"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Evangelical Christians' Love-Hate Relationship with the Arts

On the Internetmonk blog, Michael Spencer brings up a subject I find very interesting, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians' love-hate relationship with the arts. As a Christian but not of the American evangelical variety, I have never had any problem enjoying and relating to the arts both popular and elite, as regular readers of my writings here and elsewhere are well aware. Fundamentalists and evangelicals, however, seem to have significant difficulty engaging with the arts, perhaps as a legacy of their Puritan beginnings. Spencer writes:

The fundamentalist war on the imagination is old. It is not that fundamentalism offers nothing to the imagination. It does, but there is in fundamentalism a deep-seated and deeply wrong belief that the second commandment was a “closure” order on the imagination. There is a deep suspicion that anything imaginative violates a divine order and seduces us in the wrong direction. This is as true of the Christian imagination as of the secular imagination. There is often as much fear of Catholic art as there is of occultic art. The paltry artistic production of recent conservative Christianity bears witness to this imaginative desert. Little is planted, and little grows, and we lose most of our children not to the world’s propositions, but to the world’s illusions.

Spencer finds that this is changing (and not a moment too soon, I say):

[In recent years,] evangelical Christians have finally discovered that the world of the imagination may have something to offer them, and this discovery is increasingly being made, not in the world of literature, but in the more common medium of the movies.

While many of us have long known that fiction such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” repudiated the fundamentalist attitude toward the imaginative, it was the discovery of Christian appeals to the imagination in movies such as “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings” that began to break the ice in the evangelical world. While media such as Focus on the Family and Baptist Press penned warnings about the dangers of Harry Potter, they gave surprisingly positive coverage to the evangelistic and homiletical uses of “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

This is a profoundly welcome development, in my view. Spencer calls on his fellow evangelicals to embrace this new understanding of their place in the world and feel free to develop a greater appreciation for the arts:

The emerging church suggests that rejection of the visual and the imaginative was a mistake from which we ought to vigorously repent. I agree, and even at the risk of a bit of silliness such repentance is worthwhile to at least make an effort to recapture the lost imaginations of millions. The interpretations of the second commandment I grew up hearing were nothing more than excuses for the impoverishment of the imagination. Evangelicals have produced enough bad art to keep someone in purgatory busy for thousands of years just watching, reading and listening to it. We’re beginning to repent of being the people who considered the local theater a subdivision of hell and whose response was Billy Graham movies.

Let’s do more than begin. Let’s become a people known for our love of the imagination and its possibilities of enjoyment, creation and worship.

The Great Christian Tradition- especially in its early centuries- was always visual without being idolatrous. It engaged culture through mind and imagination. The risks of idolatry were never absent, but the rewards of a holy, and living, imagination are too rich to avoid. In eras of illiteracy and spiritual warfare, the church sought to appeal to and capture the imagination of those who heard the Gospel. Whether liturgy, cathedrals, musical compositions or great works of visual art- all were arrayed for the purpose of taking the loyalties of the imagination captive for Christ the Lord.

Evangelicals have dabbled. They have denounced. They have demeaned. They have experimented. Are they ready to admit that we can preach through our engagement with story, image and aesthetic, and not only through propositions? Art and imagination, great writing and creative expresssion: they all preach the Gospel and engage human beings with the truth of God. If evangelicals are opening their minds to more than outlines and answers, will they seek out those God has gifted in the realm of the imaginative and release them to create, praise and evangelize?

In his Two Kingdoms theology, Martin Luther provides a fine place for evangelicals to begin to develop a theological approach that can repair the cultural damage that appears to be such a powerful legacy of Puritanism. I hope that major evangelical and fundamentalist thinkers will consider the wisdom to be found there and will encourage their brethren to act accordingly.

26 comments:

Tlaloc said...

I always found it sort of ironic that the same church that inspired almost all of the music, architecture, and (visual) art during the middle ages in europe would later be so deathly afraid of people expressing themselves.

Then again the church was at one point the foremost proponent of science.

In both cases it was once society moved past the need for a supernatural centered society that the things the church once patronized had to be persecuted.

mdvoutlook.com said...

Sam,

Great stuff. As you know, Niebuhr's Christ and Culture gives us a theory of how certain Christian traditions relate to culture. Much of Puritanism and Fundamentalism, as well as too much of evangelicalism, are in the Christ Against Culture mode. It's so depressing to go into most Bible believing churches today and get a vivid picture of just how little the arts and imagination have to do with their view of the world and their faith. Plain says it all. This is such a perversion of the greatness of our God who created the world in all its variety, majesty, and beauty. If we are created in his image how can we not be compelled to re-create some of that beauty that ultimately brings glory to him.

I agree that things are changing. I believe the late great Francis Schaeffer was a spark for much of this, and it's taken some 30 to 40 years to start bearing fruit. I remember reading him as a young Christian as I myself was being compelled to leave the simple minded, anti-intellectual, spiritual life of negation I had been "born-again" into. It was thrilling to know that the narrow, stiffling view of the Christians I was hanging around wasn't the whole story. It's exciting to know this may be changing on a much larger, and culturally significant scale. Argument and proposition, as important as they are, can only take you part of the way to experiencing truth in all its beauty.

tbmbuzz said...

it was once society moved past the need for a supernatural centered society that the things the church once patronized had to be persecuted.

Other than a brief period around the time of Galileo when science was shattering the Biblical-Aristotlean world views the Catholic Church based its earthly political power on, I don't see the Church resisting scientific progress. It was the fanatical fundamentalists of the breakaway Protestants who took on the mantle of anti-science (and still do). And I certainly don't know of any persecution of music, architecture and (visual) art in Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe.

Hunter Baker said...

Buzz, Tlaloc has swallowed whole the standard secular-humanist guide to the world. It says the Church has been persecuting science lo these many years and thus it is so.

Tlaloc said...

"Other than a brief period around the time of Galileo when science was shattering the Biblical-Aristotlean world views the Catholic Church based its earthly political power on, I don't see the Church resisting scientific progress. It was the fanatical fundamentalists of the breakaway Protestants who took on the mantle of anti-science (and still do)."

Sorry, I was unclear. By "church" I didn't mean specifically the Catholic Church but rather Christianity as a whole.

Tlaloc said...

"Buzz, Tlaloc has swallowed whole the standard secular-humanist guide to the world. It says the Church has been persecuting science lo these many years and thus it is so."

Lets play a words association game, Hunter. I'll give you a list of words and you tell me the first thing that comes into your mind.

Gallileo
Copernicus
Darwin

Did those make you think "hrrrm, famous scientists that the church found threatening and tried to one degree or antoher to suppress"? Cause that's one big thing they have in common.

How about this

Medical science
Evolution
Orbital mechanics
Cosmology

Did that set make you think "Gosh those are all scientific endeavors that the church interfered with to one extent or another"?

Don't give me that BS about it being secular humanists who have rewritten history. The Church's tendencies are amply documented.

Matt Huisman said...

If we are created in his image how can we not be compelled to re-create some of that beauty that ultimately brings glory to him.

This is right on target MDV. The challenge before us is not so much to minimize the potential for harm but rather to shine. If we're going to slip up and fall from time to time anyway, we might as well let it happen and learn from it in the context of a life that exudes, as you say, the variety, majesty and beauty of our creator. How cool would it be to live like that?

tbmbuzz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
tbmbuzz said...

By "church" I didn't mean specifically the Catholic Church but rather Christianity as a whole.

Frankly, I don't think you know the difference. To the modern American secularist, all Christians, past and present, look alike. And on the same note, woe to suggest that there is a significant subset of Muslims who are primitive fanatics bent on destroying everything that modern man has accomplished over the past millennium, or to suggest that the only "religious" problem facing the world today is Islam.


Don't give me that BS about it being secular humanists who have rewritten history. The Church's tendencies are amply documented.

Funny, isn't it, that at least 90% of mankind's accomplishments in science, economics, sociology, etc have been achieved by the Christian West, mostly by white males. Funny how secular humanists will defend the concept of Darwinism and evolution to the death when applied to the biological world (rightly so), but cannot conceive of societies and organizations (e.g. the Catholic Church, Christianity as a whole) also evolving with the modern world, unlike, say, the perversion that is Islam.

S. T. Karnick said...

Mike and Matt, I thank you for your comments and agree completely with your point. I should note that the spirit you represent in this matter is a truly, classically liberal one. It says, let individual achievement shine within a stable, nurturing culture, and much good will come.

Both Niebuhr and Schaeffer were classically liberal in spirit, and I'm grateful to Mike for bringing them into the discussion. For those who have yet to read Christ and Culture, I second Mike's suggestion that you do so. Mike is also correct to say that Francis Schaeffer's influence on evangelicalism and fundamentalism laid the groundwork for the current cultural progress in that movement. Like Mike, I have greatly enjoyed Schaeffer's writings, including those on the arts. And for those wondering about what the Bible says about evolution, creation, and related issues, I can strongly recommend his Genesis in Space and Time as a definitive statement on the matter.

Hunter Baker said...

T, I could give you quality "B.S." on this front all day long because I know more about it than you do and have a pretty d@mn good head start. Your version of history is cracked. As far as Darwin goes, the scholarship shows that enthusiasts of Darwin went out of their way to pick a fight with Christians who initially greeted the news with either happy acceptance or a yawn.

mdvoutlook.com said...

Sam,

It's been a very long time since I read Genesis in Space and Time. I'll be digging it out and look very forward to getting familiar with it again.

And Matt, that is such a great point. So much of Christian culture has the play it safe mentality, driven more by fear than faith. I went through this getting out of college. The issue was what is the will of God for my life. So many books and preachers and friends had the same take: God will tell you somehow, then you will KNOW, then you can confidently proceed. This requires no faith, assumes we can KNOW such a thing, and it negates the freedeom and boldness with which Christians should go through life. I don't have time nor space to work this all out in a comment, but what you are saying is the essence of faith, of a belief in the goodness and greatness of our God. The Church, especially the Protestant Church has a long way to go, but I think we are moving in the right direction.

Evanston said...

Ravi Zacharias and other scholars have rightly noted that images and music can bypass the rational faculties. Look at the success of TBN if you want to witness how so-called "christian" art invites abuse. The spoken word (radio, tape/CD) and written word (books, Bible) are superior, not only in engaging the mind but also for discussion & debate of content. This does not mean we should "abandon" all art forms but we should be wary. For example, someone from my church is obtaining a Master's in dance and with a focus on "christian dance." When asked what would make dance distinctively christian, the answer is you'll-know-it-when-you see-it. I personally doubt that all art forms can communicate the Gospel, or even elements thereof. While all truth is God's, and we can have a Biblical discussion following almost any event/presentation, any "christian artist" must be as careful with non-verbal art forms as we are with our words. For example, while we may admire the beauty of Da Vinci's artwork in the Vatican, how much of it is Biblically accurate? How much of contemporary "christian" music is Biblical (listen to the lyrics). In sum, Evangelical Christians shouldn't hate art but neither should we love it. We need to make and consume it with a very healthy skepticism.

mdvoutlook.com said...

Evanston, I see what you are saying, but this perspective seems too utilitarian to me. What is art that is "Biblically accurate"? I don't think such a thing is possible, or even maybe conceivable. H.R. Rookmaaker wrote a little book some decades back called "Art Needs No Justification." I think too many Christians believe art needs to "communicate" something, the gospel, morality in some way, whatever, in order to be legitimate. I think such a mentality cheapens art, most often the quality of the art. This is a huge subject and needs to be engaged, debated. I'm glad Sam started one here.

Matt Huisman said...

In sum, Evangelical Christians shouldn't hate art but neither should we love it. We need to make and consume it with a very healthy skepticism.

This reminds me of some posts I've seen around here regarding the 'lowliness' of material things. If God is the creator of all things - and all was created good (we only have perversions of good things) - why would we view art or matter as something neutral. Matter is a good thing and is significant to God - He made it. Art is a good thing and is significant to God - He designed it as a calling for some and as a means of assisting the rest of us in fully appreciating the beauty, richness and meaning of His creation.

Cal Seerveld has written quite a bit about aesthetics and its place in the Christian world. Here is his Letter to a Young Artist - its not what I would have chosen first (you take what you can link to), but I think it conveys the right spirit about the importance of art in the Christian world.

Should we consume it with skepticism, sure. But no more so than anything else. And I hardly think we should have a take-it or leave-it attitude about the subject.

S. T. Karnick said...

Matt and Mike are correct again. And Mike is very right to emphasize that this is an important subject.

Evanston, like all too many other evangelical and fundamentalists, elevates the Bible even beyond its incomparable authoritative status as the Word of God, into something of a fetish. Scripture is all good and God-breathed, certainly, but God also made his creation good, as Matt points out, and he gave us rational minds by which to judge things and imagine possibilities beyond what other people have done or seen. This creation and these faculties are both good, and they both reveal real truths to us. The assumption that everything a Christian does must directly illustrate some particular Bible verse is unwarranted and in fact unbiblical. It also cripples the imagination, as was made clear in the original article from which I quoted.

Evanston said...

mdvoutlook.com, You're right, this is a huge subject. It starts by defining "art." Personally, I believe it is anything designed to communicate. Art can be a subtle element, or nearly everything about, a creation. I state that art should reflect a Biblical perspective if/when it claims to be "christian." You use the word "legitimate." That is an entirely different standard. It would be useful if you defined what you mean by "legitimate." Returning to measuring whether art is "christian" Matt Huisman provided a link to a pertinent essay. I'm interested in your reaction to it. I'm a consumer, not creator, of all sorts of videos/music/younameit and honestly am only offended when a plot element is added that clearly does not fit in with the story line. For example, pre-marital sex is absolutely necessary for a later plot twists in the Count of Monte Christo. In other words, it is not just titillation or a throw-in. Returning to the subject of "legitimacy" I believe at some point these throw-ins detract from art. For example, at the end of Toy Story there is a kiss between the two cartoon characters that is a bit too long/adult, unnecessarily so in my opinion. I believe the kiss, as executed, is "illegitimate" in terms of the objective of the movie but this is obviously subjective. Overall, I believe Christian art need not be easy, clean, or pure in any sense but it must reflect a Biblical perspective. Otherwise the art is worldly, which is fine, we often do work that lacks Christian content (say, installing a garage door) and a christian artist should not be constrained to the straight and narrow. Just please don't claim it is "christian" just because you, yourself, are a Christian. Sometimes you're just a cameraman or other functionary and the best you can do is be a good craftsman. Both artists and consumers, however, should always be aware that art communicates SOMETHING -- it is never "message free."

S. T. Karnick said...

Evanston, I'm more sympathetic to this second post, but I think you're wrong in what you say in the last part. Investigate Martin Luther's concept of "vocation," and you will see that any work can be of use to God. Luther pointed out that NO human act is good in itself: only Christ can sanctify our actions. The same is true of art. And yes, I think it means that Christian art is art made by Christians. Illustrating Bible verses is an option but by no means the only one.

Evanston said...

Mr. Karnick, we both posted comments at approx. same time. I agree with the gist of your post, but still applaud those Christians who are very wary of the messages in today's art. All truth is God's, but not all art is truthful. I often listen to the same despairing Punk music that I collected decades ago, because it is truthful. It certainly does not contain the whole Gospel truth, but many elements harmonize with a Biblical perspective on life and remind me of what life is like without the Savior. I figure your "fetish" comment comes from others constraining your expression to christian subject matter/concepts. Hey, as long as artists don't label their work as "christian" then they can work without constraint. But we consumers do tend to appreciate truth in labeling...so it would be interesting to see how you compare "christian" art vs. art legitimately produced by a Christian.

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks for your comments, Evanston.

I agree we should all be wary of what messages are being conveyed by art (and entertainment), but it is important to be on the lookout for things that are good but not necessarily obvious in their Christian implications. It is through these latter that we can best reach nonbelievers, and the creation and promotion of these things should be urgent work for Christians today.

I would call the novels of Walker Percy, Christian art. I would call the nonreligious paintings of Rembrandt, Christian art (in addition to the ones with Christian topics, of course). I would call the music of Bach, Christian music, regardless of whether it includes lyrics. I would call the films of D. W. Griffith, Christian films. I would call the mystery stories of Edward Hoch, Christian entertainment. I would call Charlie Chan films, Christian entertainment.

How? The surface subject matter of an art work does not make it Christian. What makes a work identifiably Christian is the meanings about the world which it imparts. If these meanings are Christian thoughts, then the work is surely Christian. And no, there aren't any easy formulas for identifying what is Christian in art and what is not, and there is no obvious line to be drawn. It is a matter for people to discuss and ponder from and learn from. It requires critics to be well-educated and perceptive, and audiences to be both innocent as lambs and wise as serpents.

Given the urgent need for Christians to find ways to engage people by working through the culture around us, the drawing of a small circle in which will be included only a few select works of very obvious Christian allegory, is a Puritan activity which I consider entirely wrongheaded.

Evanston said...

Got it Mr. Karnik, thank you for sharing your considerable expertise and heartfelt consideration of the matter.

mdvoutlook.com said...

Evanston, I think from your last two posts we are much closer in our understanding than I first thought. To think deeply, in a sophisticated and not simplistic manner about all this stuff (that's the technical term) is crucial for Christians to truly make their mark in our culture. The most rank antheist, agnostic, secularist may despise what we communicate in our art, but if it's great art he cannot help but respect it. Great art, be it music or painting or cinema or whatever, will always be a powerful cultural influence. We need more Christians doing just this in every area of popular culture.

mdvoutlook.com said...

For some reason my previous comment isn't showing up, so I'm just going to copy it and see what happens.

Evanston, I think from your last two posts we are much closer in our understanding than I first thought. To think deeply, in a sophisticated and not simplistic manner about all this stuff (that's the technical term) is crucial for Christians to truly make their mark in our culture. The most rank antheist, agnostic, secularist may despise what we communicate in our art, but if it's great art he cannot help but respect it. Great art, be it music or painting or cinema or whatever, will always be a powerful cultural influence. We need more Christians doing just this in every area of popular culture.

Matt Huisman said...

I often listen to the same despairing Punk music that I collected decades ago, because it is truthful. It certainly does not contain the whole Gospel truth, but many elements harmonize with a Biblical perspective on life and remind me of what life is like without the Savior.

I really appreciate this sentiment. There are certainly some risks with taking in some of the junk the world produces, but I think we need to do it anyway. We have to 'understand' what they're about, and while doing so appreciate what marvelous creations they are. The Lord has seen fit to let the sun shine on everyone, and we would miss out on the general revelation that He has seen fit to give.

I believe Bono's line is that 'blessings are not just for the ones who kneel, luckily' - that seems about right, as it heightens our connection to our brothers who do not (yet!) understand the truth.

Tlaloc said...

"Frankly, I don't think you know the difference."

Well then, frankly, you are wrong.


"And on the same note, woe to suggest that there is a significant subset of Muslims who are primitive fanatics bent on destroying everything that modern man has accomplished over the past millennium, or to suggest that the only "religious" problem facing the world today is Islam."

I'm sifting this paragraph for relevence and I don't seem to be finding any. I'm also not finding any accuracy.



"Funny, isn't it, that at least 90% of mankind's accomplishments in science, economics, sociology, etc have been achieved by the Christian West, mostly by white males."

That is funny given that it's not really all that... what is the word... True. "Christian" Europe was entirely backwards compared to the distinctly non-christian greeks and the equally non-christian chinese. What the west has accomplished has happened due to it's military imperialism. Not exactly something for the church to boast about.

Tlaloc said...

"T, I could give you quality "B.S." on this front all day long because I know more about it than you do and have a pretty d@mn good head start."

Easy to say. Let's put it this way: I don't accept your assurances on the matter, you have to put up.



"As far as Darwin goes, the scholarship shows that enthusiasts of Darwin went out of their way to pick a fight with Christians who initially greeted the news with either happy acceptance or a yawn."

And? What possible bearing does that have when I can empirically show that the opposite is true today: fundies are irate about darwin. So far not exactly dazzling me with your superior knowledge of the topic.