Bavinck: ‘Man is an enigma’

I blog to learn. It’s really that simple. And so I love thought-provoking questions like this one. After reading the last post (“The Gospel + Culture”) our friend Tom asked:

Hi Brother, this is good stuff. I wonder how Bavinck might respond to the cultural phenomena of the 21st century? To what extent should the contemporary Christian expose himself to the ungodliness of cultural expressions in order to appreciate the good they have to offer? How many times must a Christian hear the name of our Lord taken in vain before he gives up on discovering the value of a particular form of art?

What shall we endure in the name of cultural appreciation? Where is the line? How much adultery, fornication, violence and deceit can we wade through in order to find what is genuinely lovely? 60/40? 20/80? 10/90?

I don’t have the answers. In fact, I think culture is very, very important. But I wonder how Bavinck might judge the direction of contemporary culture, and especially Hollywood. How do Christians contribute to and perpetuate the ungodliness of Hollywood (and the ruined lives of actors) by their insatiable appetite to be entertained? As I said, I don’t have the answers.

“Ephraim mixes himself with the nations; Ephraim has become a cake not turned.” Hosea 7:8

Excellent question. And let me concur with you Tom—I don’t have any answers here either. Though I think that anyone struggling to see where worldliness is prevalent in contemporary culture will benefit greatly from the critical thinking and discernment modeled in the new book Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World (Crossway, 2008). There is never any excuse for Christians to be attracted to the sinful standards and practices of the world.

But I think Bavinck himself can help us because, while he was never exposed to a Super Bowl halftime show ‘malfunctions,’ or sleazy MTV videos, he was fully aware of depravity of the heart.

Notice back in the original quote how Bavinck balances an appreciation for culture, and a level of disdain for the sin in culture—“the cross is the condemnation of the world and the destruction of all sinful culture. But it is wrong to educe from this pronouncement that the gospel must be at enmity with culture.” From what I can guess by reading Bavinck, he hesitates to draw a fractional separation between the sin/righteousness of culture. This full black-and-white separation of sin/righteousness, sheep/goats, wheat/tares awaits the return of Christ. Hold this thought.

When I first read your question, Tom, I was reminded of Bavinck’s teaching on anthropology. This is what he writes:

…The conclusion, therefore, is that of Augustine, who said that the heart of man was created for God and that it cannot find rest until it rests in his Father’s heart. Hence all men are really seeking after God, as Augustine also declared, but they do not all seek Him in the right way, nor at the right place. They seek Him down below, and He is up above. They seek Him on the earth, and He is in heaven. They seek Him afar, and He is nearby. They seek Him in money, in property, in fame, in power, and in passion; and He is to be found in the high and the holy places, and with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa. 57:15). But they do seek Him, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him (Acts 17:27). They seek Him and at the same time they flee Him. They have no interest in a knowledge of His ways, and yet they cannot do without Him. They feel themselves attracted to God and at the same time repelled by Him.

In this, as Pascal so profoundly pointed out, consists the greatness and the miserableness of man. He longs for truth and is false by nature. He yearns for rest and throws himself from one diversion upon another. He pants for a permanent and eternal bliss and seizes on the pleasures of a moment. He seeks for God and loses himself in the creature. He is a born son of the house and he feeds on the husks of the swine in a strange land. He forsakes the fountain of living waters and hews out broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13). He is as a hungry man who dreams that he is eating, and when he awakes finds that his soul is empty; and he is like a thirsty man who dreams that he is drinking, and when he awakes finds that he is faint and that his soul has appetite (Isa. 29:8).

Science cannot explain this contradiction in man. It reckons only with his greatness and not with his misery, or only with his misery and not with his greatness. It exalts him too high, or it depresses him too far, for science does not know of his Divine origin, nor of his profound fall. But the Scriptures know of both, and they shed their light over man and over mankind; and the contradictions are reconciled, the mists are cleared, and the hidden things are revealed. Man is an enigma whose solution can be found only in God. (Our Reasonable Faith, pp. 22-23)

In a similar way, it appears to me that culture is a similar enigma. On the one hand the gifts and powers God has built into athletes, artists, politicians, musicians, etc. far exceed the value a non-Christian can ascribe to them.

A non-Christian fan of Yo-Yo Ma watching his cello sing at a concert can be amazed at his musical gifting. A Christian fan can watch the same concert and be amazed at his divine gifting. The fan aware of divine grace is more capable of appreciating the arts, and actually raises the dignity of the cellist far higher than one unaware of God’s general grace active in the giving of his gift.

So there is a raising of culture on one hand but on the other hand, the Christian fan in the audience is also aware of the deep sin in each of our hearts that requires the intervention of a Savior—famous cellists included.

Culture is an enigma, being both simultaneously a great display of divine endowments and creativity only explained by being made in the image of God and also hellish in it’s filthy depravity.

There are clearly things that are sinful and to be avoided in this world. No question. But culture is an enigma and this makes me wonder if Bavinck would even view culture from a fractional perspective? Thoughts?

10 thoughts on “Bavinck: ‘Man is an enigma’

  1. Great thoughts Tony. Thank you for this.

    Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Cronenberg’s History of Violence has been applauded for its cultural/artistic value. So has Chariots of Fire.

    I think it is fair to say that the percentage of graphic violence and sex and foul language is greater in th former than the latter.

    Now, is the artistic value of Cronenberg’s film enough reason for a godly man or woman to watch Mario Bello and Viggo steam up the screen?

    And what does it mean for a Christian to watch a film wherein a married man rolls in the nude with a woman who is not his wife. How does our money perpetuate such godless behavior? Are we paying Viggo to ruin his marriage all in the name of cultural appreciation?

    Grace and Peace,

  2. Let me say one more thing to clear up what I am getting at.

    I have no doubt that there is an intellectual/cultural richness to Cronenberg’s film (I haven’t see it). But as I wade through a quagmire to find the treasure, what price do I pay?

    And secondly, how is my support of the film–via paying for a movie ticket–connected to the adultery that is happening between Viggo Mortenson and Maria Bello? I remember an interview with Jennifer Aniston in which she admitted that it is impossible for an actor not to get “heated up” during a simulated sex scene–it is always only partially simulated. If I pay for a movie in which a married actor graphically fondles another woman, am I guilty by association? Does my monetary support of such a film make me responsible for the sins of these actors?

    Should I support a movie that necessitates that an actor sin against God?

    And to what extent do we tolerate sin in a film in the name of realism? We are told by Paul to let no corrupt communication proceed from our lips. What of a film that is laden with immoral language? Is that acceptable if, for instance, the film attempts to represent prison life?

    If so, what of a film that attempts to represent prostitution, or the sexual escapades of Henry VIII? Can we watch this critically in the name of realism? And does the representation, the “acting”, bring no ill effects to the actor who performs such deeds because of the said aim of realism? To what extent is an actor harmed by acting out sin?

    One of the Puritans’ criticisms of the stage of their time was that it necessitated that men dress up as women, a clear breach of God’s commandments. What kind of contraventions of Scripture does contemporary film make? And how are we to respond to films, that in the name of realism, make actors sin–in a variety of ways–against God? Is acting out a breach of the third commandment not a breach of the commandment because it is only acting? Should I pay a director and actor to take the name of the Holy One of Israel in vain? Should my money go towards that?

    So, do we make our decisions on the basis of a fraction? “This film’s material is only 5% corrupt, while that one is 45% corrupt, ergo it is legitimate for me to watch the former.” Something like that.

    I don’t know Tony. I don’t know the answer. On the one hand, I am alarmed at what many Christians expose themselves to in the pursuit of cultural enrichment. On the other hand, we risk the charge of hypocrisy if our decision making process is based on an artificial scale.

    What worries me most is how we as viewers may be unwittingly participating in the ruination of the lives of those who act for us.

    Having said all of this, I love story, and I love film. I think it is so very important. God give us all grace to walk worthily after our Lord.

    Grace and peace,

  3. As someone who has a weakness for great art, particularly paintings and also a love for classical music particularly opera – I can understand where this debate is coming from.
    Personally I try to follow Philippians.4:8 ” Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” I don’t always succeed but I think the guidelines for what we let enter our mind are pretty good.

  4. Great post! I don’t have the “answer” either but as pastor of a predominantly young, missional church I find myself having the discussion of the Gospel and culture from the other angle. A huge critique of the modern evangelical church of the 20th and early 21st centuries is that, in the name of ‘godliness’ it has rejected the culture and created its own Christian subculture. We shop at Christian bookstores, drink at Christian coffee shops and listen to Christian music thinking that somehow we’re safe from the ‘evil’ influences of society and God is pleased.

    Unfortunately the effects of this form of the discussion have been damaging in at least two major ways. First it has robbed our young people of the opportunity to develop discernment and conscience. We label it “Christian” (i.e. good) or “secular” (i.e. bad) and no one has to think about it. It’s no wonder our kids get blown their faith blown away by the first junior college philosophy class they take.

    The creation of our safe subculture has also confused the church on how to actually do the mission of the Gospel in the world. It would seem we think reaching the world for Jesus means hiding in our subculture, and telling the world how bad it is and then wondering why they don’t want to join our special club. That isn’t the mission of Christ. He hung out at Zacchaeus’ house, was anointed by a prostitute and was called the “friend of sinners.” All without sin and all for the sake of bringing them new life. Jesus sends his church into the world on the same mission.

    I’m walking a crazy line teaching the faith as Spurgeon taught it to a bunch of twenty-somethings (who are eating it up by the way) and calling them to radical love and devotion to Jesus. At the same time we refuse to allow our church to take the easy road of hiding from the culture in the name of godliness. I call my church to be missionaries to the real people in their real worlds and often they are faced with real choices and sometimes it gets real messy. It seems there is simply no way to bring the Gospel to the culture without actually engaging it. So I end up in this discussion not from the angle of finding sin in the culture and rejecting it (which seems to me to be the traditional form of the conversation), but finding windows of opportunity and freedom to enter the culture as a missionary with the love of God and the truth of the Gospel. It’s likely the same conversation. Just a different angle.

    Keep up the great work man.

  5. Thanks Jeff,

    The only way to really approach this conversation is by avoiding abstractions. It’s fine to talk about engaging culture, but what about those specific forms of culture prized by “the world” that are yet deeply problematic. The last century has seen, perhaps more than ever, the divorce between art and virtue. From the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, the west received the notion that art is meant to form virtue, or honour as Quintillian terms it in his orations.

    It’s one thing for a Christian to listen to Death Cab for Cutie sing about Heaven and Hell–it’s quite another to watch Viggo and Mario Bello simulate sex in the name of art. There are lot of implications.

    Like I said,we need to get down to the nitty gritty, and not speak in abstract terms.

  6. What I meant to include in the last post, is that the West is increasingly abandoning the virtuous paganism which is part of its heritage. For those of us who care deeply about culture, this should cause great alarm. I witness this all first hand, every day.

    And moreover, with the abandonment of virtue (that is, Prudence, Justice, Courage and Temperance) as the aim of art, we are increasingly faced with forms of art that are corrosive to the soul.

    Anyhow…nitty gritty. That’s where the conversation must dwell.

  7. Good discussion, brothers. Tom’s questions surely makes one think. I think it is a big problem in our culture that many believers are not asking those questions of themselves. And the answers are not the same for every believer.

    For example, a few years ago I was encouraged to find out that my closest friend who is also one of my mentors would not go to see the movie Titanic because of the nude scene, which was the same reason I didn’t want to go. Yet, both of our wives went with a clear conscience before the Lord.

    In light of Tom’s comments, I wonder if believers’ consciences would remain clear if they thought about the effect upon the actors, actresses and film crew, of the nudity, for example, in the Titanic movie. Have they considered the impact upon the participants as the film makers go through the process of the cast acting out sin before the Lord? Or have they even asked the obvious question of what watching and listening to such art does to their own hearts?

    So, I would suggest that Christians be encouraged to discuss these hard questions so that each person can be aware of the influence those choices are having upon others when participating in the art of the culture. If God calls some believers to partake of that kind of art, then He will also provide a place of protection around them ( “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” – John 17:15 ESV).

    I am not called to judge the hearts of brothers and sisters in the Lord, but I can tell them what Jesus told his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41 ESV)

    Blessings upon you all as you begin a new week’s walk with the Lord.

  8. 1. Regarding a quotation by Augustine: According to scripture; “no one seeks after God, no not one.”

    2. It’s my opinion that to engage in the culture of today is a waste of my time and sounds too much like the emerging philosophy. Just trying to “draw the line” should tell you something. :)

  9. Carolyn, thanks for the comment though I’m not sure you could say #2 without having previously drawn lines. The question is how and where do we draw the lines? Tom’s question is a great one!

  10. Man is divinely gifted, yet operates out of a corrupted heart. Culture reflects the nature of man. If we engage with sinful men we will be exposed to sinful ways, unless we gloss issues, isolate/insulate ourselves, and maintain shallow relationships. We should not be surprised by sin. And perhaps that is the whole point of this blog, “How do we deal with sin?”

    On the issue of viewing movies, I would ask, “Why am I going to see a given movie?” and “Who am I seeing the movie with?” Does the experience of attending a movie help me to minister to someone in a tangible way? If it does not I probably would not attend.

    Jesus did more than hang out with sinners. He came to seek and to save that which was lost –at great cost. He came not to be served, but to serve and give himself a ransom for many. He lived among us. He loved us. He gave. He brought redemption.

    We need to guard our hearts and minds, yet we also need to reach out to sinners with authenticity, relevance, and love. Jude puts it well.

    20But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. 21Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.

    22Be merciful to those who doubt; 23snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

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