Brett McCracken’s new book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty is a vade mecum for cultured Christians. It’s for Christians who are either up to date enough that they’d never say vade mecum, or who are way past up to date and are trying to bring vade mecum back.
A vade mecum is a handbook (literally a “go with me”) that a wayfarer would want to have along on a journey, and Christians are certainly on a journey through culture in these strange days. McCracken (author of the timely and well-received Hipster Christianity) has written a thoughtful book, one that will provide direction, bring clarity, and prompt deep reflection. But none of those words quite capture the way Gray Matters is designed to be put into immediate use.
Gray Matters is a how-to book, though a particularly cerebral one (as the neurological pun in the title suggests). It gives the reader a proper orientation for how to be a consumer. That is not a fashionable way to put things, because at least since Andy Crouch’s important 2008 book evangelicals have been exhorted to get past the baby steps of culture-consuming and culture-critiquing, to the responsible and constructive business of Culture Making. And as McCracken admits, “consumer is a very ugly word when we think of it in the Vegas sense, but there are other ways to think about it. One can consume in a manner that is passionate yet dignified, sensuous yet controlled, thoughtful yet not academic.”
So “one of this book’s aims is to rehabilitate the term consumption,” rescuing it from the connotation of “something indulgent, reckless, and altogether unseemly.” A short sidebar on page 17 lists eight “ways we cheapen consumption, and a few pages later in the introductory chapter McCracken lays out seven themes that he will develop throughout the book:
1. Partaking in culture is part of our mission.
2. Mature consumption requires wise stewardship of our resources.
3. Community plays a vital role in partaking of culture.
4. Enjoying God’s good creation is an act of worship.
5. It is good to cultivate and refine our taste.
6. We need to be trained in discernment, the ability to assess critically.
7. Healthy enjoyment requires moderation.
The bulk of the book is made up of discussions of food, pop music, movies, and alcohol, which McCracken says are “four areas of pop culture that we don’t often think about as necessarily theological.” But if you’ve ever been in or worked with a youth group, you know that these are four of the main topics that draw young people into spirited theological debate. In the four major sections of the book, McCracken takes that youth group discourse and situates it in a much broader context. It looks to me like the decisions being made by fourteen-year-olds about what to listen to and what to eat really do map onto significant struggles faced by evangelical twenty-somethings today, and increasingly by thirty-somethings and beyond. I don’t know how young of an audience could handle McCracken’s book: it seems to me it would take an extraordinarily thoughtful and sensitive high school student to profit from it. But perhaps you know one. And if I were still involved in youth or college ministry, I would be leaving copies of this book laying around on every horizontal surface in my office, to be perused by students, parents, pastors, and ordinary church members.