Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bad art and the tortured beauty of the cross? How "tortured" now?

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/12/21/bad-art-and-the-tortured-beauty-of-the-cross/

Bad art encourages escapism among Christians. Good art, epitomized by the Psalms, helps us long for the new creation even as we learn to love all God's creatures.

Preliminary thought, I cannot shake Greg Thornberry's visual and vocal resemblance to Andy Dick.


As I listen to this discussion .... I think the word these guys are looking for is "twee". A great deal of "Christian" creative output that is self-consciously described as such is utterly twee. 


Perhaps atheists could ask what the difference between "escapism" and "long for the new creation even as we learn to love all God's creatures" is. Wouldn't it seem that an atheist or any non-Christian could see that as the ultimate distinction without a difference?

Here's the thing that has me cautious about Gospel Coalition guys talking about "the tortured beauty of the cross"--how can we know this isn't just a rhetorical flourish?  I mean, talking about the sense of lostness conveyed by Radiohead songs?  This is a band that been around for more than two decades.  They're sort of Pinkfloyd rebooted with a few more touches from Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra and maybe a bit from, I dunno, the Ramones.  The thing is that, as others have pointed out more succinctly than I could, hipster Christianity is still usually two decades off from whatever all other hipsters are doing.  I haven't exactly set out to be a hipster and I don't know if it's a goal or anti-goal, but it just seems to me that if you're shooting for music that somehow portrays some "tortured beauty of the cross" and wondering why evangelicals haven't gotten that ...

It's one thing to diagnose the problem, it's another thing to provide an alternative, let alone a viable solution.  Saying people should read Flannery O'Connor is neither an alternative nor a solution for the same reason that reading Dostoevsky is neither an alternative nor a solution so far as evangelicalism goes.  A Catholic author and an Orthodox author are not necessarily indicative of what an "evangelical" would write.  C. S. Lewis can't really count, either, because he was a lay Anglican with some ideas that no American evangelicals would necessarily get behind on closer inspection.  It'e easy for evangelicals to complain about the lack of artistic viability, let alone greatness, evangelicals have. 

But perhaps that is the real problem, that there are sets of evangelicals who think the problem is that evangelicals aren't making great art.  It's still what we're against rather than what we're for. Well, if we grant that because it's true, what's the solution?  Merely to have evangelicals aspire to make "great" art?  What constitutes great art?  Furthermore, even if we agreed on what that was within evangelicalism, what's the incentive?  Let me be awfully blunt, particularly since I'm a job-seeker, who would dish out the money that would make that great, properly evangelical art, music, or literature?  It's not there.  People will spend money on Thomas Kinkad paintings and movies like Fireproof among evangelicals becasue that is, apparently, what they want to bankroll. Evangelicals pretend they want to capture the tortured beauty of the cross but a lot of what constitutes meditating on the tortured beauty of the cross are sermons that jump from the cross to the third use of the law, or the second use (I guess) to point out how impossible it is to please God which is why Jesus had to. 

Bear in mind I'm not making some beef with the third use of the law.  I'm Presbyterian, not Lutheran. The Torah was, when we take it at face value, given AFTER THE EXODUS.  The trite Lutheran distinction of Law coming before Gospel stumbles at the most obvious point in Israelite narrative.  Yes, the Torah came before Christ, we'll all agree on that, but I'm Presbyterian so, uh, I'm not going to say that Law/Gospel distinction makes any sense except across covenants.  Within the Torah the situation is reversed, grace is given by creating anything at all, then a simple law is given.  That simple law is disobeyed and off we go.  So it's not necessarily wrong to preach a biblical text that says "This is how you should behave."  We want to keep touching on those.  The problem may be the temptation to transform narratives into exercises in the third use of the law.  Thus some preacher will transform Nehemiah into some shill for a building project even in cases where Nehemiah pretty well explains to us that he botched something or displays some character flaws.

And in the young, restless Reformed group I was part of for a while it was common to dismiss David is essentially coming off like a whiny, self-centered emo boy.  If the psalms as a whole and the psalms of lament in particular are dismissed by, say, the worship pastor at Mars Hill church as whiny emo-boy (and if you don't believe me go download his sermons covering psalms where he explains what his view was) then how sure could I be that evangelicals are going to go all the way to a whole sermon on, say, Psalm 88.  That'll preach.  Or Psalm 137?  Blessed be  the one who kills your babies by dashing them against a stone.  That text is so difficult and unappealing to modern sensibilities it is why I made myself set it to music. 

But let me get back to the tortured beauty of the cross.  It's interesting that Orthodox and Catholics have come up with stuff that deals with this.  In the case of the Polish Catholic composer Penderecki he very bluntly and literally used every avant garde technique at his disposal to create a 70-80 minute long musical depiction of Christ on the Cross, the passion according to St. Luke.  He also did it to flip a great big old unidigital salute to the Soviets, which just makes the Lukaspassion five times more awesome than it already would have been!  There's nothing like making a masterpiece of avante garde music and making it a massive expression of Christian faith to galvanize fellow Poles and stick to the Russians, eh?  No, seriously, if you can handle the Lukaspassion it's worth listening to.  There is music that really explores the tortured beauty of the cross. 

I know some folks get into Good Friday and try to cram all their meditation on the cross in there but there are other services and opportunities.  Any one amongst evangelicals want to try anything connected to Maundy Thursday?  Holy Saturday?  No?  You'd think that just with Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the Night ... "we Protestants could lay claim to a truly amazing piece of folk art reflecting on Christ in the tomb.  This sort of art and music and song and literature is already out there ... but at the risk of being deliberately polemical I'm not entirely sure a bunch of white guys at the Gospel Coalition may know about it if the talking points are how bad Thomas Kinkad is or how Radiohead expresses lostness.  Not all of us got on the Radiohead bandwagon. 

In summary (as if I'd been clearly articulating these points before), if evangelicals make so much junk there are probably two basic reasons for this.  The first is simply that the big money in evangelicalism has decided, with its money, what kind of art, music, and literature it wants to back up. 

And even if the big money were going to other stuff this leads naturally to the second point, evangelicals seem to have lost a context for having any use for this "great art" even if they were interested in funding it.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that evangelicals will never sanction art for the sake of art.  It's true that in earlier epochs art for the sake of art was not necessary but art for the sake of established convention still worked within the parameters of expectations in patronage.  The blunt form of this is that you work for the resources you have, not the ones you wish you had.  Stuff like Crystal Cathedral sinking in the whole putting on Christmas paegants could have been avoided if that relatively simple precept was kept in mind ... or maybe not.

The second reason there's frequently a lack of a context for evangelicals to dump good money into good art (as opposed to expecting brilliant artists, musicians, and writers to just do everything for free as a part of their membership agreement) is liturgical context.  J. S. Bach could write all those amazing cantatas not just because someone was paying him good money to write that stuff but because there was an actual context for which the stuff could be performed.  If you want more variety in evangelical productivity try, I don't know, paying attention to the liturgical year?  Don't just fixate on Good Friday where you can shoe-gaze about your sin.  There's also Pentecost.  Some churches tackle Advent but that may just be trendy now. It's not like Epiphany isn't an option either. 

If megachurches grow in anything like an idiom and axiom of "if you build it they will come" then perhaps merely competent evangelical creative production can return if evangelicals provide a liturgical context and a financial incentive for competent artists, writers, and musicians to actually do something.  The problem of bad evangelical art is never going to be solved merely by preachers comparing notes on how bad this or that thing is.  Some of those preachers and their church boards will have to actually drum up some money and then go pay actual artists, writers, and musicians to come up with what they consider to be great art.  Then they will have to see who would be willing to work within the constraints they impose for the money they offer.  They might begin to rethink how certain they are about what they know about great verses bad art in evangelicalism.   They might end up funding something wonderful ... or it may become a new variation on the observations of Eric Cartman in "Christian Rock Hard".

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