Good Ideas, Tolkein, Lewis and…Kirk Cameron Movies

Posted: January 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

I have long wondered why it is that Christians have such a difficult time producing great art.  It hasn’t always been this way.  Catholic J.R.R. Tolkein set the world afire with his Lord of the Rings works and I have overheard hardcore secular nerds express gratitude for C.S. Lewis’ books.  The great composer Handel was a committed Christian and, despite his clear emotional problems created by the abuse of alcohol, Mel Gibson is a great film maker. 

Yet, today we have unoriginal music filling the playlists of K-Love and poorly written, acted and directed films like…well…insert any Kirk Cameron movie from the last ten years.   There may be a very simple reason.

Dot.com pioneer Steven Johnson argues in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead 2010) that pioneering thinkers do not normally arrive at greatness through mastering their craft alone but by exposure to multiple fields of study.  Johnson asserts that brain storming sessions with peers normally produce fairly predictable results but that when an expert in one discipline collides with another, one often comes away with something great.

Too many Christians, including Christian artists, dwell in the evangelical ghetto.  They typically don’t fraternize with film makers, authors, entrepreneurs, graphic designers, scientists, etc. because too many of them are “secular.”  Yet, Tolkein and Lewis, for example, read widely and had a circle of friends that included atheists and agnostics from various colleges at Cambridge and Oxford.  It is clear from their writings how much they absorbed and analyzed thinkers of every stripe. 

Think also of the preaching of Tim Keller at Redeemer Church in New York City.  Keller’s sermons are littered with witty insights from everyone from post-feminist, philosophers to J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter books.  Keller’s homilies often strike non-Christians as deeper and more thoughtful than other sermons they have heard and there is reason for this…they are deeper and more thoughtful!

The current trend among younger evangelical pastors is to preach 45-minute to hour-long sermons that sound like seminary lectures with the occasional pop culture reference thrown in to demonstrate how hip the minister is.  With all due respect, as much as like Tosh.0 and Will Ferrell movies, these don’t really challenge one’s thinking like a book such as You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier or Long for this World by Jonathan Weiner.   

 Christian artists, and I include preaching and teaching ministers among their fold, need to be well-versed in theology and current trends within the church and pop culture but also need to challenge themselves with the leading works of other fields of study.  They need to read these works but, also, if possible, they need to meet leaders in other fields and listen to them closely.

Johnson argues that cities normally produce better ideas for the simple reason that one cannot truly dwell in an urban area without constant interaction with those with different perspectives and masters of alien fields.  Christians artists should head Johnson and take regular trips outside of the evangelical ghetto.

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Comments
  1. Heather Cordasco says:

    Matt.
    I appreciate this perspective and agree with much of what you say. I wonder though about a couple of things; it seems to me that sometimes “Christian ” artists begin to interact with and be exposed to others in their craft and so many of them drift away. I wonder if the relentless destruction of the moral foundation that has occured in this 50- 75 period has made it much more difficult. At least when Tolkien and Lewis were honing their craft, there was a cultural expectation. Also, I understand that ” good art” is very important to you, it is to my daughter Corinne as well. We discussed this over break. Yes, Fireproof is an amateurish effort because it was done by amateurs and yet many a joe common has been impacted by it. Why is it that those who love good art can take the good from a film, song etc that may be expressed in a filthy, crude or pornographic way and yet cannot receive any good from a work like Fireproof?

    • Revolution says:

      Heather,

      I appreciate what you’re saying. I can only speak from my own experience, but when I worked in Hollywood, I knew one Christian artist who “crossed over” and then had a fairly public affair and divorce. Many attributed it to this artist “crossing over” but those who knew the person knew that it had been boiling under the surface for a long time before the move into secular music. I have found that often it is not the “rubbing elbows” with others that is the problem, but not dealing frankly with a sin issue that is the true danger. Unfortunately, too many churches don’t create a culture where ordinary joe’s can confess their struggles without fear of harsh judgment, so it is even tougher for those we place on a pedestal to find a safe place to wrestle with potentially damaging temptations.

      That being said, I don’t think Christian artists need to immerse themselves in Kanye’s latest album or whatever, but I do think too many Christians unnecessarly dwell in the “evangelical ghetto.” There are still books and music and movies that deal with the human condition and culture that I think are invaluable without being absolute filth and I would encourage Christians to take them seriously.

      I think crude art doesn’t speak to people. I think that art that deals intelligently with the human condition but is presented in a crude way speaks to people. So, what I want Christians to do is to learn to speak with the same depth, just without being as crass about it. Make sense?

      Appreciate you guys so much!

      God bless.

      • Heather Cordasco says:

        it does make sense and I do take your point about the sin problem being there and not being created by the atmosphere. I guess I just see that people move farther away and that their “normal ” is changed. I also think that most of this country views and uses art the same way they use Walmart. No one wants to admit to shopping there,but the prices are good and they are “comfortable ” there. They don’t use any thought to go there, the same way they give no thought to what they listen to or watch. They are who are driving the inane Will Farrell movies and just totally unthoughtful raunchy humorthat passes for cleverness these days. Corinne and I were talking about Black Swan, and my point was that the movie could have been just as effective with an implied relationship rather than a blatant one. She vehemently disagreed with me until I pointed out the quote I heard that one of the stars Portman I think said they deliberately put the scene in so that men would come to a ballet flick. To me, that is blatant manipulation. Again, the bias only goes one way– Your thoughts?

      • Revolution says:

        I think committed Christian artists can see past cheap gimmicks and shallow appeals to our sinful instincts. If they can’t, then they aren’t good Christians or artists in the 1st place. Take Shakespeare, which every great artist must be familiar with–yet, Shakespeare is filled with crude jokes and cheap sexual innuendos. Yet, it didn’t stop Lewis, Tolkein, etc. from learning from him. I think the same applies today.

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