Jul 15, 2014

The Conflict Between "Art" and "Message:" Infiltrating the Arts, Part II of II

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

In Part I, we talked about barriers that prevent people from listening to, or understanding, the Gospel. We also looked at the way that the arts (broadly defined to include the storytelling of popular movies and books) can influence emotions and imagination, and thereby precondition people to accept or reject certain beliefs. Part II will examine ways in which Christians and Lutherans can engage with the arts, and at the conflict .
between wanting to create real art and wanting to share a "message."

Can we, as Lutheran Christians, infiltrate the currently often-hostile arena of the arts in order to serve our neighbors? We certainly do not want to misrepresent the Gospel message in order to appeal to people’s emotions. Nor are we foolish enough to think that we can do the work of the Holy Spirit by creating cute and artsy cartoons. However, there is a difference between trying to manipulate readers and trying to give them vibrant images and ideas that will prepare their imaginations for concepts of the Gospel. Missionaries to remote tribes have found that many people groups independently possess some kind of sacrificial savior narrative of their own that helps them grasp the story of the Saviour (for instance, see Peace Child). In a sense, we are trying to do something like this for our own culture. We are trying to do so while also creating truly artistic art. A novel like Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God is edifying and has its place, but is not attempting to reach literary heights nor attract non-Christian readers. It is not a piece of apologetics.  

The balance between an artist’s “message” and his art is a delicate one. Ostensibly, Liberals and Conservatives approach this issue differently. Conservatives often focus on the intended meaning of a piece of art. A historical example of this approach can been seen in the Cathedrals of the Middle Ages (designed to inspire a sense of awe and faith) or even the massive marble monuments to historical and political leaders of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. In contrast, Liberals emphasize the artist and his self-expression. Because his job is to find and display whatever happens to be inside himself, standards of beauty or even comprehensibility are irrelevant. Most modern art is an example of this. In modern liberal parlance, it is widely accepted that any attempt to speak of art in moral terms would destroy artistry and replace it with heavy-handed pedantry and perhaps censorship. However, somewhat ironically, liberals have also been far more successful at harnessing the machine of popular art (entertainment) to shape cultural values by appealing to the emotions and imagination of the masses (see Part I). In general, this popular entertainment bills itself as mere fun rather than something intended to teach. Yet teach it does.

If a Christian novelist sits down to prove that, say, divorce is bad, his novel is quite likely to be heavy-handed and simplistic. If he instead explores the themes of faithful and unfaithful love from a Biblical perspective and in an honest way, his book will probably be a better piece of literature, especially if he himself has been divorced and still struggles with the repercussions of such a life-shattering event. There is a difference between writing a book or screenplay at people, and writing one about people (just as there is a difference between posting aggressive Christian memes on facebook and being a genuine friend and witness to non-Christians in daily life).

Lutherans are uniquely fitted to meet this challenge
                                                           
Our goal is tricky. We are asking artists to create works that teach, yet we are also acknowledging that anything created merely or primarily to teach would not be artistic (great literature teaches while also being art; textbooks teach and are not art). I believe that Lutherans are actually uniquely fitted to respond to this challenge.

For starters, we recognize and avoid moralism. Moralism (whether of the liberal or conservative variety) is a pretty fast way to create off-putting, inartistic stories that will not stand the test of time. This is particularly true of unpopular moralism, because no one will be blinded to its flaws. Moralism is unhelpful in art not only because it is not true (being good cannot save anyone) but because it also tends to produce patently unrealistic tales, in which the good always get what they want. Such an outlook will not help anyone grapple with the very real problems of sin, suffering, and injustice, nor teach a better understanding of God’s grace. Lutheran theology is instead starkly, harshly, beautifully realistic. We acknowledge the problems of sin: not just of sin as a concept, but of continuing sin as a curse in the world and our own lives. We know what sin looks like, sounds like, and hurts like. We are therefore fitted to write about realistic, human people and their realistic, human lives. Yet in addition to all this, we also know that the suffering we see is not the sum of reality. We possess a conviction of things not seen—a confidence that God is good and that He offers salvation to our fallen world.

Lutherans also come from an intellectually vigorous tradition with a sense of history. We are not afraid of engaging with philosophical ideas. We are used to interacting with art and to trying to achieve a high quality of artistry in our church architecture and literature. Because of this tradition, we have an advantage when it comes to recognizing real literature and fluff. We are more likely to be embarrassed if we write a horrible book of so-called “Christian fiction.” We are also more comfortable with theological paradoxes and “logically inconsistent” positions than many other denominations. Since real life is also full of contradictions, ironies, and craziness, this would help us to truthfully portray it.

We need to cultivate knowledge and empathy

It is important to recognize that the most important thing is not to set about creating A Book That Will Convert Everyone or a movie That Tells It Right and Silences All Those Annoying Liberals. What we really need is to cultivate and support good art, and to teach and encourage good Christian thinkers.  A thoughtful Christian who is writing, painting, composing, or directing will naturally portray truth as he sees it. He will be able to create material that is based on truth, rather than focused on combatting specific, narrow errors. However, if this Christian is shaped by mainstream values, his output will reflect Hollywood, Oprah, or whatever other source has shaped his view of life and truth.

It is important to cultivate a culture of life-long learning within our homes and churches, and to intentionally educate a body of people who are able to dissect the problems of our own culture, and also to see past them. It is helpful to understand the sources of popular philosophy and to study philosophical and theological truth. However, even if that knowledge is enough to arm individuals against mainstream values, it will not create art. An artist must also understand people. We need Christian artists who rather like humanity, even while recognizing how messed-up it is. We need an education so good that it enables us to take over the artistic world. Or at least to enter it. Or perhaps to build our own.

How might this look in practice?

Of course, the real challenge comes when we leave the theoretical arena and try to engage with practical questions. I am not a sculptor, an architect, or a musician; and my film editing skills are nonexistent. I cannot offer detailed suggestions as to the art that Lutherans might produce in these fields. However, as an aspiring writer of fiction, I have a few ideas of how the subject of literature could be approached. Real literature requires that a storyteller focus on people and stories instead of a simplistic “message,” but it also thrives on the exploration of important themes. The following are examples of writing ideas that I personally would love to see explored from a Lutheran perspective.

1. The source of “answers” in life. Popular fiction is constantly teaching that we find answers within ourselves. Literature could explore the futility of this, and look at people who seek answers in external, objective truth. Literature could also portray realistic, engaging characters who cleave to beliefs and yet aren’t nasty bigots.

2. The life of a Christian. Can you name a contemporary piece of mainstream fiction that gives an orthodox Christian a fair portrayal, or that demonstrates any sense of how Christians actually think? Someday I would like to write a mainstream book in which the protagonist just happens to interact with sympathetic, interesting Christian characters.  

3. Unpopular morality. Lutheran literature could create situations in which readers actually want the characters to do something that is right according to Christian morality but wrong according to popular morality. For instance, it would be nice to see a book in which the protagonist is sorely tempted, by politically correct reasons, to commit one of today’s romanticized sins (for instance, adultery, euthanasia, or simply “putting herself first”) and instead chooses not to do so. Our sinful nature often tries to tell us that we have no choice but to do something wrong. Our protagonist could explore what happens when someone rejects such an argument, and what would lead a person to do so.

As Lutherans, we will not all create art, but we can all be supporters of good art. We can choose to read, watch, buy, or view materials that help us recognize truth, goodness, and beauty. We can support fledgling artists and refuse to spend money on popular entertainment that is hostile to our faith. We can initiate conversations about art and ideas. As a start, we can seek out skillfully artistic examples of Christian-influenced stories and learn from their strengths and weaknesses. I can suggest three movies in this category that are well worth viewing. To End All Wars (2001) explores themes of honor, pride, and forgiveness through the story of British soldiers who were captured by the Japanese during World War II (this movie is admittedly difficult to watch). Bella (2006) is about the value of life and the bonds of family. The award-winning Des hommes et des dieux / Of Gods and Men (2010) tells the story of a group of monks who were martyred in Algeria in the 1990’s. If you have seen the movies, I would be interested in hearing if you think that they are successful both as art and as apologetics. Feel free to use the comments below to analyze why they are or are not successful (or to suggest other examples).

 ***

Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados.

Title Image: "Apollo and the Muses" by Baldassarre Peruzzi, 1514-1523

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for taking on this topic, Anna! Christian engagement with culture is always a complex and vexing area, from many different angles...it's something I spend a lot of time thinking about, with hazy memories of philosophy classes (like Christ and Culture...did you take that one?) and always I come back to that C.S. Lewis quote about how we don't need Christian Art, but Christians making *good* art. Of course, he and Tolkien (et. al.) succeeded on both points...so *he* should talk. :/ ;) I wanted you to know that your title, "Infiltrating the Arts" inspired me to write (too much...so don't read the whole thing! haha!:) a post dealing with the Church's engagement with and support of its artists.

    BTW, I really like that you blog, and not only because the content is so great and because you really 'get' the value of truth, goodness, and beauty (or TGB for short, right?;), but also because when I read your posts, I feel like I'm transported back to Augsburg and our occasional hallway chats. :) Blessings to you, Anna, and keep up the good work!

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    1. Alison, ah, yes, the TGB that did not mean what some people thought it meant... :-) Thanks so much for the kind words.

      Yes, it is a vexing question. A lot of great art has come from times of turmoil and social change, which could be in our favor. Yet I don't think that people create good art when they are on the defensive, and that might NOT be in our favor right now. I am eager to read your article!

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  2. This really got under my skin when you first posted it, and I decided to sit on it for a while, but it's still bothering me:

    I think it would be better to speak positively about your own experience in your subset of Lutheranism and leave out the language that implies that Christians from other traditions don't have similar benefits or experiences.

    I also can't think much of the drift from "Christian thinker" and "Christian artist" to "Lutheran literature" and "Lutheran perspective", as though the terms were interchangeable.

    It's not that I think that denominational differences are irrelevant, and I don't mean to downplay the effects they have on our daily lives, how we think about our calling as Christians, how we engage with the world around us, and so on; but those differences aren't larger than the essentials that unify us, and the topics you're discussing here have much more to do with the essentials than with the differences. (Look at your last three bullet points, for example.)

    It's hard not to interpret "uniquely fitted", with its special-snowflake connotations, as presumptuous and as emphasizing Lutheran distinctiveness at the expense of Christian unity; which hurts even more because everything else you say is great and I would like to address it also to Presbyterians, Catholics, Anglicans, ... (you get the idea).

    Do you think I'm being overly sensitive?

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    1. Dieter,

      Thanks for bringing up these points. Part of the reason I talked about Lutherans as I did was because, on this site (as opposed to my personal blog) the target audience is Lutheran, and I want to encourage the target audience to take action (just as if I had said, "Ladies, we can do this," I would be addressing our mostly-female readership, not trying to say anything against men).

      However, I should have commented on the cultural heritage and literary contributions of the other historic church bodies. Certainly Presbyterians, Catholics, and Anglicans have strong histories of contributing to the arts; and they too share some of the "advantages" that I discussed. I would quibble here and say that Confessional Lutherans are more sensitive to moralism than any other group I know (sometimes they are even accused of avoiding talk about morality and sanctification at all for fear of leading others into works righteousness).

      As I wrote, I was thinking about the contrast between the Lutheran tradition and various American bodies (Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, etc.) that tend to view the arts with great suspicion and that also tend to steer clear of philosophy. My friends from such groups would be much less likely to write a novel in which Christianity is a subtle influence. They would be more comfortable with a straight-out Gospel message in an early chapter. This has some advantages, but I don't think it would help create art.

      I would certainly be eager to read a good book written by a Presbyterian!

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