The Atrophy of the Evangelical Imagination

Last month Christ and Pop Culture ran an article by Jordan Monson entitled “Do Christians Have Poor Cultural Taste?” Monson begins by recounting a trip with Christian friends to see a movie and the subsequent conversation about it. He writes that while he was transfixed by the film and moved to reflect about Christ and “the full range of human emotion,” his friends had much different opinions.

One of my friends thought it was too long for a movie not starring transforming robots. Another thought it was a poor film because the characters made decisions that we as Christians disagree with. He asserted it was wrong to enjoy the movie or learn from it because of these differences.

I was dumbfounded. Yet, I have since met quite a few Christians with this perspective. They believe a novel or film to be bad because the story does not fully align with their own moral, spiritual, or political presumptions. Their critique has nothing to do with the quality of the story, but with themselves.

I can empathize greatly with Monson. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain the qualities of a film or justify its mere existence to fellow Christians, in spite of its profanity or irreverent content. Conversely, I’ve many times played the role of wet blanket in a group that saw a PG-rated, ‘wholesome’ picture. Complaining about poor acting, wooden dialogue or amateur cinematography in a movie that’s “safe for the whole family” is usually a reliable way to keep evangelicals from asking you your opinion ever again.

Monson gives an interesting take as to why this is. Citing C.S. Lewis, he says that many Christians do not know how to receive art, they only know how to use it. Expressions of culture–whether through film, literature, television, or the fine arts–are typically seen as valuable only to the degree that they affirm Christian worldview or ethics. Those that don’t (which would be the vast majority) are labeled anathema.

To receive art, on the other hand, is to temporarily suspend judgment. We get ourselves out of the way and let the creator have the stage, possibly enlightening us or—God forbid—challenging us. Lewis’s thesis is that using art “merely facilitates, brightens, relieves, or palliates our life,” whereas receiving art adds to it.

I think Monson lands on something that is pretty obvious to anyone who has a passable knowledge of evangelical culture. Take as a case study the Harry Potter novels. Evangelicals in the US condemned the books for containing wizardy and witchcraft and accused J.K. Rowling of trying to recruit converts to paganism (despite her active membership in Anglicanism). On one level we can dismiss this as just another example of the know-nothing quality of so much American evangelicalism. But more significantly, I think this identifies the way the evangelicals relate to literature. Rather than seeing literature as narrative and entering the story, evangelicals tend to see all literature as prescription, either friendly to Christianity or counter to it. This is a failure of worldview, to be sure, but primarily it is a failure of imagination, a misunderstanding of what art and fiction really are.

If we accept this explanation, we have a coherent reason why Christians have difficulty not just experiencing art, but producing it. I was struck by this in reading Adam Bellow’s essay for National Review. Bellow comes at the topic a little more utilitarian than is desirable, and not everything he says about social conservatism and the arts applies to those working within a biblical worldview. Yet he confirms what many feel in an inarticulate way: Traditionalists have allowed their imaginative impulses to atrophy.

The evidence for this is pretty overwhelming. If you want to find traditional Christians on the big college campuses, your best bet is to head for the political science or business management departments. Where do you not want to go? Fine arts, English, film studies–those departments are and have been overwhelmingly secular and progressive. That’s not to say that Christians don’t exist in these areas, you’re just less likely to find them. To me, that bespeaks of a serious evangelical culture problem.

Evangelicalism’s atrophied imagination comes with meaningful consequences. For one thing, evangelicals and conservatives typically miss chances to support art that does inspire or exhibit some Christian reflection. To go back to the Harry Potter example: Christians who led campaigns against the book’s fictional witchcraft did not offer any word on Rowling’s glaringly redemptive themes. When Peter Jackson rolled out The Fellowship of the Ring and those evangelicals who had railed against Rowling ironically sang the praises of Tolkien, Christian intellectualism was made again to look silly and opportunistic.

When it comes to writing theology, philosophy, history or politics, evangelicals excel. When it comes to the arts and humanities, evangelicals tend to punt the ball leftward. This seems to be because evangelicalism has not yet decided what its attitude towards art is–or indeed, whether it should have one at all. We have still not given our answer to the question of “Christ and culture.” The remnants of fundamentalist separatism are shrinking, yet this doesn’t mean that we are any closer to a full-blooded theology of art.

The first step in repairing the atrophied evangelical imagination is clichéd but true: We have to admit we have a problem. As long as evangelicals focus exclusively on the didactic elements of Christian worldview, nothing will change. Evangelicals have to decide they desire to experience, produce and value art. This begins at the educational level and involves more meaningful evangelical writing on books, movies, music, fine art, theater, television, etc. The writers who want to speak on these topics should be given as much attention and Christian seriousness as those who write biblical theology or gender ethics.

Secondly, as Jordan Munson said, we have to get better taste. I’m not saying every Christian should be a book or film critic, or be able to talk about impressionism or the Tony Awards. But Christians need to know why Schindler’s List and The Road are excellent pieces of art. Hard truth: Some of this will require identifying bad art created by and for Christians. The upshot is that many of the films marketed most aggressively towards Christians are the least biblical in worldview. We have to be blunt about the fact that “Pan’s Labyrinth” understands the Gospel much better than “Evan Almighty.”

Lastly, evangelicals have to lower the stakes in the culture war. As long as evangelicals see expressions of culture merely as arrows in the Left’s quill, we won’t see the evangelical imagination recover. We need to wake up from the deception that just a few more blogs or a few more TV preachers and this generation’s moral tailspin will be averted. To see the beauty and good in art requires that we understand who we are as image-bearers and what that means to the human race. Producing good art, in other words, requires more acquaintance with the good than confrontation with the bad.

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10 comments

  1. tsaebxiii · August 15, 2014

    While not all literature is prescriptive teaching, literature and art absolutely do teach. Unfortunately, they do so in a way that is more subtle than prescriptive teaching. I say unfortunately, because one can end up being taught without realising that any teaching was taking place. The evangelical reaction to non-Christian art and literature is an overly cautious approach to avoid this form of learning. There is absolutely a great deal of teaching via media that Christians should not want to absorb; complete avoidance is one way to achieve this.

    The direction I think that evangelical Christianity must eventually move in is a more nuanced one, where the emphasis is placed not on avoiding media that teaches things contrary to the Christian worldview, but on identifying when such teaching is taking place. Of course, for me, the more I do that the harder I find it to enjoy non-Christian media; if you genuinely hate sin, and can’t stand seeing good called evil or evil called good, watching or reading things that subtley try to call good evil or evil good actually becomes rather painful to do. I don’t avoid non-Christian media because I think it’s forbidden for Chrisitans; I avoid it because it’s difficult to enjoy it. I started having this theological debate with myself while halfway through reading the ‘Game of Thrones’ series; soon after, I found that I just couldn’t read them any more. GoT consistently portrays ruthlessness as virtue; the few characters who actually attempt virtue are portrayed as nieve and usually die even sooner than average for a GoT character. As literature, I can appreciate it – the narrative certainly engaged me and the characters are interesting. If all I wanted to do was learn how to write well, I’d consider reading GoT specifically for that. However, it is no longer something that I can read for enjoyment. I think that, at the core, the complete evangelical aversion to non-Chrisitan media comes about because of an inability to distinguish between the different reasons for viewing or reading media.; throwing the baby out with the bathwater, essentially.

  2. Marcus · August 18, 2014

    What a great article, thank you very much. What I don’t understand in your reasoning though is, when you write, that Pans Labyrinth understands the gospel better then Evan Allmighty, you are measuring in the same way the story of a movie – this time: does it understand oder reflect the gospel? Seems to me like a contradition to your own reasoning, isn’t it?
    But thank you anyway, I was so longing for an article like that!

    God Bless from Germany,

    Marcus

    • samuelblogs88 · August 18, 2014

      Appreciate your thoughts, Marcus!

      I probably could have been clearer there. “Pan’s Laybrinth” is a film about a heroic sacrifice of life that (for me) images strongly the substituionary work of Jesus. by contrast both “Evan” and “Bruce Almighty” portray God as an enabler of works-righteousness who thinks human beings just need a pep talk to get it right. In that sense I would say Pan’s Labyrinth gets people thinking in a Gospel direction better than those movies.

      • Marcus · August 18, 2014

        A thank you! I don’t know Pans Labyrinth, but sounds like a good watch.
        As I had a lot of time today traveling, I was thinking about another question, that I was faced with over and over: where does our appreciation for good art stop and we have to turn away because of graphic or violent content? Serious question. As for axample, I don’t hesitate to call most of the renaissance art, which pictures naked women and men as good art, so I would encourage anyone to visit the Louvre in Paris. But I would not encourage anyone to watch 50 Shades for example. Though there has been critics (at least here in germany) that called the book a prophetic vioce into a new form of male/female relationship that leaves marriage behing.
        What would your thoughts be? I’d really like to hear.

      • samuelblogs88 · August 18, 2014

        That’s such a good question that it might demand a follow up post 😉

  3. Tiribulus · August 18, 2014

    I have after much long and thorough and prayerful and biblical consideration, come to the unavoidable conclusion that the view expressed in this article is bar none, the most successful weapon of Satan in the history of this planet. A deception and corresponding addiction so corrosive and crippling of moral character and yet so pervasive and widely embraced as to render all competition, including overt pornography, a distant 2nd at best.

    Absolutely NOTHING of the idolatrous worship of art and entertainment, nor the idea of learning God’s lessons from making oneself a consumer of the filth of the world can be found, even accidentally in the scriptures. There is precious little, especially visual art in the bible. And what of it there is, is never EVER used in anything even vaguely approaching what today’s church enthusiastically embraces. The idea of consuming the blasphemous immoral art and entertainment of the pagans is utterly foreign to God’s holy word.

    There will be much to pay for this pollution and corruption of the body of Christ, but especially of young people who are most vulnerable to this kind of moral corruption. The only atrophy going on in this regard is in the church’s moral conscience which has been on the rapid decline since the 1970’s. This is exactly what an apostasy should look like. Passionate lovers of the world and the things therein. Christ and Pop Culture is one of the headquarters.

    Have no fear. The more irrelevant and powerless the church becomes, the more your view will continue to grow. We’re told to expect that. To the praise of the flawless faithfulness of the spotlessly pure and holy God and His Christ, He will always have His remnant. That 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal.

    We have Rookmaaker and Schaeffer largely to thank for this. Though even they would be aghast at where their unbbilical views of art have led the church.

    • samuelblogs88 · August 18, 2014

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’d be curious to hear your reasons for thinking this. However I would ask that you reconsider the wisdom of launching serious accusations against the work of fellow believers. It’s one thing to disagree or even be concerned about groups like CAPC; it’s quite another to call them headquarters of Baal worship. Let’s elevate this worthy conversation

    • samuelblogs88 · August 18, 2014

      I’ve decided to block your second comment, seeing as how you did not heed my very reasonable request to refrain from slandering others. If you’d like to contact me directly please do so, but I won’t offer up this space as a platform for gracelessness. Blessings to you.

  4. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (8/18) | Everyday Theology
  5. Rick · September 4, 2014

    Interesting article. Frances Schaeffer did great work in this topic. Blazing a trail today I think of Max McLean and his powerful stage productions

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