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What American sitcoms and 18th century French novels have in common: thoughts on Carl Trueman, ‘A Comedy of Moral Errors’ in First Things

http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/12/a-comedy-of-moral-errors

Gay marriage has not become normalized through the presentation of arguments (though that is not to deny that many of its proponents have made arguments). It has become normalized through the Will and Grace factor: The impact of comfortable, sentimentalized, middle-class sitcoms, soap operas and their like in which no-one is ever seriously hurt, no action ever has wider social ramifications, and niceness triumphs every time.

Comedy of the American sitcom kind has proved the unexpected silver bullet for changing moral perceptions. The genre is well established as a means of projecting the values and aspirations of middle America. Characters are generally harmless and likable, even sympathetic. The villains are not sinister but typically buffoons or idiots, with the result that any opinions they spout lack all plausibility. The good guys and gals are all clean, comfy, witty, and ultimately reasonable—the kind of people who would generally make good neighbors. The very bland predictability of the genre, combines with the subversive morality of the plots to prove a powerful force in reshaping public opinion.

The crux of Trueman’s article is as follows. Philosophically airtight, solid arguments are worth little in the eyes of most people if the object of them is sentimentally or morally unappealing. Hollywood, and ‘Hollywood-ised media’ by extension, is the prime moral influencer of the masses, and the morality it champions is liberal. Its arsenal of artistic weapons is trained, in the case of the American sitcom at least, to bypass the head and go straight for the heart. It does this by representing liberal political perspectives as ‘likeable’ characters or figures, and playing them off against embodiments of ‘traditional’ perspectives dramaticised as ‘unlikeable’ characters or figures – the latter perspectives usually being a product of America’s Christian heritage in one way or another. Christians who hold to things like the conservative Biblical definition of marriage and sexual ethics are at a disadvantage to those who argue for the liberal perspective no matter how sound their arguments are, because most people take their cues from the sources that cast Christianity as the ‘unlikeable’ cause. Those with conservative Biblical views simply do not have a hold on the cultural power house that drives the moral sentiment of the masses, and they do not have anything like it at their disposal to use instead. Moreover, they are the object of that powerhouse’s scorn, which is expressed by repeatedly casting those with ‘traditional’ views as the bigoted old fools and the liberal-minded who oppose them as the young, intelligent, attractive, tidy, upstanding, mild-mannered, sensible individuals. Of course in the American sitcom there are no baddies or villains, just characters that inspire a vague, fuzzy-edged feeling of disgust, dislike, ridicule or patronizing endearment. But the effect is the same. My thought is that on an artistic level, it achieves a similar impression (albeit softer) as the old films did by repeatedly painting villains as semitic figures.

Trueman writes:

Most people gain their understanding of selfhood not from reading Thomas Aquinas but from watching The Bold and the Beautiful and following the antics of the Kardashians. We who advocate for traditional marriage and sexuality are at a huge disadvantage in the public square because we simply do not have the access to the kinds of tools exemplified by Will and Grace and Transparent. As we try to argue for our position, our opponents have simply narrated theirs, identifying their revolutionary positions with the reasonable and the normal by using the most apparently harmless and familiar of cultural idioms.

A further problem that I can see, from the perspective of the art of sitcom-writing itself, is that there are so many of these stories that make liberal perspectives look appealing and conservative Biblical ones look unappealing that what has been created is not just the stories themselves, but unwritten rules formed out of the deep groove of artistic precedent that come to define the genre, determining how these stories should be configured if they are to ‘feel right’ and be thought of as ‘good’ stories. A major reason why so few of these stories are sympathetic to the cause of the conservative Biblicists is because the precedent for the conservative Biblicists to be stereotyped as emotionally unattractive, dim-witted, bigoted, mentally impaired, or ‘old fashioned’ characters is so strong that the unwritten rules of the genre won’t allow them to look like anything else.

This isn’t anything new. In the world of art, the American sitcom, in doing what it does in the way it does it, in spite of being thought of as morally progressive, is not far from the 18th century French ‘sensibilité’ novel as an art from, which also largely viewed itself as progressive in its day. If the unwritten rules of the American sitcom genre are restrictive, then the sensibilité novel subgenre became so conventionalized that it came to be parodied. Both art forms thrive on their appeal to public moral sentiment and they simultaneously strive to shape it by introducing a morally subversive element, which they strive to justify and normalize in subtle ways. The main character of the 18th century sensibilité novel, although implicated in the morally subversive element, is presented as a paragon of desirability, likeableness and good taste (or bienséance, in the French), according to the moral sympathies of the majoritarian viewer/readership culture. The sympathetic presentation of the ‘goodie’ is at the expense of those around them who cannot attain their heights of ‘goodie-ness’; the latter are cast in the role of ‘baddie’. It is important to note however that sensibilité and the American sitcom often shy away from painting outright ‘baddies’ or ‘villains’ unless these are faceless, undeveloped, scapegoated characters, and seem to prefer to point to an institution or to ‘society’ as the culprit (i.e. a constructed perception of the prevailing culture that is hostile towards the ‘goodie’). Nonetheless, characters that are not sympathetic towards the goodie character are always presented as undesirable, and this ‘undesirable character’ slot is filled by the would-be baddie and is manipulated in similar ways. Both kinds of work often provide an intrigue or sub-plot that subtly presents the ‘goodie’ as being treated unfairly by those who do not sympathise with them; the sitcom, relying on humour rather than indignation as the main vehicle of sentiment, tends to cast the non-sympathiser as a stooge. To this effect, plot events are carefully framed, characterization is carefully orchestrated and literary tropes and cultural idioms are deliberately employed in ways that will make the ‘goodie’ cause look supremely tasteful (bienséant), as well as pleasant and likeable. As a result of all of this, the entire work is drowned in such an impression of ‘harmless niceness’ that the morally subversive aspect, constituting perhaps a ‘tragic flaw’ and as the object of the ‘goodie’s’ misfortune at the hands of the undesirable characters, starts to become assimilated into the niceness as ‘excusable’, and then as ‘normal’ by the time of the subgenre’s widespread reception by the viewer/readership culture. Whereas today’s big moral subversion is gay marriage, one big moral subversion of the 18th century French novel was adultery (think Manon Lescaut). Whatever the time-bound specifics, my point is that that kind of art is orchestrated strategically to interact with the public moral tastes in such a way as to shape perceptions without the audience realising that those perceptions are being shaped. And the trajectory of these perceptions, whether the art is contemporary and American or 18th century and French, has never been towards either conservative Biblical principles or the Christian gospel itself; only away from them.

What is the conservative Christian to do about this? Well, not come up with better arguments for their points of view. Sensibilité ancient or modern is not an unstoppable force, but for the past couple of centuries I suspect that it has not been tackled in the right way. This would be understandable: tickling the media receiver’s sensibilities then gently removing the rug of moral reference out from under their feet and replacing it with your agenda while they’re too entertained to notice, is fundamentally manipulative and seems underhand. The logocentric God, the God of light and vision, who reveals himself and his will and gives commandments openly, works by elucidating, instructing, laying bare and making visible: ‘underhand’ and ‘manipulative’ just don’t characterise the way he does things. It’s therefore not inconceivable that many Christians find it hard to know how to respond to these. What many Christians don’t realise is that elaborate philosophical arguments just don’t cut the mustard when trying to engage people on life’s big questions, when they get their definition of what life is all about from the sentimental hi-jinks that television, newspapers the internet, or, indeed, novels, can make them feel. Feeling needs to be met on its own level. What is needed to get the world feeling outside of the cloying liberal straitjacket that cossets and binds mainstream media genres unawares and subtly reinforces the suffocating ideological consensus that reigns over hot potato issues (as well as the gospel itself in many cases), by shutting down rational discussion under the weight of moral sentimental rhetoric, I think, is more art. Now don’t get me wrong. The greatest need of this world is not to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman till death doth them part. Nor is it to outlaw and prevent abortion in every country in the world. The greatest need of this world is to be reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus Christ and to start a new life with him. And that is never going to happen unless they hear the Word of God. Art will never be a substitute for that Word and sentiment will never shatter the Logos; the worst sentiment can do is dissimulate it, influence attitudes towards it or distort perceptions of it. But whether conservative Christians are occupied with preaching the gospel or safeguarding the things that God holds dear in the public square, art can lay grounds by which the blinding prejudices and misconceptions of this age can be stripped away and the Word of God can be heard for what it is. What the conservative Christian can do is create stories that their perspective and message can inhabit sympathetically, and hope that these stories will somehow occupy a positive space in the public consciousness that they can use in their interactions with people, so that there can be a cultural point of contact for the Christian to draw on that dissipates their interlocutors’ disgust rather than exacerbating it. As Professor Louis Markos puts it:

We are, in many ways, a civilization adrift on the stormy seas of relativism and existentialism. … Our compass is broken and the stars obliterated, and we are left with nothing to navigate by but a vague faith in the modern triad of progress, consumerism, and egalitarianism. They are not enough. . . . What we need, in short, are stories. (On the Shoulders of Hobbits, 10–11)

I found that in a recent DesiringGod blog post on Tolkein, incidentally. Now I’m not advocating that everyone try to out-Tolkein Tolkein. Tolkein addressed a cultural climate that was different to ours: relativism and existentialism were new, not taken for granted: the existence of stories at all was something to marvel at. But now there are so many stories, so many genres and kinds of story and so many ideological forces that hold monopolies of influence and power over them (and it seems that everyone wants a slice of Middle Earth), that it is important to be mindful of what we’re dealing with as we go about writing stories.

As far as I can see, that can be done in one of three ways. Firstly, you could fight fire with fire, exploit loopholes in what kinds of stories the genre allows and what kinds it doesn’t, and potentially leave yourself open to the wrath of the developers of the genre that you’ve just hijacked, and that of those who approached your work expecting their usual fix of sentiment and sensed that something was ‘off’. Secondly, you could write a story exposing the secular liberal empire for what it is and pass your work off as ‘postmodern’ and ‘a critique of our times’ – although this would require your approach to look secular and liberal at least superficially because if it doesn’t then you will look like that bigoted old fool from the sitcom. Thirdly, you could create a whole new kind of art that can only be described in its own terms. With the latter comes the risk that nobody will like it. But there may be some who do. And with those who do, there is greater protection from sabotage than either of the first two options.

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A layperson’s rant on the state of debate …

Is it just me, or do a lot of players in the discourse of the main debates raging today seem to shift between the ‘I’m the oppressed minority and victim of imperialistic hegemony’ posture, and the ‘I hold the majority view of all those who are worth listening to’ posture, whenever it’s tactically advantageous?  And yet, in my God debates with some people, I’ve heard them insist that they are oppressed victims of a cruel, uncaring majority that needs to be brought to justice in one instance, and then in another instance, claim that anyone who tries to make a rational, scientific case for views opposing their own is a nutter because the weight of majority consensus is against it.  Meanwhile, higher profile participants from all sides – atheist journalists, Christian journalists, Muslim journalists – all vie for the same role of ‘lone freedom-fighter in a cruel hegemonic world’ and posture themselves as liberators of an oppressed minority comprising people who hold their views.  If all parties are valid in the estimation of themselves, we’re faced with a demographic impossibility.  Likewise, if a party can be an ‘oppressed’ minority and a ‘right-thinking’ majority within the same discourse, we’re faced with an ontological impossibility.

When we participate in the discourse of these debates, are we not more than so many spin artists trying to make the world believe that we hold a kind of pedigree to whatever schema we touch?  Can this ‘rational’ enquiry into truth really be so rational and so concerned with truth, if the weight of so many arguments depends on self-posturing and other-framing, the trimming and dressing and packaging, rather than the actual substance?  It makes one wonder: where is the original cause in this; where is the external truth, the golden goose at the stake of the original debate, if we go on scrapping over our entitlement to a sympathetic frame in this schema of rectitude or that, like two bratty girls fighting over playtime roles?

What we have here, I think, is a tactical mess of conflicting schemata.  A schizophrenia of conflicting identities.  Perhaps you could confer it some dignity by calling it a product of an ‘ethical’ conflict of the age – where modernist utilitarianism and postmodernist moral sentiment meet in the middle and clash, and the materials left to the people to build their battle-tools are blunted and wear each other down.  But come down from those dizzy heights of abstraction, and on the ground, in the thick of the argument, there has to be something else we’re doing wrong.  When we beat the identity of our precious cause into whatever shape fits the rapid alternation of hard and soft tactical requirements of debate-winning, we treat our cause as our currency, rather than our prize, and we sell it out for a bitter and faceless victory.  Do we love our cause?  Do we honour and respect it intrinsically?  Then why do we shape it and mould it into identities it mightn’t be, can’t be, or isn’t, lest we lose face from a single battle’s loss?  When we do that, we reveal what we believe our real prize to be.  I’m ashamed to say that I’ve sold the Christian community and my God out like that too, sometimes.  I think it’s time to stop it.

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When to be Wary of a “Biblical” Idea

There are certain words, used in certain fields, that have the magical ability to grant legitimacy or illegitimacy to anything they’re applied to, simply by virtue of being used. Like Midas, these words can turn anything they touch into gold. One such example is the word “scientific”. If someone claims that their method is scientific, then it’s bound to be good, right?  Another word like this is “democratic”. Others are “equality”, “tolerance” and “ethical”. Marks and Spencer is described by a lot of people as an “ethical” shop – therefore it’s surely a good place to shop, right?  Now in Christian spheres, we have the word “Biblical”. If someone calls a phenomenon or an idea ‘Biblical’, it means it’s pretty sound by Christian standards.

But here’s the thing.  These words are powerful, and unless people have a chip on their shoulder they don’t always look into the implications of what they mean or the connotations they have.  For instance, does merely calling something “scientific” make it scientific, or are there real life implications attached to this label that have to be fulfilled in order for it to apply, that are being overlooked? To consider another example, is a clothes shop ethical just because the word ‘ethical’ is plastered across its store front window?  Why was there all the palaver about the horse meat scandal? At least partially because the product did not turn out, upon further examination, to be what it said on the label. I feel that the same set of problems potentially applies for the word ‘Biblical’, and this worries me.  If you like an idea, you can call it “Biblical” and people will agree with you; if you don’t like an idea, you can call it “unbiblical” and people will leave it alone. What does this have to do with the Bible? Not necessarily very much, as long as the label acts as its own justification. Unless the label is peeled back, the lid is taken off and the contents are tested, people’s trust can all-too-easily be breached. In the case of the horse meat scandal, the consequences were lawsuits and financial ruin. In the case of Biblical exegesis, the consequences can be all-too-easily brushed aside. The assumptions behind our tendency to place automatic credence in the label ‘Biblical’ are as follows:

[Bible = the Word of God] + [The Word of God = infallible] = [“Biblical” = infallible].
And unthinking people, forgetting that certain real life conditions have to apply for something to be as “Biblical” as someone says it is, and forgetting that there’s a middle man applying the quotation marks in this equation, might deem anything labelled “Biblical” to be infallible – just like that.  Just utter those magic words and you could get off Scot-free; no homework required, and no questions asked – and what being “Biblical” actually implicates in real terms might be completely overlooked. People forget that between the word and its designation there is a person applying it, and that that person has a fallible mind and possibly an agenda, and might sink to any depths to garner support for said agenda, including pretending that he actually knows what the Bible says about this thing that he’s touting as ‘Biblical’.

I do not mean to say by this that this ‘sinking to any depths’ is always done with a deliberate malicious intent to deceive; but if you have invested your whole life and perhaps your career in the things you believe in, and you want others to believe in them too, then it is tempting to fudge a translation of something to make it ‘fit’, or to quote a Bible passage that perhaps only tangentially relates to what you wanted your reader to take away with them. People often don’t mean any harm, but when they’re aware of the debates that are raging around them that are all trying to attack their point of view, the temptation to find ways of defending it at the price of integrity is significant, as well as the temptation to over-compensate by emphasising a certain doctrine above others in a way they shouldn’t.

What I find ironic is that many people are more eager to pronounce of the Word of God fallible than they are to declare the same about unsupported statements concerning it – when in reality the Word of God – written, as it is, by supernaturally inspired men – is the text that has most justification for its claim to infallible status.    I think that this might be partly owing to etiquette.  Even if the the average punter were aware of the middle man’s authorial presence, who would dare be so impolite as to imply that he hasn’t done his homework? Who would think of being so darned unchristian as to mistrust his judgement – and not only that – but to go out of his way to prove him wrong?  How untrusting!

It’s time to wake up. The Christian faith is a battle, not a tea party. Truth matters, and there is only one Word on which we need to hang our hat: the Word of God. If anyone claims that something is “Biblical” or “unbiblical” and doesn’t refer back to the Word, then the jury’s still out on it. In fact, don’t stop there. Look at the evidence they give carefully, because ‘Biblical’ can mean anything from ‘being a hit in a Bible concordance search’ to ‘being representative of conservative evangelical Christian beliefs’. The distinction matters. There’s something disenchanting, I know, about approaching media with a default attitude of ‘suspicious’.  But if we’re searching for truth – and the term ‘Biblical’ is claimed by Calvinists, Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Charismatics and the like – then in itself the word cannot be taken on face value.  Unless we’re happy to do what C.S. Lewis calls ‘wait in the hall’ of mere Christianity; that is, to adopt a form of Christian faith so devoid of specific tenets that it is not directly contradicted by any denomination that claims to be ‘Biblical’ but likewise cannot qualify a person for membership of any church, then the usage of the word ‘Biblical’ has to be investigated carefully. I am not a Postmodern; I believe that God invested his Word with meaning.  Randy Newman says in his book ‘Bringing the Gospel Home’ that when trying to explain the gospel to family members we must remember that the true gospel is very ‘easy to miss’ in the midst of all the packagings and listener-friendly nuances we try to give it.  No kidding.  If something as foundational as Christ’s atoning death and Resurrection is easy to miss, then how much easier to miss must everything else be…?

For evaluation criteria of the validity of any so-called ‘evidence’ that might be provided in support of the “Biblical” label, I can’t give an exhaustive list. However, if you do find something a bit fishy and want to challenge it, then before going to the trouble to build up an argument for an opposing view, consider the following for starters:

  • Are the quoted verses being taken out of the context of their paragraph/chapter/book?
  • Is the text being interpreted in a manner contrary to its overall function in light of the New Covenant? (To give an example, for Christians, the Old Testament commands have a different significance in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the meaning they had when they were first given.  There is a large section of laws in the Old Testament about foods that are or aren’t acceptable to eat, whereas in the New Testament, Peter declares all foods acceptable, and it is Peter’s statement that is binding for Christians living under the New Covenant – i.e. us.  To use the Old Covenant implications of those passages to support an argument that isn’t bound to Old Covenant times is to misapply the Old Testament)
  • Can the quoted passage be linked to an ongoing theme in the Bible, or is the quoter trying to make it represent their own agenda?
  • If so, is the quotation representative of other resurgences of that theme, which might show it to be more complex than the quoter is making it out to be?
  • Is the ‘evidence’ being wrung out of the wording of only one translation of the Bible?
  • Does the evidence hinge on a misconstrued definition of the “original Greek” word for x, y or z?
  • Do reputable commentaries and study Bibles include, decline to mention, or positively reject the interpretation that the quoter gives?

In some cases you might also want to check whether what a person says accords with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.  I must stress however that this is slightly dangerous ground and can open lots of cans of worms that you might not have the time or the energy to pursue. The Apostolic Fathers are not always right, but for certain kinds of enquiries they can be very helpful.  Letters and treatises written by people who were directly discipled by the apostles are likely to be pretty good indicators of what the 1st century church actually believed, even if it erred in places. Our authority is Scripture; I’ve made that clear, and actually by reading the Fathers you can appreciate just how highly they regarded Scripture too.  But there are times when people come up with certain interpretations of Scripture that they claim to be ‘historical’, and at this point to refer to your Westminster Confession claiming that it is representative of ‘historic’ Christianity seems somewhat moot. It can be helpful, for instance, to consult the Church Fathers when a person says that a certain doctrinal point goes ‘right back to the early church’ and then backs himself up with a certain interpretation of a Bible passage.  A close-up look at the early church might tell us how ‘early’ that piece of doctrine actually is and how long that particular Bible passage has been interpreted in that way, and by whom.  In other words, it can falsify their claim that that doctrinal point was held by the very early church (or it can affirm it).  But as the very early church was subject to the Word of God and could err, so must we be subject to it, knowing that we too can err.  An even closer look at the early church can help us determine whether a doctrinal point is present in the early writings in the exact form given by the person who ascribed it to them, or whether the doctrine has been ‘interpreted’ into the writings or has ‘evolved’ out of them via nuanced readings. But it is important to set some boundaries regarding what extent your own Biblical hermeneutics ought to stand or fall on the conclusions of such a study, knowing that the conclusions you draw will not signal the end of the whole debate as it rages on, and that there are people who know much better than you do what sorts of questions and ways of responding to questions are likely to produce valid answers.  It is also safer to start reading the Fathers with a supporting commentary or a translation from an author or publisher you trust. I’m not a Patristics scholar but I know from experience that in fields like this it is easy to fall into a pothole if you aren’t familiar with how the internal debates play out or what’s at stake, or what counts as acceptable practice in the field. Not knowing Greek or Latin could already make you vulnerable to translators who might not state their theological a priori in the way that Bible translators do; a commentary, we would hope, at least states its allegiances.  The upshot of this is that if you’re going to ‘do’ Patristics and come out undeceived then you have to be prepared to do it properly and probably with your eyes wider open than you’re used to keeping them.

If you want to launch an intellectual offensive, then be my guest.  But if a person provides evidence to support the ‘Biblical’ label, and you can pick out fallacies in the evidence they provide and the conclusions they draw from it, you might not have to go that far.  What’s the difference between something deemed to be “Biblical” and something deemed to be “unbiblical”?  Sometimes an honest analysis of the Bible; sometimes only an agenda.

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