Sticky questions on Christian art

Andrew Klavan posted a thoughtful article today called “Eyes Wide Shut: Christians Against Art” which ought to spark some discussion. Klavan is rare among Christian fiction writers in that he learned his craft first, and then embraced the Faith. That places him in what must be at times an awkward position – he knows what makes for a good story, and sometimes that’s something that his fellow believers don’t like.

An artist’s job — even if he’s a Christian artist — is not to sell Jesus, it’s to depict life truly. A Christian’s faith is that Christ lives in real life, not only in pastel greeting cards with Easter bunnies on them. Thus any honest and good work of art should be capable of strengthening a believer in his belief — even if it strengthens him by challenging him, by making him doubt and then address those doubts.

Art only goes wrong when it lies. Pornography is so deadening (and so addictive to some!) because it depicts human intercourse without humanity — something that never occurs in real life, not ever. Most bad art does something similar — and some good art includes dishonest moments that need to be confronted and rebuked.

But good art can be about absolutely anything and still lift us heavenward….

I can’t, frankly, share his approval of the Game of Thrones series, but I do so with fear and trembling, fully aware that Klavan understands stories at a much deeper level than I do. Still, after reading the first four GOT books, I grew wholly disillusioned with George R. R. Martin’s (to me) cynical and nihilistic approach. If I were to watch the Game of Thrones series (I haven’t), my only motivation would have to be seeing the female nudity, because I can’t work up any other.

Klavan might be comforted somewhat – though the example is an old one – to read the Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America’s current Bulletin, which includes what may be the last “Resnick & Malzberg Dialogue.” (See my Wednesday post.) Barry Malzberg reminisces, in view of recent attempts to muzzle the two of them:

Roger Elwood, an anthology editor who whizzed through the field in the mid-seventies and was gone by the end of the decade, was an evangelical Christian who took his faith seriously and was made very uncomfortable by graphic sexual description or the employment of Naughty Words in dialogue. He didn’t like atheism much either, and science fiction has, as we know, a lot of card-carrying atheists. But whatever Elwood’s suppression of other writers, I can verify only my own experience – and through his offices I placed five novels, all of which contained wall-to-wall depictions and dialogue which represented everything he was said to hate. And he never asked me to alter a scene or cut a word….

He also speaks positively (with what seems like some discomfort) of Sean Hannity, and employs the term “liberal fascists.”

In related news, I’m going to be interested to see whether Resnick and Malzberg lose their feature in the Bulletin or not. I know the bulletin editor has recently resigned. How this shakes out will probably determine whether I renew my membership. My mind isn’t made up.

14 thoughts on “Sticky questions on Christian art”

  1. Paul Johnson, the British writer, in his work called Modern Times, discusses when society embraces moral relativism it begins to settle questions and issues by an exercise of power. And that is what the Game of Thrones is all about. In the Neo-Pagan culture in which we now live art forms become subservient to unaccountable amorality to which every else is steadily conforming towards.

  2. The Internet is abuzz with GOT and the Stark family murders in the last episode. I read a post by someone who said the butchery was too much–esp. the stabbing of a pregnant woman and child which was not depicted in the book–and he would not watch any longer. I happened to see a bit it (nasty) when I saw a video that clipped The Red Wedding scene with Fred Savage’s complaints from The Princess Bride. “Wait, Grandpa! You’re messing up the story.”

  3. I’ve been struggling with this idea of NOT making Christian art blatantly Christian, or “to sell Jesus” as Klavan puts it. I tend to see this thinking tied to literature and movies and I wonder if it’s because their is so much bad Christian art. But as Doug Wilson has pointed out, there is a lot of bad secular art. Why should we be ashamed of displaying our faith? While there is a lot of bad Christian music, their is a lot of great music that is Christian through and through. Are not the great hymns art? Like I said, I’m struggling with this and still working it out–just some thoughts.

    I started reading GOT before the show because it was recommended by some friends. I threw the book out after the second time the pedophilia was described (I think I was more than half way through the book). I understand there are cultures where adults may take children or teens for wives, but there was no need for Martin to describe these scenes as he did. Of course, there is more evil to be observed in these books. I wonder if that is the attraction.

  4. I’d add one thought to Klavan’s point “Art only goes wrong when it lies.” – any art lies that doesn’t, at its roots, acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ over all of creation.

    This happens in varying degrees, and some “virtuous pagans” get awfully close to the truth. GoT fails largely because it lies when it teaches that there is no ultimate meaning, no genuine good.

  5. I can’t believe we are twelve years out from 9/11 and we’re still grappling with the issue of violence as entertainment. I believe that God tests us, and we as a people are failing that test. Sometimes Christians need to draw a clear, bright line and say, there is a better way. Klavan is wrong. The worldview of GOT shouldn’t be patronized by Christians, but actively fought against.

  6. What do you mean by “when it lies”? Say that you had a sci-fi writer who played around with the law of gravity in ways that had interesting effects. There’s a sense in which he’s not telling the truth about the world, but it’s not a problem, right? It might even be an interesting exploration of what it means that gravity is what it is, rather than what it might be. You might learn something about why the world was made as it was, instead of some other way.

    So you’re talking about moral truths, not physical truths. But just why is it the case that you shouldn’t get the same worthy insight into just why moral laws are what they are, instead of having been made otherwise?

    You might want to say that the author who ‘lies’ about gravity isn’t fooling anyone, while the author who ‘lies’ about morality might. There’s some careful calibration needed here, though, as most people might easily be fooled by a slight miscalculation about gravity; or by a large one, however willful, in many cases. We’re really talking about something else. Why “lying”?

  7. That’s very good, Grim. Perhaps the problem lies… [dramatic pause] in the great conflict over morality, much more than physics. It seems you can depict many immoral people doing awful things to each other and coming to miserable ends, and readers will say that’s how life is. A strong contrast must be draw to point them to a better reality or higher truth. People tell themselves they are no better than animals, that sex is for individual pleasure, and any moral ideas that we should be faithful to each other or hold to some morality that the animals do not is just human pretense, but animals don’t have to pretend or tell themselves they are just animals. So sex and morality is a battleground against deep, twisted deception. Moreover, depicting an ugly drama doesn’t just reveal evil as it is. It can tempt readers into that evil.

    I just read Brideshead Revisited, which may be a great example of real Christian fiction that shows life as ugly as it is. I hope to review it this week.

  8. I wonder which is the bigger lie, The Christian novel that presents the Gospel as a fountain of health, wealth and prosperity, curing all of life’s ills while neatly wrapping up every loose end, or the secular novel that glorifies sin while rarely if ever depicting the negative consequences of immorality?

  9. My guess is that Klavan likes Game of Thrones because he hasn’t read the books. After the shock of Spoiler 2.0 wears off, I have a feeling that he’ll be left with an empty feeling about the series overall. I enjoyed the first two books of the series quite a bit, but I can’t recommend the series overall.

    His overall point, however, is solid.

  10. xdpaul,

    I think what he finds attractive is GRRM’s willingness to kill off his characters – for example, the character of Ned Stark in season 1, and Cat and Robb Stark in season 3. I saw an interview with the show’s producers where they talked about how innovative they thought Martin was. He upends storytelling convention when he kills off the people he has taught you to love and root for. So yeah, he has that going for him. I think.

    I’ve read several comments where people have noticed the Martin is especially nasty to “good” people. The ones who are noble, honest, kind, etc. It seems like his goal is to send a message that trying to be better will only get you screwed over – and he does this repeatedly throughout the series. After awhile, people get sick of it. Or, they grow as hardened as pagan Rome. Which I think is the whole goal of Martin’s writing, to tell you the truth.

  11. Stacey, Lars has said as much in past. Martin kills off all the people you start to like and leaves the people you don’t care to spend time with. Your comments on those who like the upending of conventional storytelling reminds me of praise I’ve heard in teh classical music world. Those who are steeped, maybe overly steeped, in instrumental music will enjoy risks or unexpected pieces that turn off casual listeners because it’s different. There’s a depth of composition that the music people appreciate and can lead them to praise ugly music that surprising them. So with the books and HBO series, you could ask these critical praisers if they enjoy reading or watching stories or do they want something else from it?

    Greybeard, that’s a great question. I don’t believe there is a single answer.

  12. ThinkChristian is talking about it here.

    Josh Pease writes,

    In Game of Thrones the power-hungry materialists fight and steal and kill while the lord of light’s shadow stretches over the land. If this is how Martin sees the spiritual world then he’s not wrong – there is an evil that prowls about our world, he does masquerade in light and he does deserve a lower case “lord.” Unfortunately, so far, that’s the final word in Westeros.

    And that as much as anything is why I gave up watching. I don’t need my art to be full of fluff and optimism, but I do need it to have hope. And no hope is possible while Westeros’ “lord of light” is in charge.

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