[This post was influenced in part from an article by N.T. Wright I read this Easter. The article can be found here: http://www.rabbitroom.com/2013/03/n-t-wright-on-easter/ ]
In moderns times as well as at all times that have graced our planet, the children who wish to follow God are at a crossroads. We are to be in the world but not of the world; we are to commune with non-Christians while acting much differently. This creates a certain conflict within the Christian. He wishes to abstain from worldliness, yet he wakes up everyday with the sad truth that he is still very much in the world. In some sense it is an impossibility to deny the world entirely. Unless we shut our eyes at every billboard and die by way of automobile accident, worldliness will always be there. In America, however, we have an opposite extreme that creeps in and can be equally as damaging to our soul. In the effort to deny the world, we adopt a Christian subculture which on the surface surrounds us with Christ yet denies the very thing it promotes. For instance, we have to deny “secular” movies, music and entertainment, so we adopt “Christian” movies, music and (I guess it could be called) entertainment. But why stop there? We must therefore have a Christian car with a fish on the back and, at minimum, three Christian bumper stickers; we must have a Christian house, with Christian posts and signs in the yard, a Christian plaque on the door, aligning the walls with verses taken out of context and filling “all ye who enter in” with hope; we must eat and drink in a Christian manner as well, so we have Christian plates, utensils and, of course, mugs — No need to bless this food, for that verse taken out of context on my plate has already done the job for me. And naturally we have our Christian t-shirts as well and would never think of wearing anything else. Now, the problem that has already begun with our materialism masked in “spirituality” manifests itself in the worst of ways with our community. In all this effort to avoid worldliness, we have shunned the non-Christians and surrounded ourselves with only Christians. We are modern day monks and worse off because we are too self-righteous to brew, let alone drink, our own beer.
This post specifically concerns me. The above paragraph describes me in some sense. I don’t surround myself with Christian things, and unless someone dresses me up in a Christian T-shirt when I’m lying in my grave, I won’t be caught in one. The problem often asserts itself in relationships, and my mind connecting rather obscure dots throughout the day muses on the issue of the Christian and his art. We must have art, and by art I refer to the “arts” — literature, music, movies etc., but how does the Christian reject art that is damaging to his soul while still retaining good art? When I look at the Christian subculture, I see we fall into various camps. We either attempt to mimic secular art so closely that no one can tell the difference, or we fall off the horse on the other side and create something so laboriously conservative that it loses the little artistic value it ever began with. We are either too apt to be just like the world or we are too afraid to be like the world, that when it is all said and done, we produce bad art: bad movies, bad music, bad literature.¹
The question then entered my head: why do Christians settle? I almost feel that the Christian, instead of creating the same thing the world does and slapping Christ on it, should create something else entirely. Instead of bad art, we should seek to be exceptional at something that is counter-cultural. Christians should not just stop watching movies with junk in them, they should stop watching movies altogether. We shouldn’t rate our Christian movies by saying, “Well, the acting is horrendous, the special effects laughable, and the plot has more holes than Louis Sachar’s popular novel², but at least its a good message.” I go to my preacher for a good message, my actors for good acting. Christian actors should stop seeking to be preachers and start seeking to be actors. We should revive what our secular culture has destroyed over the years: the theater. While everyone else in our culture runs to the cinema, the Christians should be running to the stage, not to see a poorly acted Christian sermon but to see a well acted play that may or may not have anything to do with Christianity — maybe even, gasp, a Shakespeare play.
The same goes for Christian music. The redundancy and cliché filled lyrics that make up most of the popular Christian music today leaves the Christian feeling good and thinking little. The lyrics of Christian music today are closer to transcendentalism than Christianity: “Life is hard, I can’t deal with all this stress, I need to feel my way out of this, Jesus you are my rock, I’m falling, You lift me up and make me feel warm inside, Just come alive.” Rebecca Black could write a better song. We use Christ as a means to fuel our inner spiritual need for meaning rather than worship. Now, much like the Christian actor needs to stop preaching, the Christian musician needs to stop writing cliché filled lyrics. Our world is already full of poorly written secular songs, we do not need to combat the bad with more bad. Instead, as the world rushes to stupid song after stupid song, Christians should turn to a revival of poetry, good poetry. Not poetry that has a surface level meaning only but poetry that hearkens back to the golden age of the seventeenth century. Why do we settle for saying the same truth the same way over and over and over and over again? Why not use the mind God has given us and say the same thing in a completely different way? I would that all Christian writers stop writing lyrics and start writing poetry. I would that they would stop singing and revive the classical music of the past. I find a moving classical song composed by a non-Christian moves me more than a modern day song with Christian lyrics. For this song usually tells me I’m suffering when I’m not and pretends to fix the issue by taking a verse out of context. Would it not be just as counter-cultural for Christians to do away with redundant music we put up with and adopt Beethoven and Mozart?
An argument I recently stumbled across had to do with the Christianity of Dickens. In all the Dickens I’ve read, I can’t think of many instances where he mentions Christ or advocates for Christianity. The argument stated that while Dickens was not a Christian author, he was an author who happened to be Christian. That is, he didn’t let his literary art suffer because he was Christian, but rather, wrote secular stories that had subtle Christian themes but weren’t preachy. Nothing may be worse than a preachy novel. Much like the actors, the writers should seek to write good plots with good literary value, and this should in some sense trump the writer’s Christianity. That is, a well written novel full of Christian themes that really has nothing to do with preaching Christianity directly could do more for a person than a poorly written sermon wrapped up in the guise of a plot. Christian fiction tends to fall into three categories: romance, suspense, apocalyptic. Satire is dead and sarcasm and melancholy fell with it. It is certainly natural if not commendable for the Christian writer to be melancholy about the world, for all we have to do is read the newspaper.
But it is almost as if the Christian writer is over concerned about good plot and making sure all the likable characters get saved than actually writing a good book. The issue is that a world of cookie cutters is created and all the likable characters, though they have faults, never actually show us those faults. We can’t curse in our literature so we imply it, disregarding a fundamental law of fiction writing: show don’t tell. But every writer of fiction should know that his work can be separated from him in some degree. For instance, the writer may create a character that swears like a sailor and drinks as much. Now the tendency for the Christian writer is to paint those evils as they are: evil. Thus, that character will forever be painted as nothing more than a cussing drunk. (Whether he actually drinks that much or not is irrelevant. That he would even touch the bottle is enough to label him a drunkard.) It would be far better, however, to create multiple types of characters — all who have various vices — and pronounce no judgment on them whatsoever. Let the cussing drunkard remain a drunkard throughout the book, leave him alone to be judged by the reader. Though it seems un-Christian to knowingly create a character with vices and pronounce no judgment on him, this is far better literature because it allows the reader more freedom. I can find out easily enough what my writer’s philosophy on life is through the subtle themes throughout the novel, and the last thing I want is for him to tell me how to think about all the creatures I meet on the way.
By way of example, we have writers like Chaucer whose characters in “The Miller’s Tale” are full of vices, yet we laugh at them instead of judge them because the writer is laughing at them. In the same way Shakespeare’s Falstaff probably spends too much time at the taverns and Dickens’ Micawber never pays his debts, but that wouldn’t stop us from having a drink with either of them. The issue is that if we only pronounce judgment on the characters we write about (and surely some are always judged), we then only pronounce judgment on the people around us. Literature allows us to love the unlovable before they become lovable, reminding us in the meantime that we are those unlovable creatures. We love despite the vices, not for the vices. Good fiction does this for us. Good fiction takes me out of my far too narrow comfort zone and reminds me that I live in a fallen world with uncouth yet lovable creatures.
Ironically, this post is far too preachy in its bitter lament against the preachyness of modern Christian art. The issue I find is that we too often deny ourselves good art, for art comes from the mind of our Father, and he would have us do things well. If anything, the Christian should be far more critical of bad writing, bad music, and bad acting because he sees it as an affront to our Creator who created us in his image. We “play God” every day whether we like it or not: we create, judge, love, father, lead, heal etc. every day. Let us play God well. Let us seek to be so counter cultural that we not only deny ourselves secular art because it is immoral but also because it is not good enough art. For whether we’re watching a Christian movie or a secular movie, the fact is that we’re still nothing but zombies watching a movie.
¹This post demands a disclaimer which you can certainly disregard. I find I have a very narrow view of what “good” music is, so any reference to music in this post should be taken with a grain of salt. I analyze music more on the quality of the lyrics than the music, for I know next to nothing about music. Therefore, as my views against Christian music in general (though not universally) may be quite narrow, I will always argue that the lyrics in most of the songs are sub par. This disclaimer only holds for the music, for I don’t think anyone can actually make an argument concerning Christian movies. If so, I would be fain to hear it.
²Louis Sachar’s work is a fantastic novel. The pun was intended, yet I can also see how it would be taken to mean that I think his novel has holes in it. While this is very true in one sense, it is wholly untrue in another, and I trust you catch my drift. Unfortunately, a joke explained is a joke murdered, but I wish to uphold Sachar’s work as something closely linked to a masterpiece lest his named be dragged through the mud and buried in a hole.