During the first class of the morning at the small Christian college, our professor stopped the lecture and used his walking stick, curiously similar to a wizard’s staff, to step from behind the podium to the front of the class. He did this when he really wanted us to listen.
He leaned on the staff as if he was Pastor Gandalf and scanned the class before muttering a kernel of weathered wisdom. It was a heartfelt opinion, but it resonated with the force of a command: “Christians ought to be at the forefront of every discipline.”
Are we at the forefront of the Art that’s shaping our culture?
No. We’re lagging, relying on tropes and stereotypes to preach simplistic sermons when people want to experience compelling stories (although The Case for Christ is a recent example of success).
So yes, we must learn how to make better art, but what good is that if we aren’t speaking the same language as the culture around us?
In Apologetics and The Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway insists that the lost meaning of Christian terminology is what prevents many believers from being intelligible to unbelievers. For example, our world doesn’t hear “Jesus,” “faith” or “sin” as defined by Christians. She argues that an effective, and underused, way to reclaim lost meaning is to create art with sound doctrine (her specific focus in the book, however, is apologetical literature).
In a word, Christian artists need to learn apologetics in addition to their craft. If you have the creative drive and you believe Jesus is the Son of God, then learn apologetics. Know what you believe and why. Your art will be better because you’ll be confident enough to tackle tough issues.
Christian artists don’t have to hide in the realm of “self-expression.” If we study apologetics, the more we’ll naturally see how we can demonstrate Christianity’s implications in our work.
For a start, here are 4 habits to ignite artistic apologetics (although my primary focus is narrative art, creators of other forms may still benefit).
Develop the Worldviews Behind the Central Conflict
Art enables us to raise deep worldview questions without coming across as hostile. How? Well, in storytelling, there is a single question called the dramatic question, which involves the protagonist’s (main character) central conflict with the antagonist.
This clash arises from conflicting desires, which arise from conflicting values, which are motivated by their conflicting worldviews (or perhaps variations of the same worldview).
To put it plainly, the main character wants something and the bad guy wants something else. But they both can’t get what they want because they value different things, so a conflict arises.
For example, the dramatic question of The Lord of the Rings is: “Will Frodo destroy the ring?” And the antagonism is that Sauron wants to reclaim it.
If desires drive characters, values drive desires, and worldviews drive values, then destroying the ring drives Frodo, selfless heroism drives his desire to destroy it, and Goodness motivates his selfless heroism.
With Tolkien creating this conflict, we are drawn in. We want to know what happens to Frodo.
When we empathize with characters by vicariously experiencing their journey (not to mention the world they inhabit), we participate in the worldviews involved in the story as well, albeit indirectly.
So whether we agree with it or not, we let the protagonist’s worldview speak as we follow the story because the answer to the dramatic question unearths deeper worldview implications based on which desires were met and which values are maintained.
How do we develop the expertise to naturally develop worldviews into our art? For starters, learn the craft of dialogue, character development, sentence structure, description, scene structure, etc. Study award-winning stories and the conflicts that generate them. Take a poorly-rated movie, TV show, or song and rewrite it. Then use that as an inspiration or primer for your own work (don’t plagiarize, obviously).
All it takes is the desire to learn. Ask experts. Google it. YouTube it. The Internet Age has its benefits!
Embedding worldview into the central conflict is perhaps the most important element in creating art because when it’s done right, deep questions are raised, which demand inward attention on the audience’s part.
Wrestle with the Darkness
Christian art cannot be pigeonholed into what is family-friendly (although the genre is necessary), aesthetically unambitious or, worst of all, thinly-disguised proselytization. It requires provocation with novelty and sound theology with beauty. It must engage with our world and be relevant.
In Art & The Bible, Francis Schaeffer says: “Christianity is not just involved with ‘salvation,’ but with the total man in the total world.” Let us, then, incarnate the Gospel in the totality of our present world. What we need are integrated works of art fueled by the conviction that there truly is no god but God, and that Christ is his Son.
But darkness reigns. There are hurting people, emotionally, physically, spiritually and psychologically, and art is often more therapeutic for them than intellectual arguments for Christianity. Even so, intellect is crucial to existential peace (Rom. 12:2). William Lane Craig’s personal story illustrates this, as he describes in his book, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Likewise, I can vouch for that fact, for my life was a wreck before my intellect truly found God (as opposed to my idea of him).
As artistic apologists, we must imagine how the Christian worldview intelligently speaks to dark experiences and scenarios, and then, using our unique artistic style, express it. We must wrestle with our own darkness and portray the conflicting desires inside. Spit them onto the page. Scream them into the songs. And don’t be afraid of incomplete conclusions (Heb. 11:39), knowing that Christ has only promised to free us from destruction (2 Tim. 2:1; Titus 1:2; Heb. 4:1). None of us are complete yet.
So wrestle, and communicate the longing it conjures. People want to hear that they’re not alone in the dark.
Our worldview speaks to the whole person (Matt. 22:37-40; John 10:10; Rom. 6:13; 12:1-2) and the whole world (Matt. 28:18-20; Phil. 2:9-10; Titus 2:11; cf., 1 Cor. 9:20-22). God is the Ground of Reality, the Foundation of objective morality and the reason we long for a better world.
Yet others don’t agree. So we must invite them to experience it without baiting-and-switching them in the process; we don’t pull a hellfire knife on them the moment they lean in to hear what we have to say.
As I mentioned above, we must learn the craft to create compelling art, but how do we write worldviews into it without screaming ours or disrespecting others?
Learn about other worldviews, depending on your purposes or genre.
If we understand where other worldviews have clouded the lens of Reality, and how Christianity cleans it up, then our art can be the Windex that clears up misunderstandings.
The more we understand where other worldviews rub shoulders with Christianity, or where they wander off, the better we can be in targeting the nuances that create misunderstandings among us. And we won’t rely on stereotypes in characterizing their adherents (such as the “angry atheist,” the “cynical liberal” or the “militant Muslim”). If we can tell respectful and compelling narratives then we can finally respond to Brian Godawa’s challenge:
We need more storytellers to tell vampire stories with a Christian worldview (The Addiction); more zombie stories with a Christian worldview (I Am Legend); more demonic stories with Christian redemption (M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil); more post-apocalyptic thrillers that honor God (The Book of Eli); more subversion of adultery (Fatal Attraction), fornication (17 Again), unbelief (Paranormal Activity), paganism (Apocalypto), humanistic anti- supernaturalism (The Last Exorcism), and our “pro-Choice” culture of death (The Island).
….With two exceptions, why were all these movies that subversively incarnate the Christian worldview made by non-Christians instead of Christians? Rise up, O Christian apologists and subvert ye the world’s imagination!
(God Against the Gods)
Set It Loose
We tend to take attacks on our faith personally, but we must not concern ourselves with how people disbelieve the Ground of Reality. That’s on them.
Yet our art is no exception to avoiding this “justifying of hypersensitivity.” We can’t be offended by criticism. We can’t confuse the time and energy poured into our work as part of our identity. It’s art we made; it doesn’t make us who we are. We can’t let our emotional response to criticism, both real and imagined, dictate our work (for example, I’m inclined to believe this is now Taylor Swift’s chief artistic impetus).
We can’t let our personal feelings, cultural trends, or social fears get in the way of what we want to say about Christ. When we do, we create subpar art that is lost in the shuffle of mediocrity because our artistic voice is hushed and the bold truth of Jesus can’t break new aesthetic ground in the land of remakes and cynicism.
Three Final Remarks
1.) Our creative voices must be strengthened by skill and a commitment to Truth because not only should Christian art speak clear Truth, it should look good doing it.
2.) We must remove our egos, find our identities in Christ, then create the best art we can…and set it loose into the darkness.
3.) God is ready to use us.