From my Theatre Research and Aesthetics class at Regent University, I’ve obtained a compilation called The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. The assigned portions of the text were made free for the class, but I found what little bit we had to read all so compelling that I had to buy the book for myself.
I’ve yet to read anything else besides the assigned readings, but it has essays from J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and so many others that have incorporated their Christian worldview into the storyteller. These writers let their worldview guide their artistry, and their work is acclaimed by those within and without the faith (well, except maybe that Jesus lion Lewis incessantly droned on about).
One author I want to focus on now is Francis A. Schaeffer. He was a prominent evangelical apologist in the last three decades of the 20th Century, and he had a lot to say about the Christian worldview and its confrontation with art. At times, he may seem legalistic and uber-authoritative, but he makes several fine points – one of which being this thought on regarding the “technical excellence” of an artwork as a criterion for discerning its greatness:
By recognizing technical excellence as an aspect of an artwork, we are often able to say that while we do not agree with such and such an artist’s world view, he is nonetheless a great artist. We are n ot being true to the artist as a man if we consider is artwork junk simply because we differ with his outlook on life.
The older me would not have seen the social and even spiritual grace reflected in these words. “If the artist isn’t a Christian,” I would often think, “then they can’t possibly make anything good.” And “if they are a Christian,” conversely, “then whatever they make will be good.” I’ve since learned that an artist’s worldview neither determines the “greatness” of his work nor his talent and genius.
Growing up, however, that was the way I learned how to think. It’s how many of those in my circle and many more of those who share the Christian faith with have been raised and reared to think. Schaeffer addresses this phenomenon:
Christian schools, Christian parents, and Christian pastors often have turned off young people at just this point. Because [they] did not make a distinction between technical excellence and content, the whole of much great art has been rejected with scorn and ridicule.
I don’t bring it up to shame anybody. In fact, I’m sure that whatever choices were made in my own upbringing regarding cultural engagement were made in my best interest. We all know of those movies we weren’t supposed to watch for Reason A and those songs we weren’t supposed to listen to for Reason B. It’s a fine line, though, between rightfully “guarding our hearts” and shutting ourselves off from the world we’re called to rescue.
I’m not saying everyone should go watch anything that would sear their conscience, but you can’t tell me that The Shawshank Redemption – in all its beautiful, grotesque depictions of reality – isn’t a story teeming with the Gospel.
Schaeffer concludes his point on technical excellence thusly:
Instead, if the artist’s technical excellence is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ with his world view. Man must be treated fairly as man. Technical excellence is, therefore, an important criterion.
I may not have been exposed to vastly different worldviews in artform had it not been for my collegiate theatre experiences. For example, I played Moonface Martin in Motlow’s 2010 production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes! Moonface was a gangster on the run from the law, and his only way to evade the coppers was to disguise himself as a priest while aboard the S.S. American (the setting of the play).
While the role was fun to play (one of my favorites to date), I remembered being slightly deflated when I learned that that was how Cole Porter perceived the Christian faith and those who believed in it: clumsy thugs and criminals in disguise. After researching some more about Cole’s personal life, I could only sympathize with him on his point.
The difference in worldviews didn’t stop me and the rest of the cast from enjoying our time together in the show, nor did it stop the audience from enjoying themselves as they watched it.
All that to say that one doesn’t have to be a Christian to make good art, and not everything that a Christian artist makes will be good art.