A Review of Brett McCracken’s “Gray Matters”

Brett McCracken, probably best known for his previous book Hipster Christianity, has penned a careful, nuanced, deliberative text with Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty. I’ll confess that I haven’t read his previous book, but I’ve kept abreast of his online work for the last year or two, over at Mere Orthodoxy and, most recently, when he wrote the best response to the millennial business a few weeks back. His posts are always contemplative, moving at a pace that reminds us to slow down and think, rather than jump to conclusions brashly. I’ve appreciated his work, so I was excited to dig into the new book.

Gray Matters is divided into four sections: food, music, film, and alcohol. Each is fairly well self-contained, which I suspect will lend itself to long-term usability: if you were teaching a class on culture, or more specifically on film or music, you could easily assign the appropriate section as an introduction to how Christians ought to interact with that set of cultural artifacts.

Each section is carefully worked out, with the latter three including a brief history of Christianity’s relationship towards the subject matter. The topics are all appropriately given weight; you sense with each word that it truly matters what we eat, listen to, watch, and drink. The gravitas that the book recommends we see in every day life can be staggering, but is ultimately convincing (as well as convicting).

Throughout the book, there are small ‘interludes’. These are usually only a couple of pages in length, but they serve to augment the main topics of the chapter. Some include personal anecdotes intended to remind the reader that not only is this stuff important, but it will be memorable. Others ask questions that rest just outside the scope of the book: swearing in music, for instance, gets a brief nod. These interludes are interesting, and definitely worth reading on a first run, but wouldn’t take my attention on a second read-through of the text proper.

If you’ve ever been told you shouldn’t watch a certain movie, or listen to a certain album, or drink a certain (fermented) beverage, just because you are a Christian, this book is for you. There’s really no plainer way to say it. Many of us grew up in homes that were strict on many of these fronts (I remember my first ‘secular’ album, and now I find myself writing about guys like Kanye West). That isn’t to say that we aren’t right to step away from certain things. In fact, this is probably the strongest point in the book: many young evangelicals have opted to land so firmly in the camp of ‘liberty’ that they’ve strayed into a license to do all things. They drink, smoke, watch R-rated movies, and listen to the vilest rap and death-metal music they can find. The temptation is to take “all things permissible” and ignore “but not all things are beneficial.” Gray Matters holds a healthy middle ground: as the subtitle suggests, there is a middle ground here. There are some films we simply ought not watch, and some that perhaps I shouldn’t watch, even if it has no negative (and possibly even a positive) effect on you.

My only real complaint about the book, which some might find initially off-putting, is a leaning towards pretension throughout the text. While this comes with the territory for film critics (or music critics, or food critics, etc.), it can feel a little frustrating at times. This was especially true during the food chapters of the book. To be fair to the author, there are qualifiers. He explicitly states that while we should be cultivating our love for food in healthy, moral, and uniquely Christian ways, we should never find ourselves judging those who still drive through whatever local fast food establishment is convenient for them. But the aside, as genuine as it was, came late enough that the first section will take a thorough re-read to wash that taste (pun intended) out of my mouth.

That complaint, though real, is relatively minor: I really did love this book. I appreciate anyone who pushes us to slow down and carefully consider the choices we make daily. You’d do well to read this one.