Categories
Christianity

Does Art Matter in a Pandemic?

I’ve seen more than one Christian theologian in the blogosphere sneering at the federal government’s decision to dole out grants to arts organizations, as part of the historic coronavirus stimulus bill. One pastor said the grants were evidence of conspiratorial hysteria, or “covidiocy.” In an otherwise superb piece, Carl Trueman writes: “‘Redeeming the arts’ doesn’t seem quite so urgent when your immediate problem is not that of obtaining tickets to the Met but of potentially dying before the box office reopens after the COVID-19 crisis.” From what I can gather, the point is not about the particular worthiness of the National Endowment for the Arts, but about the self-evidently unimportant nature of art in general, which is obscured in times of wealth and ease but exposed during  crisis.

There’s a point here, to be sure. We take entertainment far too seriously and spend too much money and time on it. And Trueman is right to say that our elite aesthetes trivialize life. All variables being equal, it probably would be better for our collective souls if a few film studios were allowed to go bust.

Yet I’m not sure that a deathly plague is the correct launch point for reflecting on the futility of art. Trueman is absolutely right that the church must take seriously its charge to prepare believers for death and eternity, but is such seriousness opposed to something like “redeeming the arts”? I don’t think so, for a few reasons.

First, as Trueman himself notes, bad art has conditioned many in our culture to feel flippancy toward their existence. Good art, on the other hand, awakens our spiritual senses and makes us feel the weight and givenness of everything. If glib depiction of things like suicide and sex numb our moral imagination, good, true, and beautiful depictions can also animate it.

A couple nights ago I re-watched 1917 and was moved again by its visceral depiction of courage [warning: spoilers in this paragraph]. For me, the most powerful moment in the film is when Schofield happens upon a young woman living underneath a town engulfed in flames. She is caring for someone’s infant—she doesn’t know who. He calms the uneasy child and offers it some of the milk he found on the farm that was the site of his friend’s slow, agonizing death. The scene is unspeakably beautiful, and we wish it could go on–that Schofield could somehow escape from the flames of the Nazis and find solace in this dimly lit room. Yet he pulls himself away:”I have to go,” and the words have to reveal the kind of spirit that builds and defends civilizations.

That is the moral power of art. It is one thing to know that soldiers are brave. It is another thing to somehow imaginatively participate in the moments of such bravery. This is the kind of art that can help us prepare for our own deaths.

God invented art and he intended it to have this kind of power. That is why the Scriptures are full of stories, poetry, music, and parables. Failing to nurture our God-given, creative nature can have devastating consequences when we come to the Bible. As Russell Moore has noted, evangelicalism is worse off when believers emphasize rote Bible memory to the exclusion of allowing ourselves to be shaped by the story of redemption.

Second, I think we should be leery of pitting good things against one another. It is good that General Motors can switch its machines around to make ventillators instead of transmission lines. It should do that! But the current desirability of ventillators over transmission lines is not actually a statement about the worth of cars. After this virus has abated, the future flourishing of many will depend on those machines making cars once again.

Like Imrahil urging the Captains to leave behind a defense for Minas Tirith, we ought to use our time and resources to preserve what we will need after this crisis is over. We can debate how many dollars such a goal is worth in a federal stimulus. But dismissing artistic reflection brings us perilously close to the utilitarian reasoning of many contemporary universities that shutter their philosophy programs at the first sign of financial stress. Such decisions do not result in the end of philosophy, they simply ensure that Silicon Valley technocrats will be the only ones teaching it. Likewise, Christians deciding that the gospel doesn’t speak to art will not make movies and music less distracting, but it will mean that more are distracted by flippancy and materialism instead of by truth and beauty.

Here we must admit that we need discernment between the American value of efficiency and the Christian virtues. If efficiency were a Christian virtue, there would be nothing to mourn and everything to celebrate about being forced to livestream a sermon. The time it takes for believers to wake up on Sunday morning, get dressed, and lasso children (in the home and the Sunday school class) merely for the sake of sitting on hard seats with people they wouldn’t otherwise befriend is what the smart people would call a sunk cost. Yet the Bible tells us that something mysterious happens in that physical gathering—that somehow that disparate group of sinners can be in the presence of the King of the universe, commune with him, and bear each other’s sorrows and joys.

The danger in forgetting art is not that we will forget to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” but that we might forget what “as it is in heaven” even means. Let’s say instead with Lewis that the only way out of COVID-19 is toward the place where all the beauty comes from.

 

Categories
life philosophy

Of Paintings and Place

In one of my favorite parts of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, Jayber attends seminary and begins to realize he has a host of questions. Fearing this may mean he is not called to the ministry, he goes to speak with one of his professors and unloads the laundry list of doubts and questions. The professor, Dr. Ardmire, listens to his questions. The professor speaks up and says to Jayber:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time.’
And how long is that going to take?’
I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
That could be a long time.’
I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.”

This scene came to my mind on Friday when hanging a painting in my office. With it came a rush of emotions that frankly, I did not expect. It recalled memories from the past and hopes for the future.

The painting has several memories, each woven into who I am. It’s an image of the 4th of July in my hometown of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Every year we’d gather on Main Street and watch a parade of floats, horses, dirt bikes, four-wheelers, tractors, cars, and youth sports league champions. My childhood was spent on this street and in a few of the stores with my parents. I learned how to drive on this street. I spent many a Friday night cruising with my friends up and down Main Street before heading over to a bakery that would open at Midnight. We would sit in my dad’s pharmacy parking lot (located right next to the bakery) or in the church parking lot across the street. Those memories are embedded on me like a deep scar, and I look back on those times with a fondness (and embarrassment at times) that grows with age.

It is a remarkable feature of humanity that something so simple can give rise to a host of complex thoughts, regrets, and hopes. To disentangle oneself from a scenario and contemplate your own humanity is an act of the moral imagination that still befuddles. Staring at an object that is filled with history, location, context, and memories might engender a desire for halcyon days where innocence seemed to roam the interiors of your mind.

But there’s more to this painting than the memories of growing up in a small-town. This painting was in my dad’s office for as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories of walking into the back door of his pharmacy as a young child, running toward his office, and seeing this painting hanging on the wall over my father’s shoulder while in my his — very tight — embrace. When I would come home from college to see him, I’d once again race back to his office. He’d be sitting in his chair, paying bills, sorting mail, and weaving back and forth between his office and the front counter. When he would leave I’d sit in his chair, feeling like a young prince sitting in his kingly father’s throne. Directly across from his desk was this painting, always in eyesight. It was a reminder to me that, despite moving away, this place will always be a part of me. It will always be home. 

I’ve never really asked my dad if there is something uniquely special about this painting or if he just liked it. I’m not sure it matters. He retired last July and I asked if I could have the painting to put in my office. As time passed after his retirement I assumed he had forgotten my request and I didn’t really want to bother him about it. For some reason, it seemed silly to me. After Christmas he gave it to me and it’s been in my office, hung within eyesight, ever since.

Since my son was born I have been thinking about what tangible objects might we acquire or currently have that can be passed down to our children. What physical embodiments of “Bryan” and “Danielle” do we have that mean the world to us that our children can hold and admire and say, “This is something Mom loved. This thing is something Dad loved”? I’ve chosen a life project that does this in hopes that my kids will one day be able to look across the room in their offices or homes and see a physical embodiment of something that brings back the memories of their parents.

It’s important, I think, to believe that this drive to remember, to honor those before us, is as old as humanity. From memorial stones in the Old Testament to paintings in one’s office, they are physical reminders of what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia, or a love of home. They are reminders of a “place where you and I belong and to which we return, if only in thought, at the end of all our wanderings.” What might seem lost can be restored. Home can be felt again and there is One ever-working to do precisely that. A love of home and place, under His rule and reign, takes a new — though no less physical — meaning. At the end of all our wanderings stands a bloody cross and a victorious Savior.

Freedom on the Fourth is a theology of place in a painting. Many of the individuals in the painting are likely gone from us now. Many more have grown up, forgotten the place to which we all belonged at one time and — potentially — forgotten who they are. I was painfully close to such peril. I don’t have full answers to the questions I’m seeking. Like Jayber, I have been given questions to which I cannot be given answers. I will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time. They are important questions and I hope to consider them for the rest of my life.

The painting now hangs in my office, and now I’m able to pull my son into my arms while he looks over my shoulder with this painting in full-view.

Bryan Baise is an assistant professor of philosophy at Boyce College. He has three kids and is far too emotionally invested in his sports teams. You can follow him on Twitter.

Categories
culture pop culture Theology

A Last Word About “13 Reasons Why”

Since registering my deep concerns with the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” I’ve been pleased to see more thoughts from others, like Russell Moore and Trevin Wax. Non-Christian therapy and counseling professionals are likewise alarmed, and apparently there’s been enough of a backlash that Netflix has pledged to put more “trigger warnings” into the show. I think the worried response to the series is completely justified, and while it’s probably not realistic to expect Netflix to take more drastic action toward what is undoubtedly a popular and profit-driving product, I don’t think you can spend too much time talking about the dangers of such an empathetic story about a teenage suicide.

I want to say one more word about the show, and more to the point, about why so much fuss is warranted about a stupid television program. For a lot of Christians, a movie or TV show’s worthiness is measured simply in terms of number of cuss words spoken or presence/frequency of sex scenes. If a film or program is loaded with blue language, it’s a bad film or program. If it depicts sexuality, it’s a bad program (I think there’s a nuanced case to make for this, but I digress). If the violence is bloody, it’s a bad program. This is the way most evangelicals, in my experience, consume pop culture: they grind it to its constituent parts and then the parts get evaluated on a scale. If the scale tips over, we’re not consuming it.

I don’t think this is the best and most helpful way to engage art, and, interestingly, “13 Reasons” is an excellent example why. Now, a lot of parents who watch an episode or two of the show will immediately call it out of bounds. The language is explicit and harsh, and there are sexual themes and scenes. I have no issue with disqualifying a show based on those grounds, especially a show clearly marketed to teenagers. No problem then, right?

Hold on. The problem with tackling “13 Reasons” on this kind of level is that this is not the biggest problem with the show. The biggest problem with the show is not the words characters use (some may reason their children hear such harsh language in real life school) or the hookups they have (those can be fast forwarded, after all). The biggest problem with the show is that it is art that shapes its audience at a subconscious level to feel understanding and empathy with taking one’s own life. The power of art is not usually in its constituent elements, but in its whole. Teens who watch “13 Reasons Why” may come away without using those words or hopping into bed with someone, but they may still come away with a grossly distorted view of what suicide is and what happens in its wake. And you can’t mute or fast forward past this.

This is why it’s important to understanding what art is and why it affects us. Art, to use James K.A. Smith’s terminology, is a “pedagogy of desire,” a vehicle not just of entertainment but of emotional, moral, and spiritual formation. Movies and TV shows engage audiences at multiple levels, utilizing dialogue, music, visual cues, and symbols to inspire first and foremost an emotional response, not an intellectual one. The power of movies to dazzle and delight, above and beyond the parameters of rational response, is the most important way that films shape our moral imaginations.

This means that the art we consume not only can be an instrument of personal and social transformation, but that it simply is, even if the transformation does not seem immediately practical.

“13 Reasons Why” is a jarring reminder to us as evangelical Christians that misunderstanding the power of art–approaching it shallowly, comprehending it incompletely, and talking about it reductively–is a serious mistake. It’s a mistake because our stories shape us above and beyond the level of bad words and bad scenes. If evangelicals don’t try to understand culture on a deeper level, we will allow ourselves to be shaped by stories without even knowing it, and those stories may be PG-rated, but still spiritually destructive.

Regardless where you draw your boundaries, make the effort to engage culture at a deeper level. Ask what story is being told, why is it being told, to whom is it being told, and how is it being told. Probe movies, television, books, and other pop culture artifacts for their meaning, because it is meaning that molds us deeper than the things we can skip with a remote.

Categories
Christianity culture ethics movies

Some Thoughts on Christians, Movies, and Nudity

To be honest, I had no idea what (or who?) Deadpool was by the time everyone was watching the trailers for the new movie. I’d never heard of that character and had no special interest in learning more (I’m fatigued of superhero movies at this point anyway). But it turns out that Deadpool is a pretty interesting guy (thing?) and has a lot of fans. Box Office Mojo’s unofficial reports have the movie blowing away some meaningful records, several of which are in the “R-rated” category. R-rated superhero films are rare. Studios prefer PG-13 ratings for films they want to be blockbusters, for obvious reasons.

The MPAA states that Deadpool’s R-rating comes from “strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity.” Violence is, of course, very common in superhero films, though it’s almost always in a highly stylized, choreographed context (as opposed to the visceral realism of Saving Private Ryan). Strong language isn’t as common in the superhero genre, but it’s rare to see a film for grownups that doesn’t drop a few four letter epithets.

When it comes to the evangelicals that I know and talk to about movies, violence and language live on the low end of the Problematic Scale. Of course, cinematic violence can be nihilistic and inhumane, and coarse language can be over the top and abusive. But in general, violence and language are the least-weighted categories of movie vice. While an evangelical film critic may warn you about jarring violence or strong language, it’s unlikely, all other variables being equal, that those two things by themselves can actually warrant a spiritually-motivated abstention.

When it comes to sexuality and nudity, the opposite tends to be true. If language and violence are the least weighted content flags, sex and skin are the heaviest. It takes little sexual content–and virtually any nudity–to get most of my evangelical movie-buffs to refuse to see it, or refuse to give a recommendation. (I probably should clarify that nudity in the sense I am talking about is erotic and/or flippant, not the stomach-turning nudity of the Auschwitz prisoners in Schindler’s List)

This dynamic within much of evangelical cultural commentary is not uncontroversial. For example, some Christian film critics have accused this ethos of hypocrisy (and perhaps a little bit of sexism) for having a high tolerance for violence and such a low tolerance for sexuality. After all, isn’t violence, especially gun and war violence, more desensitizing to the soul–and more dangerous for younger, impressionable viewers– than a 2 minute love scene?

A case study here may be helpful. Alissa Wilkinson, a brilliant film critic and chief of Christianity Today’s movie review section, gave a 3.5 star (out of 4) review to the Martin Scorcese/ Leonardo DiCaprio flick The Wolf of Wall Street. The recommendation came accompanied with an entire section of the review that warned potential audiences of the graphic and non-stop nature of the movie’s sexual content. Wilkinson wrote that she admired the way the film demanded an emotional response from the audience, and that, as indulgent as the movie was, it would be “worth the risk” for some.

In response, Trevin Wax, an editor at The Gospel Coalition, linked to Wilkinson’s review and asked whether evangelical cultural engagement had left the door too open to the “unwatchable.” “At what point do we say,” Wax asked, “It is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?” Wilkinson concluded that the movie’s depictions served its story’s harsh judgment of the characters, while Wax was skeptical that a parade of sexual images could be justified at all.

This is an important question for me personally. I love movies and I love writing about them. I’m a critic by instinct. I want to think deeply about movies, and my love of great film has motivated me to see many obscure pictures that my friends often have no idea exist. I love living and thinking and writing in that world.

At the same time, my aspirations to movie criticism have been tempered with an increasing unwillingness to watch sexual nudity. Even as I try to raise intellectual objections to John Piper’s 7 reasons for Christians to not watch movies like Deadpool, I find myself more and more in alignment with his plea. On the whole, I think Christians would be better served in their lives, marriages, and imaginations if they made a point of avoiding films that simulate sexual acts or show nude characters.

Here are a few, very brief reasons I’ve arrived at this position:

  • In virtually every imaginable case, cinematic sex and nudity are placed intentionally into a film in order to give the audience an erotic or titillating experience. In other words, nude love scenes do NOT further a film’s basic storyline more than would having the characters close the door behind them, and fade out. The purpose of simulating intimacy on-screen is to invite the audience to participate in the erotic storytelling, and, as such, I don’t believe that a Christian, male or female, can simultaneously watch it and fulfill Christ’s command to not look at another person lustfully.
  • Piper’s distinction between violence, which is always fake, and nudity, which is never fake, seems to me very compelling. A gunfight between characters is entirely staged. The blood is phony, the bullets are rubber, and the explosions are highly controlled. But a nude actor is really nude, and thus, the audience does not have the epistemological distance from the sexual that it does have from the violent. If a superhero film were produced with real guns that really shot real extras, nobody would find it praiseworthy.
  • The Scriptures teach that the naked human body is not a morally neutral thing. The nakedness of Adam and Eve is precisely the characteristic that the author of Genesis uses to sum up their perfect sexual union (Gen. 2:25). The biblical prophets used public nakedness as a metaphor for a life lived apart from God (Ez. 16). This is not, I believe, a failure of the biblical writers to be “sex positive,” but an affirmation of what we all know by instinct to be true: That our naked bodies are precious, that they have a purpose, and that outside of God’s dominion the naked self is only a sign of shame and despair, not joy.
  • Films have a special kind of potency to shape our moral imaginations. The combination of imagery, dialogue, lighting, and music are what James K. A. Smith refers to as a “pedagogy of desire.” I believe that art not only tells a story but shapes our desires in the images of the stories it tells. To that end, I don’t want my desires to be shaped by the ridiculously unreal, freewheeling depiction of sexuality that movies present. Movie sex is nothing remotely like married sex, and my suspicion is that many people are in deeply frustrated, wounded relationships because they thought it was.

So there you have it, just a few thoughts on the Christian, the movie, and sex. I would love to hear your thoughts on this too.