Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Cult of the Underdog

How much of our politics, tastes, desires, beliefs, and buying practices is based on our love of the underdog? It has been long understood that Americans love to root for the underdog, so well understood in fact, that people, movements, and parties are clamoring to be identified as the underdog. There are a million examples of this in our culture right now, if you know to look for them, but just a few of my favorites are the claims by the right and the left that the media is biased in favor of the other side, the claims by both creationists/ID proponents and the scientific elite that the other group has more money/publicity, and the claims by people of faith and atheists that the other side rules the country. If you are perceived to be the underdog, people will support your cause, so instead of arguing why their particular party/ideal/program/belief is better than the others, many people/groups seem to spend more time making arguments about how the other people/groups are more popular than they are. This is truly a result of our mediated society which decides most important issues based upon ad campaigns and media presentation.

Typically, these petty debates don't occupy much of my musing time, but the recent rise of "New Atheism" has made me deeply concerned. For those of you who have not heard of the "New Atheism" I would encourage you to go read Gary Wolf's definitive article on the subject published in Wire called The Church of the Non-Believers. It's quite long, but it details many of the perspectives from the movements founders and leaders. Essentially, "New Atheism" is a militant branch of atheism which rejects religious tolerance and intellectual pluralism on the belief that religion is dangerous to open societies. The notion that people who believe in a scientifically disproved "God" could be allowed to vote based on that belief is both frightening and unjust to the "New Atheists" like Chris Hedges. Although most of these thinkers have not said so in as many words, many of them would prefer some sort of law which prevented people of faith from voting in order to protect democracy from what they view as primitive, ignorant, and irrational ideas. The similarity to this militant and intolerant atheist to communist purges and other forms of intellectual totalitarianism seems blatant and is not entirely lost on Wolf and other commentators.

But what seems to be driving this movement is the commonly accepted belief that Christians (fundamentalists at that) rule the nation and are leading us into political ruin. Some of this argument can be blamed on Bush's open Christianity (although history should have taught us well that popular figures who claim to be believers are often found to be either liars or of very weak faith), whether you support his presidency or not. If atheists are the underdog, then the ruling group (the Christians) must be corrupt and dangerous. Indeed, a quick search through various popular internet sites (like Digg and even YouTube) shows how strong this movement has become founded upon the idea that Christians are in power and are oppressing the nation. Statistics seem to support this claim too. I won't bother to search for any specific poll, but any number of studies have shown that the majority of people belief in a God, and most of them believe in a Christian God at that. These statistics and the claims that Christians run the nation might come as quite a shock to most Christians, most Christians would argue quite the opposite. The removal of religious images in many government buildings across the nation has been cited by some as evidence of an increasing secularism. So whose the underdog? The truth, naturally, is somewhere in the sticky middle. Steven Weinberg in a review entitled A deadly certitude on Dawkin's instrumental book, The god Delusion claims that while most people claim to have some religious faith, the postmodern belief in relativism (and its PC disguise "tolerance") has left our society essentially godless:
According to a recent article in the New York Times, American evangelists are in despair over a poll that showed that only 4 per cent of American teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. The spread of religious toleration provides evidence of the weakening of religious certitude.
So whose the underdog? Well, Biblically we know that believers have been and always will be the underdogs in the world, and certainly the ethics, morals, values, and beliefs that most people hold in American are not in agreement with the teachings of Christ; however, currently, the "right-wing" religious movement does (did?) have consider power and influence. Time will tell if the Church will look back on the last 8-10 years as a golden area or a time where the Faith was mediated, comodified, and marketed for the political and commercial benefit of others. Either way, as believers we must avoid the Cult of the Underdog, and strive to understand the world and our culture as it is. Instead of entering into debates on whose the real loser or intellectual outcast, we must strive to glorify God and edify man by excelling at everything we put our hands to do: artistically, politically, culturally, personally, physically. So that whether we are the underdog or not, the world will know that we love God and our neighbors, and that our Faith is a primitive belief in nonsense; a belief only of hillbillies, children, and the elderly, but rather a belief with a long intellectual tradition held by great minds throughout history, founded upon rational (yet complex) truths, and personal application which allows for the value of the human individual and existence.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Evil and Human Nature in Fiction

I've been meaning to blog about this for over a week I think. Mark Bertrand recently posted a blog discussing a recent World Magazine interview of writer Andrew Klavan (I know, this already sounds confusing but bare with me). Unfortunately World Mag requires a subscription to read their articles, but trust me, the mag is well worth the cost. If I could afford a subscription I'd have one myself...If you are like me and can't read the original interview, there are some great quotes on Bertrand's blog. Bertrand quotes the interview:
Becoming a Christian actually made me less likely to use Christian symbolism and structures in my work because now I see Christ's presence underlying all of life -- I don't have to place Him there artistically.

In this sense, Klavan seems to argue that Christian symbolism is life itself. Symbolism is typically used to suggest something that is on some level foreign to the setting of the work of art. For example, In Moby Dick the whale himself is symbolic of many things, not the least of which is the horribly sublime power of God. Melville uses the whiteness, among other things, to highlight this aspect of the whale's symbolism. The symbol here functions to allude to some quality that is not inherent in the natural image of a whale. But in light of Klavan's view of symbolism, there is no need for the artist to use any symbols at all to allude to God, since it is the very nature of His creation to allude to Him.

Calvin Seerveld bases his whole aesthetic upon allusiveness, which basically means that the core of art is that it alludes, and in the case of good Christian art it alludes to God. If Klavan is correct, then all a Christian artist needs to do in order to make an excellent work is to accurately portray their subjects. If they do this, then they will be alluding to God since His creation itself alludes to Him.

I'm going to have to consider this idea further before I can make a judgment, but one of my first reactions is concern since this idea seems to imply that the greatest form of Christian art is the realist work, which, to me, seems to stifle creativity and privilege skill. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

One Sided Posts about Thomas Kinkade

In doing research for various essays in my grad program I've had to read books of letters from or to a famous authors: C.S. Lewis, Mary Shelley, etc... Often times these books of letters only have one party's letters in a series of correspondences, which forces the reader to imagine what the other person wrote in reply. There is a strange joy to be had in reading these half known dialogues. In this spirit of such books, I've decided to post a series of posts I've recently made on a form about Thomas Kinkade's "art" and whether or not it is good Christian art. I'll leave it up to you to imagine how the other party replied. Please let me know if this format is too annoying.

First Correspondence:
Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. In regards to what art in dialogue with PoMo would look like, I would say that it would be art that addresses the relevant issues that form the foundation of postmodernism: alienation, comodification, the ubiquity of the media and advertisements, data overload, finding meaning as an individual in an increasing large global community, knowing Truth, etc...So it would be a work of art that would not just provide answers, but also acknowledge the validity of these problems. I can give a negative example of this, but no positive one pops into my head right now: Thomas Kinkade's art alludes to the answer to all these problems: Christ, however, he utterly fails to recognize the problems, or that any problems (death and decay for example) exist in the world. And here he fails because he shuts off communication with the audience. (In this sense he is a great example of how someone who fails to be in dialogue with modern issues can communicate as little as the PoMo artists who are utterly nonrepresentational.).

In music I believe these is a positive example of what I am saying in an artist like Sufjan Stevens who is able to communicate to a modern audience and recognize their concerns and yet allude quite successfully to Christ as the ultimate answer (isn't this the artistic equivalent to Paul's divinely inspired attitude of being "all things to all people"?)

I can't readily think of an example of literature, except perhaps O'Connor or Cormac McCarthy, but he is not publicly stated that he is a Christian.

Anyway, I hope that answered your question? If not, let me know and I'll try again.


Second Correspondence:
The commercial success of an artists in no way reflects his/her ability to create good art, or to speak to their audience in a meaningful way. The popularity of a pop group in music, for example, is not based on their ability to communicate to the important issues of their audience's lives; if anything, popularity often signifies that an artist has trivialized issues in order to appeal to the largest possible audience (think of the topics/themes of almost all pop music: childish accounts of love and sexuality, prideful boasting, ignorant materialism...). In addition, if popularity was evidence of good communication between artist and audience we'd have to judge postmodern art as good too (in regards to communication), because it is wildly popular in our culture and has been for decades, from films to music to those extremely popular "splatter" paintings that hung in 35% of the homes in the 1980's.

While I agree that it is good to meditate on beauty and peace, I do not believe that this must, or should be done at the expense of Truth, and I am deeply concerned about the effects and themes of Kinkade's work. Kinkade's work trivializes the suffering in the world, and in a sense is almost opposed to Christianity because it presents a world which in no way needs a savior. The idyllic settings might evoke a sense of peace and comfort, but they are not based on the peace and comfort of God, but of a false history. They present to us beautiful settings: rustic old cottages which function to suggest a past without sin or corruption or sorrow, a longing for a time (1700-1800's) where our country was free from godlessness, a time that never existed. This glorifying of the past is dangerous because it neglects the issues of the present. If Kinkade speaks to a modern audience, he is encouraging them to ignore our present problems in favor of an illusionary past. In addition, there is no sense of the groaning of creation, its corruption, or our sin and corruption. Kinkade paints the world as if Adam and Eve had not eaten the apple, a world that is peaceful and comforting because it does not need a savior, it is already perfect. So if Kinkade speaks to us, he speaks only of our desire for perfection, but not of our need of a perfecter in Christ. There is nothing wrong with dwelling on beauty, when, however, an artist exclusively dwells on fantasy he/she runs the risk of creating an idol, a poor alternative for the heaven that awaits us. Forgive me if I sound divisive about this, I certainly do not believe that there is anything wrong with enjoying his paintings, but I do question their status as good works of art which give glory to God.

Third Correspondence:
I preface this all with the statement that what particularly concerns me about Kinkade is not that he creates works that disregard the existence and effects of sin, but that he almost exclusively creates such works. This, I believe, constitutes a lie about one of the central (scratch that, THE central) issue of our existence: we are fallen, we need Christ.

I agree with all the qualities of God that you outlined, how can I not? But one that was missing was Christ as savior, and again, I cannot see how Kinkade's works point to Christ as savior. As for their alluding to heaven, what they actual refer to is perfection, and as Christians we know perfection will only come for us in heaven, so to a believer we can make the connection between the idyllic painting and heaven, but that connection (as far as my knowledge of his "works" goes) is not inherent in the painting at all. In other words, Kinkade gives us a perfect world, but there are no symbols/images in that world that allude to heaven or God, just to perfection broadly. Which means that to an unbeliever they are seeing the deification of nature/the past, something that Kinkade took from the Romantic movement. In this sense, his works are almost transcendentalist (do they not evoke the very secular poems of Wordsworth? or Walt Whitman?). More on this later.

As for the paintings causing a sinner to long for Christ because they see the perfection in the painting, since the paintings do not point to Christ/heaven in their imagery or symbolism, how could the unbeliever make that connection? Is there something in the presentation of "perfection" that inherently points to Christ? On some level I would say yes, but for the most part, our society is filled with images of "perfection" (a false, worldly, human view of perfection, like Kinkade's presentation of perfect nature) that rarely ever point to Christ. For example, most commercials present perfect families, perfect relationships, perfect cars, perfect laundry soap etc...of course, from the stand point of God, these things are not perfect, but then neither is the rustic cottage and landscape of Kinkade's paintings. We are a culture obsessed with perfection, particularly finding perfection outside of Christ (I.E. plastic surgery), like in idyllic scenes of nature. Therefore, if Kinkade's presentation of "perfection" as past landscapes points to God's perfection, so do the presentations of "perfect" families in TV commercials.

As far as Biblical texts/principles that support the idea that art should reflect the fall, well since the entire Bible, the entire Bible is devoted to the fall and our redemption in Christ, I would say that this might be the cornerstone principle of the Bible. The Word of God does not present answers without addressing questions, or solutions without problems. David's psalms are an example of that. His poems range from lamenting his sin, asking for vengeance, and glorifying God's creation. Or take the Old Testament stories which give accounts of sin and redemption.

What is True if it ignores our need of Christ by misrepresenting the world as sinless and uncorrupted? If his paintings were of God (like David's psalms of praise), then Kinkade would be making art that is True, but his subject in his paintings is not God, but nature and a rustic past. This is a crucial distinction. The beauty, peace, order, delight, creativity (since Kinkade is directly stealing from a 19th century style, it is safe to say that he is far from creative), and perfection present in his paintings do not come from God, but from nature. Only if we assume that he is giving glory to God through nature can this be seen as Truth; however, since the works of art in and of themselves glorify nature, how different are they from the romantic/transcendentalist movements of the 1800's in American which gave birth to the New Age movement and the deification of nature in our culture? Perhaps I am mistaken about his work, is there a way that he clearly symbolizes in his work that the world he is presenting represents the perfection of heaven rather than the glorification of the corrupt world as a replacement for heaven? If he is clear on this, if he does show that the real world is not perfect but that heaven is, then perhaps I am wrong. But if a work of Christian art fails to meet the first criteria set by Paul in Phil 4:8, Truth, then can it be good Christian art?

This is what Hans Rookmaaker speaks of righteousness in regard to art:
"Righteousness in art does not mean that, in fiction or on the stage for instance, everyone must be upright and good. That would be against truth. Reality is different. The Bible includes plenty of descriptions of wickedness and evil...Righteousness is a Biblical term with many overtones, including mercy and grace" (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture).

Concerning showing the purity of God through a pure painting, how does this show the purity of God? God is pure unlike the world, how would painting the world as a lie (pure) give glory to God? Purity ought to be in art, but that means purity in relation to sin, does the art promote or cause sin? But that does not mean that we can ignore the existence of sin, because to do so is to ignore the need for a savior.

Kinkade's style comes from the romantic landscape paintings of the 1800s. Here's Rookmaaker's description of that period:
"peaceful, restful, rustic, with a kind of contentment and almost sentimental poetry. There are the woods, the old oak tree, the stream and little waterfall, the peasant folk with their cattle, and the beauty and golden sunshine of a fine summer's day. There is nothing of the agitation and problems of the larger world with its ever-changing culture, its revolution and counter-revolution. It is the world of contented people living away from the turmoil amidst the beauties of the world that remained untouched by the new industrialization. It is the world 'at its best', it is almost eternal (even if almost secular) bliss"....It was a kind of escapism."

And that is what I believe the function of Kinkade's paints is, to allow people to escape the Truth about the world, its corruption, their sin, and need for Christ and to dwell on the false presentation of the world as perfect. Yes, creation reflects God's perfection, but creation itself is not perfect. To present creation as perfect is to confuse creation and creator, to form an idol and to lie about the True reality of the world.