by Travis Cooper
First, watch this short video introducing evangelical film critic and writer Brett McCracken’s Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty (2013).
Both the book’s video preview and the monograph itself frustrate anthropological categories. “How does Christianity relate to culture?” the narrator asks. By asking this question, however, the video preview’s narrator imposes a problematic binary between what to him seemingly constitutes two opposed monolithic institutions: Christianity, on the one hand, and culture, on the other. This distinction presumes that the two are polar entities. Of course, this is not culture proper—that is, culture as the driving question of anthropological inquiry—but culture in a broader, diffused sense, culture as in pop culture, which includes media, food, libations, film, behaviors of leisure, and other consumptive materials. How ought Christians consume art, film, food, drink, and music? This question drives McCracken’s book. Culture is a haphazard, but terribly convenient term for these things (think: Food Culture; Material Culture; Sports Culture; Gun Culture). Moreover, it is a term that anthropologists would sometimes prefer to jettison from academic and popular vocabularies. Yet in a way, the term works. It conveys partial meaning—I’m pretty sure I understand what the author means when he employs it. So how, then, do Christians relate to culture? They are culture, anthropologists admonish. Or better yet, Christians are culture crafters; they spin dense social webs through their cosmologies, theological deliberations, and moral prescriptions and prohibitions. Gray Matters picks up and runs with this diffused sense of culture, but is itself a veritable work of socio-cultural construction.
I want to suggest, here, that McCracken’s book is a prime example of boundary construction and maintenance. Gray Matters pushes evangelical boundaries. It stretches moral consumptive traditions as it seeks to implement new tastes and preferences for Western Christians. All the while, it purports to stick close to historical orthodoxies, at least in what we might consider a doctrinal sense. In other words, the book has a strong stake in what is and isn’t morally acceptable; it’s not afraid to say that Christians may do this but not that. Interestingly, Gray Matters also works to establish or cultivate what a general audience might consider elite-type tastes in food and drink, film and music. The book calls for a quasi-new form of Christian cultural connoisseurs, Christians who watch art-house movies through well-informed, film-critic lenses and who cultivate fine dining palettes. McCracken wants to help Christian consumers appreciate quality independent music beyond the pop-redundancy of the mainstream top-40 and to know their Californian Zinfandel from their French Cabernet Sauvignon. The book overwhelmingly champions high class tastes as it provides a guide for Christian connoisseurs to imbibe artistic and culinary goods thoughtfully, prayerfully, and tastefully, following robust moral-theological guidelines. Gray Matters seeks to establish these guidelines.
Manuals of this sort lend themselves easily to social analysis. It’s all there, in the book (and to an abbreviated degree, the video above): culture; social prescription and prohibition; art; media; consumption; tastes; materiality; authority; and “religion.” In terms of genre, Gray Matters is what we might describe as a manual or guide book. It’s a how-to, a theologically-underscored work that offers lists of directives and advice with the intention of informing, instructing, and assisting the reader on a particular issue.
The book compellingly illustrates Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, especially as it unconsciously creates and manages the personal dispositions, preferences, and tastes of a social group (see Bourdieu 1984:169-175). Gray Matters frequently demonstrates the social aspects of consumption, even as it appeals to personal liberty, discernment, and individual responsibility. “Christian liberty,” McCracken argues, is ultimately dependent upon context and community (2013: 229). Thus liberty is socially defined. He shows that consumption has a socially binding effect on its participants, and in doing so shies away from seeking to establish a universally normative “Christian” ethics. Consumption is what connects a person to others like them (247-248). McCracken is also aware of the ways group consumption practices create boundaries and (re-) enforce them upon its constituents; he even goes as far as casting consumption as a form of mission: “What we consume or do not consume and why we choose to consume or abstain is another key part of this notion of consumption as mission.” Consumer choices via tastes are, as Bourdieu makes clear (1984: 466-484), acts of identification through demonstrations of values. “If we are Christians seen at church one minute but seen throwing money away at casinos or guzzling cheap beer at keggers the next,” McCracken asks, “what does that communicate?” Consumption is communication, and casinos and cheap beer are below par, for McCracken. Discriminatory tastes are also important, he argues, as Christians should not “be prone to overeating, drunkenness, thoughtless movie-watching, and status-driven music.” The implication is that evangelical values ought to be different from the values of other social groups (2013: 249-250). Tastes are strategies by which groups construct and reinforce (non-)identity.
What is fascinating about Gray Matters is the degree to which it purposes to set up new—or broaden, shift, expand, stretch?—existing boundaries. In one section titled “20 Questions for Christian Consumers,” for instance, McCracken asks: “Am I consuming this because when I was growing up I was told it was evil?” (250). McCracken intends Gray Matters to serve as a middle ground between what he defines as an emerging stream of hedonistic Christian hipsters and the traditional, ascetic upbringing of his own evangelical past. For this new ethics, a mindless, rebellious, profligate lifestyle is unacceptable, but so is the stodgy puritanicalism of one’s parents’ and grandparents’ evangelicalism. The book is a clear demonstration of social boundary-maintenance.
Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is also productive in terms of the analysis of socio-economic level. McCracken is certainly cognizant of the invisible boundaries against which he presses—for example, alcohol consumption, in many evangelical communities, remains taboo. Moreover, if tastes are as tied to class as Bourdieu argues, then this book evidences (or suggests) an upwardly-mobile evangelicalism. Number-crunching sociologists of religion are in accordance, at least partially (Chaves 2011: 63-64). It remains to be seen, however, how well McCracken’s manual will be received within the conflicting spheres of American evangelicalism. If the book’s prescriptions on tastes are accepted and internalized, then we may very well be witnessing the formation or formalization of a new evangelical habitus. But if the book is rejected for its concessions over historically taboo activities—even if only in some quarters—then as scholars of social formation we’re left with even more valuable data. For it’s when public disputes about tastes, preferences, and consumption practices come to the fore that we witness the expansion, shrinking, and conflicting of habitus. Gray Matters, then, is an example of the structured-yet-malleable ways in which (a) habitus both change(s) and perpetuate(s).
Travis Cooper is a PhD student and associate instructor at Indiana University (Bloomington), in the departments of religious studies and anthropology (doctoral major and minor emphases, respectively). His research interests include contemporary evangelicalism, pentecostalism, revivalism, and televangelism, with excursions into theory of religion and the body, embodiment, materiality, gender, media, critical ethnography, visual culture, and religious experience. Travis blogs informally about his academic work here. Find out more about his research and publications here.