Religion

Before we can consider God’s will for religion we need to consider what we mean by “religion.” The word, as used to refer to one of the seven influential spheres of culture, can mean at least three things.

The first and most common meaning is that of organized religion, such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. They are each an expression of a belief-system that has eternal implications and consequences. But an expression of such a belief-system need not be “organized” to be considered a religion. So New Age religion, which is not an organized religion, is a religion in this second meaning of the word. For it is an expression of pantheism. The theory of evolution is also a religion in this sense, insofar as it is an expression of materialism, which certainly has eternal implications and consequences.

However, our focus here is on the third meaning: innate religion, the religion that exists in every human heart. This religion is the fear of God (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14), usually expressed through the conscience (Romans 2:14-16). Every human being has a conscience and hence has an innate ability to discern what is just and what is not. People we consider “God-fearing” are those who are exceptionally conscientious, who habitually (though not perfectly) seek to do justice and love mercy.

All organized religions are in one way or another expressions of (innate) religion. But a “religious” person may not be God-fearing if he does not practice his religion from the heart. And there are even atheists, despite their professed unbelief, who are God-fearing (conscientious) because they are also made in God’s image. The term “God-fearing” can also be applied to them because, like conscientious believers of God, they would do what is right and not what is wrong when no one (except God) is watching or holding them accountable.

What then is God’s will for religion (the fear of God)? The obvious answer—to keep His commandments to love one’s neighbor as oneself by doing justice and loving mercy—has already been considered repeatedly, most recently as the defining characteristic of a covenant community. In other words religion has a crucial role in forming and sustaining a covenant community. Hence any civilization that somehow undermines the fear of God is heading towards self-destruction. As we have seen, a case in point is modern civilization, where the physical environment and way-of-life incarnate materialism and thus promote a way-of-thinking that denies the existence of God.

In view of widespread agnosticism and atheism, which happens only in modernity, Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles’ (1990) extensive research with children is significant:

During our encounters with children we couldn’t help but be impressed with the constant mention of religious matters....To be sure, we talked with a lot of children whose specific religious customs and beliefs came under discussion; but we also talked with children whose interest in God, in the supernatural, in the ultimate meaning of life, in the sacred side of things, was not by any means mediated by visits to churches, mosques, or synagogues. Some were the sons and daughters of professed agnostics or atheists; others belonged to “religious” families but asked spiritual questions that were not at all in keeping with the tenets of their religion (xiii, xvii ).

Coles’ modernist background in psychoanalysis had actually biased him against religion and spirituality:

Thanks go to my wife ... for long ago prodding me to recognize the ideological underpinnings of much secular thought, and for making me aware of a good deal that I chose for a long time not to recognize. She was the one who noticed, early in our ... work, spiritual interests and yearnings among children not conventionally religious, and she kept challenging me to press on toward the years of research we eventually did.... This research..., finally, helped me see children as seekers, as young pilgrims well aware that life is a finite journey and as anxious to make sense of it as those of us who are farther along in the time allotted to us (xviii, xvi).

More recently, Oxford cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett (2012: 9) has written a well-documented book on how ongoing research in cognitive psychology supports similar conclusions:

Regardless of culture and without need for coercive indoctrination, children develop with a propensity to seek meaning and understanding of their environments. Given the way their minds naturally develop, this search leads to beliefs in a purposeful and designed world, an intelligent designer behind the design, an assumption that the intentional designer is superpowerful, superknowing, superperceiving, and immortal. This designer does not need to be visible or embodied, as humans are. Children readily connect this designer with moral goodness and as an enforcer of morality. These observations in part account for why beliefs in gods of this general character are widespread cross-culturally and historically.

Barrett’s recounting of experiments with children on how their mind works as they observe their environments are eloquent commentaries on what Paul said even about people who willfully suppress the truth about God: “that which is known about God is evident within them…. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20; cf. Psalms 19:1-6).

In other words, strictly speaking, innate religion includes active belief in God as well. But in view of how easily this belief is suppressed, we have reduced “innate religion” to simply “fear of God,” which even atheists recognize when rephrased as conscientiousness.

Recall that the Creation Mandate, as originally given to Adam and Eve and applied to ancient Israel in the form of the Mosaic Covenant, is to build a civilization that is both consistent with God’s will and in fellowship with Him. We have elaborated at length the role of religion in building a civilization that is consistent with God’s will. Having now shown that belief in God is actually natural to the human mind, we now highlight the role of religion in building a civilization that is in fellowship with God.

We will look at Israelite religion in this regard as Israel was called to be a model for all nations. Central to the Mosaic Covenant is the requirement to keep God’s commandments and to seek forgiveness of sin through the Sacrificial System whenever they failed to do so. Otherwise they could not remain in fellowship with God, as God is holy. However, in practice, only the genuinely God-fearing among them would do so consistently. The fear of God would not only constrain them to do what is right and restrain them from doing what is wrong, but would also prompt them to repent and seek forgiveness from God when they sinned against Him.

In other words, the purpose of religion is not only to cause us to obey God but also to seek His forgiveness when we fail to do so. In fact, by definition, if someone does not at least have a guilty conscience when he has done wrong, he is not a conscientious or God-fearing person, whether he believes in God or not. As for conscientious atheists, no matter what they do to find relief from their guilt feelings, they will not find the kind of relief that can only come with knowing that God has forgiven them. This is especially so when they feel guilty over a wrong that no one, except God, knows about. Hence God’s will for religion applies to them too.

Though modernity undermines religion, it has not been and will not be able to eradicate belief in God. One important reason is that “God so works that men (people) should fear Him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14). In other words human experience is designed to point people to God. One way to appreciate this truth is to consider how the arts interpret reality and recreate the experience of it, a subject to which we now turn.

Arts and Entertainment

The arts can be grouped into three categories: visual arts (such as painting), performing arts (such as music) and literary arts (such as poetry). Our concern here is with God’s will for the arts in terms of how they contribute to building a civilization that is consistent with God’s will and in fellowship with Him. In other words, we are concerned with the role of the arts in enhancing the fear and worship of God.

We know that God has such a role for the arts because we have seen how the architectural design (visual art) of the Tabernacle was central to recreating the sense of God’s holiness. Also the psalms, which are lyric poems (literary art), played a central role in worship at the Tabernacle (later the Temple). And they were sung accompanied by musical instruments (performing art).

And Israel’s worship of the Golden Calf (visual art) with dancing (performing art) also affirms the unique role of the arts in worship, though it is idolatry or false worship in this case. The arts and worship tend to go hand in hand. This is because, by their very nature, the arts are uniquely suited to promote worship, whether true or false. For they appeal to our imagination and emotion.

The arts can be reasonably defined as aesthetic creations that delight and nourish the soul (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:10). So we expect every piece of true art not only to engage but also feed the soul; but in practice this is often not true. To appreciate why a piece of art may fail to feed the soul, we differentiate arts that interpret reality from those that do not. What Laurence Perrine (1983: 4) said about literature in his classic book on fiction can also be extended to the arts in general:

ESCAPE LITERATURE is that written purely for entertainment—to help us pass the time agreeably. INTERPRETIVE LITERATURE is written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life. Escape literature takes us away from the real world: it enables us temporarily to forget our troubles. Interpretative literature takes us, through the imagination, deeper into the real world: it enables us to understand our troubles. Escape literature has as its only object pleasure. Interpretive literature has as its object pleasure plus understanding....

A story becomes interpretive as it illuminates some aspect of human life or behavior. An interpretive story presents us with an insight—large or small—into the nature and conditions of our existence. It gives us a keener awareness of what it is to be a human being in a universe sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile. It helps us to understand our world, our neighbors, and ourselves.

In light of how the artistic design of the Tabernacle enables us to perceive God’s holiness, we add that interpretive arts also help us to understand God, and in a way not otherwise possible. This is because the arts appeal to our imagination and emotion in a way not otherwise possible. This then helps us, like when we meditate on the psalms, not only to fear God more as we understand Him better, but also to have closer fellowship with the invisible God as we relate to Him through our imagination and emotion. Furthermore, as the arts also help us to express ourselves to God through our imagination and emotion, as in the singing of hymns, we can better worship Him with our whole being. All this explains why the arts are necessary to help us fear God and worship Him aright.

We now come back to why a piece of art may not feed the soul. Unlike interpretive arts, escape arts—pleasure without understanding—only entertain us. It is only when a piece of art interprets reality and interprets it correctly that it feeds our soul—with insights into reality (“food for thought”).

Take for instance the 2006 movie Bordertown, in which an up-and-coming American journalist played by Jennifer Lopez was sent to investigate a series of rape-cum-murders near the American-owned factories in a Mexican bordertown. One girl managed to survive after being raped and left to die. The journalist was able to befriend and interview her. In a thoughtful scene the girl asked the journalist how many children she had. The journalist replied that she was not even married because she had a “career.” She then explained that a “career” is an occupation for which one would sacrifice everything, only to be disillusioned. To her, a career is not what one envisions it to be, and in pursuing it, one will end up having “no life.” Yet she like many others cannot help but pursue it.

We have highlighted earlier that the purpose of education today is mainly to equip people to pursue a career rather than to fulfill a calling. We have also shown that the dictionaries usually fail to define the idea of a career properly. The scene in Bordertown not only interprets correctly the reality of what a career is, but also recreates the experience of what it means to be driven to pursue one. The scene is not only thoughtful but also insightful.

The experience of being driven to pursue a career is recreated in a more soul-searching and touching manner in Theme from Mahogany, the theme song of the 1975 movie Mahogany. The movie is about a young woman played by Diana Ross leaving everything behind, including her boyfriend whom she truly loved, to pursue a promising career in a foreign land. She succeeded in becoming a famous fashion designer. But she faced a loveless future. The song, also known as Do You Know Where You’re Going To?, sung by Diana Ross herself, expresses the character’s own experience and her regret over the course she had taken.

It begins and ends with the same series of questions that her boyfriend once asked of her. The questions effectively ask: Are you fulfilled in what you are doing? Will you find what you are looking for? Do you know what you are longing after? In between the series of questions, the song reveals how she had dismissed them, only to discover in retrospect how haunting these questions actually were, and how she regretted that we are so slow to recognize the grim reality which the questions confront us with. In the movie she eventually gave up her career and returned to her boyfriend.

The grim reality brings us back to Ecclesiastes 3:14, which teaches that human experience is designed to point us to God. When a piece of art interprets reality, and interprets it correctly, it will illustrate this truth in some way. In this case God so works that people who are driven to pursue a career will eventually come to realize that they are actually pursuing things in this world to meet needs that nothing in this world can meet. Though they may reject the idea, their experience indicates that they need God.

Arts that feed our soul with insights into our spiritual predicament are only appetizers for the main course—the solution. No matter how soul-touching the appetizers may be, without the main course we are still left unfulfilled. A hymn entitled Fill My Cup, Lord written by Richard Blanchard (1959), if it interprets reality correctly, presents to us the main course. The lyrics of this hymn may indeed be a testimony based on the author’s personal experience and that of many others. But Bible-believers recognize that it interprets reality correctly because it is a lyrical exposition of John 4:13-14 (cf. Ecclesiastes 6:7, 9).

This Biblical text is about a promise Jesus gave to a Samaritan woman whom He met at a well. She had hitherto been using the things of this world (men in her case) to quench the thirst of her soul. Like the water she drew from the well to quench her physical thirst, people who use the things of this world to quench their spiritual thirst will thirst again. Jesus offered her and still offers people today “living water” that will really quench the thirsting of the human soul. The hymn is a confession of a person who identifies himself with the Samaritan woman’s past (before she met Jesus), present (when she believed in Jesus), and future (when she bore witness to Jesus and invited others to meet Him).

Since our concern is God’s will for the arts we will not consider the question of the arts wrongly interpreting reality, whether deliberately or otherwise, and as a result recreating experiences not consistent with truth. But given the power of the arts to shape imagination as well as mold perception and emotion, and the human tendency to reject truths we do not like, we can imagine how dangerous it can be when the arts are not used according to God’s will.

We now turn to consider the sole objective of escape arts—entertainment. We begin with some sobering words of A. W. Tozer (2007: 31), who was called "a 20th century prophet" because of his penetrating insights concerning God and humanity:

A German philosopher many years ago said something to the effect that the more a man has in his own heart the less he will require from the outside; excessive need for support from without is proof of the bankruptcy of the inner man.

If this is true (and I believe it is) then the present inordinate attachment to every form of entertainment is evidence that the inner life of modern man is in serious decline. The average man has no central core of moral assurance, no spring within his own breast, no inner strength to place him above the need for repeated psychological shots to give him the courage to go on living. He has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him.

Tozer was not opposed to entertainment itself. For he added,

No one with common human feeling will object to the simple pleasures of life, nor to such harmless forms of entertainment as may help to relax the nerves and refresh the mind exhausted by toil. Such things if used with discretion may be a blessing along the way. That is one thing. The all-out devotion to entertainment as a major activity for which and by which men live is definitely something else again.

To be entertained is to experience pleasure. But there is a difference between pleasure and enjoyment. Pleasure may or may not become enjoyment. We may be richly entertained by a wonderful movie that takes us away from reality for two hours. But when we return to the real world on leaving the cinema our heart may feel as empty as ever, if not more so. If this is the case we cannot really say we enjoyed it. When entertainment (pleasure) is one of the things we seek (in vain) to quench the thirsting of our soul it cannot become enjoyment.

We have phrased this influential sphere of culture as “Arts and Entertainment” because this is true of the experience of people in general. It should actually be phrased as “Arts and Enjoyment.” But this is only true for those who no longer need to pursue entertainment or anything in this world to quench the thirsting of their soul. In view of God’s will for the arts, the arts have a great deal more to offer than what most people have ever experienced.

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