Christianity Today’s Odd Straight Jacket for Christian ArtArts, Film — By Larry Shallenberger on April 24, 2012 at 6:02 am
This morning I read Christianity Today’s review of Blue Like Jazz and was baffled by Josh’s Hurst criteria to evaluate the film. After discussing the strengths of the film, Hurst dives into the movie’s shortcomings:
“The downside? Separating “Christian spirituality” from the fundamentals of the gospel message means, in the case of Miller’s book, an emphasis on feelings and experience, on social justice and an individual search for truth. Little traction is given to the mortification of sin, to the atoning significance of the Cross, and so forth. In the movie, it means we get a vivid portrait of where evangelical culture has gone wrong, but the alternative we’re given is a “Christian spirituality” that emphasizes all the wrong things (and pretty much excludes Christ himself).”
Hurst admits that the movie does a service for Christians who have “lost the plot of Christianity” and admits that it doesn’t fall on the film to present a “full Gospel presentation.”
He then goes on to spend the rest of the review complaining that how the film doesn’t deliver a full Gospel presentation.
With all due respect, this is the standard of success for all stories told by Christians?
An author apparently needs to explore the theme mortifying sin”, and offering a well-rounded exploration of Substitutionary Atonement. But why stop there? Perhaps other bases need to be tagged. Perhaps George Lucas could be persuaded to enlist the full force of Industrial Light and Magic to correct a myriad of Christian films. Perhaps fictional Don, the grandfather in Warrior, and Aslan can be reworked to include a heartfelt recitation of the Apostles’ Creed.
Hurst’s criterion places a tight straight jacket around Christian storytellers. Storytellers are free to tell whatever stories the struggles of real world faith as long as they check all the right boxes.
Hurst’s boxes seem to stem from his disappointment in Miller’s original Blue Like Jazz memoir. The memoir was released during a time of unrest over “emerging Christianity.” There was a backlash that reeked of spiritual McCarthyism and each side of the aisle read BLJ for clues on who got to claim the popular author. Miller, himself, kept out of the fray. Hurst complains that this ambiguity reappears in the movie:
But Christ and the Cross don’t much factor into the story, making it seem like a big swing of the pendulum, from the legalism of the Christian Right to the social causes of the Christian Left. It’s a problem in Miller’s book that is amplified here, where the entire film builds toward a spiritual epiphany that is anything but satisfying. Christian moviegoers will find much to challenge them, to be sure—but those hoping Don’s journey leads him to a clear understanding of the gospel might find Blue Like Jazz a bit unsatisfying.
If I’m reading Hurst correctly he’s disappointed that the movie didn’t provide proof for the existence of God and provide enough information in it for a youth leader to launch into a proper altar call during the credits.
This criteria creates problems not only for Blue Like Jazz but for religious art in general. Consider the movie The Tree of Life, which explored theodicy (reconciling God’s goodness with the presence of evil in the world). The movie clearly lacked a Gospel message and not a single creed. The movie Warrior included the story of a Christian who struggled with alcoholism. In the film he relapses after three years of sobriety. Sin wasn’t mortified in the flesh. The screen writers didn’t bother to muscle in a dialogue as to what they would look like.
Apparently, we’re to grade each of these movies as bad art.
The purpose of art, and even religious art, isn’t to proselytize, or to affirm a body of doctrine. Art exists to reveal beauty and truth. No story, sculpture, bears the whole weight of that task. Blue Like Jazz broke off a small piece of that work and tells the story of one college student who worked through the problem of his faith tribe’s hypocrisy and then ultimately his own duplicity. Blue Like Jazz, like any movie, needs to be judged against what its own ambitions and not those of the critic. The movie never set out to be an apologetic or an evangelistic tract. Instead it’s the story of a young man who discovers that God cannot be contained by his own subculture and that following Jesus is more than stewarding proper doctrine.
As long as we expect the arc of every faith-based story to touch a set of arbitrarily determined bases, Christian art will continue to earn the stereotype of being sentimental, emotionally dishonest, and stilted.
It’s time to take the straight jacket off our artists and let let them tell all kinds of stories. Only then will our stories of God escape the Evangelical ghetto.
This article originally appeared at www.larryshallenberger.com.