On August 8, 2011

The Art of Lament

(or Why I don’t like Christian Fiction)

We live in a culture where to be unhappy is a thing of treason. After all, the pursuit of happiness is literally on our charter. And after a while that stopped just being a line on some document in a museum, and started to become our lives’ mission. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for happiness. I love to celebrate, and I think the Christian faith should be pioneering the way in showing the world pure joy. But….

I have talked a lot previously about how I tend to not like a lot of things that our Christian sub-culture produces. There are a lot of reasons for this, I think Christian is a good noun and a bad adjective (thank you Rob Bell). I think that creating Christian ghetto’s that avoid rubbing shoulders with the broader culture goes against the grain of the gospel. But my deepest reasoning is probably best summarized by Hank Hill (of King of the Hill).

His son Bobby had just joined a Christian Rock Band, and Hank tried to talk him out of it. This is what he said, “Bobby, can’t you see that you aren’t making Christianity any better? You’re only making Rock n’ Roll worse!”

My deepest reason for not liking most Christian sub-culture stuff is that a lot of the time it isn’t good.

Now, before I get into this, let me say…The other day I was riding with some friends who were playing a Christian radio station, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Several songs came on in a row that were artistically well-done, poetic, and had some good theology mixed in there. So maybe I just am overly-critical of this genre. But here is why I don’t think that’s the case.

A lot of times we pull out the Philippians 4:8 card to talk about how Christians should engage the media and culture. This is the verse where Paul says “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It’s a great passage about how we should train our habits to gravitate toward the things that are of God while being in the world. But I like how Dick Straub talks about this…

“Some people use this verse to argue against consuming any media item that includes violence, promiscuity…adultery, swearing or other questionable behaviors.  However, the Bible itself is packed with descriptions of these very behaviors because they are true aspects of human life.”

Let me pause for a second for a caveat. I’m not saying that you should be concerned about what kind of things you consume. Or that, given your own bent or propensities you shouldn’t avoid entirely certain types of media. I think there is wisdom in being a good steward over what you let yourself be influenced by. But listen to how Dick Straub continues this thought:

“The issue, therefore is more nuanced. Because evil is a part of the human experience, good art will take evil seriously. Rather than eliminating all popular culture that includes evil, culturally savvy Christians will want to discern how a piece of art handles evil. Does it simply depict evil in a way that maintains the integrity and truthfulness of the story? Does it discourage evil, elevating the good by revealing the nature and consequences of evil? Does it endorse evil, portraying it as normative and without consequence?”

Which brings me back to Christian Fiction. I have tried it a few times, I gave it a fair shake. But I don’t like it, or for that matter, overtly Christian movies. Not because I don’t love and cherish the gospel, but because I also love and cherish good art.

When I read a Christian book, I can already tell you how it’s going to end. Almost no one will die (except maybe a bad guy or two and a marginally insignificant character) and the hero is going to ask Jesus into their heart at the end. Now that’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s still true. I don’t like most Christian art because it doesn’t take evil seriously enough.

Because in real life stories don’t always end happily ever after. People die, and not every marriage overcomes that bump in the road. Which, oddly enough is why the Bible is so compelling. The Bible doesn’t mirror our Christian sub-culture, because the Bible is honest that something is deeply wrong. The Bible tells the best story ever told, because the Bible uses the art of Lament.Which is the art of taking the world as it is seriously, even as God draws it back to a better place.

The stories that don’t take evil seriously are so decaffeinated. They tell the truth, but only part of it.

So here is the point of this blog (and the ones I’ll write for the next few weeks).

The world needs artist who are Christians. People who will start with an honest perspective of the world as it is, but refuse to leave the story clinging to the status quo.  They need fresh voices who can paint or show or sing about hope in the midst of deep sorrow.

The world needs to see the Art of Lament.

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  • http://twitter.com/pcunningham3 Philip Cunningham


    The world needs artist who are Christians. People who will start with an
    honest perspective of the world as it is, but refuse to leave the story
    clinging to the status quo.  They need fresh voices who can paint or
    show or sing about hope in the midst of deep sorrow.

    That’s the perfect articulation of why “The Shawshank Redemption” is my favorite movie all-time bar none.  It’s the only film I rate 6 stars.  And what you just said is what makes it so imminently re-watchable — that even though you know the script, it is quality art that moves you through the honesty of real life while leading you to joy.

    #FreeFrankDarabont
    #FreeStephenKing

  • Danny Gill

    I haven’t had a lot of luck with Christian fiction either. A lot of what is marketed as Christian fiction or Christian art is really a reaction to secular fiction and art. It’s a reaction to the foul language and sexual themes that seem to predominate modern fiction and art. It’s not wrong to create fiction and art without those things. But the problem is that the talent pool producing such fiction and art is more limited than is the mainstream.

    When I think of Christian fiction, I think of “The Lord of the Rings,” or the Harry Potter books. These are well written, and yet they don’t dwell on the things that seem to fascinate secular authors. Great fiction reflects the story of good vs. evil, and shows us how we all have a part to play in the real story.

  • Sbarton

    Just finished Anne Rice’s The Road to Cana.  Now there’s a deeply Christian novel I like.  She breaks the Christian fiction stereotypes.

  • http://twitter.com/djiverson d.j. iverson

    I couldn’t agree more. One of my favorite songs of all time is ‘Ball and Chain’ by Social Distortion. Not exactly a typical church song by any means, but I’ve always looked at it as the prayer of a former drug-addict, and from that context it has a lot of power, because you believe every word lead singer Mike Ness sings. You can hear the truth in his voice. That’s why guys like Johnny Cash, Bono, Dylan etc… are so powerful, you believe them. They have this awesome ability to speak truth, even in works of fiction. That’s what the ‘Christian’ subcultures don’t get. The truth is life is very messy. It’s full of bad days, tough times, and crazy people. That’s exactly where the story of redemption gets it’s strength. Take out the mess and you lose the truth.

    Looking forward to the next few posts.

  • Maynard

    I appreciate your post.  Very well-written and I couldn’t agree more.  A sometimes-participant, much of Christian subculture makes me ill.  I think cluttering our minds and lives with cheap christiany mimics of  mainstream society gives one a false sense of feeling saved/chosen, but in essence assists one in  turning off those who witness such.  The only Christian fiction I have ever read was The Shack (I’m an unapologetic fan) but for the reasons you mentioned, I can’t fathom replacing the fiction I read that is so often very real-life and packed with spiritual themes for some sap that grown-up church camp girls read to be pure from an author who might drop an F-bomb.  The Bible, the life of Christ, or our own lives in anyway suggest that everything is G-rated for those who love the Lord. . .   Why do you always set me up to jump atop a soapbox? 

  • Peter Mosley

    It’s ironic that I actually wrote a piece of Christian Fiction and published it on Facebook right before reading this piece.

    Interestingly…it ended with a lament…I agree with you there.

    I’ve read stuff about how a lot of churches were magnificent so that the poor would see the greatness of God there…and the person writing the article argued that these people were not worshipping God, but wealth.  I think that’s the way a lot of Christian stuff is.  A lot of it doesn’t worship God…but it worships that resolved marriage, or that better job, or some other version of the American Dream.  In the Bible, especially the New Testament, the world is a wasteland, and the Christian life only matters if there is something beyond it.  A lot of our Christian subculture doesn’t get that.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Oooohhh, that’s good Peter. I’m glad that you are working on creating something with your life man. I recently read a book about our Christian sub-cultures that was reflecting on how disproportional the amount of creative/art comes out of how large the broader Christian community is. You are swimming upstream brother. 

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Maynard, I haven’t read the Shack (I know, I know) but from what I’ve heard about it, one of the things that the Shack deals head on with is the reality of evil in the world. I’ve also heard some people who weren’t big fans of the writing wonder about why it spread so widely so quickly. Maybe that has something to do with it. 

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    I knew I liked you DJ. I wrote on here earlier about going to a U2 concert earlier this summer, and the concert started with all these statistics about world poverty and deaths by our global negligence. Which is not how most rock concerts start. 

    What I love about Bono (and Dylan and Cash) is how they can also be hopeful while being honest. I think that’s a key, but when it’s done well…it’s art. 

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    I haven’t read it, but I’ve always wanted to read her book on Jesus. However, as the woman who kind of paved the road for Twilight, I think in the new heavens I’m going to have a huge argument with her. :)

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Amen and Amen. Shawshank Redemption is the perfect example of what I am talking about. In doing jail ministry, I heard that story referenced more than any other movie. Not by people who were claiming innocence, but hoping for redemption. 

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    I love both of those stories, and I think of them as the best examples of writing Christian fiction. But, they are not just phenomenal books in Christian cultures, they are phenomenal in any circle. What Lewis and Tolkien did was so great that it impacted the broader world. 

    I think you hit the nail on the head Bro. Danny, the question is why is the talent pool limited? I’m going to address that exact thing in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for helping me segue. :)

  • Lynn Waller

    You made some good observations. One exception to the general trend is C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy. and I’m sure Lewis would agree with you about the overall low quality of “Christian fiction”.

  • Blythe ‘Peden’ Miles

    Hi, Jonathan!  I really enjoyed this intro blog, and I can’t wait to read the rest of your thoughts!  As a Christian and an artist, I have spent many hours debating and thinking about this – good art vs. “christian art”.  I believe that the better, more studied and more real grasp I have on art, and the more successfully accepted my art is, the better I will contribute to society – the human race in general, and Christianity in specific.  That being said, I’m looking forward to the rest of your posts!

    On another note, I noticed that in your blog and in the comments, the only two types of art I saw mentioned were music and literature.  I LOVE music and literature, but I am concerned that you might accidentally leave out visual art.  I am a sculptor, painter, etc. (even got an art education from a CHRISTIAN University :D ) and I find in my conversations with other Christians that they leave fine art out of the picture.  I have tried desperately at my various churches to emphasize the importance of visual art, and the rich history of visual art in Christianity and other religions…but I am often met with blank stares or nervous laughter.  All this is to say that I really encourage you to include visual art to your comparisons on Christian and secular art!  

    I am a Christian and an artist, not a Christian Artist.

    Thanks for your time!  And hi, it’s me Blythe, from way back when at RHCC :)

  • Danny Gill

    One reason the talent pool is limited is shear numbers. There are fewer people who are professing, sold-out Christians than there are those who are not.

  • http://delesmuses.blogspot.com/ Jenny

    “Caricature” is a good word for it. What annoys me the most about “Christian fiction,” actually, are how male writers portray women only in rigid stereotypes with no real personality whatsoever ,and female writers are usually to busy turning their heroes into perfect dreamboats that don’t have anything really bad to repent from, hence making the conversion scenes rather silly.