The Great Divide

For a useful snapshot of the problems facing anyone who wants to talk seriously today about the arts and spirituality, check out the reader feedback at Christianity Today. CT recently expanded its movie coverage — wisely, I think — and, having been engaged in an ongoing electronic conversation with many of their writers for the past few years, I’m confident that the decision to expand was made for all the right reasons.

Two weeks ago, Jeffrey Overstreet published an interesting piece in which he defends his appreciation of many films that feature profanity. The piece is well-informed, it’s delivered in a voice familiar to his readers (and maddening to non-evangelicals, I would imagine), and it is patient to a fault. He makes a very convincing argument, too, and it’s one that I hope his readers refer to during conversations with friends. I genuinely admire Jeffrey for his willingness to write this stuff. I’m glad that someone is doing it. I’m even more glad that that someone ain’t me.

Just look at this stuff. To Jeffrey’s claim that art should accurately reflect the world around us, profanity and all, one reader responds:

I don’t work with people who speak that way and I’m not around them away from work. If someone attempts to use this kind of language around me, I will quickly point out that I don’t like it and then remove myself from the situation.

How perfectly awful it must be to live in a bubble containing only other people whose experience of life is exactly the same as yours. I’m having difficulty finding a New Testament precedent for that one. And even when Jeffrey’s critics make a valid point, they undercut it with evangelical jargon and biased assumptions:

Today’s movies are not so much an art form as they are a means to generate wealth. It is big business, and godliness does not sell tickets. When you recommend these movies, you are encouraging the people of God to use their resources to support an industry that shamelessly glorifies sinful behavior. . . . Giving a rebuke to another is not being judgmental. Rather it is an act of love attempting to pull another back from evil.

That this reader has raised the issue of commerce and profit is a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, rather than using his soapbox as an opportunity to discuss the influence of capitalism on real evangelical values — a complex issue, no doubt — he instead relies on gross generalizations and Sunday School sentiment. All movies are “a means to generate wealth,” he writes, never for a minute considering any film made outside of Hollywood. By the way, I’ve never heard the words “giving a rebuke” or “acting out of love” outside the strange confines of the American evangelical sub-culture.

I can’t even find the energy to respond to Bettie Phillips Tyree, who writes:

I do not attend movies because I am a Christian, and the junk that Hollywood turns out is trashy and unfit for our children. Most of today’s movies and television shows only teach children bad language, how to sass their parents or any other adult figure, how to kill, maim, how to rob and steal, how to perform sexual activity at early ages and a lot of other bad habits. I will not help to finance an industry that supports blatant sin!

(Okay, one quick and obvious comment: Why then, Miss Tyree, were you reading CT‘s movie section? To protect us from ourselves?)

The most interesting comment, though, comes from Anthony Kaufman, a self-described “non-believing Jewish-born film writer, critic, die-hard liberal and leftist.” In response to Jeffrey’s review of Dogville, Mr. Kaufman writes:

When I think of Christian media outlets, I usually imagine cantankerous, close-minded conservatives who are too prude to appreciate art, especially groundbreaking and provocative art like the work of Lars von Trier. I found your review even-handed and extremely thoughtful and perhaps unlike I was expecting, braving von Trier’s themes with respect and maturity. I’m a reader of the New York Times, the Village Voice, the New Yorker, and I have to say your comments were as insightful and intelligent as anything that I read in those publications. For me, this is a huge deal. You have given me faith—at least in the quality and sophistication of the movie coverage at Christianity Today.

Knowing Jeffrey the little that I do, I’m guessing that that last comment will linger much longer than the others, and not because it’s a compliment. Rather, it’s evidence that the hard work of criticism occasionally pays off. Occasionally a reader finds a writer, and somewhere, somehow in that exchange there is a moment of recognition.