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In Defense of Doubt: Rethinking Modern Christianity’s Approach to Art

By Dominic Robin


Judge a man by his questions, not his answers. -Voltaire


Given Christianity’s rich history in the arts, I am especially saddened by the lack of quality art being produced by the modern Christian movement. In fact, I would argue (and I haven’t gotten much pushback here) that most Christian art isn’t just “not good” — in most cases, it is actively bad. Certainly, it is not the type of content I feel comfortable recommending to others. Take film as an example. I don’t often engage with Christian film anymore, but I, like most Christians, have distinct memories of the many religious movies I have been forced to sit through in the past, films with meandering scripts, poor acting, and theologically dodgy plotlines. Christian music is not much better. Most modern worship music is highly formulaic and uninspired, built more often than not on three chords and a vague water/fire metaphor. Modern Christian fiction generally sits somewhere within the spectrum of PG rated Amish erotica and quasi-apocalyptic conspiracizing, complete with two dimensional super Christians taking on even more two dimensional demon-villains in a heroic fight for the soul of the world.


Some might point to the fact that the secularist (particularly Hollywood) have huge corporate backing and massive budgets to work with. Fair. But consider this: A 2016 report from Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion estimated religion in the United States to be worth roughly $1.2 trillion annually. That’s more than the combined revenue of the 10 biggest tech firms in the United States, a list that includes Apple, Amazon, and Google. The vast majority of that number comes from protestant and/or evangelical sects of American Christianity. Certainly, money could be set aside for Christian filmmakers to hire good writers, directors, and actors. Surely the financial structure exists to incentivize Christian authors to create fiction that could at the very least converse with those of modern literary greats: Mario Vargas Llosa, Khaled Hosseini, Toni Morrison, or Cormac McCarthy. Christians have, in fact, thrown real money at a variety of projects. The results? A few “not-absolutely-terrible” films and the Left Behind series. Hardly anything that will last.


The fact that this problem hasn’t yet been addressed despite the deep pockets of modern evangelicalism suggests that the problem is not monetary at all. The problem, in fact, may be far deeper.


I am convinced that there is a philosophical chasm between modern western Christianity and artistic expression. This divide, I argue, has created a culture that makes art not only difficult for modern Christians to engage with but nearly impossible for them to replicate. This proves problematic for a multitude of reasons. Monetary problems are relatively easy to address if one has the resources to do so. Philosophical divides, however, are far more difficult a beast to tackle. Yet, I am convinced that a healthy church must at the very least make an attempt to do so. Let me, for a moment, pause to define what I mean by “philosophical” and then we can move towards outlining a solution.


Postmodernism


There is, I have noticed, an immediate allergic (and sometimes vicious) reaction among Christian circles to the term “postmodern.” Of late, it has become a sort of buzz word within evangelicalism, a catch-all for everything deemed “progressive”: Marxism, subjectivism, sexual freedom, religious tolerance, liberalism. Placed against this vaguely defined boogieman are the ideas of the great modernist thinkers: John Locke, Francis Bacon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, René Descartes, and the like. Historically speaking, this divide makes perfect sense to me. The thoughts of these philosophers flow directly out of the same Renaissance and Reformation ideas — skepticism, the scientific method, individualism — that inspired notable protestants such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli to break away from the Catholic church. Calvin’s own multi-volume 1,000+ page systematic theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion, reads much more like an Enlightenment style scientific treatise than it does the theological musings of so many of his predecessors.


Postmodernism directly challenges the ideas of many of these modernist ideas. How exactly it does so we’ll get into soon, but for now suffice it to say that it’s quite understandable that a critique of modernist ideals like that levied by postmodernists is not particularly well received within protestant circles. This analysis is, of course, a gross oversimplification of a truly complicated and dynamic conversation, but I think the basic idea does come through: Western evangelicals don’t like postmodernism because they are (generally without knowing it) modernist thinkers (or at the very least, influenced heavily by modernist thought). Paradigmatic shifts are always difficult to accept, but they become exponentially more so when one’s entire worldview has been constructed (consciously or unconsciously) upon a particular set of first principles. Modernism posited a world that was scientific, ordered and predictable. It projected optimism — progress towards a better future. Postmodernism directly challenges this concept.


I wonder, however, if some ideas simply need further probing. Do we even understand the terms that are being used or have we grasped onto media inspired parodies of these ideas? Let's begin with a few oft-levied critiques of postmodernism:


Doesn’t postmodernism deny the concept of truth? And isn’t truth a foundational tenet of Christian belief? Afterall, Jesus explicitly calls himself “the Truth,” the only way to God. Isn’t this idea incompatible with postmodern thought?


I sympathize with this line of thought. I even held it at one point. However, as I have continued to study postmodernism, I’m not so sure broad-brushing the movement as “anti-truth” is completely honest, intellectually or historically. A more accurate characterization of postmodernism is that postmodernists are skeptical of metanarratives. More specifically, postmodernists note that both the world we live in and the language we use to describe it are infinitely complex, and that complexity when mixed with relativity creates . . . well . . . rather a lot of grayness between the observable black and white.


This, too, is an oversimplification, but the general point I want to make here is that a belief in relativity is not the same thing as being “anti-truth.” I believe that time is real, that it will take me, digest me, and then deposit me into a grave in some 80 odd years (if I’m lucky). Yet, at the same time, I accept that time is entirely relative, as Einstein so brilliantly demonstrated mathematically in his famous relativity equations. I also believe that seven feet is an observable, measurable distance, but whether or not it’s considered “tall” depends entirely on that to which it is being compared, a man or a mountain.


Although they may not admit it, most orthodox theologians are a bit postmodern themselves. Take, for example, the most difficult of theological concepts, the Trinity. Is God one? Yes. Is God three? Also yes. One and three are not the same thing, and certainly God is not the celestial version of Tolkien’s Sméagol/Gollum character. Even the full-proof, ever-trusted ice/water/mist analogy falls short because a water particle is only ever one of these elements at any given time. God is, if the Bible is to be trusted, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all at once — never less, never more. This reality is impossible and illogical. And yet because we trust in a God who is infinitely more complex than we can possibly imagine, we accept the fuzzy reality that all three modalities are true simultaneously. G.K. Chesterton might describe this reality as “Truth standing on her head” (“Mr. Pond”).


This does sound a bit more like the both/and principle presented by the postmodernist than the either/or dichotomy given by strict rationalists. And yet because of our modernist roots, Protestants cling strongly to an ethos of ever smaller, ever more specific: Another translation, word study, systematic theology and we can, like careful scientists, isolate theological concepts, study them, and then reinsert them into the organism that is God, working ever closer to a true and accurate understanding of The Divine. Color me skeptical.


But what does this all have to do with art?


In Relation to Art


In 2006, acclaimed Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes spoke to a group of upcoming young scholars at the Academy of Achievement conference. The main topic of Fuentes’ talk was Franz Kafka, a writer who has the great honor of being banned by both the Nazi and the Stalinist regimes. It must take a very dangerous man indeed, Fuentes notes, to be banned by two traditions so ideologically distinct from each other. Fuentes' conclusion is worth printing in full. He argues:

Words and the imagination give us a plurivocal reality. Politics tends to be ideological. Religions tend to be dogmatic. But literature is always ambiguous; it is a search for truths. No real book ever has the truth in its hands, it’s not sure of it. It is looking at all sides of the question. It is doubting any established or given truths.


It’s worth pausing for a moment to dwell on this word “doubt.” What does it mean to “doubt established or given truths”? To the ears of most modern evangelicals, it sounds a touch heretical, does it not? Here, though, I think we should pause to note that Fuentes is not arguing that art should replace religion. Rather, he is noting that the two modes of expression are different, fundamentally. Each does what the other cannot. Art exists to push the boundaries of our thinking. It gives us a vehicle through which we can simulate reality, venturing, in the process, into areas that are otherwise beyond our capacity to access. Artistic forays enable us to confront the inaccessible — to reform and reassess realities as we collide with the fundamentally destabilizing ideological force that is narrative.


This definition pushes decidedly against the explanation of the value of art offered by the fundamentalist upbringing of my youth. The thesis I heard most often articulated in these circles for the value of reading is that literature (especially classical literature) is vitally important because it can be used to instill timeless, universal values into people (generally children and young adults) and that by pushing a love for reading and art, one could also push a love for tradition, morality, and Biblical truths. This theory ignores an important point, the fact that most “classical literature” is racy, shocking, rebellious, and decidedly non-conservative. Far from bolstering contemporary thought, literature (especially classical literature) probes, searching for weaknesses in the conceptual framework of its time and, when necessary, creating the ideological cracks that topple social structures. More often than not, literature has been the very vehicle through which “traditional values” have been critiqued and re-molded throughout the centuries. Impactful narrative actively resists wrot structuralization. This is why when totalitarian empires rise, the free expression of stories is the first thing to go.


This reality is precisely what the modern evangelical movement has ignored. In reacting so decidedly against the “evils of postmodernism,” we have rejected subjectivity altogether, creating, in the process, a framework that, like a virus, swallows all ability for true artistic expression and converts it into something else entirely, something weak and artificial, so easily recognized and rejected that modern Christian art has become almost negligible in the global conversation. My central thesis is this: Christians hold no voice within modern artistic conversations not because we have been barred entry but because, upon knocking, we have announced a coup, a complete revision of the framework that makes artistic conversations meaningful and worthwhile in the first place. Put bluntly, much of modern Christian tradition values propaganda over art, surety and manipulation over curiosity and doubt. And art — true art that lasts at least — cannot be propaganda, or, at the very least, it cannot only be propaganda. I wonder if Fuentes is not right in his assessment. Perhaps you cannot conceive of a sane and healthy society without looking at the health of words and the imagination.


Two Quick Examples and a Conclusion


Perhaps this conclusion is not so completely at odds with the Christian tradition as we first thought. I cannot help but dwell on the words of Augustine, one of Christianity’s most beloved patriarchs, a person whose ideological and artistic contribution to the world remains relevant even today. When I read Confession, I do not get the impression of the modern evangelical leader, sure of his every word and ready to drop wisdom upon the masses. Instead, I read a gentle humility, an understanding of the world as infinitely more complex than a mere man has the ability to truly understand. “Men go abroad,” Augustine writes, “to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.” Later, Augustine records that he “groans in his prayers,” asking The Lord to give him clarity for concepts that surpass the understanding of the mind.


Here, also, I turn to Solomon, humanity’s wisest. Perhaps more clearly than any other portion of Biblical text, the contradictory nature of Solomon’s thoughts as expressed in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes illustrate the need for a balanced understanding of the mystery of modernist and postmodernist duality. In Proverbs, for example, Solomon seems to imply that wisdom leads to health and wealth: “The path of life leads upward for the wise to keep him from going down to the grave” (Prov. 15:24), ““All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Prov. 13:23). However, years later, when writing what we now know today as Ecclesiastes, Solomon amends these thoughts: “The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.” Life is “Hevel,” meaningless, a vapor. Elsewhere, the proverbial version of Solomon writes that “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied,” a thought that is directly contradicted by ecclesiastical Solomon who asks rhetorically, “What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest.”


As pastor and theologian Tim Mackey argues, a singular reading of either Biblical text, Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, delivers an incomplete picture of the whole. Neither book attempts to paint a complete or entirely accurate depiction of reality. Rather, each of the wisdom books (you can throw into the conversation the further confounding teachings of Job) delivers a particular portion of reality, a paradigm that, while often contradictory, works in unison to create a more complete and accurate understanding of Almighty God, Jehovah. Alone, each is incomplete in its own particular way. Together, however, they form something that is both exceedingly complicated and unequivocally true. Neither purports to be the metanarrative. Rather, each provides a narrative through which the most complicated of realities, God, the one and only metanarrative, becomes slightly less opaque. The incomprehensible becomes ever so slightly more comprehensible. A new color has been found.


As celebrated narrative psychologist Jerome Bruner argues, “To make a story good, it would seem, you must make it somewhat uncertain, somehow open to variant readings, rather subject to the vagaries of intentional states, undetermined (Acts of Meaning 53). Art was not made for dogmatism. That, I believe, is the realm of theologians and pastors, valuable contributors to the world in their own rights but not artists. Perhaps this is why Jesus so often met the rationalistically motivated questions of the Pharisees with narrative.


To be clear, I am not arguing that we, as a church, embrace subjectivity entirely. I am, however, pleading with us to remain open to a mindset that is, in some sense, postmodern, skeptical always and cognizant, like Augustine, of the fact that life consists mostly of overlapping uncertainty, a reuleaux of gray areas filled to the brim with decidedly "unsimple" answers. For the exploration of these gray areas, we have stories, a medium that can neither be simplified or controlled. These stories are a gift, something that should be treasured, not manipulated.


I wonder if Fuentes’ conclusion is not true of the church as well. Perhaps we cannot conceive of a healthy church, one that is truly sane, without first looking at the health of narrative and of the imagination. Historically, the church has been a great source of artistic creation, inspiring and producing a wealth of great literature, art, and science. My hope and prayer is that, if the Lord wills it, this is a place to which we might one day return.




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