Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book Review - Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts

Steve Turner chose the name "Imagine" for this book. That should have been a tip-off. I suspect his intention was to be ironic--to use the name of John Lennon's anthem of socialist secularism to present his thesis for the exact opposite: a vision of Christianity influencing the arts. But Imagine is a maudlin, syrupy song and Turner's book, while presenting many intriguing ideas, is incomplete and actually gets the question backwards. Instead of asking "Why are many Christians hostile to the arts?" Turner should have asked, "Why are the arts so often hostile to Christians?"

Before I tear into this book, I should say that Turner gets a lot of things right. For example, he gives the Catholic Church the proper credit for having always viewed art as a way of approaching the sacred, while Protestantism--particularly the evangelical brand of modern times--often views art as fundamentally worldly and approaching idolatry.

He also correctly identifies the importance of art in all its forms as a means of communicating ideas to large groups of people. And, he recognizes how vital it is for Christians to engage in the arts in order to influence society. I almost said "evangelize" there, but in truth, that's where Turner's argument begins to fall flat. He seems to understand that Christian moral influence on society is a good thing, but worries that actual evangelization via the arts should only be done sotto voce--if at all.

In fairness, I used to believe exactly the same thing and offered many of the same reasons that Turner gives to rationalize this position. However, after considerable reflection over the years, I have identified the true source of this reticence to incorporate my Catholic beliefs into my writing and indeed into practice in my daily life--fear. Cowardice. The desire to be accepted by the great and the beautiful. The urge to be embraced by the elites and to become one of them.

You can usually get some impression of where a man's heart is by who his heroes are. Steve Turner's heroes are all musicians and beat poets from the 1960s through the 1980s--he repeatedly mentions the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, U2, and many others. The name-dropping got so thick at certain points that it made me think that Imagine was less about creating a vision for Christians in the arts than an attempt to reconcile Turner's personal obsession with his Christian faith.

Not surprisingly, Turner aims most of his criticism at Christian rock musicians--an easy target if ever there was one. The contemporary Christian music scene has traditionally been just as he describes: a musical ghetto that specializes in preaching to the choir. But he misunderstands why that is. Like most actual ghettos, the inhabitants of the contemporary Christian ghetto didn't really want to go there--they went there because otherwise, there was nowhere for them to go.

While dismissing the contemporary Christian rock scene, Turner instead holds up the band U2 as an exemplar of how Christians should influence the arts. It is undeniable that U2 has had a major impact on the music scene over the years. And there are undeniable Christian undertones to their music. However, Turner ignores the fact that for U2, the religious imagery is almost always at the service of a political agenda. For example, in the song Pride (In the Name of Love) the Christian religious imagery is used to canonize Martin Luther King who, for all his merits as a civil rights leader, was certainly no saint in the Christian sense.

In fact, U2 seems to do the opposite of what Turner calls for in his book. Rather than use their music to teach a Christian message, U2 seems to use their religious bona-fides as a promotional tool to preach a "social gospel" to their Christian fans. Worse, U2 have used their status as Christian-influenced rockers to give legitimacy to political agendas which are often antithetical to Christianity. Recently, for example, U2 performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the single biggest supporter of abortion and "gay" lifestyle issues ever to occupy the White House. Is this kind of thing really how Christian artists should be spreading the Gospel?

And that brings us to politics--an issue that Turner hints at but never addresses directly. Unfortunately, it is an issue that must be addressed if we wish to understand why Christian artists seem to be so absent from mainstream culture and indeed, why mainstream art appears to be intrinsically anti-Christian.

The fact is that since the 1960s, overtly Christian artists have been the target of a blacklist which is worlds more all-encompassing and harsh than any of the largely fictive bans that were imposed on Communist artists during the 1950s. Evidence for this is out there for anyone who wishes to look.
Exhibit A:
Cleon Skousen's Current Communist Goals, as read into the Congressional Record in 1963. See especially points 21 through 28, where Communist operatives were encouraged to infiltrate the American media and cultural institutions to influence things for the worse. They were told to promote ugliness, obscenity, and deviance and replace religion with a "social gospel." Given that Skousen's book was written in 1958--well before the onslaught of pop culture spew we experience today, his conclusions can only be seen as frighteningly prophetic.

Exhibit B:
Secular socialists and communists themselves have admitted that they use "art as a weapon" to promote their ideology and attack those opposed to them, such as orthodox Christians. The concept itself was first promoted by V. I. Lenin in a 1905 pamphlet entitled Party Organization and Party Literature. One need only do a Google search on "art as a weapon communism" to immediately discover how much thought and struggle the secular left has put into this campaign over the years.

Exhibit C:
The research is finally catching up with this subject and books like Red Star Over Hollywood are finally revealing the truth about the secular left domination of Hollywood that continues to this day.
So finally we come to the subject that Turner dances around in Imagine but never quite addresses: that the absence of Christian message in American popular culture today is not by accident. Nor is it because Christians are untalented or uninspired. The absence is by design. Most of those with the decision-making power in media are overtly hostile to Christianity and are keen to suppress Christian messages and promote messages disparaging Christianity. Even if they don't do it consciously, being overtly anti-Christian is part of the media culture. As someone who has worked in media for 15 years (academic and professional publishing), I have seen this again and again on every level--but especially among the decision-makers.

If you doubt any of this, you need only recall the lengths to which Mel Gibson was forced to go to get The Passion of the Christ to market. Remember, this is a movie that ended up making billions of dollars worldwide, and yet Gibson struggled to find a distributor for it. And the movie was slurred by many within the entertainment media with the most vituperative epithets available: antisemitic, pornographic, fascist, etc. Is it possible that the normally money-hungry Hollywood elites were such financial nincompoops in this case that they didn't realize the potential for this movie to be a huge cash-generator? Certainly not. This was the normally unspoken media and artistic antipathy toward Christianity revealed for the world to see.

In such an atmosphere, even inspired and copiously talented Christian artists can't be expected to thrive unless they have already made their name as secular stars. But for whatever reason, Turner ignores all of this. Instead, his advice to Christian artists seems to be: Keep a low profile. Engage the audience on their level. Attempt to insinuate Christian messages into your work in ways that won't offend them.

The most damning passage of Imagine comes when Turner envisions himself reading overtly Christian poetry before an audience at a New York poetry slam:
"...if I read a poem about the delights of nature, the awfulness of betrayal or the horrors of war, I would expect to find a resonance in [the audience's] own histories. But what response would I get if I read a poem about the death of Christ? People might snicker. They might feel uncomfortable. In some art circles, religion, especially Christianity, is a matter for laughs. I could get shouted at....Most likely, I'd be faced with bemusement. Is he serious? Is he being ironic?"
God forbid that Christians be the target of derision and ridicule! My only response to this passage comes from Mark 48:38:
For he that shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation: the Son of man also will be ashamed of him, when he shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
Interestingly, Turner does not address the one area of contemporary popular culture where Christianity has had--and continues to have--a tremendous impact. Popular country music. I could point to any number of extremely effective popular country songs that have very clear and obvious Christian messages. Here is a short list:

Three Wooden Crosses by Randy Travis
The Little Girl by John Michael Montgomery
What I Love about Sundays by Craig Morgan
Love without End, Amen by George Strait
When I Get Where I'm Going by Brad Paisley
Jesus Take the Wheel by Carrie Underwood
Long Black Train by Josh Turner
The Man I Want to Be by Chris Young

Beyond that, country music is rife with songs that are more subtly infused with Christian, pro-life and positive ideals--exactly what Turner is talking about in his book. Here is a small selection:

The Broken Road by Rascal Flatts
There Goes My Life by Kenny Chesney
Remember When by Alan Jackson
American Honey by Lady Antebellum
I've Been Watching You by Rodney Adkins
Blessed by Martina McBride
The Good Stuff by Kenny Chesney

I would argue that any of these songs, which are devoid of political overtones, are more effective at evangelizing the culture than the entire discography of U2. So why does Turner ignore the country scene? Perhaps he is simply unfamiliar with it. Or perhaps it is because he knows how badly it weakens his thesis. Overt references to Christ and Gospel messages can be done well and achieve popular success without tempering the message.

Turner is very obviously a thoughtful man and a good writer. This book is an easy and interesting read and it makes many good points. However, at the end of the day, I think Turner's key premise is fundamentally flawed. The subtle approach he champions is necessary but not sufficient. What is most needed in this current age are talented artists who are completely unafraid to preach the Gospel overtly through their work. Will the cultural elites criticize and ridicule? Yes, they will. But Scripture gives us a guide on what we are to do during such times:
"Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables. (2 Timothy 4:2-4)
Instead, of Turner's strategy, I propose that Christians will better evangelize the arts by doing the following:

1.) Pray! Pray that God will inspire you to create something that helps bring His Truth to all people. Offer yourself to Him, that He will fill you with His Grace and use you as His instrument.
2.) Make your spiritual life as air-tight as possible. That means frequent confession. Frequent Mass attendance. Spiritual reading. Recognition and avoidance of the near-occasion of sin. Association with others who are spiritually solid. Finding a trustworthy spiritual director, etc.
3.) Understand that it's ok to spread the Gospel of Christ through your art in subtle ways. However, make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons--and not simply for fear that your work will be ridiculed and rejected.
4.) Be totally and completely unafraid to include overt references to Christ, the Church, and Gospel truths in your work. If you are afraid of criticism, you shouldn't be in the arts to begin with. Count yourself blessed if people deride you because you dare to speak the name of Jesus in public.
5.) Recognize that art is a dangerous vocation which appeals to the world, can be pathologically introspective, and can lead to personal hubris and self-congratulation in direct proportion to the excellence of your own talent. If you are truly talented, have a plan for humbling yourself whenever the adulation goes to your head. The mad desire of the public for true talent has ruined the souls of many, many artists.

I have come to the point in my own life where I believe that the prayers and writings of a single Carmelite in a convent will ultimately have a greater impact on salvation history than several $100 million Hollywood productions or a career in popular music. We who are on the outside are only capable of half-measures because we're so wrapped up in worldly affairs. We struggle to remain the salt of the earth and our savor is so easily lost. And if it is lost, all our previous good work can become tainted with the stain of hypocrisy.

Thus it seems clear that worldly success as an artist, writer, or musician often carries within it the seeds of temptation and spiritual destruction to a much greater extent than most other fields. As a result, a career in the arts should only be entered upon with the greatest care and trepidation. The sad trajectory of Mel Gibson--who made one of the most beautiful and successful Christian movies of all time--should be a cautionary tale for every Christian artist. For what purpose is it to gain the whole world and lose one's soul in the process?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Book Review: A Landscape with Dragons

This book has cropped up so many times in so many different conversations, that I realized I had to read it. Now that I have, I am of the opinion that every Catholic parent, teacher, or serious writer/artist ought to read it as well. Agree with Mr. O'Brien or not, his argument is thought-provoking and requires serious reflection.

Michael O'Brien is an artist. He is also a writer of no mean talent. He is the author of the international best-seller Father Elijah and many, many other books--a fact that I did not appreciate until immediately before I read this book. In fact, if you visit his author page on Amazon, the man has a literary resume that puts most other contemporary Catholic writers to shame. So he can't simply be dismissed as a hack or a fraud who knows not of what he speaks.

In brief, A Landscape with Dragons posits that much of the literature meant for our children today is demythologizing in nature in that it inverts the classical symbols of Christianity so that the scary is made to appear friendly, the dangerous is made to appear misunderstood, and the diabolical is made to appear harmless. Meanwhile, the good is made to appear hypocritical, the holy becomes buffoonish, and the pure becomes boring. The end result of this trend is the creation of de-Christianized, re-paganized children and ultimately, the warping of society's moral sense as a whole.

O’Brien’s initial concern in this book is the representation of serpents or dragons in modern literature as friendly, good, or tame creatures. He posits that this trend turns on its head the scriptural symbolism of the serpent/dragon as a representation of the devil. But his central thesis goes well beyond this. O’Brien points out that much of what the world presents as “the good” or “conventional wisdom” is actually gnosticism, thinly disguised:
“If you watch this, you will know more, be more grown-up, more smart, more cool, more funny, more able to talk about it with your friends.”
And the messages broadcast in much of the media meant for children and young people only appear to be benevolent and wise on the surface:
"Truth is what you believe it to be. Right and wrong are what you feel right and wrong are for you. Question authority. To become what you want to be, you must rebel. You make yourself. You create your own reality."
If these messages sound familiar, it is because you probably read them in the book of Genesis: “If you eat of the fruit, surely you will not die. You will become like God, knowing good and evil.”

It’s hard to deny that these messages saturate children’s books and movies and such sentiments are often found coming out of the mouths of the “heroes” of these works. O’Brien rightly points out that these tantalizing ideas are infinitely more damaging and destructive than overtly evil messages that are easily detected:
"Evils that appear good are far more destructive in the long run than those that appear with horns, fangs, and drooling with green saliva."
So parents need to be vigilant to make sure their children aren't ingesting harmful messages with their tacit approval. O’Brien understands that this can be an arduous task, but provides a helpful scale for parents to rate materials aimed at their children:
1.) Material that is entirely good.
2.) Material that is fundamentally good but disordered in some details.
3.) Material that appears good on the surface, but is fundamentally disordered.
4.) Material that is blatantly evil, rotten to the core.
He then goes through several popular books and films and analyzes them according to this scale. As A Landscape with Dragons is now 12 years old and was written before the Harry Potter phenomenon, the books and movies O'Brien critiques here are a bit dated: A Wrinkle in Time, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, the Goosebumps series, etc. But his thesis is solid, and I think the majority of his points are well made, even if he does carry them a bit too far in spots.

I fully expected O’Brien to make unreasonable exceptions for those works which are traditionally accepted and lauded by Catholic critics, such as those of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. To my surprise, O’Brien even levels a few criticisms at these works, though admittedly, he seemed at pains to do so. But ultimately, I could not with fairness accuse him of holding a double-standard.

O’Brien is not merely a critic, however. At the end of the book, he provides over 100 pages of suggested reading material for children and families, compiled by the good folks at Bethlehem Books. He also offers parents some guidelines for how to determine if a book is good for your child to read. Here he includes one bit of sage advice that is often neglected--pray about it. This section alone is worth the price of the book in my opinion.

My feeling upon completing this book is that Michael O’Brien is on to something. Does he go overboard in spots? Yes. Is he perhaps overly scrupulous? Maybe a little. But his central thesis, buttressed in many places by Aquinas, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and others, is hard to deny.

As I have said on many other occasions, what is really needed to combat these destructive forces attempting to influence children is compelling and authentic literature and media created from a Catholic perspective--and beyond that--media which is utterly unafraid to portray profound truths overtly. How many Catholic saints and heroes from history, unafraid to speak the name of Christ publicly, richly deserve a novel or motion picture portraying their lives and exploits? I can name two dozen of them off the top of my head. If done well by talented artists with excellent production values, such tales would be smash successes along the lines of The Passion of the Christ. All we need are writers and artists with the talent and courage to do it. And we all need to pray that God will send us such individuals.

This is a long review and really, it only scratches the surface of this discussion. In short, if you are a Catholic parent, read this book. If you are a Catholic writer or artist, read this book. If you are a Catholic scholar studying literature, philosophy, or theology, read this book.


Very recently, Mr. O'Brien published a book called Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture. I have not read this book, but as part of my background research for this review, I read the preface online. In it, Mr. O'Brien detailed the spiritual attacks he endured while reading the Harry Potter series. At one point, he says the following:
Throughout the initial dark period of research and writing, however, an amazing array of breakdowns and catastrophes occurred in the external details of our family life. These were more serious and frequent than the usual ups and downs of car problems, financial crises, sickness, and leaking roofs. It was these and much more--and all at once. I might add that I know seven other Christian writers who have publicly critiqued the Potter series, and all but one of them experienced the same phenomenon. Two had dreams like mine, and most of them had struggled to resist the cloud of oppression combined with an uncanny convergence of external trials.

Back in 2007, I read the entirety of the Harry Potter series in about six months with the aim of critiquing it on from a Catholic father's perspective. I published all my reviews on this very blog--the last one, where I blasted JK Rowling with both barrels, may be found here.

When I read Mr. O’Brien’s statement above, I got a funny feeling and remembered my own experience reading Harry Potter. As I was nearing the end of the series, I went through one of the most difficult and spiritually exhausting stretches of my life--our youngest son was born with a complete bowel obstruction that required immediate surgery. He was hospitalized for over two weeks and for a little while, we were concerned he wouldn’t make it. Thanks to excellent medical care and a huge amount of prayers, he is now a thriving two year old.

But I can distinctly remember reading book six of the Potter series while my wife was in labor--and then putting it aside for several weeks to deal with our crisis.

Coincidence? Maybe....