Thursday, July 24, 2014

For Christians, Must Art Always Serve A Purpose?

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, Jordan Monson wrote a short piece titled "Do Christians Have Poor Cultural Taste?"

Monson began the piece by describing a "beautiful and melancholy" film that he viewed with a couple Christian friends. Monson loved the film: "In a mere three hours it led me through the full spectrum of human emotion," he wrote. "I empathized—even lamented—for its fictional characters. But my sorrow was of the redemptive kind, and it convicted me to go forward and share the hope of Christ with those who search in vain."

But his friends were not so enthused. One didn't like its lack of transforming robots; another thought that it did not teach viewers the proper moral behaviors.

From there, Monson began to wonder why it was that his friends and many other (evangelical) Christians were unable to appreciate the movie like he was. He assigned three factors to this tendency: having poor taste, "misunderstanding the role secular art can play in our lives," and something about fast-food culture vs. art.

Monson brought in the big gun for his analysis: C.S. Lewis. Lewis, according to Monson, argued that to have good taste one must receive art ("temporarily suspend judgment")  instead of use art (where art is simply a means to advance one's agenda). Monson agreed, arguing that evangelicals must learn to receive art (in a discerning way, of course), even from "secular" sources. And he suggested that approaching art in this manner "should inspire us to grow into better Christians, parents, evangelists, laborers, and listeners."

Like Monson, I too have wondered why it is that evangelical Christians have a tendency to enjoy terrible movies, music, and books. But it's not just the enjoying part -- the movies, music, and books that are most popular among the broad American population I often find terrible, too. What makes many evangelicals different is the fact that they often really, really want others to enjoy the cultural good as well (this is why they do things like rent out theaters for Son of God). Many believe that by getting others to partake of the cultural good, others will be sanctified or made better in some way. And on the other side of the coin, many evangelicals believe that some movies/music/books (often deemed "secular") will make people spiritually worse in some way. Why is this?

I don't have a great answer to that question, but the question itself brought to mind two academic history books that address the relationship between evangelicals and art/literature: Candy Gunther Brown's The Word in the World and David Morgan's Protestants and Pictures. Now, their theoretical approaches are not without fault, and I'm not trying to say that they provide some sort of definitive answer. For one thing, both books focus primarily on the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. But I do think that their work is worth considering, and that some of the themes that they highlight are still relevant within evangelical culture today. Furthermore, I think that Monson's essay itself is a really good example of how those themes are still prevalent.

The Word in the World examined evangelical print culture from about 1790 until 1890. Brown argued that through the mass production and consumption of Christian tracts, periodicals, hymnals, and books, American evangelicals participated in a "pilgrim community" of sorts, a community defined in part by an "informal canon of texts" that aided the pilgrims in their lifelong Christian journey.

Brown claimed that evangelicals in the mid-nineteenth century took a view of (non-biblical) language as functionally (rather than ontologically) sacred. Language was not an end in and of itself, but rather was a tool with which evangelicals could promote the spread of the Gospel. Any text that functioned to promote the advance of the pure Word (whether in sanctifying the lives of believers or as a converting instrument for unbelievers) could be deemed as sacred in its function. Thus, even words written by nonevangelicals could be appropriated for sacred purposes by evangelical publishers, so long as they seemed useful in the advancement of evangelical aims.

This "functionalist" approach to determining which texts might be useful is still a powerful presence among evangelicals. In fact, Monson's decision to use C.S. Lewis as an authority is an excellent example of how the process worked then and works now. Lewis was a figure who stood outside the evangelical community during his lifetime. For most of the past few decades, however, Lewis has been an evangelical titan. That process involved, first, evangelical cultural arbiters giving their approval to Lewis's works (these folks included professors of evangelical colleges, preachers, publishers, and so on), and second, lay evangelicals reading Lewis and finding him especially useful as a guide for the Christian pilgrimage. In his biography of Lewis, Alister McGrath explained that in the 1980s and beyond, Lewis "allowed younger evangelicals to connect with [the postmodern] cultural mood." Lewis became a means to "enrich and extend faith, without diluting it," and thus gave justification for increasing evangelical engagement with literature, moves, and the arts.

You'll notice that Monson's use of Lewis was not the only place an evangelical functionalist approach appeared in the essay. It also found its way into his justification for engagement with secular art. The movie he attended "convicted me to go forward and share the hope of Christ with those who search in vain." Engagement with good secular art should "inspire us to grow into better Christians, parents, evangelists, laborers, and listeners." In both cases, Monson is operating under functionalist premises similar to nineteenth-century evangelicals: secular art can be good only insofar as it is appropriated for a Christian purpose.

What differentiates Monson from his friends, then, is not simply a matter of taste, nor of receiving vs. using (Monson himself ultimately sees art as something to be used -- just after he's received it). Rather, it's primarily a matter of function. Monson wants other Christians to recognize that, contrary to their belief that secular movies are useless to the Christian pilgrimage, secular art can actually be quite useful.

Another distinction between Monson and his friends is highlighted by David Morgan in Protestants and Pictures. Morgan claimed that a transformation in American Protestant approaches to visual art occurred in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Previously, images were primarily seen as didactic instruments. They were supposed to teach right behavior, morals, and so on, which meant that they were supposed to carry an obvious message.

Increasingly, however, at the turn of the twentieth century images of contemplation and/or devotion became prevalent. These images were meant to be suggestive and contemplative. There was more room for ambiguity (even though, in both cases, images served a specific Christian function).

It seems to me that there is a similar split here between Monson and his friends. Evangelicals who think Fireproof was a great movie are probably viewing it in terms of its didactic function: it teaches an obvious, evangelical-approved moral and life lesson. Monson rejects this. He wants movies that are more contemplative, movies that one must reflect on (or read a CaPC review on) in order to find its Christian usefulness.

The question remains, though: if for evangelicals both "good" and "bad" art are ultimately viewed through the lens of usefulness, is there room for movies, music, or books that ostensibly serve no Christian pilgrim function? Is it ever acceptable to enjoy a movie without thinking about its moral lesson, or connecting the movie with Jesus, or the Bible, or redemption? Or is the total-life nature of the evangelical ideal such that even if this often happens in practice (like, say, people enjoying movies with transforming robots), it cannot be sanctioned by evangelical scribes, no matter how refined their taste?