Saturday, May 29, 2010

a slightly more erudite explanation of why christians (in a very narrow sense) are sucky artists

The following is stolen directly from the blog of a Dr. Richard Beck, professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. In the purloined essay, Dr. Beck is discussing James Davison Hunter's book "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World."


The beauteous thing for me about thieving on the internet is that I don't have to read books with long titles (score!). The bonus for you is that you get me selecting manageable chunks from long blog posts about long books with long titles (double score!).  


I like that, and I like the way this essay helps to explain why books like the "Left Behind" series and movies like "Fireproof" are so popular in the evangelical subculture despite being so, er, "not-good," and why in the absence of cultural clout, Christians have taken to betraying the ideals of Jesus (I would argue) and grubbing for political power. Enjoy.


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"The point is, cultural change occurs via the work of cultural elites. A slowly rising flood of books, editorials, movies, and cable interviews that slowly change how we see the world. The settled consensus begins to be challenged intellectually and artistically and, eventually, the culture changes. Think about cultural changes in America. Abolitionism during the Civil War. The Civil Rights movement. The 60s. Thinks about how elites drove all those changes. The culture changed because sermons changed. Newspaper editorials changed. Books got published. Entertainers challenged the status quo.

And all this creates a bit of a problem for Christians, particularly evangelicals, who have (not illegitimate) problems with the existence of elites in their midst. And yet, this frustration simply recognizes the truth of the matter: There are so 
few of them and, yet, they have the cultural power to define reality.

In the face of this reality Christians have done something very curious. Rather than intentionally trying to produce cultured elites--as the Jewish and gay communities have produced--Christians have largely 
abandoned the institutions of cultural power (think about New York and Hollywood) to create their own subculture. Their own music, movies, books, and TV shows. And as Hunter notes, the output of this cultural production has been absolutely astounding. Because, like we said, there are a lot of Christians out there! Think of a book like The Shack. A publishing phenomenon. And yet, a Christian sensation like this leaves hardly a cultural ripple, being mainly consumed by the Christian subculture. Plus, a great deal of the Christian cultural output is kitsch. Christian writing, music and art is generally perceived to be of low quality. And if you've been in a Christian bookstore recently (I was yesterday) you understand this assessment.

In short, Christians do have a vibrant culture. It's just what Hunter calls a "weak culture." Christian cultural production is 
strongest where the leverage for cultural change is weakest. Hunter on this conclusion:

In terms of the cultural economy, however, Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production. Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don't believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the areas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of historical Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.
Oddly, rather than working to enter the arenas of cultural power many, mostly evangelical, Christians actively foster and take pride in an anti-intellectualism. Rather than creating a richer Christian culture, the goal is to battle "the elites." Given this strategy, how could you possibly hope to win the culture war? If you foster anti-intellectualism and take pride in kitsch then how are you going to win this battle to "name reality"?


Well, you basically give up on trying to change culture and attempt to grab the only other power available to you: The government. Because while you don't have cultural capital (those damned elites have that!) you do have thenumbers and you can turn churches into voting collations.


And so Christianity goes political."




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As a final note, I would add that despite what "Christians" have given their detractors reason to believe, Christianity is not inherently antithetical to good art (witness my own painting - hah, hah). It is just that they have consistently chosen agenda-based art-making, which by its very nature despises the excellence that is inherent in the process required to become an intellectual and a cultural elite. 


Some might argue that this doesn't matter - that "Christians" should be allowed to fill their own little cesspool of bad art. But as Madeleine L'Engle said in "Walking on Water", "bad art is bad theology." If you make the pursuit of excellence secondary to the acceptance of a pre-determined "right" answer, you will end up betraying the truth, and Christ will come to be associated in the broader cultural context with bombastic, sucky, deceptive art. Excellence and Truth must be pursued with simultaneous passion - anything less is a betrayal of both. That is why, if someone asks me if I am a Christian artist, I pause and mutter something about the weather. And if they keep bugging me, I tell them I am a part of the "community of the broken."

3 comments:

  1. I agree that "mainstream" christian art, music, books,ect is pretty poor but I would also say that their is a lot of christian art that is out there and just like your art no one will ever know it is in fact produced by a christian because people don't want to be associated with that vein of people.

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  2. Myeah... I see your point. I would say that I guess I am referring to "Christian Art" as that art that is being made by the sort of people who are going to attach a flashing neon sign to their work which says "Christian Artist." And I agree - I don't want to be associated with that.

    To me, the term "Christian," or "little Christ" is something that other people called people in the early Christian church because they were doing ridiculous things like giving their money to people who couldn't do anything in return. Since that term has been co-opted by people who now use it as a political weapon, I doubt you'll ever hear me refer to myself as a "Christian Artist."

    I also hate the attitude that wants to dichotomize everything - to put everything into little boxes. I am a human. I make art. I am complicated. LIFE is complicated.

    To my mind, "Christian" is something other people call you, when they notice how weird you're acting. It's not something you insist on to everyone you meet. You live it, and it gets tattooed on your life for everybody to see.

    If, at the end of the day, people look at me and say... "man, that dude is WEIRD. And he keeps talking about Jesus. It's like he's some weird-Jesus-artist", then I suppose I would accept that sort of a distinction.

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  3. I see your side.

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