Jul 24, 2014

A sinner's aesthetic

Trying to describe "Christian art," a number of evangelical novelists have offered the definition that it is art "from a Christian world view."

That definition might not be as helpful as it appears. There's some ambiguity about whether fiction written "from a Christian world view" entails just the faith commitment of the author or means there is a requirement for certain representational rules. It can be taken as a rejection of the idea that evangelical fiction has to have an explicit gospel message, the novel functioning in some ways like a tract. But it can be also be taken as an insistence on a particular message, the art required to stage certain themes and issues.

It's problematic from the perspective of cultural history because it's normative. It's not a description of a certain category of art as much as, in practice, it's an imperative. The definition is not helpful in identifying what counts as Christian fiction. It's more of a mission statement.

Taken as a mission statement, though, as an imperative for Christian art, the definition raises a question about aesthetics. What aesthetic values are connected to that Christian view of the world?

Alissa Wilkinson, the chief film critic for Christianity Today, argues that good Christian art -- art that's good at being Christian and good as art too -- is art that flows from the Christian recognition of sin. Christian cinema, she says, should have an aesthetic that starts from the sense that all have sinned, all are broken or messed up sin. It should be moved by that to empathy.

Wilkinson is calling for what could be thought of as sinners' cinema.

She writes,
Maybe you're not a recovering alcoholic; maybe you've never been unfaithful to spouse or friends or whatever; maybe you've never murdered anyone or cheated on a test; maybe you have lived a pretty clean life. But if you are a Christian . . . then you know you're a mess, one that has to not just lean but grasp, wildly, for something greater than you or you'll come apart at the seams. And if you're an artist, you don't start from ideas -- you start there.  
I guess what I'm trying to say is this: the best Christians, the best artists (and critics and parents and pastors) -- the ones who make things that actually change lives -- are ones who know they are miserable sinners.
This is an aesthetic value I identify with a lot, personally.

I am not in the business of making Christian art. I am also not in the business of judging the quality or value of the evangelical fiction I'm studying. It occurs to me, though, that what bothers Wilkinson about many, many works of Christian art is the same thing that bothers me about many popular critiques of those same works. There's a fundamental lack of empathy. The characters aren't human, but just flat. Their motivations aren't taken to be complicated and conflicted, but simple and dismissible.

Where actual people are at once deeply perverted and also marked by stirrings of grace, the "bad" characters are presented as stupid and stereotypical. The "bad" characters are set up to seem totally alien in all the ways they're bad.

Consider the recently released film Persecuted and a review of that film in Variety.

Persecuted, which earned about $850,000 at the box office on its opening weekend, is not a film that starts from the premise of a common human condition. It's manichean, presenting the world as dualistically divided between forces of good and bad, light and dark, between righteous conservatives and God-hating liberals. The director, Daniel Lusko, is mostly known for his right-wing documentaries. This is "a Christian-themed minister-on-the-run thriller bent on exposing the government's insidious multi faith agenda," as Justin Chang writes in his Variety review.

Chang goes so far as to describe the film as not just ludicrous and heavy-handed, but contemptible. He writes,
It's never explicitly stated when all this is taking place -- presumably sometime during the present day, and presumably on planet Earth, as indicated by occasional nighttime shots of the Capitol building and other areas of Washington, D.C. . . . Writer-director Daniel Lusko's script posits a world where truly God-fearing Christians represent a brave, principled minority under violent attack by 'those who believe in nothing,' and blithely assumes that we will recognize that world as our own. Never mind that the dramatic stakes feel ridiculously rigged, the specific antagonists ill defined, the entire movie suspended in an atmosphere of context-free paranoia.
I have no reason to doubt the factual accuracy of this review and I don't think I disagree with the reviewer about what makes a good movie. At the same time, the manicheanism described is not substantively different than the manicheanism of the description. The review, like the film, has these dramatic stakes that are ridiculously rigged. It imagines a world inhabited by antagonists whose motivations can only be explained as being flatly, ridiculously evil.

I actually do recognize the world of Persecuted. Not as the world, to be sure, but rather as the world of my own self-righteous fantasies.

Chang writes that a good version of this film would "have to accord those characters at odds with its message --atheists and agnostics, prostitutes and politicians -- at least a modicum of motivational complexity, if not something approaching the level of compassion that Christ implored His disciples to show their enemies."

At least for my part, I'd like to give an account of motivational complexity in my interpretations of art that doesn't, itself, give an account of motivational complexity. I want to approach the characters involved as human. I aspire to work out of a recognition that, in their conflicted and messy state, these people are not alien to me. I can show them some empathy. This is why I am trying to start from a place of sympathy and understanding, even (especially) when I don't automatically identify with and resonate with the works I'm studying.

It's a sinner's aesthetic, as Wilkinson says. I know I'm a little lower than the angels. I can't just dismiss the film directors and the authors who are trying to craft a work of art that represents their values and their view of the world but end up building inflated fantasies of their own self-righteousness, because that's kind of the human condition -- and not one that's alien to me.

Even though, I have to say, this film Persecuted looks really miserable.