art

Francis A. Schaeffer on Christians and Art

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 storytelling. 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.” Growing up, 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, horrible 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 disguised as priests and holy men. After researching some more about Cole’s personal life, I could only sympathize with him on his point.

TBB - Moonface Martin

I know what you’re thinking…pics or it didn’t happen…so here ya go.

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.

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This image shows a crowd of people in a movie theater watching a movie.

I’m Tired of Bashing Christian Movies

I like bashing Christians movies. It makes me feel like I’m actually doing something good when tell others what I honestly think about them, with no grace in my heart at all. I want to “save” people from having a bad experience like I did, so I do whatever I can to win others from seeing such films.

It started back in the late winter of 2014 with the release of the cut-copied-and-pasted-from-the-History-Channel Son of God. Then the Spring of 2014 with the release of the landmark God’s Not Dead. Later in that very same Spring saw the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah as well as Heaven Is For Real (although some would argue that the former of those two is not a Christian film…an arguable sentiment, but valid).

After a summer of phenomenal blockbusters came the gem that is known as Believe Me (which you need to see right now if you haven’t already). The Year of the Christian Film at last closed out with Ridley Scott’s so-so interpretation of the Exodus account entitled Exodus: Gods and Kings.

2015 looked promising with the release of Old Fashioned,  but that hope quickly fizzled out with Do You Believe?Since another summer full of high-octane action and adventure has come to a close, War Room has come out, and I tried showing a little grace in withholding what I really thought about it and sharing only the positive side.

But after hearing that God’s Not Dead 2 is now in the works and is slated for release in Spring 2016, I am preparing for another opportunity to bash it and rip it to shreds. Because I know what’s going to be. It’s going to be the same old plot line of someone who believes in God coming face to face with someone who doesn’t.

It’ll be the same old storytellers telling the same old story of “perseverance in trials” and “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” and the protagonist will come out on top after having defeated the angry atheist.

Then the epilogue will be at the same old concert, and the same old celebrity cameo will urge the audience of the concert (and, by the transitive property, the audience of the film, too) to text their friends that “God’s not dead” (except this time, they’ll have to do it twice…because it’s a sequel…eh? eh?).

Gather ’round, kids; Uncle Brenden’s gonna learn ya something about Art:

  • Art is one part Content and one part Form.
  • The Content is the Message that the Artist is trying to communicate to an Audience.
  • The Form is the Medium by which that Content is delivered to that Audience.

My discontent with Christian films, then, is not with their Content but with their Form. Because I can and most often do agree with the Message of such films – that is, I agree with the Content – but that Message is unfortunately tainted by the Medium by which it is communicated to the Audience.

That Form could be a weak character development – like a one-sided college professor – or a cliché plot narrative – like making all the main characters of a film come together in only one, too brief moment; whatever the case, I find it unsettling and a waste of my time.

But I need to face the reality that some other people actually like these films. Some other people are actually encouraged by the Message of these films no matter how diluted by the Medium they may or may not be. Some people can actually look past the Forms of this Art and see and understand the Content for what it really is.

That this outlook on films is so indicative of how I should be as a Christian astounds me. If I can’t support a film or any other piece of Art because I only focused on the outward Form as opposed to considering the inward Content, what does that say about how I deal with people? That I’m too alienated by the Form of a fellow brother or sister to even be bothered with considering their inward Content? That’s definitely not how I want God to judge me.

Next Spring, I’ll the opportunity to bash another same old Christian movie; or, next Spring, I’ll have the opportunity to exhibit a little grace in expressing my subjective opinions and withholding my condemnations, find something good in that film (even if I have to dig and stretch), and be a little more like Christ when it comes to engaging the culture.