Writings by Cole Huffman


Moral Genre

The one sermon a non-evangelical relative heard me preach was a scold. The world is full of softballs for preachers to stand in pulpits and hit long. That Sunday I blasted a movie Roger Egbert probably thumbs-upped. Then I noticed my relative, his face creased with a “Seriously?” grin. All he wanted to know afterwards was whether I had seen the movie. The grin returned when I said no, only read a review.

A Sunday night prayer meeting focusing on the nations pivots to prayers for this nation. Huckleberry Finn said you can’t pray a lie. But you can pray a scold and I overhear throughout the room prayers for America in tones of moral exasperation. It’s my turn to pray: I announce to God how challenging it is for the follower of Jesus living in the States to reside in the tension between appreciating personal freedom and being appalled at what we do with freedom.

Is there any place for being appalled anymore? Any place for scolding? Any place for saying “This is an outrage!” and be taken seriously?

One doesn’t pose those questions without a moral center of course. But moral complaints sound to most people now—even people inside the church—like whining or nitpickiness if not outright judgmentalness. To render moral judgment publically is like pounding one key on the piano, which is to say it is not music to anyone’s ears. Or think of old vinyl records—how they ceased to be music to your ears when they got scratched. But then DJs started scratching records on turntables and a new musical genre was born.

 American society, ever inventive and adaptive, excels in midwifing new moral genres. Genres differentiate stylistic categories in the arts and are supposed to be respected. One wouldn’t go to a poetry reading at the bookstore and fault the poet for not writing novels. One shouldn’t attend a play expecting a movie. One doesn’t arrive at a George Strait concert and expect a Macklemore performance. But then when Macklemore is the gay wedding singer on the recent Grammys telecast….

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? That Grammys mass wedding was a scene of moral genre, and we’re supposed to respect moral genre not scold it. Driving to my office the next morning, I tuned to a local rock radio station and listened as two DJs read negative reactions from Facebook and Twitter to the Grammys mass wedding. The DJs hardly veiled their contempt for objections to it, reserving their greatest scorn for “you religious types” who don’t realize “no one is listening to you anymore.”

Staying with the Grammys for a moment more in service to my larger point, some performances were collaborations: the genre mash of Metallica performing with concert pianist Lang Lang, for example. These collaborations got mixed reviews. “While it was interesting to see such different styles coalesce,” one reviewer wrote, “it seemed like the artists were sacrificing their art to make the union work.” Meaning what? Meaning genre wants to float on its own like a beach ball held under waves always pushes up from the sea.

So we live in a cultural atmosphere wherein people think of morality in categories of genre, I think. Morality is more like an artistic value than a metaphysical absolute. It can be likened to you and I differing over whether country music is good; we can differ so long as you don’t disparage me my tastes for it. In the milieu of American common culture, differences in and preferences for genres must be respected, artistically and morally too, for this thinking has been imposed on morality. Thus to scold is to be thought disrespectful. To be appalled is to be thought not appreciative of diversities. To say, “This is an outrage!” is to be thought hateful.

There’s not been mutation of morality in our time so much as the metamorphosis of morality into genres. Genres allow niche and nuance. People ensconce their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in such ways that you or I taking issue with them (judging them to be wrong) makes us look out of place, like no one is listening to us anymore. We’re told to back off our moral lines in the stone. Sand is the more preferred medium. Jesus used the genre of parable to signal it would be this way, Matthew 7:24-27.

The Bible itself consists of literary genres though not moral genres. Make no mistake: Christianity is a firm moral creed. But Christian morality collaborates with mercy such that the art of neither are sacrificed. It’s mercy that motivates us to learn how to navigate our neighbors’ moral genres for their good. And this requires more immersion in the genres of Scripture, not less. Let the Bible’s history and poetry, parables and prophetic oracles become the points on our moral compasses. The metamorphosis of morality into genres is not leading or lending to human flourishing but more confusions of what it means to be human.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 11:48 AM
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