12 September 2012

Theme 3: Tragic Sense of Life

If I gave a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts, the third theme would be:

A Tragic Sense of Life

My experience suggests that Christians without much exposure to the arts (whether by choice or not) tend to think that a Christian approach to the arts means only enjoying art that is redemptive. To put it more strongly: there is a myth that Christians should only watch movies and read novels that are “edifying,” “uplifting,” etc.


The Christian narrative is a Creation-Fall-Redemption story, sure, but—two things:

First, we don't have to tell the whole story in each work of art. It's perfectly legitimate for Christians to make and enjoy art that tells just the Creation part, or just the Fall part, or just the Cain-killing-Abel part, or just the Levite-cutting-up-his-concubine part—because:

Second, we are not living in the glorified, renewed-Eden, paradisical future our faith promises. We are living in the really nasty, horrific, in-between of the time when we are saved, but not in heaven. Our redemption is accomplished, but not consummated. So there are perhaps equal parts nasty and nice, or some mix, in every person's life, in every day, in every action. I would go so far as to claim that Art that ignores our fallenness is less Christian than art that's only about redemption.

And here's a point that came up in discussion after one of Sproul's lectures. Actually, two related points.

First, a good use of art by Christians is in protest of the awful inhumanity of human to human. It is OK to make (and read/watch/listen to) art that shows or describes really, really terrible things: persecution, genocide, the loss of love. It's OK to do that as a protest against the awful deeds. Or:

Second, a good use of art by Christians is just to show things as they are, without reveling in the awfulness. So it's OK to depict sexual immorality, violence, hatred, cruelty (within reason) in order to expose its awfulness. It's not OK to depict them just to make more money or get a bigger audience.

And this is what Gregory Wolf calls “the tragic sense of life.” (I don't believe he originated the phrase, but I encountered it in his works). This terrestrial existence is an awful tragedy. And whatever your theology of predestination and so forth, whenever we suffer, God suffers with us. That's kind of the point of the Cross. Jesus suffered. The Holy Spirit prays with us, groaning more deeply than we do ourselves. How can we leave that out of our art and call ourselves Christians?

This is true, by the way, whether the artist is him/herself a Christian. I had a little debate with a church friend about All Quiet on the Western Front. He was saying that it was “totally hopeless,” and he meant is as, well, not exactly an insult, or a reason to ignore the work, but (I'm trying to interpret him here; D.B., if you're reading, please correct me) possibly as a reason that Christians should either not read it, or offer something more hopeful à la Les Mis in its place. I argued that the point of the books was how hopeless and horrible war is, and that that's a perfectly legitimate argument to make, whether or not the author was making it from a Christian viewpoint. Also, if Remarque himself was without hope, then it was honest for him to write a hopeless book.

Therefore, for all these reasons, we should read/watch/listen to—and also make—those works that show the fallenness of life.

So here's today's Question for you: Can you name a work of art that you think adequately, movingly engages with a “tragic sense of life” in a way that is true and meaningful?


Anonymous said...

First, you should actually do a 5 part series on art.
Second, I'm really struggling with this aspect of artistry. In theory, I'm okay with (as a writer) drawing out darkness, shaping fear, producing things that don't end with people looking up (the Billy Graham movie moment).
But in reality, I struggle to write non-redemptively. I have written some heart-breaking moments, but there is resolution in the overall story. Perhaps I haven't found my voice yet.

Истина said...

Amen! So, so true. Perhaps believers tend to take a short-cut with Philippians 4:8, and wonder if by not intentionally watching things that cannot be described by that list of adjectives, we excuse ourselves from the hard work of following Ephesians ch. 5

As for, "a work of art that you think adequately, movingly engages with a 'tragic sense of life' in a way that is true and meaningful" - couldn't that serve as a nice definition of any Russian classics? :)

Iambic Admonit said...

I doubt that you haven't found your voice. There is an equal-and-opposite side to what I said about only telling the dark bits; somebody also needs to tell only the bright bits! Maybe that's your part of the tale.

LT said...

I just finished "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo. I think it engages the tragic in a meaningful way, stirring the heart to desire justice and mercy. It also offers a small sense of hope. Beyond that, I had the pleasure of watching a production of Oedipus at a small professional theatre in mid-Michigan (the Williamston Theatre). This production (script modified) gave the audience a way to consider both the political and the personal, fear and hubris. Within the tragedy, we are confronted by our own failings. This causes me to look to God, and causes me to yearn for all who share in this life of failure to know His love and joy.

Rosie Perera said...

First, excellent series of posts. Sorry I haven't had time to respond until this one.

Second, yes you definitely should do a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts. I wish you lived closer. You would be very welcome to deliver it at my church! Even on Sunday mornings as part of the worship service!

Third, just yesterday I watched an excellent YouTube clip of U2's Bono in which he talks about Christianity and the Arts and Truth, and affirms what you are saying here about a tragic sense of life. The title says 2012, but I actually think it was from a 2006 interview with Bill Hybels. Other clips from the whole interview on the site confirm that.

Fourth, a work of art that engages with a "tragic sense of life" in the way you describe? I just don't know where to start, there are so many. I'll restrict myself to films I've seen within the past couple of years: Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011), The Son (Le Fils) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002), North Country (Niki Caro, 2005), Master Harold and the Boys (Lonny Price, 2010), Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003), Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Marc Rothemund, 2005), and Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948).

jfutral said...

I agree with @apilgriminnarnia, "First, you should actually do a 5 part series on art."

Leave theology to theologians. Just talk about the art. After all my phases of arts advocacy, educating people _about_ art, going over ad nauseum about _why_ people (Christians or otherwise) should appreciate or care about art, talking about the economic and educational positives of art, nothing changes people's minds. Nothing but the art itself.

For all the intellectual exercises applied to why art or particular art is wrong, no matter how rational the explanation or exegesis, this is ultimately an irrational position. So no matter how rational the counter argument, one cannot alter the irrational with the rational.

Now this may sound very Modern of me, but this is the basis of the issue, rational and irrational, emotion and intellect have nothing to do with each other. This is the modern bifurcation. Until someone moves into a more postmodern holistic position of rational _and_ irrational, material _and_ immaterial, emotion _and_ intellect, united, people who oppose art or some form of it feel fully intellectually impenetrable, their irrational emotion fully in check.

Only an irrational epiphany will alter their perception.

Talk about specific art. Help them experience that art. Quoting Hans Rookmaaker, art needs no justification. Countering Roger Scruton, beauty needs no defending.


bob jetson said...

@jfutral, when you say "emotion and intellect have nothing to do with each other", I assume you are either (1) unaware of psychological theories on affect, or (2) choosing to ignore that which is inconvenient for your position.

From the wikipedia page on affect (, "Many theorists (e.g., Lazarus, 1982) consider affect to be post-cognitive. That is, affect is thought to be elicited only after a certain amount of cognitive processing of information has been accomplished."

This is to say, many emotions are a direct response to cognitive processing that involves translating input from our senses into information we then logically evaluate. only AFTER this process, it is suggested, do we experience affect.

Everyday experience affirms this. We experience sadness when a loved one dies not because they are unresponding at that moment (at various times in the past they would have been unresponding or absent as well); rather, it is the cognitive/rational realization that they will forever REMAIN unresponding and absent (or at least for a much longer duration than previously experienced) that triggers the emotion we label 'sadness'.

Therefore, in conclusion, I must strongly disagree that 'rationality' and 'emotion' are as disconnected as you affirm. this opinion merely stems from either ignorance of the facts or willfully turning a blind eye to that which is detrimental to your beliefs.

jfutral said...

Examine all things, hold onto the good. Not "Examine only those things you think are good".

And also not "Examine all things, hold onto the good, and the throw what remains away."


Iambic Admonit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jfutral said...

@bob jetson,

My apologies. I wasn't clear. I absolutely concur that emotion and intellect are wrapped up, both spiritually and physiologically. My point was that Modernity, in its effort to exalt intellect and rationalism as the only trustworthy attributes, has bifurcated rational and irrational, material and immaterial, intellect and emotion.

In my experience no matter how rational the explanation, taking an intellectual approach to change people's minds about art is fundamentally flawed and has never succeeded that I know of.

My conclusion is that art is actually quite rational. Opposition to art is irrational. The problem is when someone believes they have developed a rational position in opposing art. Presenting a rational counter position addressees the wrong problem.

I could be wrong, but I've been at this for a long time. If someone has other evidence or results, I'd love to hear about them.


jfutral said...

"Every Christian is a theologian, whether s/he knows it or not."

As Christians (or even not as christians) we may or may not develop our own theologies and theories on theology. But I believe Theology is a discipline and a gift (probably even the gift of knowledge). I can explore it, ruminate about it, talk about it, try to understand as much about it as I can. But ultimately I am not a theologian, like I am not an architect, as much as I love architecture and studying architecture.

And me trying to understand art from a theological position is like me trying to understand being a human from a medical position. I can be a human without a medical degree, even though I may know some things about being healthy, it doesn't mean I am a doctor. And the chances are high I am better off leaving medical things to a doctor. I can be a Christian without being a theologian, and chances are I am better off leaving theological matters and implications to a theologian. I believe C. S. Lewis felt similarly, right?


Iambic Admonit said...

Jfutral: I love your suggestion. We can talk ABOUT art all day, and talk about the theological foundations and implications all day, but that will never have half the impact of, say, a full performance of a cantata or a play, etc.

But I'm a bit dubious about the sentence, "Leave theology to theologians." Every Christian is a theologian, whether s/he knows it or not. The question is just whether we're good ones, poor ones, or uninformed ones. We all have theology of some sort or another, perhaps with huge gaps, perhaps with wild contradictions, so we should always strive to improve our individual and corporate understandings of theology, eh?

Rosie Perera said...

@jfutral: "I believe Theology is a discipline and a gift....I can explore it, ruminate about it, talk about it, try to understand as much about it as I can. But ultimately I am not a theologian."

True. Just as there are people who are qualified to be called Artists and the rest of us talking about art are not Artists, so also there are Theologians and there are laypeople talking about theology. Nobody is saying that by talking about theology you are claiming to be a theologian. But when you said "leave theology to theologians" you were implying that laypeople shouldn't even talk about it.

Then in the next sentence you said "just talk about the art." But by your own reckoning, shouldn't we
leave that to Artists? (I think not, and I think you also would agree that isn't what you meant. I'm just being playful.)

If we can talk about art as non-experts, and we can talk about theology as non-experts, why can't we talk about their interrelationships? And why would theologians be uniquely qualified to talk about theological implications of art if they are not trained Artists?

For someone who thinks we should leave theology to the theologians, you seem to enjoy talking about it quite a bit. I even saw that you have a profile on Theologica - "a bible, theology, politics, news, networking, and discussion site." :-)

"I can be a Christian without being a theologian, and chances are I am better off leaving theological matters and implications to a theologian. I believe C. S. Lewis felt similarly, right?"

Actually, C. S. Lewis is one of the prime examples of a non-professional theologian (he was trained in classics, literature and philosophy; he only received an honorary doctorate of divinity after having published quite a bit of lay theology) who ventured to speak and write a lot on theology. I think he would encourage us to do the same. We are all to a certain extent theologians by virtue of the fact that we are human, made in the image of God. We can't help but theologize.

Anyway, at what point in one's formal education does one become a "theologian"? Do you have to have a graduate degree in theology issued by an accredited institution? Does an undergraduate degree from a Bible college count? What about having taken some serious courses in theology and biblical studies without having a degree? What about doing some serious self-study via (not-for-credit) online courses available in these fields? How about having been involved serious Bible studies for many years, to the point of leading them occasionally? You see what I'm getting at? It's a continuum. Better to say we are all, to some greater or lesser degree, theologians.

See Stanley J. Grenz, Who Needs Theology?, particularly Chapter 1, "Everyone Is a Theologian." Just one quote: "Throughout this book...we will be attempting to show two things: First, theology is inescapable for all thinking, reflecting Christians, and the difference between lay theologians and professional theologians is one of degree, not kind. Second, professional theologians and lay theologians (all reflective Christians of whatever profession) need one another. Professional theologians exist to serve the community of faith, not to dictate to it or lord over it intellectually. Lay theologians need professional theologians to give them the tools of biblical study, historical perspective and systematic articulation so that they can improve their own theologizing."

jfutral said...

"But by your own reckoning, shouldn't we
leave that to Artists?"

Well, I know quite a few artists who would say that. I am not one of them. I actually think whatever it is in someone who makes art and someone who appreciates art is the same thing, just a different way of it being realized. I would also say that everyone is an artist of some sort, just maybe not in the generally recognized disciplines. But that is just my theory.

Lewis is the last person who would call himself a theologian. He went out of his way to explain why he wasn't. Nor do I think he expected anyone else to share his interests at the same level he did.

I don't have to know a lick of theology to make or appreciate art. And that is not a failing of either theology or art. The only time theology takes on importance is if you are creating specifically religious art. The only time it takes on a degree of respectful importance is if one is trying to make a work that reflects particular thoughts on particular theological subjects.

So, leave theology to the theologians. If they want to work out how a work of art fits into a particular theological framework, let them. That's what they do. I firmly believe if we Christians spent more time with just the works instead of trying to squeeze them into our theological world views, we would probably develop more vibrant and relevant theological world views. Their might even be a few more people like C. S. Lewis.

Starting from theology is working backwards, in my opinion. I like Grenz. I'm a fan of his work. I respectfully disagree.


jfutral said...

This is where I am coming from with "leave theology to theologians":

"Sontag writes 'Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation.' In the hands of interpretation, art becomes, at best, merely the visual illustration of an idea best expressed through other means.

So yes, in an oversimplified, reductionist position, everyone is a theologian in that at some point everyone thinks about God, or a god, or the existence of a god and what that might or might not mean to us.

Yes even life, our existence is a gift from God. But when we are trying to explore a particular gift or something that a gift may relate to, saying that everything is a gift from God is really not helpful.

Or another way, there is a distinction, wouldn't you agree, between me wanting to make sure I and my family eat healthy and at least a full-time nutritionist, if not a medical care giver?

So yes, the only difference between a professional artist and an amateur artist is a matter of money. But there is a line, no matter how fuzzy, between someone who casually makes art every once in a while, and someone who works day in and day out at their craft and art, to get better, to be more expressive, etc.

Sometimes the hobbyist or armchair whatever excels greatly at their interest, such as Lewis or Merce Cunningham and mushrooms. But those really are the exceptions, not the rule. Not everyone is so inclined.

Nor should they be, nor do they need to be. It is enough that there are people (such as Grenz's "Professional theologians") that we can go to when we need to for the tools to help us consider theological implications. But we do not need to approach art from a theological stand point. To do so from the start could even (and most likely will) get in the way of truly developing a relationship with the work.

If we insist on starting from a stand point of theology, we should at least start off by admitting our own personal limitations in that endeavor and be open to what the work has to say instead of overlaying our theology onto the work.

Otherwise, nothing will change and we will only continue to have these discussions and frustrations on how to get others in the church to understand and accept art because every (deliberately hyperbolic) Christian is convinced they understand "theology".

So, I reiterate, leave theology to the theologians. Hopefully now you better understand what I am saying with that phrase.


Rosie Perera said...

Joe, thanks for your clarification. Now I think understand that you're saying "let me leave theology to the theologians, or at least the avid armchair theologians; I'm not one." Which I am perfectly happy to let you do. I had thought you were saying we all should stop theologizing when we talk about art. Or at least to keep our theologizing compartmentalized from our talk about art, theology and art being two distinct disciplines that have nothing to do with each other.

I do think Grenz's "everyone is a theologian" is a bit of an exaggeration. There are plenty of people in the pews who will never take any interest in theology, and I'm not here to force them. I just think the category of "theology" is broader than most laypeople realize; whether they know it or not, they might already be engaging in theology. Like Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was surprised to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it.

I don't think one must begin with theology in talking about art. But neither do I think we must leave theology altogether to professional theologians. Anyone who wants to has permission to think theologically about art. We might start out unqualified, but we learn by doing.

Your analogy of the medical professional is good, but I think you've read it as supporting the "all laypersons must leave X to the professional X-ers" view. I think it is actually more like what I'm saying. The study of nutrition encompasses a wide spectrum -- from school children learning that it's good to eat their vegetables to someone who has a degree and is licensed to dispense professional advice about nutrition. But saying "leave nutrition to the nutritionists" would be unwise. Sure, not everyone has to take an interest in learning as much about nutrition as possible. But ignoring nutrition completely is not an option. Even if we do literally "leave nutrition to the nutritionists," the recommendations they give to us will become part of our own theory of nutrition. Similarly, if we leave theology to the theologians, what they teach us will work its way into our own theology. Only someone with no belief in God at all can really and truly "leave theology to the theologians."

I read the blog post you linked to. Good stuff. I respect Daniel Siedell. I haven't yet read his God in the Gallery but people I respect have recommended it and I own it. I agree with what he's saying in this article, and don't think it contradicts what I'm saying. Perhaps I unintentionally made you think I was equating "theologizing about art" to "interpreting works of art through the lens of a theological meta-narrative" which are two different things. Talking about art in general and its impact on the world, saying things like "the artist is made in the image of God and the creative drive in the artist is part of that image," writing essays like Siedell's -- all of these are exercises in theologizing about art.

I didn't mean to say that we have to pick apart every piece of art and look for Christian symbolism in it, or look for where it fits in to the schema of creation-fall-redemption. I agree with you and Siedell and Sontag that art is what it is and shouldn't be forced into someone else's framework. However, knowing some theology can be a useful tool in approaching art whether it's by a self-consciously Christian artist or an atheist. Even if the artist is pushing back against the meta-narrative tradition he or she is surrounded by, the very fact of noticing that and mentioning it is doing theology.

And it is not mutually exclusive to theologize about art and to spend more time with actual works of art allowing ourselves to be emotionally impacted by them without trying to explain them. The latter is a very good thing! Indeed, let's have more of it.

jfutral said...

"it is not mutually exclusive to theologize about art and to spend more time with actual works of art allowing ourselves to be emotionally impacted by them without trying to explain them. The latter is a very good thing! Indeed, let's have more of it."

Within the context of this discussion, how to affect the church's, as in the people of the church, view and acceptance of art I firmly believe this has been the major issue. Most Christians start from their understanding of theology and Christianity without the assumption that their understanding might be what is in error and not the art or artist. "The question is just whether we're good ones, poor ones, or uninformed [theologians]" is never asked or addressed by anyone.

So here we are in this mess trying to get people to understand art who believe they have a firm grasp of theology and believe that is the proper way to interpret or assess art. They already believe they have the God given tools to say that John Cage is not worth listening to, or that abstract art is an abomination unto God, or that certain works are blasphemous, and artists are out to destroy beauty.

As far as I'm concerned, "theologizing" about art is what has gotten us into this mess.


Rosie Perera said...

"As far as I'm concerned, 'theologizing' about art is what has gotten us into this mess."

I share your concern with the mess, and agree with your analysis of what got us into it.

My experience in the past 10-15 years of people theologizing about art has been from people who are artists first and foremost and are teaching how to understand art on its own footing in addition to teaching how to theologize well about it. They are not teaching people to avoid certain kinds of art for theological reasons. There's Jeremy Begbie who started the Theology Through the Arts project (he's both a first rate artist -- a classical pianist -- and a professional theologian; for him art comes first, then theology. There's David Taylor (artist, pastor, and pastor to artists, now studying to be an academic theologian under the aforementioned Jeremy Begbie). There's Loren Wilkinson and Dal Schindell and the artists they have brought in to teach at Regent College. There's Greg Wolfe and Image Journal which he publishes, and the artists he gathers to teach at the Glen Workshop, etc. And there's the We Make Stuff artists in Vancouver, BC.

Maybe you've not been blessed with being around such people, but that's where I'm coming from. They are part of the solution to the "mess" and are part of keeping future generations of Christians from ending up where a large percentage of them are today. There is a ton of healing going on right now between faith and the arts. I am delighted to be part of it.

So carry on. You're absolutely right. But don't let your frustrations about the past prevent you from seeing great things that God is doing in the present.

jfutral said...

"So carry on. You're absolutely right. But don't let your frustrations about the past prevent you from seeing great things that God is doing in the present."

Absolutely correct. I agree that there has been a shift about every 5 years since I started out as a professional artist in 1985. And the people you cite are definitely part of the current shift. And at each shift I am just a little more encouraged.

I just wish (and continue to fight the good fight) they weren't still the exception.

As I mentioned in another post here, the irony is that theology starts with a creative Creator. Theology starts with art. Maybe we should spend more time examining theology through the lens of art instead of the other way around.