Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why Morality Cannot be the Baseline

Of the new Robin Hood movie, Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert writes, "Must children go directly from animated dragons to skewering & decapitation, w/ no interval of cheerful storytelling?"

Ebert is one of the few critics who gave that new adult comic book movie for kids Kick-*ss a bad review, questioning its moral compass. In fact Ebert is one of the few film critics who will outright call a movie "immoral" (as he did for one of the Texas Chainsaw remakes and other pictures in the dubiously but aptly titled new category "torture p*rn").

What I find even more unique about this is that Roger Ebert is an atheist. Yes, I know atheists in general do not think one must be religious to be moral, but that's not the point I mean to make. I was reminded of Ebert's cinematic moral compass recently when reading this post at Justin Taylor's blog, about how/why Steve Jobs forbids p*rn apps on Apple products. From the article:
Steve Jobs is a fan of Bob Dylan. So one customer emailed him to ask how Dylan would feel about Jobs’ restrictions of customers’ freedoms.

The CEO of Apple replied to say that he values:

‘Freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’ and some traditional PC folks feel their world is slipping away. It is.’

The interlocuter replied:

“I don’t want ‘freedom from porn’. Porn is just fine! And I think my wife would agree.”

In the most revealing line, Steve Jobs dismissed the critic thus:

“You might care more about porn when you have kids.”

Pause for a moment and consider what the above emails represent.

The CEO of one of the wealthiest, most successful international companies, responds to the email of a customer. Business prospers on the mantra ‘The customer is always right.’ Business wants the customers’ money.

But in this case, over the moral issue of pornography, Jobs is happy to tell customers to buy a different product. He argues that children and innocence ought to be preserved—and that trumps the dollar.

And here is where I want to go with this stuff: It's great that Ebert and Jobs and lots of others who do not know Christ are "moral" people who assert their morality. But this is why the still persisting message of the American evangelical church, that of "Be a better you thanks to God" or what-have-you, is a powerless, un-compelling message. Aside from the fact that "Behave!" is not the message of the gospel or the concerted call of Scripture, it is not something that will appeal to millions of Americans who think they're doing pretty well already, thank you very much. They love animals, provide for their families, give to charities, cry when "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" ends, and aspire to justification by recycling. And see the dangers of p*rn and the moral bankruptcy of many modern films. Why add the baggage of church when they're managing moral just fine?

Angelina Jolie has adopted, like, forty-eight babies. How many have you rescued?

This is one more reason why morality cannot be the baseline. The line is Christ, the call is the cross. And it is for sinners and "saints" -- even atheistic ones -- alike.


Jeff Schultz said...

Amen. That's exactly what Jesus is trying to get across in the parable of the prodigal in Luke 15.

The older brother is not lost despite his goodness; he's lost because of it. His morality keeps him from seeing his equally great need of grace.

Pete Scribner said...

Jared - Thanks for your reminder that the morality against which we measure ourselves must not be that of our neighbor, be he the most heinous of murderers, a world-class philanthropist, or (more likely) something in between. Christ is the only measuring stick that matters, and by comparison we all come up short. That is why we need the cross...each and every one of us.

Steve L said...

Good stuff Jared. Thanks for calling us back to the Gospel, and not just better behaviorism.

Jason_73 said...

Great Word Jared. Thanks for your continued teaching about the gospel to this internet stranger.

GGO said...

What gets me is the normal guy on the street halftimes has a better moral compass than some 'christians'. I count myself amongst those christians.

Work in progress.

kinleyw said...

Oh, but it is such a compelling message, for the wrong reasons of course. Morality helps us feel better about ourselves, "Look how good I can be", and better than others, "I would never do what they are doing." For all of humanity, that is very compelling.

The gospel says accept Christ's life and sacrifice. Don't boast in your goodness and don't look down on others for their bad. That is very unnatural.

Great reminder Jared.

Philip said...

This is really, really good. Good, thoughtful analysis. But I wonder if you might help me think through two possible perceived weaknesses in your argument.

1- What about "Salt and Light"? What did Jesus mean when he told us to be Salt and Light? Isn't the traditional interpretation of this to prevent the world from going to hell in a handbasket, morally speaking? And so then, Christians will work with non-Christians when their moral goals are the same.

2-What about the fact that the examples you gave (Jobs and Ebert) might actually be exceptions. Couldn't one argue that non-believers are in the main, immoral? And then further argue, a la Lewis, that that Atheists with morals just prove that they got it from God and that we should be spreading morality so that God's will is "done on earth as it is in heaven."

I'm not disagreeing with you. I do agree in fact, I was just hoping you would help think through those two possible objections I will get when I decided to restate the argument you make here.

prin said...

Coming from an atheist/agnostic background, Steve Jobs and Roger Ebert aren't moral because they're on best behavior. It's an empathy towards humanity. It's not being moral just because that particular behavior gets you into heaven. It's being moral because that's what's right.

I think that's where the church loses a lot of clout. People up here, me included, say, "I'd rather be a good person because I work at it than because I'm a slave to a book."

If God is good, and all good is God, maybe the atheists who "get it" are to be a lesson from God about morality and rules. In the end, as always, it's a heart issue.

darrel said...

Good stuff. A side note that does not change the truth of this post. I read a movie review from Ebert in which he claimed to be a Catholic. How does that jive with atheism?

Jared said...

Well, obviously it shouldn't. I mean, *I* don't think it jives. It doesn't if one is serious about being a Catholic. That's just logic.

But he claims atheism. The most recent thing i saw was a profile in Esquire magazine which chronicled his cancer struggle. That was this year, and he affirmed he's an atheist.

Here's an article at CT:

Jared said...

Phil, sorry for delay. If you're still checking back, here is my response to your questions:

1- What about "Salt and Light"? What did Jesus mean when he told us to be Salt and Light? Isn't the traditional interpretation of this to prevent the world from going to hell in a handbasket, morally speaking?

I believe "salt" refers to both the preservation of peoples (as salt preserved meats) and the compelling nature of the kingdom message ("saltiness," as in giving flavor). I don't think this is first and foremost about morality, but about proclaiming and living the kingdom of God.

I think "light" is along these lines too, picturing the kingdom people as visible and attractive.

I don't think this is the same as becoming comrades in morality b/c the kingdom of God presupposes worship of Jesus as king, which is something nonChristians do not do.

2-What about the fact that the examples you gave (Jobs and Ebert) might actually be exceptions. Couldn't one argue that non-believers are in the main, immoral?

Well, yes. I do affirm total depravity. We all fall short of the glory of God, not just in our behavior, but primarily in the very nature of our being.

But speaking behavioristically, there are moral acts and immoral acts, things most rational people acknowledge are universally good or universally bad (even though we ascribe this divide to a different source). So I don't mean that Ebert and Jobs are moral people in their natures, but that they, like all people, are capable of "moral behavior."

Of course the Scriptures call our righteousness "filthy rags." But that's kind of my point. :-)

Philip said...

This is a really good response. Thank you.

I didn't have to check back, because I had checked that cool little feature called "email me about future comments to this post."

But I was hoping for a response, and I'm really glad for it. I'm genuinely chewing on what you are saying here and have been since I first read it.

Your answer to question 2 makes perfect sense, and I have nothing to add.

I don't disagree with your answer to question one, but I have a follow-up: Isn't that view different than the traditional one? I've normally heard people refer to being salt and light as being the moral preservers of America. I've even read books from actual authors (commentaries?) that seem to be saying that as well.

I hear people referring to it as though without Christians, culture would just decay into immorality.

And a quick follow-up: I had a Seminary Professor draw concentric circles. In the innermost circle, he had whatever your church/denomination is. Then on the next circle out he had "evangelicals" and then on the next circle out he had "people with judeo-christian values".

What he said was was that you could worship in the same church with the innermost circle, who you had most doctrine in common with. That you could work with other evangelicals for the gospel in missions efforts (the second circle) even though you may disagree about some doctrinal issues like baptism or speaking in tongues or whatever. And for the outermost circle, where you had the least in common, they might not even be believers, you could work together in issues of morality.

I've hung on to that paradigm for years, and even taught it. This post is making me wonder if I should blow up the outermost circle.

I guess the underlying assumption was that we would want to work with non-believers on social and moral issues.

This post is making me question that. (I mean that in a good way!)

What are your thoughts?

I'm sorry for taking so much of your time on this, but suddenly I'm finding that this topic is of huge importance to me.

Jared said...

sn't that view different than the traditional one?

Yes. :-)

But I don't quite know if we can call it "traditional" so much as "majority cultural" opinion. I think we can thank "Out of the Salt Shaker" and "Roaring Lambs" for that.

But I believe my take is more consistent with the Sermon on the Mount context and the meaning of the kingdom in general.

OneBigHappy said...

To my way of thinking, "morality" is important as an expression of love. Unlike those who do not love Christ, those who do love him seek to be like him, which implies morality since he is sinless. But we pursue morality in the power of God for the sake of love, not for the sake of being "good" or "better" or whatever (John 14:21). This is what moves obedience out of the arena of legalism and into the arena of faith. We don't obey to earn God's favor. We obey because we already have it. And we're thankful for it.