant (or the smaller version, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants), James Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, Thomas Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty, and N. T. Wright’s books on Jesus and the Resurrection.

[6] Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly and Lewis’ Screwtape Letters also belong to this category.  Lupe Fiasco’s sophomore album provides another modern example. Instead of making yet another “conscious” album cataloging the ills of street life, Lupe Fiasco depicted them by constructing a narrative album (“The Cool”) centering on three powerful characters: The Cool, The Streets, and The Game.

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James Ford

James Ford is the is the operations director for Acts 29 North Atlantic. He is a husband to April, father of Gabriel, and a graduate of Southeastern (M.Div., Th.M.).

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