Columbus's voyage was a hinge in time. It swung open a door barely ajar, and for the next hundred years after 1493, no significant cathedral, unless previously planned, was begun. The effect of America's discovery on the European imagination was as though God had been hiding a piece of land bigger than the known world since the dawn of creation. The great lesson of this turnaround is that when any relationship system is imaginatively gridlocked, it cannot get free simply through more thinking about the problem. Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first. (Edwin Friedman)
|“Wait? I didn’t know you were like a good artist. When you told me you were a Christian, |
I thought you just painted pictures of Jesus holding sheep and stuff.
Why is Christian art so kitsch? Whether it's music, or film, or literature, much of what counts for Christian creativity is derivative, saccharine, or propagandist. Much of it is just plain awful.
This hasn't always been the case, and certainly, there are creative Christian artists today, but by and large, ever since Christian became a genre rather than an inspiration, we have witnessed a decline in true creativity from a Christian perspective, so much so that we might say it is the secular that now lays claim to true creativity.
It is the role of faith to be art.
Anyone attending to Christianity and creativity has known for quite some time that Christianity has lost its creative edge. Walk through any art museum and you can witness the turn. True artists remain committed to the beautiful, but increasingly this becomes disconnected from the faith.
Now, I am not lamenting the creation of great secular art. The majority of art today that truly inspires me arises from the secular milieu, and I'm just fine with that. Nor am I saying that the secular doesn't also produce loads and loads of kitsch. Of course it does.
What I am saying is that the secular produces particularly fine art, genius art, at rates that far exceed anything coming out of what used to be the dominant religious tradition of the West, and this puzzles and to a certain degree concerns me. I am especially curious why my own tradition, my own denomination, so infrequently inspires and funds great artistic creation.
Certain things happen in the world that so jar the imagination that nothing remains the same. Edwin Friedman claims that one such event in Western civilization was Columbus's voyage. Cathedrals, the premier artistic creation of the medieval era, waned. Instead, creativity was directed elsewhere.
I think the same could be said for Christian art more generally, but the cause of that shift was not a new discovery, but rather the rise of modernity. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age argues that the emergence of the secular is not actually a decline in religiosity, but rather the multiplication of options, so that the conditions for the existence either of religious or secular worldviews have shifted, and both secular and religious options are available.
I think Christian art has declined ever since. Although there was an initial flowering of Christian art after Columbus's voyage (Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rabelais, El Greco, to name a few), the High Renaissance was the beginning of the end in some ways for what we might call distinctively Christian art.
I think today of the art that is truly inspiring. I think of the levels of meaning, the grandeur of creation, that so captivate us. A couple of examples. Jessica Jones, which is simply one installment in the Marvel comic universe, explores the human experience of PTSD and rape culture so that viewers have increased empathy and love for suffering humanity. The Expanse, about the human settlement of this solar system, puts on the screen the real science of space exploration. It is nothing short of operatic in its scope and execution. Or the multi-valence and profundity of Fargo.
And all of that is just television. The mostly secular creatives engaged in developing these shows are reflecting back to us what it means to be human, what counts as the beautiful, in ways Christian communities aren't. It's no wonder, then, that increasing numbers of people find Christian faith and church community superfluous. If you can plum the depths of human beauty more frequently outside of the faith than in it, why bother?
Yet when I watch these shows, I often think to myself, I wish Christian theology could influence them a bit more, because they'd be all the richer for it. Last season's Daredevil, another Marvel creation on Netflix, the protagonist is a Catholic, and his agonized conversations with his priest are so very poignant, and might be even more rich if a creative theologian had the opportunity to connect actual penitential practice to the scenes.
Or the best movie of last year, Spotlight, which depicted the power and influence of investigative journalism, not to mention the importance of self-differentiated leadership in the face of sabotage, knew the human side of reporting very, very well, not to mention the human culture of cover-up, and the urban life of Boston.
But imagine if the church could make a movie like that about itself, from the inside. In the secular era, with a multiplicity of approaches to religiosity and secularity, we as much need a secular look at the church as we do a religious look at secular reporting.
Right before Christmas, those of us who follow advances in space science watched footage of Elon Musk landing a rocket. One friend wrote at that time:
I am so excited. Yesterday we made a tremendous advance in space flight and it went mostly unnoticed. We now have a proof-of-concept for technology that could reduce the cost of space flight to 10% or even less of what it costs today.
This is a critical step to becoming a multi-planetary species. I am anxiously awaiting the details of Elon Musk's Mars Colonial Transporter, the plans for which are due any day. In about a decade, we will be sending manned missions to Mars. A new epoch is upon us.
I am guessing whenever we do start sending missions to Mars, there will be another shift in our cultural imagination comparable to the shift that occurred after Columbus. In the meantime, I wonder what kind of shift might shock us out of our complacency in the present moment, or if anything can.
Patronizing the Fellowship
There are hints here and there of immense creativity from Christians. Of course, there's the continuing influence of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose creative works still can teach us much about Christian creativity that isn't "about" Christianity but rather embodies it. We need more of this.
Today, when I think of Christian creativity I'd like to emulate, top of the list is the Myst video game, which was created by two Christian designers, but is really a beautiful open-world immersive puzzler. Or, although not Christian, certainly more theologically rich than almost any other artistic creation of the 21st century, Bioshock.
If we are going to have more of this, we need publishing houses and patrons who "get" that creative Christianity is not creative because it is "about" the church, or faith, or Christianity, but because it embodies it. Most everything else tends towards dogmatic portrayals of what the artist thinks Christianity should be, and any propaganda of this sort is always only beautiful by accident (just think of art from the Soviet era, for example).
I think we need more leaders in the Christian arts who get that creatives need a community, and they need patronage. One of my favorite thought-leaders on this is Amanda Palmer. No, she's not a Christian. I think she is solidly in the secular camp. But her process and forms of creativity can inspire us, I believe, and she is totally the leader on crowd-sourcing and funding. She recently helped launch Patreon, which is a web-based platform for funding creatives.
I am not yet sure what our Columbus will be, or if there will be one. I'd like to imagine it will be this simple news, that table-top board games raised more money on Kickstarter last year than video games. Maybe progressive Christians will leap into game design. I don't know.
Or maybe it will be the real freedom Christians now have precisely because they are no longer the majority in most of the Western world. Perhaps the shift that needs to happen is to stop thinking of Christian faith as that which colonizes the arts, but rather joins and enhances it.
No matter how we look at this, the point remains. Christians want to help one another and the world be more deeply and creatively human. We have a lot to learn from creative seculars about how to have Christian faith do this, rather than its opposite.
"The Church needs to get back into the work of the Beautiful. It needs to get back into the work of subsidizing and training and mentoring artists and guilds. It needs to feed people who can sing and write music, and commission their works. In a previous day, we would have commissioned statues and paintings. Today’s Church should commission novels and movies and screenplays."