Thursday, June 01, 2006

Evangelicals, Literature, and "Pornography"

I recently had one of those unsettling experiences that reminded me of the sometimes ambivalent nature of my relationship with many of my fellow evangelicals. I was driving to work and had just tuned into my local Public Radio station. The news story at that moment concerned a controversy in a local school district in which an evangelical woman, who is a member of the school board, was calling for several books to be removed from the high school's senior English literature curriculum. I tuned in just in time to hear a clip from a broadcast that the woman had done on a well-known local Christian radio station. In the clip, the woman refers to one of the books by name, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," and refers to it as "pornography." I was stunned. "The Things They Carried" as pornography?

I first became acquainted with "The Things They Carried" back in 1999, when my friend Joe, who was also my co-worker at the time, told me about the book and said I should read it. I got hold of a copy and was quickly hooked, reading the whole book in about two days. The book is a fictionalized account of author Tim O'Brien's experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. I found it to be deeply human, often moving, and something that offered me a glimpse into another person's life and experiences, as well as being incredibly well written and compulsively readable. It also has a fair amount of serious swearing in some parts of it, though my recent skimming through it again did not reveal as much as I thought I might find. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and received rave critical reviews from just about everyone on earth.

And here is this evangelical woman referring to the book as "pornography." As I said, I was stunned, in fact even angered. While I understand that many people do not like to read anything with bad language in it, and that it is a legitimate debate about whether or not high school students should be given such material to read, I find the use of the term pornography as a descriptor in this case to be deeply offensive. To call "The Things They Carried" pornography strikes me as not only an abuse of language, but also as ignorant. If this book can be called pornography, then the word has nearly lost any real meaning to me.

And this brings me to the big issue here, which is the attitude that evangelicals often seem to have towards the arts and literature in general. Many of us seem unable to get past the surface aspects of a work which we find discomforting (like the language) to see that there might be any deeper value to the work. I do understand that some works are so vulgar or gross that any value in them is almost completely eclipsed by the bad elements. Many evangelicals, however, seem to want works that never contain anything in them that anyone might find in the least offensive, or that might make us at all uncomfortable. We want sanitized versions of the world that reflect our predetermined ideas of how things ought to be rather than true portrayals of how the world actually is. As a result, much of the art and literature produced by evangelicals is almost completely lacking in any kind of transcendence or serious artistic merit. It is "nice" and non-offensive, but it is also shallow, insipid, and forgettable.

The Bible itself offers a gritty and realistic picture of the world, and records many acts of violence and depravity that are disturbing and shocking (try Judges 3:16-22 or 19:22-30 for a couple good examples). In the case of "The Things They Carried," the book is about soldiers in Vietnam. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the military (which I have) can tell you that vulgar language is frequently the order of the day. In fact, I found "The Things They Carried" to be rather restrained compared to what I heard almost everyday when I was on active duty. (It is hard not to notice the irony here in that many evangelicals are huge supporters of the military and are more than happy to have their children serve. If we are afraid of a few swear words in a book, do we really want to send our children into an environment where they will hear this kind of language day in day out?)

There is probably a lot more to say about this topic, but in the interest of time and keeping this entry a reasonable length I think I'll stop for now. Maybe I'll revisit this topic again. For now, let me close with two thoughts:

First, we evangelicals need to develop a more sophisticated ability to discern what is good and valuable in works of art and literature, even if we find certain aspects of them offensive. If we insist on using terms like "pornography" as blanket descriptors for anything that has aspects we don't like or find offensive, we should not be surprised when the culture at large thinks us to be ignorant, shallow, and immature. We should also not be surprised when people who have artistic abilities, and who wish to make serious works of art and literature, decide to leave our ranks rather than live within the smothering confines of what we deem allowable.

Second, If evangelicals want to complain about the state of today's literature and art, then we first need to be producing art and literature of our own that has serious merit and that makes a serious contribution to our common cultural life. Otherwise, we will simply be known as people who are always ready to protest, ban, or complain, but who make no valuable cultural contributions of our own. This strikes me as not only unattractive, but also as a failure to live out the cultural mandate and to embody the gospel in ways that are winsome and appealing to the culture we live in.

19 comments:

Jessica said...

Jenny sent us a wonderful wonderful wonderful magazine called Image, devoted to "art*faith*mystery." Has she turned you on to this yet? (Or perhaps it was you who turned her onto it...)

Gordon Hackman said...

Jess,

I don't know for sure if I turned her on to it or not, but I have known about Image for a while. She may have discovered it on her own. It really is a wonderful journal. Have you ever visited their website? There's some good stuff available on there as well. Also, check out the Square Halo Books website as well, which features a page of free resources with contributions from people related to Image, like the editor Gregory Wolfe. One of their books "And It Was Good: Making Art To the Glory of God" has an excellent essay by Wolfe that I recently reread part of and found very helpful

By the way, thanks for visiting my blog and leaving comments. It's encouraging to know people are reading the stuff I write.

Peace,
Gordon

Jonathan King said...

Gordon, I just have to say that this post is right on the money and incredibly well articulated. I look forward to reading more from you! It was excellent meeting you this morning at church and I do hope our paths cross once again...I'd love to come visit again if/when I'm back in the area. Be strong in His grace and peace be with you!

Jonathan
http://jonathandking.blogspot.com

Jeff's Blog said...

What's up with evangelicals? Obviously, this lady hit her *#!#$** head on the **#@#@$ bed as she got her fat @#$ up that morning. Sorry, I had to have my morning dose of "pornography." Good stuff Gordon.

Linsey said...

Hey Gordon,

Great post, thanks for your analysis. Again, I am amazed at your ability to break down concepts and make them very understandable to others. I liked what you had to say about evangelicals complaining about "the state of today's culture and art" without really contributing anything of value ourselves. Amen brother. I also am grieved over an evangelical culture that encourages and creates space where lashing out blinding and ignorantly is acceptable and even noble. May the healing waters cleanse us all.

Lins

Gordon Hackman said...

Jeff,

Thanks for the %^&*#@! comments. I laughed out loud.

Lins,

Thanks for the encouragment and for reminding me that we all need to be healed and cleansed (even those of us who have a more sophisticated view of the arts :) I'm totally on board with the concern over an evangelical culture where knee-jerk reactions and violent lashing out are all too common. I've experienced it a couple times on other blogs. I've actually thought about writing on that one sometime.

Peace,
Gordon

Andy said...

Gordon,
Good to see that you were able to remedy the comment situation. Not much time to write now, but I plan on leaving more in the future. It was good to see you several times in the past week. Take care.

Andy said...

Gordon,
I was wondering if you had heard of or seen the film "The King"? http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1809273202/details

Gordon Hackman said...

Andy,

Thanks for the comments. It was good to see you as well. Glad to see the changes I made in the settings worked.

I haven't heard of "The King" that I recall, but I'll check out the link.

Thanks,
Gordon

Kelly said...

Hi Gordon. You have no idea who I am, I found your site by linking through several sites from a friend of mine, Andy in Vermont. His site is beatingtowindward. Anyways, oddly enough you live here in IL also. I moved a short while ago and am trying to find a good Bible believing/preaching church in the Deerfield/Buffalo Grove area and was wondering if you could recommend any? In the interest of foiling spammers, please see if you can decode my email address following: elnoz "shift 2" yayhoo (but spelled correctly) and then the conventional finish for email addresses. Sorry to make this difficult, but I really would appreciate any help you can give. Thanks.

Dina said...

kelly;

in case gordon doesn't see this, the church we both attend is right in that very neck of the woods! check us out at www.lifeonthevine.org to get a feel for who we are and directions to our church.

dina

The Buried Editor said...

Of course, the great irony is that it is impossible to create material others will not find offensive. The woman on the radio was objecting to the stuff she found offensive. And your absolutely right about her misuse of words. Words like pornography or smut or even bad cease to have all meaning when used indiscriminately on anything a person personally dislikes.

And in defense of Evangelicals (and I don't happen to be one) this intolerance of quality material for dubious reasons is not limited to them. All of us, at some point, manage to show it at some point. And I find that hard to admit.

Gordon Hackman said...

To the buried editor,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

You are, of course, absolutely right that nearly everything is offensive to someone and that most of us are probably guilty of rejecting good art, literature, etc. for dubious reasons. We all find different things offensive for different reasons, depending on our aesthetic sensibilities, our criteria for judging works of art, and probably for many other less defined, more subjective reasons. For example, in an earlier post I gave the movie Silent Hill a bad review for some specific reasons which I tried to spell out clearly. Many other people loved it though, and I'm aware that to them my review may seem completely off base.

I think the problem with the way in which many evangelicals judge cultural works, however, is due to a combination of a general lack of critical skills in assessing the arts, a tendency towards reactionary anti-cultural & anti-intellectual attitudes, and the fact that evangelicals tend to sequester themselves off in a subculture which mostly produces art, literature, or music that has very little in the way of aesthetic merit or transcendance about it (i.e. Left Behind novels, bad apocalyptic movies, most CCM, etc). We tend to view the arts from a very moralistic and didactic perspective.

I think we need to develop a better aesthetic sensibility and a practice a more nuanced critique of cultural works.

Anyway, thanks again for reading and commenting and stirring me to further thought.

Peace,
Gordon

RC said...

preach it, preach it, preach it.

These comments are so relevant and "The Things They Carried" is an excellent example.

There's a lot of things Christian's can choose to complain about...but is complaining the answer?? hum?

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

Gordon Hackman said...

RC,

Thanks for stopping by and offering some encouragement. I've been enjoying strangeculture for a little while now, so it's an honor that you like my stuff.

Peace,
Gordon

ktismatics said...

After the fall of the Roman Empire virtually all great Western art was explicitly Christian. The Protestant Reformers condemned Catholic and Orthodox icons as idolatrous, substituting a graven image for the real thing. Ironically, this is exactly the way pornography works, though of course the "real thing" is very different.

Anyhow, the Reformers became iconoclasts, systematically wrecking the statues in the churches, chipping their faces off, and otherwise desecrating great art. For quite awhile no new art was produced in countries where Protestantism took hold: Netherlands, Switzerland, England. Finally the Dutch broke the logjam with a move toward realism. Rembrandt, a committed Calvinist, painted a lot of Biblical characters as ordinary-looking people who happened to be engaged in extraordinary happenings. This too is a Protestant thing: every believer is a saint, not just the canonized ones. So, you could make a strong case that artistic realism was a distinctly Protestant development.

Gordon Hackman said...

Ktismatics,

Thanks for your comments. I did know something about the reformers rebeliion against icons and stuff, and also about realism in art being connected to the reformation. Francis Schaeffer talks about this a good deal in some of his work, especially "How Should We Then Live?"

I supposed there's bit of irony in the fact that many of the children of the reformation now seem to be either completely terrified of realism in art, or seem to think that the only appropriate subjects for Christians to write, sing, paint, etc. are explicitly religious ones.

And of course, even sadder is the fact that most of the explicitly religious art made by conservative protestants today doesn't even hold a candle to the religious art of the pre-reformation Catholic and Orthodox churches. We've lost on both fronts now.

Jason Hesiak said...

Gordon,

I have finally come to visit your site after seeing your comments on DF's blog. This was the first blog of yours that I've read, and I liked it a lot. All of my life up to this point, I've considered myself an artist; and I am an Architect by profession. If I have an expertise, it is art. I thank you are this post, and found it to be very refreshing.

I truly believe that what the church needs when it comes to such issues about our attitude toward art and our common habit to fall into artistic tendencies exemplified by the "Left Behind" series, is just Jesus, a pouring out of the Holy Spirit. After a true encounter with Jesus at the cross, is it really possible to live in fantasy-land, unable to approach the things in your own soul that scare you? Again, "we become what we behold". I say that to explain what I mean by "the things in our own soul" - I'm not saying that that lady on the radio is actually a porno-slut. A

nyway, to take that logic further, an encounter with Jesus at the cross changes our attitude toward art, and everything in life. How does that correspond to our own attitude in and to our own hearts, and in and to every event and person we encounter in the world. Lady-on-radio meets curse-happy soul-hurting addicted homeless guy on street, a common sight in the Los Angeles in which I live. Is she offended, or filled with compassion? The joyful compassion comes from the painful encounter at the cross. Avoidance of such encounters evident in artistic tendencies is really no different from the same tendencies in life. Corresponding to the same complaints from artists and regular old non-artists EXITING out the doors of the church.

God bless. May the Holy Spirit pour down upon us,

Jason

Gordon Hackman said...

Jason,

I like the gist of where you are coming from in terms of how an encounter with the cross forces us to be honest about the realities of our world rather than hide from them. I think that's an even stronger reason for realistic art than anything I said in the post itself. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for adding something to the discussion.

Peace,
Gordon