“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…” – Stephen King
I’m not here to talk about religious paintings. Or maybe in a way, I kind of am.
Let me preface this by highlighting that there are a lot of people who, given the opportunity, would like to control the lives of others. It is not a character trait limited just to the stereotypical dictators throughout history. Many crave it, others are rightly wary of it; that feeling of some kind of authority over another person, though one may justify it with righteous thoughts related to “only looking out for your own good” because they care about you so much.
We fear to lose that which we love – and often try to protect against this fear by controlling the object of it. You can likely recall such occasions in the past when you were on the receiving end of this kind of thing and, depending on what kind of person you are, you would probably have reacted in one of three ways: by submitting, rebelling or simply not caring.
Within Christianity, as within any religion, indeed within any group or commonly held worldview, there can be found these individuals who were first attracted to it because some part of them enjoys the social organisation it gives – and the subsequent opportunity for control over others that it can offer. Indeed it is often an inherent desire to have some outside force controlling their own lives, with the perceived comfort and security that comes with it, which first makes one open and willing to accept any religious claims at all.
This, I think, is why many prominent Christians (rather like North Korea and other dictatorships throughout history) fear art specifically, though they may not openly admit or even be aware of it. Of course, art that tells them they’re right about everything is usually fine. But the problem is, most of it tends not to play by such rules – and if it does, certainly doesn’t rule out breaking them.
Anything that hints, however subtly, that they or any part of their worldview may be wrong, often ultimately represents the enemy. Precisely because it dares to suggest, and present differing ideas; introduces concepts or reinvents old ones; holds the capacity to help people think clearly about things that may have been previously clouded in their minds, and then decide for themselves.
If one is secure in their beliefs, which can of course (and unfortunately) include some of the most extreme forms of dogma, there is little chance their minds will be changed by alternative viewpoints, nor am I necessarily saying they should be so easily swayed – but what I am referring to is more those who cannot accept or understand alternative viewpoints at all, and become offended just because other people dare to think differently from them. From here, their desire for control over others may become more apparent, as they look to mould everything around them to fit their own point of view.
Art is, indeed, a battleground for the free-thinking mind. And as one of those people who enjoys seeing ignorance squirm, raising its voice when confronted by an idea it can’t yet comprehend; who sighs in exasperation at those who gleefully declare they’ve won an argument only because their worn-out adversary walks away from it, I see art as vital to our cultural progression in whatever form it takes.
I say our knowing that many Christians will use the ‘in the world, but not of the world’ excuse to get out of paying any real attention to what secular art might have to teach them. Most art is, after all, full of sin – that includes ALL of it, not just whatever isn’t to your taste. You may think the old Western ‘cowboys and indians’ stories, in which indigenous native Americans were portrayed as frightening animals ripe for slaughter by the heroic white men who invaded their land, were somehow less sinful than wild rampant sex scenes and excessive swearing?
No; the difference between the two (aside from obvious genre/ narrative conventions) is mainly that the latter is under no illusion about itself and isn’t afraid of being so blatant about it. In fact if I had to choose which I have usually found to be more artistically tasteful, there is little question for me: it would be the latter, though this kind of thing should of course be judged on a case by case basis.
If art’s intention is to do anything, regardless of whatever beliefs or worldview may lie behind the eyes of its artist, it is to reflect our perception of the world around us. It is, in its purest form, an interpretation of life. This can be its greatest strength – for that reason, I’d consider it inherently dishonest were it not full of this thing Christians call ‘sin’ in some sense (allowing, of course, for appropriate exceptions – though even within some of the most wholesome children’s stories there can be found dodgy themes lurking beneath light-hearted exteriors). Art reflects this earthly reality in different forms, whether for you to get offended over or mindlessly enjoy, and it’s not really for me to decide which of those categories you fall into when you consume it.
Yes, it is a minefield out there, but it’s a glorious one of self-discovery as you find out where your own strengths and weaknesses lie as it pertains to personal taste. That is something only YOU can discover, no matter how much others may try to force something down your throat, or say you’re a bad person simply because of an opinion that’s different from their own. Though many of us would admit; you can’t really have what you like without also having to deal at some point with what you don’t. Because art, like anything created, is based on and reflects the individual tastes of the artist who creates it – for as many who have the same taste as you, there will be many others who do not.
Apologists for art, one of which you may consider me to be after all this, are known for saying it should be provocative. I think it certainly should be, but the only thing provocation really means is to instigate an emotional reaction. Often this reaction is positive – laughter, love, empathy. But it can also be very offensive. In fact it is arguably when art is at its most offensive that we can actually learn much from what it’s trying to communicate. Offensive material stands out and catches our attention – you must give it that, if nothing else. Whether it does that simply for the sake of it (which it has every right to do, if one so wishes), or to make a greater point is, of course, a different kind of debate.
Recently I was fortunate enough to attend the UK premiere of an Irish film, Patrick’s Day, in which the director stood up beforehand and said something to the effect of “I hope you enjoy my f**king film… if not, Spongebob is showing in the next screen.” The comparison could not be more fitting – Spongebob, a light-hearted children’s movie not likely to cause any real offence, and Patrick’s Day, a film about a 26 year old schizophrenic man who’s spent his whole life under the care of his over-protective mother before falling in love with an older woman bearing secret suicidal tendencies. One of these films left its audience with much to consider about a subject they may have been ignorant of beforehand… the other, was nothing more than silly entertainment that I question is really worth anyone’s precious time or money. What kind of person you are will likely define which represents which for you.
This, I think, was precisely the director’s point. Those who did not enjoy Patrick’s Day, perhaps due to the uncomfortable way it made them feel, are likely the kind of people who prefer a light-hearted, easy going film such as Spongebob. Also, by freely swearing in an environment otherwise considered ‘polite’, he sent a message to the audience that if they were easily offended, they should probably brace themselves for more to come.
It told me: here was a filmmaker who was not afraid of making a film that would confront and openly challenge its viewers – and you know what? Considering its main theme was mental health, one of the few topics still broadly misunderstood and brushed under the carpet by many in today’s society, I was delighted by this man’s sheer audacity.
After all, mental illness is far from polite. It can be rude, obnoxious, hurtful and even dangerous. These are just some of the reasons many people are uncomfortable approaching the topic. Often, whichever side of the ‘carer/ cared for’ divide one falls on (Patrick’s Day portrayed both perspectives in an impressively honest and heartfelt way), these are things to which you must become accustomed. Mental illness is a killer of polite conversation if ever there was one.
I felt towards Patrick’s Day the same way I feel about films in general – that they are vital for helping us understand more about others and ourselves, useful for exploring certain subjects that are harder to tackle in everyday conversation, and can be a vehicle for communicating the perceived faults of others (or indeed, ourselves) without having to bluntly say it to one’s face.
So what does any of this have to do with Christianity? An interesting question; one you might pose as if ‘Christianity’ is somehow separate from everything I’ve been talking about thus far. As if it is some tangible thing one can grasp in their left hand, while films and other forms of art are grasped in their right – rather like the divide between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’.
But of course many circles in contemporary liberal Christianity would scoff at the thought of being considered ‘religious’. We don’t follow religion, they say, we follow Christ. And I certainly see the merit in that sentiment – no one is ever truly happy being compartmentalised by those who casually judge from the outside looking in – yet many of them risk becoming hypocrites. They readily categorise other aspects of everyday life into stereotypical boxes, while scorning the idea that their beliefs should be confined to the umbrella term of ‘religion’, without realising these tendencies are pretty much the same thing.
Films, for them, might become the immoral cause of rising violence and premarital sex because of the images they portray. Video games are senseless entertainment for teenage boys. Even religion itself, the thing they find so frustrating to be associated with, is seen as a caricature: some emotionless system of rules and misguided authority, those within it hopelessly deceived – when the truth is that every ‘religion’, while sharing certain similarities, has unique qualities that mean it’s probably just as big an injustice to broadly label them as such.
My point, though, is that in acknowledging the act of ‘following Christ’ as more than a simple religious act in the traditional sense, you would presumably be ready to accept that this equally broad term I’ve been using called ‘art’ is not so easily classified either. Furthermore, these two things are not actually so separate at all. There is no real divide, aside from that which people like to create themselves.
One might say Christ is sovereign; in that case, all of this falls under Him. You might well see him reflected in everything you watch, read, play, or any other activity you enjoy partaking in – even despite of everything else you see there that is considered ‘sinful’. You would only be following His example; when Christ looks at you, does he not see something worth loving despite the sinfulness of it?
Art can make you question what you believe, and why you believe it. In that sense, some think it dangerous. Why do you follow a religion or God? Why do you not? What do you support with your money? Who or what inspires you? These are the questions to which answers help contextualise one’s life, and I think they are personal answers everyone should know. Think about why you know those answers; what led you to them? Be prepared for new information that might make you think twice. This is the kind of thing art has taught me, though with all of it, as with everything else, I take a pinch of salt.
Storytelling through art, whether in the form of a painting, a piece of literature, film or however else you define it, has the capacity to communicate ideas, beliefs and/ or concepts better than simple words could. It can help us deal with things otherwise left unspoken, communicating them in creative and interesting ways. You may like the way some do it; others you might detest with a passion. And that’s all fine.
I myself can think of numerous examples when I have felt both ways about certain storytellers (and I use the term very loosely in some upcoming cases) who – in sticking with our theme – have presented their Christian beliefs through art. Thankfully, if the reception and wider impact of their work has shown anything, it is that good quality always rises to the top, regardless of the worldview held by its makers.
On one side, you have films like Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, which had a ‘resounding’ victory at the Golden Raspberry Awards earlier this year. This followed other overtly Christian films such as Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead from 2014, the latter of which was deservedly panned critically and came across as nothing more than a naive propaganda piece to the average discerning eye.
Kirk Cameron’s subsequent reaction to the negative reception that greeted his film – calling those who disliked it ‘haters’ and ‘atheists’ – showed that the man had no interest in whether or not his movie was actually any good by reasonable objective standards. Rather he wanted to see his own set of values promoted through any means necessary, with anyone who dared not like his style degraded for not agreeing with him.
This situation prompted some thoughts within myself at the time related to these questions: what should a good ‘Christian’ film, or any other Christian work of art for that matter, actually look like? Is a film like Saving Christmas, only liked by those who feel a strong sense of loyalty toward its clear intentions, the best you can hope for or expect as it pertains to conveying a specific Christian message? Is that message even necessary to put the Christian ‘spin’ on something? Are Christians going to learn at some point that to criticize something does not mean you’re working for the devil? Otherwise how would we feel free to judge the difference between good and bad quality at all within Christian art/ media, if to say something’s bad is only going to garner derision and accusations from your peers?
Well, those are questions to be thoughtfully considered and hopefully answered another time. On the other hand, there are many positive examples of Christian art that has found mainstream success. In fact one of the greatest fantasy tales of modern times, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, was bedded in Christian beliefs, from its characters to its mythology. Ironically though it is one many Christians would be wary of, for its elements of witchcraft, sorcery and of course the fact that it is ‘fantasy’ in the first place, therefore demanding a fair suspension of disbelief if one is to find their own meaning and enjoyment in the story. This accessible nature – not to mention Tolkien’s legendary attention to detail – was a large reason the tale found such mainstream success.
Of course I cannot talk about Tolkien without also mentioning one of my other favourite writers, C.S. Lewis, who felt Christianity was a means by which to see the world more clearly, rather than an excuse to remain ignorant of it. A filter, if you will, through which you can view not only the real world, but also fantasy and myth, which were particular interests of Lewis during his academic career alongside Tolkien at Oxford.
To Lewis, Christianity did not negate the importance of diverse storytelling; rather, it illuminated and enhanced the need for it. As the sun shines light on the physical world around us, so Christianity can shine light on our creativity and imagination in a way that helps us better contextualize and understand the things it produces. And likewise, how this creativity comes through in filmmaking, even if we should disagree on the finer details of how it is used in the end, is glorious. I daresay Lewis would have agreed, if he had shared the same passion for movies that he had for literature (the two are, after all, of the same extended family).
Writers like Lewis and Tolkien represented a more refreshing approach to Christianity in storytelling than the otherwise drab options available today. They both felt stories, fantasy in particular, and by extension the world around them as they understood it, didn’t have to be restricted or dictated by their beliefs, but rather set free by them. They took unique approaches, but Christian elements can be clearly seen in both of the respective classic stories these writers are most famous for.
Not that I’m saying we should just go backwards and copy what’s already been done in the past. For the pure sake of originality, I’d love to see new ideas emerge and different styles embraced. Some themes have been played out across all art over many centuries (I swear if I hear one more Hollywood trailer talk about someone being ‘the one’ to save us all in their perpetual regurgitation of cardboard cut-out Christ figures…) – to try something different would, in artistic terms, restore some respectability to how Christianity is viewed in the public eye.
So no, I’m not here to talk about religious paintings. In fact what I’ve written on this topic thus far probably comes across as a rambling selection of thoughts better suited to a book where they’d presumably be fleshed out in a more structured and detailed fashion. Perhaps I will do that. For now I’m happy just to leave it here, and hopefully, just maybe, it will have encouraged you, should you have taken the time to read through it, to come with your own considered conclusions.