I have read some blog posts recently that brought up thoughts that have been milling around in the back of my mind. Gutting Our Creatives by my friend Carol Howard Merritt and Evangelicals and their (Bad) Movies by Tony Jones address the often missing or shallow nature of art and creativity within churches and Christianity (mostly the American/Evangelical version). Carol’s post talks about being more strategic with our often dwindling finances and making sure that we do not forget to encourage art creation within our congregations. Carol asks, “what would a religion infused with great art look like? How could we stage an iconoclast reversal?” Tony Jones’ post address the idea of art and creativity in the church by comparing a couple movies coming out based on stories from the Bible. One is the movie adaptation of The Bible miniseries that was recently on the History Channel and created by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. This movie is called Son of God and spends more time (and screen size) on the Jesus story than was allowed in the miniseries. The other movie coming out is Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky who also directed Black Swan. Tony sees a bit of a problem when churches spend money and jump through all sorts of hoops to get people to go to a so-so movie about Jesus but then have issue when a movie about Noah is dark and dreary (which it probably was, see Genesis 6:5-6) and happens to include a scene where he gets drunk (actually happened, see Genesis 9:20-21). I, like Carol and Tony, think we in the Church can do better. We have to do better when it comes to creating and promoting art. But, this ultimately brings up the question that lies behind what art we choose to promote and what we choose to criticize.
Can the Church nurture good art and be open to art and artists that not only support and reinforce our beliefs but also gives space to challenges, doubts and questions?
The photo I have at the top of this post features two productions of the Jesus story. The top images comes from the Jesus of Nazareth miniseries which is fairly iconic and often demonstrates a “standard” portrayal of Jesus as the unblinking, unflinching, hovering just inches above the ground, divine man. The second image is from the much more controversial The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorcese which was a film adaptation of the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. This film portrays Jesus in a very “non-traditional” way as sort of stumbling through his ministry, figuring things out as he goes and being tempted, tried and doubting like the rest of us. This portrayal notably met with much controversy at the idea that Jesus being tempted might lead to him considering avoiding crucifixion and instead marrying Mary Magdalene, raising a family and living the rest of his life in relative obscurity.
So…which portrayal of Jesus should a church or Christians promote?
I would argue both.
Jesus of Nazareth is a good film (definitely white, non-Middle Eastern, blue eyed Jesus aside). It tells the story of Jesus well and still artistically portrays the story in a way that is engaging and inspiring. Jesus of Nazareth generally tells the story as we would expect it, supporting and reinforcing what we probably already know. Or, serving as another vehicle to present the Gospel story to an audience. I’m almost certain there are people out there who would rather watch a film about Jesus than listen to a pastor preach about him for 30+ minutes.
Then, there is The Last Temptation of Christ. It is also a good film and some might even say a great film. Granted, it’s not for everyone…but neither is the Jesus of Nazareth film. The Last Temptation of Christ presents the story in a way that can be unsettling and challenging for some. That is not necessarily a bad thing when the film then gets us to really think about the story in light of the new way it is being presented. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus, “was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin” and The Last Temptation of Christ essentially works that passage out to it’s logical conclusion.
I think both movies then are useful for understanding a necessary balance with art and the church. We need art that both reinforces and leaves space for questions. To borrow language from Walter Brueggemann in his book, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, we need art that is orienting, disorienting and reorienting. If you read the Psalms, you’ll quickly realize that they are not all happy praise songs. The Psalms encompass practically the whole of human emotion. Psalm 8 (v.1 “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth! You made your glory higher than heaven!”) sounds a lot different than Psalm 136 (v. 14-15 “Give thanks to the one who brought Israel through—God’s faithful love lasts forever. And tossed Pharaoh and his army into the Reed Sea—God’s faithful love lasts forever!”) and Psalm 137 (v. 8-9 “Daughter Babylon, you destroyer, a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us! A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!”). The Psalms being songs are works of art then that, even through worship, are both orienting and disorienting. Some proclaim the historical faith, some question and challenge the current situation, and some praise God through the challenges. The Psalms, being good art, allow for the whole range of human commitment, doubt and re-commitment standard in the life of faith.
Some art serves as a orienting point that reinforces who we are and where we’ve come from. Others art serves as a disorienting and reorienting space open to challenge, doubt and critique. Jesus of Nazareth is great because it tells the familiar story well. The Last Temptation of Christ is great because in it can open the door to ask the questions and express the doubt that we all have during moments of disorientation. The struggle is to not swing the pendulum too far in either direction. We do not want to always reinforce what we already know so much that we become nearsighted and blind to other ideas. However, we also do not want to critique and doubt so much that we become cynical and apathetic about everything.
So, the Church then should nurture good art by being open to art and artists that not only support and reinforce our beliefs but also gives space to our challenges, doubts, questions and disorientation. We need both the familiar stories told in Jesus of Nazareth and Son of God, but we also need the challenging presentations of The Last Temptation of Christ and Noah. One to show us what we have already oriented around and another to reveal what we may have missed, never thought about or need to reexamine.
What are some ways you can encourage and nurture art and artists in your Church community? Does your church already do this? What kinds of art would you like to see more of in Church?