12 May 2006

Reading Pride & Prejudice

Read: Almost finished The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin. Wow! Thanks, Rosie, for the recommendation! Whew!

Listened to: Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera (unfortunately; would he had written more!).

How should Christians filter works of art through their spiritual lenses? There’s a fine line between over-analyzing art vs. simply taking it at face value without employing critical thinking as to the implications of the worldview represented.

On the one hand, some critics force works of art/literature/film into Christian boxes of meaning, such as searching for cross-shapes in photographs, trying to read Raoul in “Phantom of the Opera” as a Christ-figure, making The Matrix or Star Wars into allegories with a one-to-one correspondence to the passion narrative in the Gospel According to Matthew, etc. On the other hand, it would not do us or our students much good to say, “Isn’t Catcher in the Rye such a lovely story? Such nice people. OK, good, moving on to the next book….” Rather, we need to shine the light of the Gospel softly on what we encounter, observing the moral/ethical implications of the work.

Below is an interesting piece that highlights this issue. It is an example of an analysis that I believe stays right in the middle where it should be. A friend of mine recently adapted and directed a production of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The production emphasized the themes she discusses through the acting style. For example, the most important line, by posture, timing, silence, lighting, was Lizzy’s “Until this moment I never knew myself”—thus pointing up the need for self-examination. Here is what the director wrote in the program:

Dear Friend,

If you have come to our show expecting a good, old-fashioned romance, I do hope you’ll leave us quite satisfied. But if you go home, having enjoyed it only as good romance—and nothing else—then I will have failed both you and Jane Austen.

Pride & Prejudice is a story filled with the 19th century marriage market: men and women, courting, teasing, proposing, and marrying; a mother with five daughters, vying for marriages that will settle her girls for life—and yet, as the title suggests, it is not primarily about romance itself. It is rather about the changing process that romantic love can enact upon a character; about two young persons, who though seemingly incompatible, by their very interactions with one another create compatibility betwixt themselves. The wonderful romance of this story is a direct outcome of the conflict and life-changing clash of worlds between a certain Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourne and the wealthy Mr. Darcy of Pemberley.

This story explores many themes, such as the practical necessity for a middle-class woman to marry, and the consequences of loveless marriages. Clerical positions in Jane Austen’s time were often given to people by wealthy land owners within a parish, and they were considered highly desirable situations for men without inheritance. Mr. Collins is an example of an appointed, yet hardly appropriate clergyman. This is perhaps a remark on the way the clergy could be set up without necessarily being suitable, or even godly. Other themes include the need for parental discipline, the excesses of gullibility, and the unreliability of first impressions.

All these and more await you in our play. It is my prayer that this moral story of pride and humility, criticism and self-examination may cause you to search your own life for the personal weaknesses that plague us all.

For the glory of God,
Anna Barshinger

1 comment:

Rosie Perera said...

Read: The Discerning Heart: Discovering a Personal God by Maureen Conroy (for a class I'm taking this summer on contemplative listening)

Listened to: Holst The Planets, Bach Brandenburg Concerto #3

What a great intro to Pride & Prejudice!

You asked "How should Christians filter works of art through their spiritual lenses?" I'm not sure whether you're talking about how far we should go in analyzing the worldview the artist is presenting, or how much we should read our own worldview into the artist's creation. Either way, I think we have the freedom to bring our own interpretation to a piece of art/literature, using the work to get at deeper (gospel) truths, even if this goes beyond the artist's intent (in the spirit of "plundering the Egyptians" à la Augustine).

For example, here's an excerpt from Thornton Wilder's play Our Town which Don Postema uses in his book Space for God: Study and Practice of Spirituality and Prayer, which I in turn read from in the class I teach on prayer. I'm not sure Wilder ever dreamed it would have such implications.

Emily: We don't have time to look at one another (She breaks down, sobbing.) I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed... Do human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No (Pause). The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

(Now that I'm involved in this blog, I have the added pleasure of appreciating his reference to poets.)

I find it very sad that there are Christians who, instead of reading widely and drawing from what is true and good in what they read, spend an inordinate amount of time making lists of [what they would label "so-called"] Christian teachers and ministries that can't be trusted because they cavort with the "dark side" (Catholics, ecumenicals, artists, occultists, environmentalists, mystics, new-agers, liberals, gays, you name it). It's this huge long chain of guilt by association. See this list, for example, which slams many reputable Christian leaders and institutions, including Regent College, Jeremy Begbie, Eugene Peterson, J.I. Packer, Os Guinness, Martin Marty, Alister McGrath, Richard Foster, First Things, IFES, InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, Christianity Today, the C.S. Lewis Institute, World Vision, etc. This is a website which elsewhere smears Luci Shaw (because of her endorsements of Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and that supreme new-ager Madeleine L'Engle), claims that "occultists are behind the renaissance of art," and warns that "The Passion of the Christ" has porn stars in it and condones decadent morality so Christians should beware of it. So take what they say with a grain of salt, or a whole salt-shaker full!

A friend of mine in Texas knows and appreciates the wonderful Christian retreat center Laity Lodge (where people like Luci Shaw and Eugene Peterson speak at retreats, and people like Arts Pastor David Taylor hang out). My friend was recently bemoaning the fact that a group of Christians in a focus group he was part of were suspicious of Laity Lodge because they have artists in residence at their retreats. These people want to go on retreats just to hear solid Bible teaching, and can't imagine that the arts could have anything useful to say to a Christian trying to live the Christian life. How narrow an experience of God's truth and beauty! (Not that the Bible is narrow, but it opens us up to the arts which can expand our vision of God even more.)

All that said, I do believe we need to "filter works of art through [our] spiritual lenses" and employ critical thinking when we imbibe them. But I think we ought to approach art with the attitude of "taste and see the the Lord is good!" (in other words, with our focus on God) rather than fear of how the Evil One might be lurking behind every symbol. I'm reminded of a talk by Eugene Peterson in which he likened the Christian pilgrimage to a walk in the woods; he said that many Christians miss the beauty of the forest, because they are looking down at the ground the whole time, trying to avoid all the "moral mud puddles."