Over at the blog of the journal Image, there’s an excellent post about what’s wrong with “Christian art,” and, more specifically, “Christian writers,” by Tony Woodlief. Here’s an excerpt:

In short, if Christian novels and movies and blogs and speeches must be stripped of profanity and sensuality and critical questions, all for the sake of sparing us scandal, then we have to wonder what has happened that such a wide swath of Christendom has failed to graduate from milk to meat.

This excerpt comes toward the end of what is, on the whole, an excellent and insightful look at what many people refer to as “Christian writing.” Woodlief begins by reflecting on a review of the recently released film “Soul Surfer,” which is directed, he notes, at evangelical audiences. He posits that, “bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology,” and then goes on to show how this is true.

The part quoted above immediately brought to mind something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately when it comes to the kinds of things that evangelicals deem acceptable forms of culture. It never occurred to me when I was a child, but looking back it seems strange that Christian adults I knew were attempting to hold themselves to the same standards that they maintained for their children. That is, I knew a lot of parents who didn’t watch rated R movies, listen to secular music, read anything other than church-approved literature, or even drink the occasional glass of wine. In short, they were treating themselves like children.

I’m not saying there is anything inherently good about doing any of those things mentioned in the previous paragraph, but, especially as it relates to art and literature, it does actually seem harmful to resist the not-so-pretty parts of life in the name of “purity.” Certainly, children must be protected and allowed to believe, for as long as possible, that much of the world is black and white, good and evil. But, at a certain point, it becomes unhealthy to continue living in such a manner. At some point, we all must grow up.

Woodlief’s point, that “a wide swath of Christendom has failed to graduate from milk to meat,” rings a resonant note with my experience. And that worries me.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to Grow Up!

  1. Brett says:

    The paucity of good art by evangelicals certainly seems damning. Let’s (humbly) help them grow up.

  2. c hammonds says:

    I guess my dismay with the scenario, not particularly the article is the en masse lumping together of so many components to make one generalization. The premise is that good art requires the inclusion of the pop culture mandated profanity–which by default has been crowned the norm. And, only then has Christian rooted effort elevated to worthy.
    Again, another secularist in Christian sheep’s clothing seeks to redefine how Christians need to grow up and get with it. No regard for the fact, or acceptance, that in Christian perspective shock profanity or gratuitous sex might actually be the real mark of immaturity or impropriety.
    I guess that odd part about “unless you come to Me as little children” got left on the cutting room floor.

    • I think your premise “that good art requires the inclusion of the pop culture mandated profanity” is a bit of intentional misunderstanding on your part. I can’t speak for Mr. Woodlief, but I certainly am not saying that good art requires profanity. Rather, the point is that some good art includes profanity and Christians shouldn’t shy away from that on the grounds of purity.

      I’m not sure who you are referring to as a “secularist in Christian sheep’s clothing,” but either way, I think that is the second unfounded assumption in your comment.

      I would be interested, however, to have a conversation about what it means to “come to Me as little children,” as in my reading of your comment, this is a misappropriation of the metaphor to suit your case. Are you saying that Jesus’ call for us to be like little children means that we should shield ourselves from some of the ugly things of the world?

    • Jonathan says:

      In addition to Fitzgerald’s comment, I think we need to further press your understanding of little children…

      Could it mean in the spirit of questioning, as a child does? Or could it mean with trust in something that is not fully understood? That is to say, that we are to come to him humbly, not believing that we know everything (interestingly, how a child SHOULD BE, yet rarely is…).

      Why should we assume that it means

  3. Rob says:

    Why is it “harmful” for adults to avoid watching R-rated movies, profanity, etc.? Even as one who shamelessly watches R-rated movies, enjoys a more-than-occasional glass of wine, and sometimes even indulges in profanity, I can’t make the logical leap. What’s wrong with purity, and what’s wrong with those who are actually able to sustain it? Obviously, purity doesn’t bring salvation, but then that’s not the claim you’re making here…

    • Timothy Zila says:

      I think most of your questions are answered by the Image article itself. In particular, this quote:

      “And if we remember that theology is the knowing of God, we have to ask in turn why so many Christians know God so weakly that they need such wholesomeness in order for their faith to be preserved.”

      That’s what’s worrying. As Jonathan said, it’s not that there is anything “inherently good” about watching R-rated movies, it’s troubling that Christians feel the need to unnecessarily shelter themselves from “profanity and sensuality and critical questions.”

      Christ said we should be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents. It’s possible that not being mature enough to deal with content that includes “profanity and sensuality and critical questions” is a sign that we’re *not* as shrewd as serpents. And just because we avoid that content doesn’t mean we’re as innocent as doves, either.

  4. Rob says:

    Maybe. Or maybe most folks who avoid “smut” do so because Scripture also commands that, if given the choice, we think on those things that are pure, lovely, holy etc.

    Fifty years ago, there was no profanity on television, and very little in film. Are we a “better” and “more mature” culture now that we can count f-bombs in the dozens–scattered in between scenes of gratuitous nudity, of course–in our popular movies, not to mention our more “artistic” films? Is it a sign that we’ve moved on from the milk of babes when I regularly hear words pass from the lips of grade-schoolers that weren’t even known on my elementary school playground? I hate to sound like an old fogey here, and I’m not claiming that mere obscenity constitutes a mortal or even venial sin, but I think the “maturation value” of crass or otherwise explicit culture is generally overrated. And really, what do you mean by “sheltering”? Are you saying my parents, for instance, who scrupulously avoid visual media that contains unnecessary profanity, nudity, and violence, are ignorant of the grittiness, bloodiness, and wickedness of the world? Come on.

    Yes, prudishness has its flaws, but I think you’re seriously trivializing Christ’s point about doves and serpents when you apply his words to the consumption of “gritty” mass media. And I don’t think being as “shrewd as serpents” means one is better off for having voluntarily exposed oneself to profanity, sensuality, and other “worldly” ways. Nor do I think it’s fair to include [unspecified] “critical questions” in the same category as “profanity and sensuality.”

  5. Matt Miller says:

    I’m basically sympathetic to Woodlief’s (and, by extension, Jonathan’s) critique of the evangelical culture machine, but I’m concerned that we’re making art too much of a big deal. The point is well made that deliberately treating ourselves like children can be infantilizing. But I treating even challenging and rich art as spiritual meat seems to be drawing too much on Matthew Arnold and too little on Scripture itself. St. Paul and the early church wouldn’t have had much access to “culture,” per se. Also, the New Testament is not good literature–not “meat,” in this equation–by the standards of its time.

    Basically I agree that bad theology is at the root of the crappiness of stuff like “Soul Surfer,” but I don’t think art–good or bad–has quite the theological weight that we often equate to it. And that includes both those who only consume “Christian” culture, and those who attack that belief! If we believe like Matthew Arnold that art is the only way to save our souls, then, yes, it’s a really big deal whether the art we consume is milk or meat. But since Christians believe we have something else to save our souls, it’s not such a big deal. Jesus already saved us, and the Holy Spirit is the one bringing us into spiritual maturity; art exists for delight, and we shouldn’t overplay its role. Yes, I want my fellow church-goers to have “good taste” and I want to consume good art. But I’m not convinced it’s as big a deal spiritually as we often make it.

    • Rob says:

      On that note, I should probably clarify my complaints thus far: Matt’s worthy points aside, I am in full agreement with Jonathan’s argument that the industry known as “Christian art” is, well, crap.

      • Joshua Keel says:

        I agree we shouldn’t overplay art’s role, and I don’t assign any special spiritual significance to art, but I just want to clarify that art is about more than just “delight”. Art is communication on some level, and as such it has the capacity to do far more than just delight us. It can also challenge, provoke, confuse, weaken, enlighten, etc. I just want to make sure we’re not limiting the scope of art.

        • Matt Miller says:

          I wasn’t intending to claim that “delight” is art’s only role. Certainly, art is a complex thing with many purposes and effects. I’m just not sure that those effects (whether delight, challenge, provocation, etc.) really can or should be as spiritually powerful as Woodlief’s piece (and Christian culture at large) assumes they are.

  6. Nat says:

    Christian ‘art’ in most of its manifestations is often rubbish. It can be cliched, one dimensional and trite.

    But, Christian art is not rubbish because it avoids overt profanity, sensuality etc. in itself. Great art can deal with all these issues and not include swearing, or copious nudity for instance. Charles Dickens’ works deal with depravity and ‘sin’ in all its guises in some of the greatest prose ever put to paper, but without explicit sexuality or ‘bad’ language. Films made before the 1960s also managed to portray the world accurately without the need for ‘R’ rated material. It is a mistake to link liberal attitudes towards art with great art.

    Christian art is weak because the great artists in music, film, literature etc. are not Christians, or are not making ‘Christian’ material. It is has little to do with what is actually being shown in terms of sexuality for instance. No one would argue that Tim La Haye is a Christian Philip Roth. The last time I checked, Sam Mendes wasn’t involved in the making of ‘Soul Surfer’. It is a mistake to argue that because contemporary ‘great art’ often includes elements that some Christians find repellent and bad Christian art does not, then art has to include profanity or sexuality in order to qualify.

    On a slightly different tack, I would argue that explicit sexuality in particular is often an apparent mandatory element of ‘great art’ that I believe is usually utterly unnecessary. Nudity is almost always displayed for purient and titilating reasons and does little to enhance a TV series or film. I agree with Jonathan that Christians need to see the world in varying shades of ‘grey’ and realism in art is necessary, but does sexuality have to be shown so explicitly? Does a pair of breasts really add to a drama? Why is only female nudity usually shown? Most nudity I have seen on screen is there to entice, rather than add to a story. I am not suprised many Christians reject elements of art that have this explicitness. For me personally, I find explicit sexuality on show irritating, unhelpful and uncomfortable. It rarely adds to my viewing experience. It is also very sexist.

    Perhaps, it is the modern equivalent of all the sexual puns and jokes in Shakespeare plays, put in often to provide a cheap laugh and keep the ‘stalls’ on side rather than advancing the story.

    And I speak as a liberal 26 year old Christian, who regularly watches ’18s’ (the equivalent of ‘strong’ ‘Rs’ in Britain)

    • Joshua Keel says:

      Nat, I think you make some great points about nudity. You mention that most of the nudity you’ve seen is to entice. What about nudity that isn’t there to entice? What about, for instance, the sex party scene from the end of Requiem for a Dream if you’ve seen that? The primary purpose of the nudity there seems to be to show the degradation in a visceral way. I just wonder what your thoughts are on that type of nudity.

  7. Nat says:

    Hi Joshua, thanks for your comment. I haven’t seen ‘Requiem’ so I can’t talk specifically about that, although I agree with you in a wider sense.

    Nudity can be completely necessary in a film. One scene that especially sticks in my mind is from ‘Schindler’s List’, at Auschwitz, where the Jewish prisoners undress and get herded into what the viewer fears will be gas chambers. That scene is an intensely powerful reminder of the humiliation meted out to the Jews and the way in which the Nazis degraded and reduced their victims to less than humans; stripping off their clothes was one way of doing this, and was a powerful and necessary symbol by Spielberg.

    I suppose I would draw comparisons with the use of the ‘F word’ in films. A film in which the word is uttered in context and adds to the realism and drama (such as a war film, or in ‘the Wire’) is one in which the word almost passes me by. It is so relevant that I do not notice. It is part of the authenticity of the scene and I can recognise that it is needed. In Schindler’s List, one is so entranced and involved in the horror of what one is watching that the nudity is almost immaterial to this. It justs add another element of historical fact.

    I am more suspicious of the necessity of ‘sex’ scenes. Sex is an intensely private, intimate, and I would argue, spiritual event. The nudity and sexual arousal of the act is for the two people involved and no one else. And this is where it differs from language and violence. I hear ‘bad’ language all the time. I have witnessed violence in my life. Very few people are privy to other people’s sexuality. There is a privacy here beyond all else.

    I know why so many films and dramas want to violate this; it is for our titilation. But I believe it is rarely needed or necessary.

    • Joshua Keel says:

      Again, wise words, Nat. I would be interested in your perspective on a film like Blue Valentine, though. I watched it earlier this year and was deeply moved. In fact, it was my favorite 2010 release. It portrays very intimate (and at times sexual) moments in a couple’s life in a way completely unlike the sex scenes found in most Hollywood movies, which I agree are primarily there to titillate. In Blue Valentine there was a purity for me that wasn’t present in most other films that portray sex. The sex in Blue Valentine isn’t trying to arouse, it’s trying to accurately portray a passionate yet tragic romance.

  8. This is a great and important conversation, and I’m happy to see it is continuing. When it comes to the function of art question, I only want to add what John Gardner say in “On Moral Fiction” about what art does, “The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.”

    If we operate on this premise, we can weigh things like profanity, nudity, and violence against that goal. I would agree that if it does not add to the goal of improving life in some way, we can probably do without it.

    • Joshua Keel says:

      Yeah, that’s a good principle to judge by, Jonathan. The only problem I find with it is that it can be awful hard to apply. For instance, I just saw the film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance the other day. There was a lot of violence and well, revenge, in that film. I can’t honestly say that it improved my life, but I don’t quite feel that I can just dismiss it as debasing life. Applying that principle of moral art seems to depend a lot on your perspective, the way you view the work, the way you process it through your worldview.

  9. Mark Perkins says:

    Honestly, I think the huffing about bad “Christian art” is overdone, and that’s because, as my friend Daniel Silliman has written (and many, many others have noted in the past), “The name [‘Christian fiction’] designates not the author’s faith, but the market to which the books are marketed. ‘Christian fiction’ is a genre, and the writers are genre writers.”

    As such, Silliman goes on to suggest, comparing Christian fiction to literature is unfair, just as you wouldn’t compare Nicolas Sparks to Cormac McCarthy. The authors have different intentions, different audiences, etc.

    But as you go on to suggest, Jonathan, the problem is the audience and, yes, the childishness of much of American evangelicalism. A friend of my father’s likes to say something to the effect of, “God kicked us out of the garden, and parents spend their entire lives trying to get their kids [or themselves] back into it.”

    Consider reading his whole post, which is about what Left Behind might have looked like had Frank Peretti written it when Tim Lahaye asked him to (and his blog in general: he has an M.A. in American Studies from Tübingen, and he teaches American Religion at the University of Heidelberg, where he’s working on a PhD focusing on Evangelical fiction).

  10. Gary Horsman says:

    Good discussion. There is now a growing audience for Christian/Evangelical entertainment such as in movies, books and music. It is a genre whose audience has particular tastes and expectations.

    And yes, it is a smaller audience, and therefore the pool of talent producing those works is small as well. Therefore, the overall quality of the works will be lacking (to put it politely).

    But before someone condemns the Christian media for its lack of quality, just look at Hollywood or reality TV or genre fiction. There’s plenty of subpar material to go round.

    It’s difficult to create great art. Talent is rare. And because evangelicals are in the minority and because most in the community are suspicious of art, it’s just that much more difficult to find that kind of excellence among such a small number of people. Those that do have strong Christian beliefs and possess the talent probably set their sights on greater horizons that reside beyond the borders of their community.

    And much of great art, whether in literature, film or music, hinges on nuance and trying to answer questions with multiple or non-existent answers, things that intimidate or create discomfort in most evangelicals. So it’s understandable that there’s a dearth of great art among firm believers in evangelical Christianity.

    There’s a narrow band of Christians who do great art. Unfortunately, audiences on either side of the divide that appreciate the best of both worlds are probably not there in enough numbers to enable those artists to make a living.

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