I was playing guitar with one of my students the other day, sharing songs we’d written, trying to find songs we both knew to bridge the 30 year gap in our ages, and generally having a good time. My new friend, Lawton, became a Christian a year ago, so I was quite eager to hear his conversion story. He asked about integrating his faith into his songwriting, confessing he knew very little about Christian music. I turned him on to a few of the more interesting Christian songwriters that I know about, including Derek Webb. Having played his song “A New Law”, it has since been stuck in my head and has me thinking about legalism and the purpose it serves in our lives.
The closing scene of the movie “Doubt”, directed by John Patrick Shanley and starring exceptional actors Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, says something profound about the relationship between legalism and doubt. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep’s character) represents law: judgment, condemnation, punishment, and absolute certainty. She strongly suspects that Father Flynn’s (the character played by Seymour) relationship with a young black student is improper, growing more and more certain of this as the movie progresses. She is resolute, never in doubt, certain of her thoughts and of the next steps to be taken. In the end, Father Flynn voluntarily transfers out of the parish.
In the final moments of the movie, in an unexpected twist, Sister Aloysius breaks down, confessing to the young Sister James, “I have such doubts”. It then becomes obvious that she has doubts, not simply about Father Flynn (perhaps he was, after all, innocent), but of a much deeper and more serious nature (perhaps about God, about herself, about her own faith). In other words, her staunch, “legalistic” stance really serves to protect her from her own doubts, her own questions.
I have nothing new to write about legalism, but would like to share three resources that express helpful ideas on this topic.
First, about a year ago, my colleague Mike Cope wrote a short piece on his blog about legalism, reflecting from the vantage point of some 25 years of ministry experience. His post can be found here: “Desperately Seeking Legalism”.
Second, the song “A New Law” (and accompanying album) by Derek Webb is definitely worth a listen. The lyrics are below:
Don’t teach me about politics and government
Just tell me who to vote for
Don’t teach me about truth and beauty
Just label my music
Don’t teach me how to live like a free man
Just give me a new law
I don’t want to know if the answers aren’t easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me
I want a new law
Give me that new law
Don’t teach me about moderation and liberty
I prefer a shot of grape juice
Don’t teach me about loving my enemies
Don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit
Just give me a new law
What’s the use in trading a law you can never keep
For one you can that cannot get you anything
Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid
Finally, a few Jacques Ellul quotes 1 from his wonderful book, “Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World” (“La foi au prix du doute”). One of his basic ideas is that God, and his word, are not there to give us all the answers to our questions, especially those about our day-to-day mundane existence, no matter how badly we might wish it to be so. In other words true faith accepts doubt and does not seek to take refuge from doubt in rigid, legalistic certainty.
As the quote above shows, Ellul draws a distinction between biblical faith–the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, of Jesus and Paul–and what he calls “belief”, which the kind of faith at the core of ideologies, of human movements. Where faith is strong, rooted in God, belief is weak, hollow at the core. He uses the word ‘belief’ the way it is used in the psychological term ‘true believer syndrome’, referring to a fanatical, desperate clinging to something one needs to believe in, even when it is ultimately disproved.
I hope these three reflections, one musical, one personal and one theological, from three interesting (at least to me!) Christians on the nature of faith, doubt, and legalism, are helpful to you.
1 All translations are mine, from the French edition of the book.