In his recent book Bad Religion, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that, while political engagement is an essential part of the Christian presence in the world, American Christians have perhaps put too much emphasis on political engagement and party politics to the exclusion of other aspects of Christian witness. He recommends that Christians recover a more holistic presence in the world, and he places a dedication to fostering sanctity and beauty in the center of this recovery.
He is not the only Christian commentator to offer recently this same analysis. The University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter lamented the politicization of Christianity in his widely popular yet deeply scholarly To Change The World. Gregory Wolfe, editor of the journal Image, argues in Beauty Will Save The World that Christians need to understand the primacy of culture in shaping how people think, and learn to engage the world through beautiful cultural production rather than partisan battles.
One need not abandon all commitment to political engagement to appreciate the point these authors make. What they ask us to reject is the idea that politics is king, the ultimate and only paradigm through which we approach the world.
The marriage debate is an instructive example. Modern Family is a popular, smartly written, and brilliantly funny comedy about three families: a traditional nuclear family, a May-December couple, and a gay couple. The lovable gay couple is presented as a perfectly normal and unexceptional aspect of the show’s social landscape. Christians can make all the arguments they want about the conjugal union, but for the average person Modern Family presents an image of family life that speaks more eloquently than words, certainly more eloquently than the relatively abstruse language of much of the marriage debate.
Any success Christians have in the political marriage debate is more than countered by the cultural power of the understanding of marriage embodied in our popular art. Culture is prior to politics, and gay marriage has only become a political possibility because our culture has already accepted certain perspectives on human flourishing, marriage, and sex. And it is our art which has been a large contributing factor to ratifying and encouraging these perspectives.
Or take Christianity itself. Some popular shows—Glee, for instance, or House—have taken the trouble to include Christian characters in their cast. Their portrayals of Christians, however, have almost always been flat, stereotypical, unattractive, and utterly unrepresentative of the actual lived life of a Christian. What you see in these shows is the efforts of the writers to take their best guess at what a Christian is like, but utterly failing both because they themselves are not Christians and because they often cannot help but let their skewed perception of Christianity influence their work.
The TV series West Wing was not kind to Christian social conservatives, but Aaron Sorkin, the series’ creator, did occasionally offer grudging respect for fiscal conservatives. Though himself a political liberal, he often put his characters—the top staff in a Democratic administration—in situations where they were forced to reconsider their biases against conservatives, or forced to reevaluate their positions on key political issues. The occasion of these reconsiderations was often an encounter with a compelling conservative character (e.g., Ainsely Hayes). These occasionally sympathetic portrayal of conservatives did more to normalize conservatism among some of Sorkin’s liberal viewers than any real life political speech could do. What if we had one or two popular artworks that interacted with Christianity in a similar way?
If mainstream secular art lacks a compelling Christian presence, Christian art often fails both to meet standards of artistic excellence and to present a picture of Christianity attractive to secular audiences. Fireproof, a movie not only sympathetic to Christianity but also produced by and marketed to Christians, showcased some of these problems. The movie was poorly acted and scripted: the main character’s conversion was unrealistic and the production quality was low-grade. It was nearly universally panned by all critics outside the evangelical and Catholic subcultures. As Josh Rosenblatt of The Austin Chronicle put it, “The writing and directing Kendrick brothers, Alex and Stephen, [Fireproof’s creators] have raised blandness and narrative predictability to the level of high art.”
Yet, Christian critics rushed to praise its (in the words of one critic) “heartfelt” message, and Christians took to the move in droves. It was the highest-grossing independent film of its year, and it received, inter alia, the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival’s 2009 award for best feature film.
The desire to embrace this film was understandable. In a world with a bad marriage culture that is only getting worse, a film about a marriage transformed by the love of Christ seems right on message. But if we want to evangelize the culture through the art the last thing we need to be doing is creating niche, separatist Christian art. It may move the faithful, but it will only strip us of cultural power. As another reviewer of Fireproof wrote, “Fireproof isn't merely preaching to the already converted; it's helping to further alienate the unconverted and the skeptical.”
Praising and encouraging bad art, however, does more than just alienate the culture. It is an abdication of the critic’s responsibility to encourage beauty, not well-intended kitsch. Instead of awarding bad but heartfelt niche art, we should instead put our time, money, and talent into getting tomorrow’s Christian artists, as Hunter puts it, into the center instead of the margins of cultural power.
When mainstream culture is hostile to you, it’s tempting to engage politically but otherwise withdraw into ghettos of self-segregation.
If we want, however, to revitalize Christian witness in this country, out first instinct should not be to turn to politics (though politics is important), but to culture in all its artifacts. Some of the greatest modern Christian figures have realized this: C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton both wrote about politics, but they also produced poetry, novels, and plays. Lewis' apologetics reached a wide hearing, but his Narnia series an even wider audience. Many people who would otherwise be hostile to straightforward Christian arguments have been seduced by the beauty of Marilynne Robinson's novels. We should strive towards a greater emphasis on this kind of successfully holistic witness in American Christianity.
The first step should be to cease speaking of ‘Christian art.’ Good art is good art. If Christians stopped trying so hard to produce ‘Christian art,’ and tried, instead, to produce good art, they would find that they have garnered a larger hearing—and that the Christianity which cannot but help to influence their artistic vision had begun to more powerfully influence the wider culture than they ever imagined.
Peter Blair is the editor-in-chief of Fare Forward, a newly launched journal of Christian thought for the next generation.
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