The Sacred and Secular: A Brief Talk on Christianity and Art

PicMonkey Collage  Christianity and art is a combination that might be news to some. Many of you may say, “I see movies, I listen to music, I read books, I look at paintings, and I know people who produce these things and I don’t see a lot of believers.” I’d say you’d be justified in thinking such a thing. In my own work in television, film, and music I’ve seen on an endless scale just how Godless many creative people can be. Especially since the beginning of the 20th century, art has been secularized in such a way that some would argue an alien might examine modern western art and never conclude that we’re a religious society! But I would disagree that these works are Godless, even the works that came from people who were decidedly so.

Let me start from storytelling. Storytelling is a staple of humanity, without a doubt. Ever since the dawn of recorded history we’ve been telling stories of either mythical heroes who represent certain values like Achilles or non-fictional figures who inspire, like Israel’s King David. These stories teach us in a way that a list of facts simply don’t fully convey. For instance: Let’s say I told you “Hey Jim, law says you shouldn’t pee on that electric fence.” Now let’s say I told you: “Hey Jim, you really shouldn’t pee on that electric fence. My buddy Tim did that three years ago and he looked like a sign on the Vegas strip.” Which one do you think would be more effective in getting my point across in a way that satisfies you enough to not try this act? Obviously the second one has more sway. “Well, I don’t want to end up like “Viva Las Tim” over there. I guess I won’t pee on the fence then.”
What many don’t notice is that God Himself has used stories to make His points in this way for thousands of years. Madeleine L’Engle, an award winning author, once said that: “Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories.” And yes, he told parables that were fit for instruction for his followers. But he also gave us the stories of the men and women in the Old Testament. And how about the stories all around us that He set into motion? Our God is a God who loves stories. When you think about it, God’s main avenue of communication to us is through stories.

In fact, the very story of Jesus Christ is arguably, as the 1965 film said, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” We shouldn’t expect anything less of God Himself, the author of all Creation, right? A story that satisfies the longing for the story we have wanted all along. C.S. Lewis, an author and a thinker who needs no introduction here, was fascinated by the concept of the Gospel as the “true myth.” But what does myth mean? Isn’t a myth simply a lie? No, according to J.R.R. Tolkien (a contemporary of Lewis and for several years best friend), all myth contain truth. Truth through darkened minds that don’t fully know the truth, but it contains these elements despite. C.S. Lewis, when he was an atheist who enjoyed studying ancient myth, especially found myths about the conquering of death to be the greatest. When he came to believe in God and was looking into Christianity, Tolkien emphasized to Lewis that the story of Christ was God authoring a true myth. Instead of fragmented truth coming from darkened minds, this was a fully true myth from God Himself. The Gospels writers didn’t write their stories as myth, they were historically scrupulous reporters of real events. But it was God Himself who crafted the story. Who made the greatest myth come alive. The very word “Gospel” comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “Good story.”

And so God is the greatest storyteller because He made our greatest dream, or myth, come entirely true. Now let’s look at truth. As Christians, we believe that truth is objective, not subjective. This means that truth is true regardless of our opinions or feelings on it. As we set out previously, we think that great stories contain at least elements of truth in them that make them so palpable. We respond well to truth, and when something is false we have no personal investment in it. For instance, when you listen to a song that perfectly describes something you might think to yourself: “That’s so true!” There’s not as many lies in storytelling as we might think. Even most of the ones that don’t ultimately affirm what we believe to be true at least do so sincerely. Or some of them only understand a fragment of the truth. One of my all-time favorite films is The Godfather Part II. While that film may show a world that only nominally acknowledges God, it shows how a good man can be irreparably corrupted by temptation. This element of the film is entirely true.

Now since truth, according to our belief lies solely in God Himself, anything, including all secular works of art, that contain truth are going to end up affirming what God has revealed to us in His Word. Madeleine L’Engle, who greatly influenced this talk, said in her work Walking on Water: I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.” This quote highlights the point being made, which is that since truth and Christianity are one in the same, that truthful art must contain elements of Christianity. Everything from Disney films to the Coen Brothers have empirical truth, and therefore have Christian thought, whether they realize it or not.

I’d like to add a note to this by talking about the effect of “Christian” art that isn’t truthful to secular art that is truthful. Let’s look at two films specifically. Facing the Giants, and The Exorcist. Since it’s close to Halloween I thought we’d have to examine a great horror film somewhere. Now what we have here are two films with essentially the same message that have very, very different ways of going about delivering it. The theme that is common between the two films concerns faith in the midst of doubt, or challenging situations. Both films feature a character who is struggling with their faith, and are able to reclaim it in the face of adversity. Both films also presuppose a worldview that says there is a supernatural world beyond our own.  But one film is critically acclaimed and considered one of the greatest films ever made, and one was a critical flop that became a quiet success among the converted. What was the difference then in these films that was so stark. I would say three main things:
1. The production quality of The Exorcist far exceeded that of Facing the Giants
2. The quality in all aspects of artistry was more intelligently done in The Exorcist
3. Despite being a film that affirms Christian truth, The Exorcist spoke to secular viewers.

There’s no need to spend much time on the first one, since that’s a bit obvious. But let’s look at the other two points. In all aspects of artistry, The Exorcist excelled where Facing the Giants didn’t. This is referring to the excellence and creative talent of the people behind the art. Clearly, there’s a vast gulf of difference in the artistry behind The Exorcist. The shots, the lighting, the special effects, the quality of the writing and acting. These are things that are pretty obvious elements that make up a superb film, but many Christian filmmakers seem to forget how important this element is and instead try to make up for their lack of talent with the conspicuous intentions of the film. And I must mention the budget means nothing to the creative elements of the film. We’ve seen time and again that there is a market for original films with no budget, such as The Blair Witch Project, Breathless, or Aronofsky’s Pi.

The real problem here is the philosophy of art and the level of truth between the two films. For the secular viewer, and indeed for many a Christian viewer, the story of Facing the Giants is contrived and not especially truthful. Will God make your football team reign supreme if you pray hard enough, or will God allow you to conceive a child once you stop doubting? These things are all certainly possible in our view, but not necessarily our general experience, and it arguably teaches a “God is your personal genie if you believe hard enough” theology that is erroneous. On the other hand, The Exorcist contained multiple elements that came off as true to its viewers. What we see that is entirely different is its use of the grotesque and horrifying which is grounded in reality. Unlike horror films about werewolves and vampires, The Exorcist portrayed a truly terrifying supernatural creature that exists in our real world.

flannery-oconnorThis can easily be tied into the philosophy of one of the greatest Christian writers to ever live, Flannery O’Connor. Her philosophy of Christian art was vast and deep, but one of her greatest thoughts was concerning how to reach the complacent secular person. She summed it up nicely: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Flannery certainly would have loved The Exorcist, since it it certainly contains a fair amount of startling figures. Characters in O’Connor’s fiction were downright blasphemous, wicked people. Quite similar at times to the little girl Regan’s foul-mouthed violent possessed persona in The Exorcist. But the point of this, as O’Connor made clear, is to make the unbeliever see these wicked things the way we as Christians see them! The unbeliever is so steeped in the immorality of their worldview that they become desensitized to its evil nature. It’s movies like The Exorcist that allow the viewer to step inside the Christian worldview and see its truth, where movies like Facing the Giants are Joel Osteen style Genie-Jesus movies that only serve as a zoo where one can see the strange Christians. I’ve heard several stories of atheistic or agnostic people taking an interest in the supernatural and converting to Christianity after seeing The Exorcist (one from my church’s pastor!). Great art speaks deeply and truthfully. I do not single these films out for any particular reason. I could have made this point with dozens of other films.

And speaking of that, let me bring some practical application to this to wrap it up before questions. As Christians, our greatest task in this life is to bring others to Christ and to disciple other believers. This was set out by Christ in his great commision from Matthew 28. If we’re not here to bring others to Christ and strengthen those with Him, what purpose would we have? Nothing! The greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. If we’re going to love our neighbor as much as ourselves, we’ve got to want our neighbor to have a relationship with Jesus as much as we want it for ourselves. But alas, we find it difficult in this culture and as young people to talk with others about Christianity. The fact is we’re told to shut up about religion and politics, and most people therefore aren’t even trained to talk about it! But I’ll tell you what we are trained to to talk about. They even teach it in school. Your friends will argue over it between classes and on breaks at work. Art: Film, music, books, video games. People can and will talk about art. It’s an avenue we are entirely missing as an evangelical opportunity. But I’m not talking about simply handing out Gospel tracts that tie in things from Man of Steel to the Bible. I mean simply talking with your friends and acquaintances about some work of art that you’ve both experienced. Whether that’s Mad Max: Fury Road, or Harry Potter, or maybe a Justin Bieber interview. Art is perhaps the only subject in which the vast majority of the western population would be willing to talk about philosophy and their views on life on a grand scale. Don’t let this opportunity to exemplify the power of the greatest story ever told go to waste.

These are my notes for a talk I gave at Kennesaw State University October 28th, 2015.