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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Mystery Through Manners

Release date:

March 27, 2012

We’re heading up to Irvine tomorrow for a screening of ‘Blue Like Jazz’, so we put our resident film critic, Anthony Parisi , to work and asked him to share his thoughts on the film, fiction, and Christian interaction with art.  He also threw in some Flannery O’Connor references for good measure.  You can follow him online at twitter.com/anthonyparisi.


A film version of Don Miller’s popular book, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, is hitting theaters next month. The trenches already seem to be forming between more conservative Christians and an evangelical subculture championing what they see as more honest, open-ended talk of faith. Director Steve Taylor, a longtime CCM artist and music producer, recently announced the indie film came under fire from Sherwood Baptist (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) during production. Now the distributor of October Baby is working to ensure the trailer will not play before their film.

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Mike Cosper has written an interesting primer on the film. He explains the background and tries to identify some of what attracts burnt-out evangelicals and why. While not wanting to let Miller off the hook for his bad ideas (of which there are many), he is sympathetic to what he finds and urges Christians to approach the film as descriptive rather than prescriptive, believing we should address any issues we may have at “an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story, and the stories around him.” We should be receptive to the fact that Miller is giving voice to real problems and experiences in the evangelical world.

This prompted some great discussion in the comments. Matthew Anderson brought his characteristic insight, pushing for more options than this framework. While Miller’s storytelling is descriptive, “therein lies the problem: stories aren’t exactly a neutral medium, as I would bet good money Mike already knows. How we describe things renders certain approaches to the world more plausible than others. The Book of Judges is some pretty hot narrative—and an apologia, it seems, for a monarchy. Even if Miller isn’t self-conscious in this, it still matters.” A simple prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy makes “patient, confident, and appreciative critique” more difficult.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. What seems to be missing is that while some Christians may be offended at depictions of “bad behavior”, others (like myself) find some of Miller’s embedded perspective problematic. Like any writer, his descriptive storytelling is necessarily bound up with specific ideas and beliefs. This kind of concern is different than the pious grandmother offended by scenes of dorm-life debauchery. Unfortunately, they can too often be lumped together.

Cosper went on to elaborate some of his thinking that begins to get at a clearer way forward. He explains that he wanted to “illustrate that the way we engage stories is fundamentally different from the way we engage prescriptive and didactic works.” I think this complex reality lies at the heart of why Christians often talk past each other about fiction and art more generally. In conservative circles it’s common to see reviews reduced to a tedious game of Worldview Whac-A-Mole. Some of the worst film criticism I’ve read has come from theologians and pastors. The story is dissected into a simple “message” or worldview at the expense of the whole work and the empathetic engagement that culture exists to foster. While we can (and should) thoughtfully discuss and critique the ideas that live in stories, this has to be done in a different way than analyzing a logical theorem.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor can be a great guide to thinking about the nature of storytelling. In her brilliant essay, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” (worth reading in full here) it’s clear that there is nothing new under the sun with these kinds of discussions among Christians.

O’Connor sees a fiction writer as someone who is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in concrete life. She points to Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that a work of art is good in itself. This can easily be forgotten by our pragmatic impulses. “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them.”

As Christians, we can have a very hard time with this idea. It’s easy to feel that fiction only has a place if it has some sort of moral uplift or pedagogical value. Unfortunately, “Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.” Certainly we know people who seem to have profited from a “sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better.” But this is true because God uses plenty of poor things in this world for good purposes. We need to leave that up to God’s sovereignty and not let it impair our judgment. “God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”

What is required of the writer is to create “the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it” and ensure that truth “take on the form of his art” and becomes “embodied in the concrete and human.” Mystery and meaning must be put into manners—made incarnate in human life. Here is where a Christian will begin to feel some friction. We live in a fallen world full of corruption and sin. How can we reproduce this? Shouldn’t we tidy it up to show what it ought to be? O’Connor asks, “Just how can the novelist be true to time and eternity both, to what he sees and what he believes, to the relative and to the absolute?”

More fearful yet, there is the possibility that “what is vision and truth to the writer is temptation and sin to the reader.” Is it better that a millstone were tied around his neck? This is a serious concern for the artist “and those who have felt it have felt it with agony.”

Thankfully, we are free of ultimate, redemptive responsibility and shouldn’t burden ourselves “with the business that belongs only to God.” A Christian artist is free to observe God’s fallen creation and must feel “no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe.” To put it a another way: we are not bringing in the kingdom by our cultural activities. Art can glorify God because of the intrinsic good of creation, not because it has some transformative, redemptive power to usher in spiritual redemption. Instead of laboring under the burden of a salvific agenda (which Christ accomplishes), we are to focus our attention on producing a work of art that “is good in itself.” This is to be done for God’s glory and out of love toward others.

For O’Connor, the solution to all this “leads us straight back where we started from—the subject of the standards of art and the nature of fiction itself.”  Holding an artist to that standard is not at odds with moral or theological judgment. Why? Because the medium is (or at least is inseparable from) the message. Any moral or ideological failure will be bound up with an artistic one. A problem of vision or truthfulness manifests itself in the quality of the art. She writes, “The fact is that if the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

A current illustration of this is the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. This movie by the standard of movies may have failed to embody the moral sense needed for its proper, devastating effect. This article argues that there is an aesthetic failure to capture the brutality and reality of death. Restraint on violent imagery ends up downplaying the horror of the killing ritual. The hyperactive shaky-cam and rapid editing style distracts and derails necessary focus to the evil of what‘s happening. The director doesn’t frame the image of rising child warriors, thus missing his chance to startle and unnerve. The “manners are failing to embody the mystery” and so both end up being compromised.

What does all this mean for discussing Blue Like Jazz and movies more generally?

I think it should remind us that art is effective and compelling at the particular, incarnate level—not an abstract, didactic one. After having sat in over a hundred screenings of his film, Steve Taylor is convinced “the reason it’s resonating so strongly with audiences across the country is because, like the book it’s based on, it reminds us of our own experiences.” This is important to understand, especially for any of us who might be critical of certain ideas within the film. We need to interact with movies not as theological disputations but as works of fiction. Everyone connects with movies in emotional, personal, and experiential ways. Through concrete imagination, not abstract ideology.

How we discuss an artist’s ideas must proceed accordingly. Sometimes we can be in such a rush to “critique theology” that we miss our opportunity to learn and sympathize with another person. I think this is at the heart of what Mike Cosper was getting at. Culture arises from our great need for commonality, empathy, and shared understanding. Let’s be careful not to ignore the aesthetic, human, “real life” aspects that draw us to art in the first place. Otherwise we forget, as Flannery O’Connor puts it, that “we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.”