“I lost everything,” said Ellen DeGeneres of the events proceeding her coming out of the closet over two decades ago. “What we’re dealing with,” said David Letterman in response, “is needless ignorance, prejudice…” “And fear,” interrupts DeGeneres. Together, on the new season of Letterman’s Netflix talk show, they reminisce about the antiquarian days of censorship and the art that was needlessly hampered by moral majority meddling.
I found myself strangely sympathetic to their sentiment. As a Christian kid coming of age at the nadir of the moral majority, I remember well the ham-fisted way many Christians engaged art. Classic novels were casually dismissed as “existentialist” even as a modern pop song was deemed unlistenable because of its inherent “nihilism.” Too often, worldview thinking wasn’t being used as a tool to better understand a given piece of art; it was used as a weapon to keep the artifact at a distance.
It should be noted that there were wonderful exceptions to this disposition—one thinks of Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker who tirelessly tried to teach their evangelical peers a more nuanced cultural hermeneutic. Yet, the efforts of Schaeffer and Rookmaaker notwithstanding, it’s hard not to agree with Letterman and DeGeneres that the cultural milieu of the 90s and early 2000s wasn’t conducive to the creation of great art.
The New Moral Majority
Yet, even as I granted them this point, I was still left with a nagging question: Is the cultural milieu of today’s moral majority any more conducive to the creation of great art? Implicit in that question, of course, is another—namely, is the moral majority really gone? The answer to both questions, it seems to me, is an emphatic “no.” The only difference is that the cast of characters has been altered somewhat.
An example might be of help here. In a recent video put out by Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the senator and congresswoman gave the public what they’d (apparently) demanded from them: their take on the Game of Thrones finale. So as not to give away any spoilers, I’ll just say they didn’t like it. It was a letdown, they said, not because of a deficiency in storytelling per se, but because it didn’t communicate the correct politics (of the identity sort). “I was disappointed,” said AOC, “We need to get some feminist analysis up in HBO!”
Change a few details and one can easily imagine Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson having the exact same conversation. Art, for the worst of both the old moral majority and the new, is good only insofar as it communicates a particular message. In this thinking, art isn’t an end in itself, it’s rather a crude vehicle evaluated solely on its usefulness in carrying a particular ideology from point A (the creator) to point B (the consumer). This phenomenon led the great Albert Sterner to say,“There is no such thing as modern art. There is art, and there is advertising.”
Back to our question: Is the moral majority really gone? It strikes me that there is still a powerful force censoring art, evaluating everything through a narrow ideological lens. The players have changed, granted, but the game is the same. The left is doing today that which they despised the right for doing yesterday.
As a Christian who loves art, I’m not just interested in criticizing the problem. I want to find a solution. How do we move forward into a cultural milieu that is conducive to the creation of great art? In a word: honesty. We must be honest about ourselves and honest about reality.
Honest About Ourselves
When Letterman talks of prejudice, he’s referring to the proverbial “other.” If our premise is that our adversary is prejudiced while we’re unbiased, we will never notice that our side is doing exactly what we accuse the other side of doing. There will always be a moral majority because all of us have a peculiar—indeed, religious—moral orientation. The question is, will we have the intellectual and personal integrity to acknowledge our prejudice?
You see, in the evaluation of all art, we must begin with the humble premise that we aren’t approaching the world “from above.” As the poet Anne Carson put it, “There is no objective place.” We are creatures bound by space and time. We don’t offer some supposed “neutral” interpretation of a given book, painting, data point, or fact. Rather, conscious or not of our myriad prejudices, we encounter the world Christianly. Likewise, every other reader, connoisseur, or scientist comes to the world from their own particular angle.
Honest about Reality
Good art represents reality as it actually is, rough edges and all. Bad art, on the other hand, manipulates and distorts reality when it doesn’t buttress the artist’s “point.” Lines are left simple and clean. Good art is transcendent, the artist is almost taken out of the equation. Good art encourages the viewer to look through, more than at, the art. Bad art, conversely, leaves the heavy ideological hand of the artist awkwardly visible. The agenda enforced by the artist, rather than the artifact created by the artist, comes into focus.
Watching the Warren/AOC takedown of Game of Thrones reminded me of a Christian family I know of who wouldn’t let their high school senior read To Kill a Mockingbird because of the references to rape. But this misses the biblical reality. The world is good, but fallen. The world is still in agony, even as it’s being redeemed. As Christians, we should in no way be afraid to encounter reality as is—warts and all—because it’s God’s world.
We needn’t gloss over the world in our art. As Eugene Peterson used to insist, the church isn’t the public relations arm of God’s Kingdom! Stories can be complex and messy because this world is complex and messy. God doesn’t need us to clean it up for Him. Indeed, if the world itself is a piece of art, as Scripture teaches, then to look at it honestly is to respect the Artist who made it.
Image: Socialist Realism Art, Google Images