Jul 8, 2014

Infiltrating the Arts: A Subtler Form of Apologetics (Part I of II)

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

Conflicts about ideas and beliefs tend to be messy. This is in part because, even if ideas themselves are logical, human allegiance to them is based on a chaos of feelings, assumptions, and preferences. Often we are not even aware of the presuppositions with which we approach an argument. Merely being right does not necessarily make a position convincing. When Christians try to engage in the interplay of ideas, we often find that our audience does not just disagree with us—instead, it actually cannot give us a fair hearing, and cannot truly understand what we say. This is observable in many different settings. Missionaries to unreached peoples cannot start with the story of Good Friday and Easter, but must first teach Genesis and the concepts of sin, God, and the soul. Missionary-citizens in the United States are also faced with a culture that is often a barrier to communication. Addressing these barriers is part of what we call apologetics.

Sometimes these barriers are based on misinformation and are best dealt with through a direct, factual approach. One individual might assume that philosophy has proven belief in God to be ridiculous. That individual may need to hear a coherent, intelligent philosophical defense of God’s existence—not because she can be “argued into” faith, but because the knowledge that faith and intelligence are not exclusive may remove an impediment to faith. Another individual might think that history proves the Bible to be riddled with errors. He may need to see the evidence that the Bible’s accuracy is actually supported by archaeological evidence. Yet another might assume that a scientific view of human evolution disproves the need for a creator and therefore the likelihood of a human soul, and could helpfully be asked how naturalistic evolution can possibly explain the origin of matter.

Evidence-based apologetics has done a great deal to strengthen the faith of believers and to defend religion in the public square. However, there is another sphere for apologetics that has been neglected: Christians have not been as active in addressing barriers of imagination and emotion. This is unfortunate, as our era is one in which the majority are more guided by feelings than by rationality or careful argumentation (after all, “follow your heart” is one of our most popular maxims). I would argue that the arts, broadly defined to include the storytelling of popular books and movies, are far more powerful than many of us realize in shaping how we feel and imagine and therefore what we believe. They accustom us to assuming that certain values or actions are normal. They fill our imaginations with admiration, disgust, or envy for certain types of people. They provide us with narratives through which to interpret life and people around us. Science may be able to provide us with facts, but the arts tell us how to feel about those facts, and how we feel makes all the difference in what we actually do. As we shall see, the popular narratives of today’s art often form barriers to hearing the Gospel.

Emotion and imagination are not to be argued into existence or reasoned away. How are they influenced? In general, whenever the prevailing cultural outlook of Western culture has changed during the last few centuries, a pattern has been visible: the philosophers and theologians acquire or adapt to a new idea (such as rationalism, romanticism, modernism, or postmodernism) first. They influence the highbrow artists, who explore those ideas further and transmit them through images and narratives. Eventually the lowbrow artists also pick up the ideas and make them so pervasive that the larger, popular culture ends up adopting them too. The ideas have been popularized by the time they reach the masses, and the intellectuals are already moving on, but the cycle continues. Of course, this is a simplification, but I think it is a useful one.

Stories are powerful. An intellectual statement, such as “Slavery is morally problematic,” was denied by surprisingly few people in antebellum America (even individuals like Robert E. Lee saw slavery as an evil). However, this acquiescence did not motivate the nation to overcome economic, cultural, and political barriers to freeing slaves. It took a novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with noble and abused slaves as protagonists, to involve America’s emotions and cause a massive shift in perception of slavery during the lead-up to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln is said to have told the book’s author, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” In a more negative example, literature of the early twentieth century helped pave the way for social acceptance of divorce and free love by portraying stultifying marriages and by romanticizing extramarital love. 

The thing about stories is that they shape the moral and emotional imagination. Being able to imagine oneself doing something makes it easier to do it (which is why basketball coaches tell their players to visualize making perfect baskets, and why nineteenth-century soldiers, raised on stories of heroism and courage on the battlefield, were willing to make suicidal charges). Another, strongly related aspect of these stories is that they shape people’s sense of normal. We humans are wired to acquire a sense of what is normal from our environment, and then to largely adapt to it. This plays out in many ways, of course. Children raised in abusive homes tend to think that abuse is normal. Students who go through the D.A.R.E. program against drugs and alcohol are actually more likely to end up using drugs or alcohol, likely because the program unwittingly communicates the idea that, “Teens often do drugs and alcohol.”  Rather than trying to prove that a behavior is morally acceptable, stories can portray it over and over until people perceive it to be normal and therefore stop wondering if it is wrong (there seems to be a tipping point at which a culture in general will stop treating something as immoral or unnatural, once it appears prevalent).

Storytellers have used this to change culture, and especially to erode a number of more traditional values. It has become practically a cliché to create situations in which the readers or the audience is manipulated into wanting the protagonist to do something that would be considered “bad” outside the context and unique situation of the story. We want a character to end the suffering of a sick person by killing her. We want the protagonist to murder a really nasty bad guy. We want the romantic couple to sleep together. If challenged, we justify these actions by saying that the characters had no choice; as if the author had not chosen to arrange that particular situation. In essence, authors have the power to create one of those artificial “values clarifications exercises,” such as, “If you are stranded in the desert with a dying man, and there is no hope that he will be rescued before he dies, do you put him out of his suffering or make him agonize for a longer period of time?” In reality, the situation is never that simple, because we humans are not God and do not know what God will or will not do in the next thirty seconds. Yet those who argue for moral relativism want us to see the situation in those simplistic terms (in fact, that is also how the devil would want us to see it). Once accustomed to feeling that something like euthanasia is right in a particular situation, it is easier to accept political arguments and sob stories in its favor.

Skillful storytellers have used their craft as a means of apologetics for outright secularism, as well. This is noticeable in tales like John Green’s acclaimed, 2012 Young Adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Green’s tale grippingly portrays courageous, honest teenagers who grapple with death and cancer. The clear-sightedness of imminent death leads them to reject trite religiosity. They seek what comfort they can in a brave kind of existentialism. Someone who is grounded in his own faith might learn about pagan courage from this book as from Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, but most young readers will be encouraged in the feeling that religion is nothing but sentimental self-deceit, and therefore is embarrassing.  The cumulative effect of such books can only be imagined.

Christian belief was once a driving force in art, architecture, music, and literature, but lately, we have done poorly in that arena. We have often failed to provide a vibrant representation of our faith in the arts or to combat the subtle attacks that make it hard for our neighbors to comprehend the Gospel. In part, this may be because we have been reluctant to make an emotional appeal in a world that is already too emotion driven. However, truly good art (whether Christian or not) need not manipulate emotion in order to present ideas in an influential way. In Part II of this article, we will look at ways in which we could (and should) engage with the arts as an expression of our faith and a means of Apologetics.

For a look at specific ideas about developing a presence in the arts, check back next Tuesday.

EDIT: After writing this, I discovered THIS interview with Dr. Gene Edward Veith about the Christian Imagination.

You can find Part II here.

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: "The Theater Box" by Pierre Auguste Renoir

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