On Teaching, Learning, and the Insidious Nature of Bad Christian Art

by Daniel Bowman Jr. October 28, 2014

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” —1 Corinthians 13:11

In the wake of another laughable movie version of one of the worst examples of Christian kitsch in recent decades, I am mostly smiling at the uniformly horrible reviews (which I hope discourage future similar works) and spending my time and money on good art, which always abounds.

Yet, because I’m a person of faith and a writer and reader, I fear that someone might associate me with the kitsch. It’s important to me to both distance myself from it and articulate why: not because it’s merely tacky or lowbrow, but because it’s far more insidious.

Bad storytelling is bad theology, forwarding an immature view of God, self, and neighbor. And in my case as a creative writing professor, failing to call out bad storytelling is also bad teaching.

Now, most readers of Ruminate will probably have worked out these issues some time ago with the help of great writers and thinkers. Even a good majority of my Christian college students—some only a year or two removed from an upbringing loaded with bad Christian propaganda—have grown out of it, and for that I am eternally grateful.

But some have not, and they are only now encountering serious challenges to the paradigms held up by the insular communities in which they were raised. Also—sadly—a small division inside my own learning community encourages formulaic “Christian” writing, and holds up as a model the kind of kitsch I alluded to in the opening paragraph.

So, while many have done it before and much better, I will briefly add my voice to those who have distinguished between good storytelling and bad in the context of Christian faith. Since I feel that most examples of bad Christian art don’t deserve serious critical attention, I’ve decided to talk in the abstract here, aware of the dangers of that choice. I do think that if you fill in the example of your liking, much of the critique will work much of the time; in my experience, most bad Christian stories are bad in similar ways.

For now, I want to focus mostly on the fact that bad Christian stories are prescriptive. Though they may contain characters and a plot, they exist not to examine truth but to deliver a message. In that way they’re similar to propaganda used by oppressive regimes in times of war and genocide in attempts to control and manipulate people.

As such, bad Christian art is ironically neither Christian nor art. It cannot reflect a complex, mysterious, and paradoxical God or His creation. As Ron Hansen has put it:

“So-called Christian fiction is often in fact pallid allegory, or a form of sermonizing, or is a reduction into formula… sometimes yielding to a Manichean dualism wherein good and evil are plainly at war….We cannot call a fiction Christian just because there is no irreligion in it, no skepticism, nothing to cause offense, for such a fiction, in its evasions, may have evaded, in Karl Rahner’s words, ‘that blessed peril that consists in encountering God.’”

Good stories, on the other hand, are complex, containing rich layers and shades of meaning that aren’t easily exhausted, even by attentive multiple readings. The best stories, as John Gardner famously argued, have a moral dimension; immersive engagement with them helps us grow. In their fidelity to the true and diverse nature of things (especially people), good stories oppose easy “either/or” dichotomies. They develop empathy and compassion in readers by allowing readers to imaginatively inhabit the lives of characters who are different from them in essential ways.

Bad stories are calculated and disingenuous, the opposite of the child-like state of wonder that Jesus held up as a faith ideal and writers like C.S. Lewis helped to flesh out for generations of readers. Instead, bad Christian stories are child-ish, playing to immature expressions of faith.

Childish Ways

What are some childish attitudes that bad Christian stories feed into and encourage?

  • The immature need to have correct beliefs, as opposed to the adult need to consider and examine diverse stories to develop critical thinking, empathy, and love. (Anne Lamott reminds us that “…the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”)
  • The immature need to be continually comforted, rather than the adult need to be comforted when afflicted, but also afflicted and challenged by difficult art when one has become too comfortable, even complacent, in his or her faith, relationships, work, and leisure.
  • The immature need for clear answers to questions that have none, as opposed to the adult need to learn to live creatively with mystery and paradox. What Keats called “negative capability” is helpful here: he described it as an “ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.”
  • The immature need to separate good and evil into clear camps at all times, as opposed to the adult need to learn to let the wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest.
  • The immature confusing of real emotion and true empathy with shallow sentimentality and greeting card cliché, as opposed to the adult need to feel deeply through rich encounter and catharsis while confronting our own complex contradictions.
  • The immature need to romanticize the past, interpreting, for example, the 1950s in America as a kind of moral golden age from which we’re constantly slipping further away, as opposed to the adult need to recognize the complications, deep flaws, and entrenched injustices of every era—and in that recognition, to nevertheless work in faith to love God and our neighbors.

I suspect that many of these attitudes are the result of:

  • The immature need to be in control—as opposed to the adult need to learn to live in liminal spaces, to trust in and wait on God through ambiguity, to accept with serenity that which we cannot change, to pray for the courage to change what we can and should, and to humbly seek the wisdom to know the difference.

Teaching and Learning

The mission of the university where I teach—the reason it exists—is “to develop servant leaders marked with a passion to minister Christ’s redemptive love and truth to a world in need.” The verb in that sentence—the thing for which I am responsible, the thing I’m supposed to be doing every day—is “develop”: to help people grow and progress; to bring them into fuller capability; to take them to a more advanced and effective state.

The word has an Old French origin: “dis” reverses or has a negative effect, and “voloper” means to wrap or envelop. So, I’m supposed to unwrap: unwrap potential, foster student development by giving them every opportunity—through the two-steps-forward-one-step-back movement that accompanies hard work—to grow.

Wherever we encourage the consumption and production of bad Christian art, we fail to develop students. We fail to challenge them toward the growth we promise in our mission statement. Where we hold up bad stories as models, we become something less than a university, and we fall short of Paul’s mark in his letter to the Corinthians: to put away immature attitudes.

Moreover, we fail to unwrap students’ potential to minister—to love their neighbors as themselves—because bad Christian stories encourage them to see both themselves and their neighbors in black and white, as being either right or wrong, good guys or bad guys.This particular failure is foundational.

So where does this leave us? Back to the power of good art.

Richard Rohr has said, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” I thank God daily that there is no shortage of great artists working in the realms of literature, film, painting, music, and everywhere else we glimpse our humanity and grow toward mature faith. In fact, there is more great art than I or my students will ever have the time to contemplate over the course of our lifetimes. What wonderful news.

In the end, simply criticizing (and subsequently ignoring) bad Christian stories—in the abstract and in specific cases as they crop up—won’t do. Having considered the arguments against bad art, we must then use much more of our time encountering the best art, the most excellent stories available, works that, in form and content, challenge and provoke and console and develop us. Enuma Okoro sums up the power of good art in the context of Christian faith very well, and so she’ll have the last word here:

Good art points beyond itself and helps us recognize the human condition and the divine intrusion while calling us to more faithful relationship with the world, relationship that witnesses to the hope and redemption found in the Triune God and offered to us through Christ, the incarnate image that redeems all images grasping for God… Artistic expression is a striving for more, a visual hunger for transcendental realities that can only be shaped out of what has already been given to us, unlike God who creates out of nothing. But like our Creator, such creative shaping can also lead to new realities we can live into.

Amen.

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Daniel Bowman Jr.
Daniel Bowman Jr.

Author

Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012). A native of the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, he lives with his wife, Bethany, and their two children in Hartford City, Indiana. He is Associate Professor of English at Taylor University. Find him on Twitter: @danielbowmanjr



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