The Misunderstood Power of Christian Art, Part 2.
Christians are obsessed with truth, and rightfully so. We bear our statements of faith with pride. We have the knowledge. We have the proof. But do we have the medium?
Tim Downs said:
“In the last forty years both the quantity and quality of conservative Christian scholarship have exploded. Evangelicals today are able to marshal more impressive, scholarly information on behalf of our position than ever before. We now have, by anyone’s standards, world-class philosophers, theologians, and scientists on our side. It’s no exaggeration to say that evangelical Christians have experienced a literal renaissance in our science.
Unfortunately, there has been no corresponding renaissance in our art. We have more to say to our culture than ever before, and less ability to say it in a persuasive and compelling way. We are enamoured with our content and cannot understand why the world isn’t fascinated with our latest proofs and evidences.”
In a generation brainwashed by film, television and music, carried along by the jet stream of social media, the Christian art industry has yet to catch up. Music and film has increased in quantity and quality, yet the mainstream hears about it only if it is controversial.
We shove our artists to the front, put the Bible in their hands, and say “Preach!” But what if a sermon isn’t what we need?
Preaching: The Only Messenger?
There is a point in many Christian novels where the main character reaches his lowest point. They have expended their resources. Their mission or relationship has failed.
Cue the entry of a wise friend who opens the Bible, quotes verses, and shows them what they need is a Saviour. And you just know that when the protagonist falls to his knees in prayer, victory is around the corner.
Or say a movie is made about a farmer. He’s not a Christian, and this is readily demonstrated by his workaholicism and regular drinking binges. One summer, the corn crop he is counting on is ravaged by a hail storm. The farmer throws everything into replanting while there is still time. But this is thwarted by persistent rain. His financial future is bleak, but worse, his wife leaves him because of his drunkenness.
If you have seen three or four Christian movies, you can predict the end. The farmer will hit bottom, and while wandering in a hammered state, ready to end his life, a Christian will rescue him and clean him up. The Christian will tell him that he needs Jesus, and the farmer will fall to his knees.
His crop will be saved, and his wife will return. He may, in fact, become an evangelist.
Rarely does a movie or novel break this mould.
The Power of the Covert
Every novelist knows the adage “show, don’t tell.” Telling, or explaining, is considered weak writing and rather insulting to the intelligence of the reader. Sermonizing is precisely this: telling.
I saw a powerful example of ‘showing’ recently.
In the movie Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron, a low-brow cowboy with HIV who begins smuggling illegal medication to treat AIDs. His foil is Rayon a transgender man, now woman, who is dying of aids. Rayon is played by Jared Leto, who is by all accounts, a heterosexual man.
The empathy and passion Leto put into the role is evident, even from the short clips I watched. Rayon is no cardboard cut-out. She is a feisty dreamer, but also a deeply hurting person who just wants love. You can see it in her eyes. Though I am uncomfortable with her lifestyle, I cannot look away. I have to say, “this is a person, and I kind of like them.” (I cannot recommend that movie, by the way. I decided against watching it because of graphic content).
At no point does an actor turn to the screen and say, “Accept this person! You are a bigot if you do not accept this person!” Neither do they say, “This is a good lifestyle!” I accept Rayon because I cannot deny her personhood anymore. I empathize.
Create empathy within the heart of the viewer, and you have won the greatest part of the battle.
Catch and Release
I also see that if the art is not used as a carrier for preaching, it is often used as bait. For example, a prominent evangelist often uses free concerts with Christian rock bands to draw people to their crusades. Likewise, Christian movies are often marketed as ‘witnessing tools’. Does this work? I don’t know.
But there is a level of dishonesty about it. It says, “We are like you. We like what you like. Come, try our music,” and then slams the audience with an altar call.
In fact, sermonizing such as the ‘basic movie and novel plot’, can also be inherently dishonest. It wants the reader to believe so badly, that it makes ‘pie-crust’ promises, easily broken. Will the farmer’s wife come back the day after he believes? Probably not. He may win her back after months of trying, with the wisdom and strength of God. But faith isn’t the magic bullet we sell it as.
Let the Artists Be!
I feel like our preachers and theologians have convinced artists that their work is useless if not didactic. Sort of a ‘why can’t you be like us?’ But if we believe in the priesthood of all believers, we must value the artist as much as the preacher and not force one to conform to the mould of the other.
Dorothy Sayers said:
When you find a man who is a Christian praising God by the excellence of his work – do not distract him and take him away from his proper vocation to address religious meetings and open church bazaars. Let him serve God in the way to which God has called him. If you take him away from that, he will exhaust himself in an alien technique and lose his capacity to do his dedicated work.
It is time to let artists be. Let them do what only they can truly understand. And when they have served in obedience to the work, and to God, the message within their art may be greater than any sermon you could insert.
Read Part 1: Defining Christian art, and the artist’s mandate, here.