Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Mystery, Wonder, and the Glory of God

"[Christians] want to dot every "i" and cross every "t" and make sure it's uber-clear what's happened by the end of the story. We've lost the ability to create mystery and wonder. Movies are not good at giving answers. Movies are great at asking questions. Movies that do that are lasting.”

Ralph Winter, producer of Fantastic Four and the X-Men franchise.

I know exactly where he’s coming from, having emerged from a drawn-out email debate with someone who’s denounced J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as subversive (books and films - and therefore not recommended for upright Christians). In one of our final exchanges, he asked if the trilogy came from a perspective of a biblically informed writer, “why did Tolkien not make it more obvious?” At which point, I knew we were talking at cross-purposes, and ended the conversation.

Unfortunately the tension is indicative of the Church’s bipolar appreciation of the arts. We swing from one extreme to the other, maintaining unhelpful positions where the arts (high and low) are purely utilitarian on one hand, or entirely evangelistic on the other. Both views do no justice to our God whose displays of creativity in creation are not hemmed in by our own lack of imagination.

I like what art historian and author Hans Rookmaker said in his book Art Needs No Justification (his last before his death in 1977). It may not be a popular position, but I am thoroughly in agreement with the view:

All too often people say to artists, “To be an artist is fine if your art can be used for evangelism.” And art has often become a tool for evangelism. But let’s be precise. As such there is nothing against this. But we must be aware that art cannot be used to show the validity of Christianity; it should rather be the reverse. Christianity is true; things and actions and human endeavor only get their meaning from their relationship to God; if Christ came to make us human, the humanity and the reality of art find their foundation in him. So art should not be used to preach even if it can help. Yet there is another way that art can be or is meaningful.

To fit into the patterns of evangelism, artists have often compromised, and so prostituted their art. But Handel with his Messiah, Bach with his St. Matthew’s Passion, Rembrandt with his Denial of St. Peter, and the architects of those Cistercian churches were not evangelizing nor making tools for evangelism; they worked to the glory of God. They did not compromise their art. They were not devising tools for religious propaganda or holy advertisement. Precisely because of that their works were deep and important. They were not the means to an end, the winning of souls, but they were meaningful and an end in themselves. They were to God’s glory.

Rupert Murdoch of 20th Century Fox is also in discussion with Ralph Winter to do a series of movies based on Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life. Check out the full interview with Jeffrey Overstreet.

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