There’s an Art to Morality – Pastoral Backstory – June 30th, 2016




June 30th, 2016

For weeks we’ve been listening to arguably Jesus’s most famous words–His Sermon on the Mount. And we’ve argued that He is outlining a whole new way to envision life–a reimagined life. That life has goodness in mind from its center to its circumference. So though the word is a bit hackneyed and freighted with unwanted associations, Jesus is reimagining a whole moral outlook.

Elisabeth Thompson (Lady Butler)

Elisabeth Thompson (Lady Butler)

But there is an art to this morality. And let me tell you a story that unveils that artistry.

Her name was Elisabeth Thompson. Born in Switzerland to English parents with a bohemian inclination, she soon cultivated both an appreciation and aptitude for art, specifically painting.

Thompson’s best known work debuted in 1874 at the Royal Academy exhibition on Piccadilly in London. She was only in her 20s at the time. Entitled “The Roll Call,” it depicts an evocative scene from the Crimean War fought just a couple decades earlier: a British commanding officer reviewing his troops, the ravages of war evidenced both by their sullen faces and one solider slumping in the snow exhausted.



“The Roll Call,” Elisabeth Thompson (1874)

The painting was widely celebrated when curators hung it Gallery 2 of the Academy, its prominent placement a nod to its unambiguous excellence. But what made the painting all the more noteworthy was the fact of its painter being a woman. In 19th century Britain, few women made their way in the art world; women at that time weren’t even permitted to study art at university. For Thompson’s painting to be admitted to an exhibition dominated by male artists, and for it to be given such visibility, was for all practically unprecedented in the British art world of that day. The brilliance of her work led then Queen Victoria not only to add the painting to her own collection but to give it an equally distinguished place in St. James Palace, the royal residence.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell (remember him?) inaugurated his new podcast, Revisionist History, a couple weeks ago by **telling Thompson’s story. It’s a compelling one for its tale of, as Gladwell puts it, an outsider breaking through into an ostensibly impenetrable world. But it will also hold your attention for his surfacing of a now well-observed and sadly unsettling feature of human nature.

In Victorian-era Great Britain that aforementioned Royal Academy would be comprised of around 40 celebrated painters, each invited to nurture the aesthetic world with their gift at the invitation of the Monarchy (and also paid by it). But none were women. When Thompson’s Roll Call received the laudatory placement in Gallery 2 of the Exhibition, her name was summarily put forth as a bona fide candidate to become part of the Academy, an achievement which also would’ve been unprecedented by British standards.

When the vote was finally taken, by two votes she fell short. Not long after she produced more heralded work, and was subsequently re-nominated to the Academy. But with each ensuing vote, she not only failed to garner sufficient support but never reached the same level of support as she did in that first vote. In the end she deferred further attempts to put her name forward, which is why Gladwell titles this podcast about Thompson’s experience “The Lady Vanishes.”

Why would the art establishment of that day regale the work of a woman by giving it a place of distinction in its most celebrated gallery, but then refuse to admit her into the ranks of its most celebrated artists? Gladwell points to a well-attested category coming out of the field of social-psychology to explain that phenomenon of, in his metaphorical terms, opening the door to an outsider a bit, and then summarily closing it again. It’s called “moral licensing” (aka “self-licensing“)  and it refers to a habit whereby a person will act in accordance with a moral precept which in turn prompts them to feel warranted to act in an explicitly immoral way subsequently. Not to oversimplify or trivialize the phenomenon, but think of it as when someone runs a couple miles and then somehow feels entitled to binge on Oreos. No, that’s not a moral issue (or is it?), but it does reflect an inner transaction in which we feel fine doing something questionable after we’ve done something laudable.

Gladwell accesses a number of potent examples in both ancient and modern history to illustrate the phenomenon at work: Germany’s love-hate relationship with Jews, contemporary folks’ vacillating attitudes on race. In each case there is a demonstrable pattern of people, so to speak, earning themselves the right to act immorally by having acted morally.

Not all moral efforts lead to immoral behaviors. In fact one social scientist Gladwell interviews concedes that the million-dollar question in his field comes down to what behaviors encourage consistently moral behaviors, and which devolve into the moral-licensing to which Thompson’s story points? What is that righteous way that is enduringly righteous, as opposed to the one that is only fleetingly and apparently so?

Two Sundays agoladysusan, Kevin exposed for us Jesus’ bracing words that “our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.” Our “praxis” must be of a character that is set apart from even the most esteemed moral exemplars of that day.

I won’t insinuate that the Scribes and Pharisees were engaged in moral licensing, though Jesus does on several occasions chastise them for gross hypocrisy in matters of moral conduct (cf. Mark 7:9ff, Mt 23:23). Instead I point you to Gladwell’s telling of Thompson’s tale to ask how the way of Jesus would help us escape this soberingly practiced habit of human nature–the one that seeks to justify the scandalous on the basis of the superficially meritorious. Or to put it more succinctly, how does the righteousness Jesus champions qualitatively differ from a moral acting that falls prey to this hypocritical phenomenon?

In Luke 17 Jesus tells something like a parable about a servant and his master:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Nicolaes Maes (Nicolaes Maes) (1632-1693) The Idle Servant

Nicolaes Maes (Nicolaes Maes) (1632-1693)
The Idle Servant

It’s a fairly pointed word from Jesus here, isn’t it? Rather than a servant expecting a commendation for doing what was expected of him, Jesus appeals to an internalized sense of duty–both to the work and to the master–as what orients and compels obedience. While accolade may come–and Jesus depicts such elsewhere (Mt. 25:21, Lk 19:17)–the animating principle for obedience isn’t to be found mainly in what reward may follow but in the sole knowledge that the Master is worth the effort.  To be sure, Jesus speaks unequivocally of rewards–almost to the point of insinuating the reward fuels the obedience. But never is the reward some substitute for the Giver of the reward. Never is gift abstracted from God.

And that is why I would argue the righteousness Jesus extols lives above this terrestrial mode of obedience that “commodifies” moral behavior as if it were a currency we may accrue and pay out. The righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees–that eludes this moral calculus that places behavior into some arbitrarily-conceived ledger of credits and debits–is that which always sees moral behavior in the presence of an Author of moral righteousness.

But this Author, unlike a hallowed, time-honored, but disembodied ethic, is always prefacing His expectation of obedience with an unequivocal promise of His love. And it is that Love supreme which transforms our sense of moral acting from that of transacting into that of honoring–honoring not some mere code but One who, in love, charts, illustrates, and thereby validates a Way of wisdom. As we reiterated recently something Calvin says early in his Institutes, what is most meant to motivate moral effort:

. . .is not the mere fear of punishment that restrains him from sin. Loving and revering God as his father, honouring and obeying him as his master, although there were no hell, he would revolt at the very idea of offending him. Such is pure and genuine religion, namely, confidence in God coupled with serious fear — fear, which both includes in it willing reverence. . . .(1.2.2)

The more we view moral behavior in terms of what is meritorious, the more we may convince ourselves of “cashing in” some of our credits for less reputable behavior. Whereas the more we see our moral lives as in view of an abidingly loving Father, the more we find morality’s impetus in love, thereby refusing even to entertain the quid pro quo form of moral licensing.

So there’s an art to morality, one where the moral act is always beautiful.


(**Gladwell lets Thompson’s story introduce you to more modern examples of the same phenomenon like that of the former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. Her story unfortunately includes some rather heinous and reprehensible expressions of antagonism toward her ascendancy to influence on the part of many of her male colleagues. The vulgar and misogynistic language they used against her is necessary to note but hard to hear. Caveat emptor should you listen to Gladwell’s episode).


"Quatre Bras" (Elisabeth Thompson, 1875)

“Quatre Bras” (Elisabeth Thompson, 1875)

We did our best during Q&A last Sunday to summarize the highlights of General Assembly–namely the two issues that occupied most of the Assembly’s time and attention: the scope of ministry for women and the steps toward racial reconciliation within our denomination.

Jemar Tisby is a PCA pastor and president of the Reformed African-American Network (RAAN). He shares his reflections on the Assembly’s work here.

Meanwhile, let’s play spot your pastors. Here’s a moment from an evening gathering of fellow pastors as we sang to the music of the re-styled Cowper hymn we mentioned last week.


William Cowper
Kevin Twit

Chorus: Heal us, Emmanuel, here we stand
Waiting to feel Thy touch
To deep wounded souls reach forth
Thy hand Oh Savior, we are such

1. Our faith is feeble, we confess
We faintly trust Thy word;
But will You pity us the less?
Be that far from You Lord!
(Repeat chorus)

2. Remember him who once applied
With trembling for relief;
“Lord, I believe,” with tears he cried;
“O help my unbelief!”
(Repeat chorus)

3. She, too, who touched you in the press
And healing virtue stole,
Was answered, “Daughter, go in peace;
Thy faith has made thee whole.”
(Repeat chorus)

4. Like her, with hopes and fears we come
To touch You if we may;
O send us not despairing home;
Send none unhealed away.
(Repeat chorus)

©1999 Kevin Twit Music (ASCAP). Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Author: Patrick

Pastor of Christ the King Church (PCA)

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