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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.