“Christian” Art: Seeking After A Better Way

What if Christian art merely told the Truth?
The Way - Emilio Estevez
Martin Sheen in The Way

I always find Kenneth R. Morefield’s film reviews to be thought-provoking and interesting — and right now, they also make me a little jealous. You see, Morefield has been attending the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, and he’s recently posted a review of a film that I’m very interesting in seeing.

The Way — written and directed by Emilio Estevez (yes, that Emilio Estevez) and starring Martin Sheen — is the story of a man coming to terms with the death of his son, who died while doing The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. In his review, Morefield describes the film as an incredibly true and realistic treatment of grief and mourning and gives especially high marks to Sheen’s performance as the grieving father. He even goes so far as to call it one of his favorite films of 2010 so far.

Suffice to say the movie is now on my “to watch” list, though I suspect that I’ll have to wait for an eventual DVD/Blu-ray release. But what I want to focus on right now is a point that Morefield brings up in the latter portion of his review:

In circles in which I sometimes converse, there have been, for as long as I can remember, discussions about Christians in the arts, about how to get more films that are faith friendly and about the corrosive moral effects of “Hollywood” or the “Hollywood culture.” Every now and then, though, I’ll run across a song like Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” or a film like The Way, that not only puts “Christian” films to shame but that makes me exasperated at the whole notion of “Christian” as an identity politics genre. If you want more great Christian art, go find great artists and support them in their desire to speak, write, and represent the truth. Hollywood is made up of people — many of whom, it turns out, are more complex, interesting, and thoughtful than we might guess based on nothing more than a quick glimpse of their IMDB filmography.

We Christians are awfully good at defining ourselves by what we’re against, especially when it comes aspects of the culture such as movies. We’re against filthy and obscene language. We’re against sex and nudity. We’re against violence (though, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not nearly as consistent with this one as we are the first two). We’re against humanism, materialism, secularism, and a whole host of other “isms.”

These stances may be rooted in noble ideals and goals. However, the end result of this negative way of thinking about and approaching culture is all too often a “circle the wagons” mindset marked by paranoia and fear of “moral contamination” rather than by confidence, conscience, and grace (not to mention the Fruits of the Spirit).

So here’s a question for you: what if we as Christians didn’t let ourselves become so easily marked by what we’re against — by what we fear and hate in the culture — but rather, by what we’re for — by that which we celebrate, affirm, and rightfully enjoy? That is, life, truth, peace, grace, love — all of which see their ultimate expression in the Gospel of Christ, and which are certainly present in the works of those who are not Christian, and may very well be hostile to the faith.

Marilynne Robinson touched on this in a recent Christianity Today interview:

Christians acting like Christians would be the most effective possible evidence for the truth of what they profess. And here I am referring to the Sermon on the Mount, to Matthew 25 — those hard teachings that run so strongly against the impulses toward judgmentalism and exclusivism that assert themselves whenever any group decides to feel threatened. If Christians believe what they claim to believe, that the church is the body of Christ, how can they think any “culture wars” are necessary to its survival? Its wars, past and present, are the most telling charge brought against it. And Christians should care for what is true in every sense of the word true.

Robinson was referring to Christians’ reaction to science writers such as Richard Dawkins, but her words are just as applicable when talking about Christians’ reactions to Hollywood and other aspects of the culture at large.

But here’s the rub, something that throws a curveball at the idea that such art will or must always be of a positive, upbeat, whitewashed variety: sometimes celebrating life, truth, etc. entails venturing through dark and difficult territory that can and should make us uncomfortable. After all, we find at the center of the Gospel of Christ the horrific torture and death of Christ himself.

What if “Christian” art — or, if you prefer, art created by Christians — wasn’t concerned primarily with being identified as “Christian” art, and therefore toeing the party line that such a term necessarily implies, but rather, with simply telling the Truth — e.g., the Truth about our humanity in all of its horror and glory, in all of its fallenness and splendor, in all of its contamination and redemption?

If Christians want to send Hollywood and our other supposed cultural “foes” a message — assuming that’s what Christians ought to be doing in the first place — might that not be a more effective method than our our usual tactics of protesting, boycotting, and fear?

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .