offering up some imaginative space

I’ve just come from a screening of Calvary, the most “Christian” film I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. I don’t think it will be winning any awards from the Christian world… It has bad words, and it takes place in a universe very like ours—that is, in one where people are suffering the ugly aftereffects (and sometime during-effects) of their very serious sins against one another…. I can’t tell you a ton about Calvary yet, but what makes it air-quote “Christian” in something close to the first sense is that it sees the grace of God as something that extended only to the unclean—the sick, I suppose, who need the physician, as Jesus said. You see this, and you say: that is a human, but a human touched by something bigger than them.

I really like this piece on ‘Christian’ movies by Alissa Wilkinson (including the explanation about the air quotes) – and not just because I also really liked Calvary – but because it gets into some things that I muse on from time to time, in thinking about faith and culture, and in my general scepticism of culture categorised as ‘Christian’.

When art is made in order to carry a message, it becomes a servant to ideology—to a system of abstracted ideas and ideals. Ideologies are not in themselves bad, but they often hit rough patches when they come out of the clouds and down to earth…

The ones that do work are suggested by Jonah Goldberg and Alyssa Rosenberg (a conservative and a liberal, respectively) above—stories where the story and the character are the point, where empathy is exercised. Without empathy… it comes off as preachy. Because it feels like being bludgeoned. Because it feels tone-deaf to why you… if you don’t agree with them already, which is to say if you’re not part of the market segment (which doesn’t exactly line up with the noun, by the way), then they’re just going to make you mad.

This is pretty much why I would generally much rather read or recommend reading a novel or watching a film (etc etc) by a Christian who may or may not be talking about faith as a way of gaining insight into what the Christian faith is about or how it manifests, than I would hand over something branded as ‘Christian’ (be it fictional or not), to someone who was interested.

Because that piece of art, if it’s well written or well made, is going to (a) help the realisation that not all Christians are wide-eyed crazies who want to turn your babies into one of them, and (b) give a little window into what the world looks like, to someone looking out at it from a Christian window, and how we might deal with it. If it’s not good, or actually aspiring to be good art so much as it is ’Tell the Truth (so you will believe it) then it’s not only not going to work, it’s going to actively work against you being open to the idea that this faith might have something to offer.

It’s also going to annoy me (and probably other Christians too) by trying to put all of us into one specific box. Which is always realistic and always goes well.

(cue: deep sarcasm)

Don’t get me wrong, explicit apologetics has its place – and there are times I would recommend it to specific people – but that place is explicitly labelled Apologetics-with-a-capital-A and that time is labelled I-know-you-want-to-engage-with-this-in-this-form-now. Basically, there are rules about false advertising, and they apply here too.

Wilkinson makes the following comment on how Christians tend to think about culture:

As lore has it, Hollywood needs to be infiltrated by people of faith who can make sure that “our values” are being reflected on screen.

And this has travelled outside the Christian community – see for example Alyssa Rosenberg’s comment that:

It is easier to play to your base, particularly when that base is underserved by mass culture, or to revisit old smashes like Ayn Rand than it is to conquer the culture at large.

But you know what, I’m not sure that Christian art and culture is about ‘conquering’ the cultural territory – any more than I think it’s about conquering the political or geographic territory (I’m not a big fan of crusades or of Christendom, let’s be honest). I think it’s about making good art – telling stories, evoking feelings, provoking thought – that expresses a particular understanding of the world and of humanity. Like all art and culture, but, just, y’know, created by Christians.

For example, the main exception to my thoughts about recommending explicitly ‘Christian’ art comes in classical music, because Bach (flippantly), or rather because so much of the west canon is explicitly Christian in being composed for church context. But that’s the thing you see, it’s not that music like the St Matthew Passion or the Missa Solemnis (which, remind me to tell you how excited I am about this event in my future) or Tallis’ Salvator Mundi is ‘Christian’ (adj. – to quote Wilkinson), it’s that its created by Christians, artists steeped in Christianity and in the church, and it just shows their view of the world and of God’s relationship to the world. It doesn’t try to convince you – it didn’t need to – it just shows you what they see, and sometimes, what they saw was God.

It’s not a war, you guys. In the vast majority of the western hemisphere you’re if you’re not getting into mainstream culture (published, released, etc) it’s probably not because you’re Christian – it’s more likely because your work is on the bad end of the scale, aesthetically and critically, or because it doesnt fit into the market that that publisher (etc) is trying to reach (see above, re. false advertising). And if you’re not marketable in the mainstream, it’s probably because you’ve wandered over the ideology boundary (admittedly fuzzy), and you’re not going to sell. You can embrace that, that’s fine, and enter the Christian market (much as I dislike the Christian subculture, I see no reason in principle that it shouldn’t exist), or you can pursue different ways of expressing your faith as you create.

Just, have a little faith in empathy, I think – trust in yourself and your work to inspire empathy in your readers/viewers/listeners and possibly prompt further curiousity, without you needing to explain or justify, or take a spade to the back of their heads (oh yeah, Philip Pullman, this applies to you too, actually, I still can’t bear the end of The Amber Spyglass*).

What we need isn’t, actually, more Christian culture makers trying to make ‘Christian’ culture that will ‘convert’ the masses. It’s art that allows other people to imagine what it might be like to share that faith, to see the world through that lens, to believe in God and let that shape you and the way you are in the world. Bach is more convincing than anything deliberately produced to win a battle in the ‘culture war’ because his music takes you into a space where you can imagine God and what it might be like to worship him.

One comment

  1. This was one of those posts that resonated. I always enjoy your blog, but this left me saying a resounding ‘Amen’. You hit on so much that a friend and I were talking about a couple of weeks ago and reminded me that it is fine and right to create without an agenda, to trust that my worldview will be entwined in my work and that my work speaks for me.

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