Written by Kyle Smith. Media by Zach Bonner.
Last week, in response to the Papyrus opening up the entertainment section to reviewing rated “R” films, Austin Schumacher posted an article providing an argument why Christians should engage such films, even when they have received this rating because of objectionable or offensive content such as gruesome violence, blatant sexuality, or profane language. In this he cites reasons of the need to portray the reality of life in art. Life can definitely be gruesome, blatant, and profane at times, as well as the fact that our sacred texts include stories with similar content.
In discussions with me, Austin thought that I would do well at providing a part II to his initial article on “why” Christians should engage these types of film, and therefore, I have been drafted into tackling the idea of “how” Christians should go about this engagement. I have decided to go about this by first developing a theoretical model for engagement that can apply to all types of art, not just film, and then take the model and practically apply it to an “R” rated film to provide an example of how this theory works in practice. The application will come in the final installment of “Christians Rated R” next week, and this week I will focus on the theoretical aspect of engaging art. Because I’m splitting this into two weeks, this week’s article may seem to stray a bit on the broad side, but hang with me until next week, and I hope it will begin to make a bit of sense.
So, without any further ado, let us move onto the development of this theoretical model for engagement.
This model operates primarily out of two main assumptions:
First, art is to be actively dialogued with, not passively consumed. Any type of art has something to say about life. Whether it be something as simple as, “The interplay between sunlight and flowers is beautiful,” or as complex as “The work of the individual, while seemingly futile, for it is so easily lost in movements of society as a whole, is utterly necessary for life,” art proclaims something about life, and engaging art must therefore require a dialogue with what that piece of art proclaims. This moves beyond simple consumption of a piece—viewing it and responding as to whether you like it or not—and requires much more on the part of the work’s audience. A lack of understanding this difference between dialogue and consumption is probably what generates most apprehension by Christians about engaging art with objectionable content. People worry about how this content will influence the audience, and this concern is legitimate; however, dialogue allows for engagement while maintaining one’s values. Therefore, dialogue provides an excellent means for Christians to engage a non-Christian world, and this can be used well when applied to art.
Second, to dialogue with art, you must first approach a piece of art on its own terms. This is intimately intertwined with the first assumption because one participates in dialogue with, as opposed to mere consumption of, the art through listening to what a piece of art is saying before responding.To listen to a piece of art on its own terms one must understand the context in which that piece of art is speaking, and respectfully pay attention to both this context as well as the actual content of the piece of art. By approaching a piece of art on its own terms, one can actually dialogue with it instead of reading one’s own opinions, values, and morals into a piece of art.
The model below provides a method for approaching a piece of art on its own terms through defining the specific context in which the piece works. Each “step” in this model asks a general question that helps to set parameters for the dialogue, and each step progressive narrows the these parameters as a way to help listen to the piece before responding. Hopefully, this model provides a way for Christians to maintain their identity as Christians while still allowing works of art to speak for themselves.
This question discusses whether the art in question is a piece of explicitly sacred art for religious purposes, or art for the masses. There is a need for both types of art. The Church needs songs, symbols, etc. that speak specifically to the Christian story, but there also exists art that converses with those outside of the Church. These two types of art work to achieve two different goals, and therefore defining this context is extremely important. The phrasing of “on-the-wall” and “behind-the-wall” originates in the work of Walter Brueggemann in Interpretation and Obedience referenced by Kenda Creasy Dean in her book Almost Christian. Brueggemann provides an excellent model for detailing the differences between these two conversations. He uses the story found in II Kings 18–19 as a basis for this model.
Essentially, in this narrative, the Assyrian nation has laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, and they send out a negotiator to the wall of the city to discuss terms of surrender. The Israelites respond strategically by having two conversations: one on the wall of the city with the Assyrian negotiator, which was carried out in Aramaic, the official trade language of the day, and then one conversation behind the wall of the city which was carried out in Hebrew, the intimate language of family and religion. The “behind-the-wall” conversations were discussions telling of God’s faithfulness throughout the years, remembering their cultural stories as a people group. These behind-the-wall conversations greatly impacted the on-the-wall conversations, because it placed the on-the-wall conversations within the context of the story of God (qtd. in Dean 112).
Brueggemann uses these two different conversations as models for the types of conversations occurring within a Christian context. Our behind-the-wall conversations occur in the language of our liturgy which tells our stories and provide context for our interactions with people outside of the Church. However, also there are the on-the-wall conversations which take place, and this needs to be conducted in a common language, instead of trying to engage these conversations with our own special language of Christianity. Brueggemann claims that both conversations are essential for the life of faith because these are the two contexts into which we live everyday (qtd. in Dean 112).
Dialogue with the majority of art that is not created specifically for the purpose of liturgical use will fall under the category of the “on-the-wall” conversations. Recognizing the conversation to which a dialogue belongs is an important first step for it dictates what “language” needs to be used for the dialogue. If a piece of art falls into “behind-the-wall” category, we can place our Christian stories, morals, values, etc. at the forefront of the conversation because that is all a part of the “language” of this conversation. However, if a piece falls into the “on-the-wall” category, our Christian “language” needs to take a backseat because that is not a common language. This does not mean that Christian identity is lost or disregarded, rather it is the action of recognizing the type of conversation, and choosing to listen in a common language before speaking in a foreign one.
This step in the model works to come to a piece of art on its own terms artistically. Much like how the last step pointed out the differences in language depending on context, this step also describes differences in language; however, instead of discussing religiously based languages, this step focuses on the language developed within particular media and genres of art. It seems like common sense to say that different types of art convey their message in different ways, for example, a conversation with a piece of visual art differs greatly from a conversation with an instrumental musical piece, but stating the question helps us to remember this important step.
Defining the artistic context gives us a way of understanding the use of the content. For example, a portrayal of the horrors of genocide might be appropriate in a film within the “drama” genre or an abstract painting, but it definitely would not be appropriate in a light-hearted children’s story or a danceable pop song. While some content may seem objectionable at first glance, it very well could be appropriate for the medium or genre of the piece. Some examples of objectionable content in film that would be deemed appropriated by a genre would including violence in war dramas, profanity in gangster flicks, and sensuality in romantic comedies. Understanding the medium and genre, and what is appropriate within these contexts help the audience to listen to the piece of art on its on terms.
The concept behind this step in the method was discussed earlier in the article, and so I will not go too horribly in depth into the specifics. Essentially, this question deals with the idea of understanding what is this piece of art actually saying, for all art “says” something about life. Granted this is generally easier in some media that are based on narrative, such as drama or film, but I will contend, as previously stated, that this concept of a “narrative” exists in all art no matter how obvious, simple, complex, or intentional.
I purposefully placed this question after the first two because, to understand what a piece of art is “saying,” one needs to understand the languages in which this piece of art is conversing. Still, at this point, if the piece of art belongs in the “on-the-wall” category of conversation, our own Christian beliefs have not necessarily made an entrance to the conversation. By asking this question we are still working to listen to the piece of art on its own terms. There will be time later for dialoguing with the piece about whether or not we agree with the narrative it proclaims, but at this step in the method, we are still listening, waiting to respond later.
This step discusses the method of how the piece of art goes about relaying what it is trying to say. This includes a critique of how well the narrative is proclaimed. Sometimes the content of artwork aids the communication of the narrative, but sometimes it diminishes the effectiveness of this communication. For example, if a photograph attempts to telling the narrative of how beautiful the textures of a rusty piece of metal are, but the photograph hides the subject in the shadows, its poorly crafted method of composition defeats the communication of the overall narrative.
There is indeed such a thing as bad art; however, one needs to understand the context of the art (as defined in questions 1–3) to understand whether or not the art is achieving its attempted goal. One cannot divorce the content of a piece of art from the narrative of that piece, and that is why it is so extremely important to listen to what the artwork is trying to say before one writes off that piece because of its content. So, for example, one could easily be offended by gory violence, crude language, or explicit sexuality in a movie like Seven Psychopaths, but if one walks away from the movie because of offense before listening to the narrative of the film, one would miss how all of these things are used in the film to communicate how violence is an downward spiral that can only be broken by an intentional effort for peace, no matter how absurd peace may seem itself. This films gives an example of how understanding the context and listening to a piece of art on its own terms allows that piece to move from solely a source of offense to a narrative that resonates well with Christian themes.
It is then, and only then, after listening to the piece of art on its own terms, that we bring in our own voice as a Christian and choose how to respond to the work. We may choose that we disagree with the narrative the art proclaims, or we may choose that we think the use of certain content was inappropriate for the communication or the narrative, or we may choose that we think the piece is simply a bad piece. But the act of listening to the artwork has changed our opinions from a mere gut-reaction to a dialogue with the piece. It is through this dialogue that we, as Christians, can engage art with objectionable content without simply writing it off as offensive. Indeed, we might find ourselves appreciating or even enjoying a piece of art with questionable content or a narrative with which we disagree because it is well done and it broaches interesting ideas. It is through such a model of dialogue that Christians can engage non-Christian art, and engage it well.
Although the model presented in this article could admittedly use some more work for it is still in the developmental phases, I think that having such a general outline can be helpful for engaging art, especially art that can easily offend. I think that this model can help provide guidelines for a discussion that allows both the piece of art and the viewer to take an active role in the discussion, and works to respect the voices of both parties.
Hopefully this model can be useful to you in practice, or at least help you to begin thinking about how to go about engaging different parts of culture such as art. Next week, “Christians Rated R” will conclude with a practical example of how this model can be used to help Christians engage an “R” rated film with large quantities of objectionable content.
Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers in Telling the
American Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.