Last week saw the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and with it a (predictable) storm of controversy from the evangelical community. Reviews have ranged from predictably critical to outright disdain to hostile readings, and from strongly (though not unreservedly) positive to more restrained affirmation of the film on aesthetic and spiritual grounds to especially measured theological and artistic engagement. In short, the responses spanned exactly the range one would expect from the evangelical community, which is itself deeply divided on the purpose, value, and meaning of the arts—decades of conversation on the topic notwithstanding. Noah works as a sort of theological-artistic Rorschach test. We seem to find it in what we expect given its origins and our disposition.
Rather than offer another review (which would add nothing to the conversation at this point), or decry once again the predictable evangelical response to the arts, or even critique reviews with which I disagreed, I thought it might be useful instead to ask where we stand today and point to a few places we might grow from this.
First, if evangelicals’ responses to Noah is any indicator, it is clear that the old idea that evangelicals have no artistic sensibilities ought to be put to rest. If some of us are still busy making “art” that amounts to tracts, others are so busy lauding the qualities of artsy films and books and coffee that our bubble of hipsterdom needs popping. To be sure, there remains plenty of room for growth, especially in our approach to narrative work. The influence of hipsterdom has not erased the realities that have led to the so-called ghetto of Christian fiction. But evangelicalism is too broad at this point for any single brush to capture the state of our sensibilities toward or talent with the arts. Our willingness to group around some common denominators means that our “tribe” will inevitably encompass a remarkably broad array of perspectives on something so subjective as the arts. (Indeed, I am increasingly persuaded that we ought to stop saying that “evangelicals this” or “evangelicals that” at all: the description is sure to be even less accurate than similar descriptions of “Gen Xers” or “Millennials” or “Boomers”.)
Our movement includes a tendency toward extremes: from refusing to “dilute” the gospel with social work, to nearly burying it in a focus on social justice, and back again, to highlight just one tension that has riven the movement off and on again since its inception midway through the last century. The same kinds of tensions have long characterized our approach to the arts. On the music spectrum we have our Gaither fans and our Gungor followers. In the literary world, people claiming the title “evangelical” happily embrace Tolkien and Lewis (and, dare I say it, Rowling) and also Ted Dekker and Francine Rivers (and, dare I say it, Jenkins and LaHaye). Our attitude towards film has included enthusiastic deployment of tracts in visual form (Facing the Giants), outright rejection of the medium (still a thing in a few conservative/fundamentalist parts of the movement), and quiet work within Hollywood itself.
This is not for a moment to suggest that these different approaches are of equal aesthetic value. They are not. We should prefer Dostoevsky to Dekker. My point is simply that “evangelicals” include both thoughtful, discerning partakers and creators of art and purveyors and consumers of the worst sorts of drivel. We can no longer paint accurately with such a broad brush in this area, if we ever could. No single characterization rightly captures the whole of our movement’s attitude toward the arts. To speak of evangelicals’ relationship with creative endeavors, we must first qualify by saying which evangelicals we mean.
In All Other Things, Charity
We would also do well to embrace charity toward each other. We should first assume good faith in others’ interactions with the arts, even when we disagree with them. We can differ as thoroughly and robustly as we like, but even if our brothers and sisters in Christ are wrong, they are still brothers and sisters. Moreover there is room for genuine disagreement in this area. That we come to different conclusions about a given act of subcreation should above all suggest to us humble reevaluation of our own views. Perhaps it is we who are wrong and others who are right.
We also ought to consider that the question may be one of taste. I do not enjoy jazz in the least (though I grant its artistic value), but I can listen to Arvo Pärt for hours; that I have friends who love jazz and are bored by Pärt simply means that we are different. These differences are good, reflecting as they do the variety with which God imbued the world. Finally, even when the matter is one of significant moral concern—witness the kinds of issues raised about The Wolf of Wall Street—we should be diligent to speak kindly to our fellow believers as we seek to correct them. We need not assume that they are fools or have acted in bad faith, even if they are endorsing a genuinely harmful work of art.
We ought to extend the same sort of courtesy to our unbelieving neighbors. When Aronofsky makes Noah and makes some very specific claims about the film and his aims in it, we ought to have the integrity to quote him accurately and to respect the things he has said about the work. We should take care neither to misrepresent him by quoting him out of context, nor to ignore his statements of intent when interacting with the “text” of the film. I have in mind here especially Dr. Brian Mattson’s interaction with Noah which, while interesting and thought-provoking in some ways, had these gems in it:
[When] somebody says they want to do “Noah,” everybody assumes they mean a rendition of the Bible story. That isn’t what Aronofsky had in mind at all. I’m sure he was only too happy to let his studio go right on assuming that, since if they knew what he was really up to they never would have allowed him to make the movie….
This was not, as he claimed, just a storied tradition of run-of-the-mill Jewish “Midrash.”
In the first case, Mattson assumes he knows and understand Aronofksy’s motives, simply ignoring the director’s public statements. In the second, he actually goes so far as to directly contradict Aronofsky’s stated intent. My point here is not to single out Dr. Mattson, but instead to offer an example of the kinds of behavior that we find infurating when done to us, and which we therefore ought to avoid ourselves. Too often in our interactions with non-Christians, and perhaps with Hollywood in particular, we assume and attribute motives we cannot know, render judgment on hearts not laid open to us, and generally act in bad faith toward creators and their works. We may critique freely, but we ought to do so as we would wish to be critiqued.
Mirror on the Wall
Finally, it will be profitable to ask ourselves: What do our responses to various works of art tell us about ourselves? I have suggested that reviews of Noah show us a great deal about the reviewer as well as about the film itself. If this is so, one of the most helpful things we can do is learn not only from works of art themselves, but also from our reactions to them. We should diligently interrogate our own responses to see whether they are appropriate to the creations we encounter. More: we should do so fully aware that the answer may be one that leads us to repentance.
We should of course continue to engage our critical faculties when we encounter various pieces of art. We ought never be unthinking receptors for whatever ideas people offer up in their art. Human creations are never neutral—whether film, literature, painting, photography, sculpture, dance, architecture, or any other artistic endeavor. The auteur is not because of his creativity somehow loosed from ethical responsibility. Nor do we throw out authorial intent and embrace a reader-response hermeneutic toward the arts, in which our own experience is the only thing that matters. Artists are morally culpable agents, and we ought to treat them accordingly.
But artists’ moral culpability is mirrored by our own. On the one hand, we may too readily embrace worldliness and call it “cultural engagement.” We can use “appreciation of art” as an excuse to sate what really are simple carnal appetites. But we can fall off the cart the other way, too, by failing to interact with the arts as carefully or thoroughly as we ought. Our responses are sometimes characterized by a lack not only of charity but even of comprehension. To lack charity is bad enough; to lack charity for things we have not engaged on their merits is worse, and counterproductive to boot. If all we have to offer to our fellow image-bearers’ work is sneering from the pulpit, perhaps the issue is less the work of art and more our own fears of such art shaping and informing culture in ways that we have largely failed to do of late. Perhaps the problem is at least partly our fear that the world will see Aronofsky’s vision of Noah as more compelling than our own. If so, the answer should be obvious: we need to do better ourselves.
If we cannot be challenged by art—perhaps especially by art that is not our own—we will remain in the ghetto we have created for ourselves. We reject out of hand the work of our neighbors only at great peril to our own efforts at culture-making. We need not baptize every work of art we encounter as a summary of the gospel in order to enjoy it. We may simply take on their merits the echoes of the Edenic grace that we find in any work, whomever its creator may be. Broken and flawed sub-creators we may all be, but still so very beautiful.
Many thanks are in order for this piece, as I received considerable help in researching the wide variety of reviews of Noah out there. You know who you are! Further credit is due to my friends Leslie McCalister and Matthew John and to fellow Mere O writers Jake Meador and Matthew Loftus, all of whom provided helpful editorial feedback on an early draft of this piece.
- The same could be said of two other recent releases, Son of God and God’s Not Dead, which are very different from each other and from Noah and also evoked a similar range of responses from the evangelical community. ↩
- Or, as fellow Mere O writer Jake Meador noted in discussing an early draft of this piece, “we all have different ideas on where we draw that line [between what passes muster in our art and what does not], but I think Jenkins/Lahaye, at the very least, are well past it…” ↩
- I am leaving aside for this piece the question of what exactly constitutes a “genuinely harmful” piece of art—a thorny and difficult question to say the very least. Some of the most troubling pieces of art may also be the best, and some of most superficially Christian may do great harm. This deserves a post (or a book or three) of its own. ↩
- For a thoughtful rejoinder to Mattson, see Peter Chattaway’s piece here. ↩