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In Defense of The Chosen & Other Christian Movies, Books, & Media (Part 2)

Updated: Jun 1

In my last post, I began to deconstruct the narrative that cultured Christians tell about why Christian art is "bad." The narrative goes something like this: "Christian literature, art, and music was once great and beautiful, but now they have fallen; so-called Christian artists and writers and filmmakers are completely lacking in originality and are only interested in either money or teaching lessons; the Church needs to support Christian artist, musicians, etc. like it did in the old days." I began my response by highlighting two "myths" that I believe underlie this narrative about why contemporary Christian media is so bad. In responding to the first myth - the myth that we have fallen from a golden age of Christian creativity into a artistic dark age - I pointed out that it's difficult for us to compare our own artistic scene to the artistic scene of past ages due to our selective and telescoped vision of the past. In responding to the second myth - the myth that the main problem with Christian creatives today is a lack of originality - I pointed out that the importance of originality is overestimated and the lack of originality among creatives today is overstated. I would now like to move on to the remaining myths underlying the narrative of cultured Christian critics of popular Christian art.

Crit Fic & The Myth of Motives

It's very common for people to denounce the Christian media industry either either for being too focused on getting money or for being too focused on teaching a message. And while I can sympathize with the impulse that leads to such criticism - it usually does arise in response to real deficits in popular Christian music, films, books, etc. - the criticism itself is insubstantial.

In his essay "On Criticism" CS Lewis explains why attacking a work on the basis of its supposed history is so problematic:

You and I might condemn a passage in a book for being 'labored'. Do we mean by this that it sounds 'labored'.? Or are we advancing the theory that it was in fact 'labored'.? Or are we sometimes not quite sure which we mean? If we mean the second, notice that we are ceasing to write criticism. Instead of pointing out the faults in the passage we are inventing a story to explain, causally, how it came to have those faults. And if we are not careful we may complete our story and pass on as if we had done all that was necessary, without noticing that we have never even specified the faults at all. We explain something by causes without saying what the something is.

As Lewis explains, when a critic begins to invent a story to explain why a work is the way that it is, the critic is no longer engaging in actual artistic criticism; he is inventing a new story behind the story [I've found Dr. Corey Olson's (the Tolkien Professor) somewhat recently coined phrase "Crit-Fic" to be a helpful short hand for describing this type of critical fictional reconstruction]. Rather than focusing on unverifiable and vague theories about an author's motives or process, real artistic criticism should be focused on the nature of a work itself.

Unfortunately, cultured critics of popular Christian media often fall into Crit-Fic. Instead of explaining the nature of the defects in a Christian film or song, they construct a narrative to explain how they believe it came to be defective. In some cases, the narrative is about a greedy industry that's exploiting the naive market of Christian consumers. In other cases, the narrative is about how overly pious preachers are just using art as theological propaganda. Regardless, the critic rarely takes the time to pinpoint the actual defects in the works that they are supposedly critiquing.

At this point, it's worth observing that the motivation behind a work - whether that motivation is profit or proselytizing - is not a sufficient explanation for why the work failed. Disney is certainly interested in profit, but that hasn't prevented it from making a huge catalogue of imaginative films and properties. Likewise, Bunyan was clearly more interested in teaching a message than he was in creating art for art's sake - but that hasn't prevented Pilgrim's Progress from capturing the imagination of many readers across the globe for several centuries. An excessive interest in profit is sometimes correlated with cutting corners or empty spectacle and an excessive interest in teaching is sometimes correlated with telling not showing, unnatural characterization, or simplistic conflict, but these correlations are not perfect. Creators can fall into the these traps for a variety of reasons; likewise, it's also possible for creators to transcend their own motivations and avoid them.

Of course, I don't doubt that there are self-interested profiteers in the Christian media industry. I don't doubt that there are many creators of Christian media that are more interested in spreading a message than they are in craft or imagination. And I also don't doubt that there are real defects in many Christian movies, songs, books, and other forms of media that result from profiteers and would-be prophets. But what does one actually achieve by pointing out such banal truths in the context of criticizing an adaptation? If a critic wants to encourage better writing, art, filmmaking, etc., his task is to highlight the nature of the defects in "bad art" so that future artists can avoid them and improve their craft and so audiences can have their tastes sharpened.

Historical Context & The Myth of the Modern Christian Philistine

It's obvious that the Christian church used to spend a lot more on the arts than it does today. It takes only a passing knowledge of the history of church history - or a walk through the streets of any historic European city - to recognize that the historic church invested much more heavily in aesthetics and beauty than the typical church of today. Having come to this indisputable conclusion, however, critics will go a step farther and shame the modern church for failing to live up to the legacy of the past - as if this change is primarily a result of churches being full of stingy philistines. Those who buy into the myth that we've fallen from a Golden Age of the Arts will often blame this fall on the modern church's more limited role as a patron of the arts. Thus they will suggest that what the church today needs to do is turn back the clock and support the arts like the church once did.

The problem with this suggestion is that it fails to account for the substantially different situation that churches today (especially American churches) are in compared to churches in pre-Modern Europe:

  • A Cultural and Charitable Monopoly: Church-going and tithing today are totally voluntary and they have to compete against a host of secular options for cultural participation and charitable giving,. Think about how different this context is compared to a time when there was only one church (and few, if any, legal religious options outside of the church), participation in the basic rhythms of church life was virtually universal, and giving to the church was mandatory. Of course, I'm simplifying the picture a bit - the church didn't have a total monopoly on giving and cultural life - other organizations like guilds and universities received donations and participation as well - but such organizations were themselves explicitly Christian and dedicated to the promotion of a Christian culture. The point is - whether through the church itself or other Christian organizations - the institutions of Christendom had a much more guaranteed source of funds than churches today.

  • The Un-Separation between Church & State For Americans like me, it's hard to imagine a world where the wall separating the church and the state did not exist. In our world, having a statue of the 10 Commandments in a courthouse is controversial. In the pre-Modern world, however, all levels of political authority funded and utilized art that was fundamentally shaped by the imagery, symbolism, and narratives of the Bible and the church. Political institutions have always been a major source of funding for creatives, but, contrary to the modern American situation, for much of history this primarily led to the funding of Christian arts.

  • Imaginative Hegemony: Throughout the era of Christendom, the church was the primary cultural institution of Europe and its imagery and narratives had relatively few secular competitors - and none that had such influential institutional support. TV, Hollywood, Netflix - none of these secular institutions dedicated to promoting secular narratives and imaginative worlds existed. Yes, classical mythologies and local folklore continued to be popular, but the number of completely "secular" or "pagan" narratives that the average person consumed was very small compared to today. Moreover, much of the folklore and even the pagan mythologies that people encountered were thoroughly recontextualized and imaginatively baptized - both through the process of allegorizing and through theological developments that harmonized aspects of pagan mythology with the biblical worldview. It's hard for us moderns to grasp how much influence the symbolic and imaginative worldview of the Bible had over the artistic world of the time, because we live in an age with an ever-growing multiplicity of imaginative worlds and symbolic systems. The closest we've to an institution with the type of imaginative and symbolic dominance that the church once had is probably Disney, but even that is a very pale comparison. If a creative today wants to ignore Disney's imaginative worlds and narratives and do her own thing, she can still easily achieve artistic prominence and wide-spread success. It would not have been possible for a creative in the high tide of Christendom to ignore Christian imagery and narratives completely and still gain high honors and universal popularity.

  • Indulgences, Spiritual Abuse, & Exploitation: In addition to having a monopoly on the charitable giving of the time, it's important for us to remember that the pre-Reformation Church engaged in what we would now identify as spiritual abuse in order to finance artistic projects. Most people know that the Reformation was kicked off in protest against the abusive practice of offering indulgences to help the souls of the dead move more quickly through Purgatory. What many people forget is that Tetzel began his indulgence campaign in order to help finance St. Peter's Basilica. While I'm not suggesting that we cancel St. Peter's because it was financed through spiritual abuse, it's important for us to recognize that this is part of the context out of which a great deal of Christian Art was funded. Similarly, if we were to examine the labor practices that supported and supplied many masterpieces of Christian Art (i.e. how the servants who did menial tasks were treated), I imagine we would also find a lot that we would now consider exploitive.

  • Church Priorities & Methods: Discipleship and formation in pre-Modern Europe were done very differently than they are today. Some of these differences were real defects (e.g. the lack of adequate training and formation for many church leaders); other differences, however, were simply a function of the type of population that was being formed and discipled. In particular, we need to remember that universal literacy is a very recent social phenomenon. For most of history, the majority of the population was not able to read. As a result, many of the tools and methods that modern churches use to disciple and form their members - Christian books, inductive Bible Studies, articles - would have been completely ineffective in discipling the average pre-Modern person. Instead, the Church relied heavily on visual art, music, and oral story-telling to help Christians engage with biblical stories and ideas. Today, art tends to be a a form of entertainment catered to the tastes of the highly educated upperclass; in the past, however, art was often a form of education and formation intended to speak to the illiterate lower class. As the general population has become more literate and educated, churches have by necessity needed to devote more of their time and resources to disciple people though book culture and in response to the challenges and questions raised by higher levels of education. As a result, churches have less resources and time to invest in some of the tools that were prominent in past eras.

There are probably several other relevant differences between the context of the American church today and the context of the church during the high tide of Christendom. Not being a historian, I'll admit that I could be overstating some of the specific differences. Even if that's the case, however, the larger impression that I'm trying to paint should still hold up - namely, that there are numerous reasons why churches today are not able to support the arts like they once did. While there may be a few philistines and iconoclastic Puritans still lurking around in certain corners of the modern church, I seriously doubt that their influence is nearly as significant as it is sometimes made out to be. When churches today have unremarkable buildings devoid of interesting artwork, it's usually because they need to dedicate their quite limited resources to other priorities. Moreover, when the Christian community fails to produce trend-setting masterpieces like it once did, it's not necessarily because the community doesn't care about art. It's because the church has far less institutional influence over culture than it once did - and in its place, powerful secular institutions have arisen that are dedicated to producing artwork that is deliberately secular.

The Chosen, True Criticism, and Hope

So far I've mostly been deconstructing the unhelpful myths that I hear repeated by cultured critics who like to bash Christian media in general and who also tend to deride popular works of Christian like The Chosen in particular. It would be a whole other project to evaluate the relative merits and defects of The Chosen itself, but that isn't really my interest or purpose. I don't have a problem with people criticizing The Chosen or any other work of Christian media, as long as they do so without appealing to muddled myths and false assumptions. That type of criticism - true criticism - is constructive and has the potential to help the makers of The Chosen and other Christian creatives learn and improve their craft. What I can't stand - and have taken all this time to respond to - is when Christian engage in pseudo-criticism - incoherent and unfounded attacks that fail to contribute constructively to the enlargement of Christian art.

In the end, my hope for the improvement of Christian art isn't founded on an influx of funding from churches. With the continual decline of religious institutions in America, that's probably not going to happen. My hope also isn't founded on Christian artists suddenly embracing more "originality" or purging themselves of the desire for money or the desire to teach. I'm not even sure that such changes would be wholly beneficial. My hope is much less spectacular. My hope is that Christians like Dallas Jenkins continue making Christian art and that they continue to be supported by the popular majority of Christians and that they continually receive thoughtful, constructive criticism that highlights the flaws and excellencies of their work. And through this slow process of art being made, supported, and criticized, my hope is that, year by year, generation by generation, the creative works produced by Christians will be improved and refined - and that, along the way, this ongoing communal enterprise will be the soil that produces another crop of Tolkiens, Dantes, Bachs, and Michelangelos, who wow the world with the beauty of their works - to the glory of God in Christ.


Contributing to The Bible Artist

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A New Resource for Engaging Scripture Creatively

Have you ever felt inspired to create your own work of Bible Art or biblical adaptation? Read Scripture Like an Artist is a Bible journal that will help you engage with Scripture through your imagination and respond to what you are reading through art and/or creative writing. For each passage that you read, you will still take notes on important literary features like plot and theme, but you will also have space to respond by sketching, doodling, or writing something inspired by the passage. There's also a separate area for you to draw and take notes on your favorite biblical characters. By engaging with Scripture creatively, you'll allow your imagination to be unconsciously shaped and formed by the images, metaphors, and patterns of the biblical story. And, who knows? Perhaps your quiet time will generate an idea that you can turn into something beautiful!

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