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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Evangelicalism, and the Use and Misuse of Art

We tend to move slow as molasses in Bible study. That would, of course, be my fault. I can be incredibly long-winded for an introvert. (To defend myself a little, I might also note that there are many, many symbols in Revelation, and adequately explaining their significance takes some time. At least, that's my excuse.) The result is that I've been studied up ahead of schedule for a while now, and I've been able to turn my attention to other things. I've had in mind to read a couple of books that have been popular in Christian circles over the past few years, so I can intelligently interact with other believers about them, and maybe even write a critique or two. After a few pages of each, however, I was ready to shoot myself in the head. Evangelicals just don't know how to write. When I have reactions like that, though, I try to back up and give my own criticism some criticism. Perhaps I am being hasty in my response? I decided the best thing to do would be to take the time to read some classic literature - to sort of remind myself of what good literature is like, in order to offer a reasonable critique of the Christian literature in question. So I've read some short stories, and a couple of novels. Perhaps most importantly, I've returned to reading some of the works of Flannery O'Connor, both her fiction and non-fiction.

Few people understand fiction - or art in general - the way that O'Connor did. After her death, a collection of her essays was published, entitled Mystery and Manners. Out of all that I've read on art, this book stands near or at the top of the list. She discusses what it is to be a fiction writer, giving special attention to her status as a Southerner and a Catholic Christian. While she was a highly intelligent woman (she read a portion of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas every night before she went to sleep), her non-fiction writing was no-nonsense. Her are a couple of my favourite quotes from her, which I've posted before, but which bear repeating:

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

"People have a habit of saying, 'What is the theme of your story?' and they expect you to give them a statement: 'The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class' - or some such absurdity. And when they've got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story... Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction."

The second quote, I believe, is especially important in considering the question of so-called Christian art. Along with considering popular Christian literature, I've been listening to some Contemporary Christian radio stations, mainly out of curiosity. There's alot I've noticed, but one thing I've learned that's relevant here concerns the purpose of Christian art. I've realized that its purpose, generally speaking, is not that the form of the art itself in any way be for the good of the individual participating in it. Rather, the form of the art is merely as a vehicle for communicating a message. In fact, I've even heard popular CCM artists admit as much. The "art", to the degree that it is art, is simply Utilitarian, or Pragmatic, in its reason for being. Cultural critic Ken Myers notes this in his book All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, as he compares Popular Culture with Traditional and High Cultures. He points out that in Popular Culture, art is something that's used. In Traditional and High Cultures, however, art is something that is received. In other words, in Popular Culture, the art is something that I am sovereign over, which must submit to me. It meets me where I am, and raises me no higher. But the art of Traditional and High Cultures require that the participant submit to it. It is greater than the participant, and challenges him to ascend beyond himself.

The fact that Evangelicalism, in its worship, its music, its teaching, and so on, tends to make chief the idea of God meeting us where we're at seems no coincidence here. As in Popular Culture, whether Christian or non-Christian, the God of Evangelicalism is Immanent, and never any different. He is common, and in no way mysterious. There is no room for what is communicated by Traditional and High Cultures - a God who is Transcendent, who demands we approach Him in reverence and with awe. I have been in many different churches over the past several years, and in all of the ones that are Contemporary in their approach to worship, this has been true. If there is any fear of God before their eyes, it sure doesn't come out in the way they worship.

My point in all this is to note that Evangelicals seem to not understand the importance of form. They only see Scripture as a summary of the Gospel and a few good teachings, and they don't think the form of it really matters. Consequently, large chunks of it go unexamined. Just as O'Connor noted in the way some people approach her stories, so we tend to approach Scripture. We want to take it, shake out the chaff, and keep the wheat. But all of Scripture is inspired, including those portions of Numbers that seem totally irrelevant to your life. None of it is chaff.

We think the way we do ministry or worship doesn't matter. As long as the message gets across, then we've done our job. And yet think of how contrary to Scripture this way of thinking is. Just look at how many pages of Scripture are devoted to the constructing of the Tabernacle and the Temple (both Solomon's and Ezekiel's). Look at the attention given to the dividing of the land of Israel in the Book of Joshua. Consider the detailed way in which Israel was to march and to camp while in the wilderness. If Scripture reveals the character of God - and it does - then these and other passages would suggest that our God is One to whom form, matter, and order are important. Just as with O'Connor, if you want to know the meaning of God's Story, then you need to learn the whole Story, because the whole Story is the meaning.

And so, leaving aside a critique of any specific musician or author, I would encourage my fellow believers to think more carefully about the forms of media they participate in. In fact, here's an idea. Insofar as it is in your power, take a period of time - at least a month - and separate yourself from all forms of popular media. That includes TV, movies, and music. It's especially important that you stay away from commercial TV and radio. Take the time to engage more fully in prayer, in meditation, in silence. Shop as little as possible. Stay away particularly from Christian stores. Read some classic Christian literature - don't read anything written in the past twenty years. C. S. Lewis is very accessible, and would be a good choice. It would be good to read some classic literature that isn't specifically Christian as well. If you listen to music, listen to some classical, or traditional folk music, whether American, or of some other culture. Once the time is up, go back and begin to live as you had before. See if you respond to your old music and TV the way you used to. If you are open to the experiment, I expect you will find yourself a changed person, and that for the better.

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