It happens all the time. I get an email from an angry reader who says, “Why are you wasting time talking about the technical aspects of a movie? What really matters is the message!”
From now on, when that happens I’ll probably encourage the disgruntled reader to read an article called “Lazy Cultural Engagement,” which was published today at Christianity Today.
One of my favorite writers on the subject of art, faith, and culture — Alissa Wilkinson — has seen Gone Girl, the new film by David Fincher.
I know a lot of Christians who will ask, “Why did she give any attention to Gone Girl? It’s dark. It’s violent. It’s R-rated. And there’s nothing Christian about that movie!”
I know others who are likely to hear from their pastor, or read on a “progressive” Christian website, that Fincher’s film is about “the wages of sin,” or it’s about “Christian themes,” or it’s about “what happens to marriages when husbands and wives don’t know Jesus” … and they’ll decide it’s worth a look.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been both of those people at different points in my journey of faith. And in both cases, I was looking at art through glasses that distorted my vision and prevented me from having a rich, meaningful experience.
That’s because there is a distressing delusion at the heart of so much Christian engagement with art: It’s the delusion that says “The style and the substance are two different things. We should care much, much more about substance than we do about style.”
Here’s the thing: Style is substance.
Look out the nearest window at a tree, or at the clouds, or at anything God has made. By focusing on how God made that thing — by discussing the “stuff” of it, the particularity of the details, the beauty, the shapes and colors and chemistry — you can come up with all kinds of provocative, revelatory observations. If you change the style of something, you change what it can mean. And what’s more, God’s creation speaks to us in new ways all the time.
When Jesus shared parables, he didn’t “deliver messages.” Not even close. He gave us mysterious narratives that we continue to ponder, discuss, and interpret, with new rewards and understanding, many centuries later. When we call something “a work of art,” we are praising it as something that is suggestive, not declarative. We’re claiming that it speaks mysteriously, not directly but at a “slant” (to borrow a word from Emily Dickinson). What’s more, we’re claiming that it will go speaking in ways that cannot be reduced to paraphrase. And it will very likely speak differently to different viewers based on their experience, their attention, their questions.
When Jesus wanted us to remember him, he didn’t give us a piece of bread and a glass of wine and say, “Let me explain to you what these represent. Let me tell you the message of what I’m doing.” No. He just said, “Take. Eat. Drink. This is my body. This is my blood.” And we are still pondering what he meant. We are still discussing it. In some cases, we are still arguing about it so vehemently that we’re building walls to separate ourselves from people with other interpretations.
Thus, a work of art is something with which you can have a relationship; it is not a puzzle that is solved by the discovery of what it means.
How ironic, then, that much of what passes for “Christian art” in recent decades is, in fact, simplistic, didactic, a message wrapped in mediocrity. Clunky narratives. Obvious poems. Cliche-heavy lyrics sung to derivative music.
A fuller understanding of art can bring us to two complementary perspectives:
—The first recognizes that all meaningful art is “Christian” in the sense that art, by virtue of inviting us into beauty and meaning, is reflecting something of God’s glory and something of human limitations.
—The second way of understanding the same thing would be to say that “There is no such thing as Christian art.” That’s because Christians do not have a monopoly on what is true: Non-Christians can see and reflect aspects of the truth in their art as readily as any Christian, and art made by Christians is sure to be fractured by blindness and corruption because Christians are human beings too.
If art reflects the truth, then it reflects Christ. Because Christ is the truth. Sometimes, people get to know him before they discover who he is. I think he likes it that way.
When artists create meaningful art, we’ll know it, because it will be more than just “true.” It will be beautiful. It will be mysterious. It will go on revealing new nuances, new provocations, new revelations on the third, the seventh, and the seventeenth encounter. Whenever you encounter that confluence of truth, beauty, and mystery, you are encountering Christ at work. He often moves unrecognized. He often pockets his name tag. (Remember that road to Emmaus?)
What were we talking about? Oh, yeah… Gone Girl.
Let’s get back to Alissa Wilkinson.
Alissa went and saw Gone Girl. She took notes so that she could write a review for Christianity Today. Some readers will be eager to know what she thinks about the film’s “message.” And they will be disappointed if she spends time talking about the film’s style. They’ll think that she’s wasting her time on frivolous matters.
But that is not the case.
As she says:
Christians, of all people — people who still believe they’re embedded in a cosmic story, one with both form and content — ought to be the ones who get why we focus on how a comedy works, or what’s going on in the background of a shot, or why a filmmaker might be drawing on the past, or whatever. If we think art is designed to work both on the level of form and content, then we can’t possibly be satisfied to get the “message,” evaluate it, accept or reject it, and move on.
We should be hungry for more.
Can I get an “Amen!”?
[This post originally appeared at Patheos.com. Read more: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october-web-only/gone-girl.html]
Jeffrey Overstreet is a writer of fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism — and a teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith. Visit LookingCloser.org for more information.