Missing Things

31 March 2011

Defending the Arts

I wrote this essay some time ago after being invited to watch Come What May, a film from a private Christian production team, with my sister's NCFCA Apologetics group. Their main reason for this is that many of the actors, writers, and various other members of the production team are homeschoolers and NCFCA alumni; my main reason was, frankly, free pizza. I've cut out the bits which deal directly with that film itself, since it obviously has not won fame and renown and so I should not need to caution anyone against seeing it; what remains are some of my thoughts on contemporary Christian art in general.

To begin with, "contemporary Christian art" is notoriously poor. This is more than a simple application of Sturgeon's Revelation ("90% of everything is crap"); music groups - the most common example - as well as game producers and such are considered extremely derivative, mostly due to the popular practice of marketing their work as "the Christian version of [insert secular example here]". In the arts that encompass works of fiction, including film, literature, and the very late, 'bout time you showed up forays into the realm of comics and graphic novels that have more recently come to attention, such plagiarism is frowned upon; but there are other commonalities that I think tend to diminish these works and continue to reflect poorly on their fellows.
(1) Moral conflict is oversimplified and waved at the reader with Aesopian fury.
(2) Every protagonist either begins as a Christian or converts by the end of the story (generally, to the denomination espoused by the author). Every villain is actively opposed to the same to at least some degree (because everyone who isn't a Christian themselves is a godslaying sociopath, of course).
(3) The plot itself favors the heroes, leaving the villains in a position in which they themselves would be obviously better off abandoning their villainy, begging the question of what their motives were to begin with. (There is also a corollary, in that the hero - the person whom the audience is meant to support - is always the protagonist - the person through whom the audience experiences the story. There is a common root here, in which the author feels that the audience must give all of their sympathy to the hero without allowing any to the villain, which would happen naturally if the villain was allowed to provide a point of view.)

Though they are thankfully anything but universal, these seem to be widespread enough for commentary. (I would dearly love to know that I am wrong about this, so by all means, bring forth counterarguments and counterexamples!)

I can imagine two main defenses of this list - that these are hardly unique to Christian fiction, and more significantly, that these are necessary elements of any story that claims to have a basis in Christianity. My response to the first is that, beyond being a mere tu quoque, the stories that succumb to these patterns are usually propaganda, allegory, or children's stories, anything but great literature. "Secular" stories - a misnomer that deserves a post of its own - that possess these same characteristics but still win acclaim do so in spite of these properties, not because of them. These intentions have a place - in basic education and in parables, for physical and spiritual children - but as Christians we have a calling to make art that is more than just a reflection of ourselves and our culture. As in any other work, we are to glorify God, which means striving for anything merely mediocre is unacceptable! "Imitators of God", "Imago Dei", "sub-creators" all speak to human creativity as a divine attribute of the Holy Spirit, and anyone called to create should likewise be ready to say of their work that it is good.

This, of course, is what makes the second argument so potent.
Mustn't any work calling itself Christian art either uphold or permit Christian ethics or worldview, in the plot, the world, the story created?? Mustn't we do our best to affirm and communicate whatever is true, good, noble? Doesn't this place utmost importance on (1) absolute distinctions between good and evil, (2) clear lines between right and wrong, and (3) heroes like Christ and villains like Satan?

Yes! Yes! and NO, NO, NOOOOO!

Fiction fits in an awkward space between that which we hold to be true, and that which we believe to be false. It is unreal in that none of it ever has taken place, or (as you walk along the genre pier towards speculative fictions and fantasies) ever could have taken place; but it is nevertheless true in that the best fiction is internally sound, containing people who act and think like people, concepts and ideas that are comprehensible, events that cause and effect one another as events we experience actually do. The author writes his story with both absolute knowledge and power over its events, godlike in omniscience and omnipotence, but the reader is not, nor ought to be, nor can be placed, in the same position. (I imagine this is part of the reason why the first-person and third-person omniscient are considered so difficult to write well.) The reader is brought into the story through one or more of the characters and knows only what the author tells him. The author has privileged him to enter his world almost as a created being, more a ghost than an incarnation, to leave only when he decides this world is not to his liking (either because it does not contain things that interest him, or because it was crudely assembled) or when the author brings his visit to a close.
This means that to be an effective story, the reader must perceive it in the same way as he perceives the world. I affirm that good and evil both exist, while cautioning that if distinguishing between them were easy, or good was always rewarded, no one would ever choose evil. I affirm that reality is impervious to personal preference and that true and false are mutually incompatible, while knowing that only God has absolute certainty about which is which. I affirm that on at least one key point of conflict a hero must be good and a villain must be evil, while begging you to remember both that pure good and sheer evil do not exist in the created world and any work in which these are invoked is an allegory by default!

Finally, I would like to point out once again that universally-lauded literature, Christian or non, does avoid those three tendencies. Consider The Brothers Karamazov, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, To Kill a Mockingbird, any others that may come to mind. Good literature can sometimes violate these rules within certain limits, such as being directed at a particular audience. True classics, however, do not.

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