Cultural Appropriation

“Write what you know,” wisdom conventional,
Threatens to morph into ironclad law.
Fearing aggressions unintentional;
The best lack all conviction in its claw.
Sympathy is nice; empathy divine,
But you’d better think twice (or more), you cad,
If you think your words can ever touch mine;
If you, you WASP, you geezer robed in plaid,
Dare deign to make artist’s gestures this way!
What you know (not much!), keep it over there,
While I sit here and type, to my dismay
Using all your best English words with care.
Forsooth! Never could I more clearly see
That your culture appropriated me.

Photo: Feeding Time, Tracy Aviary, Salt Lake City, Utah, October 2016.

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Reflected Reality: Art in the Mirror

It has become commonplace for American Christians talk about the power of story and the need for art to shape the cultural conversation. On many levels this is commendable, and I’ve been a more than willing participant in the exercise. Stories are important (whether in words or on the screen), and those that captivate us shape our thinking both directly and subtly. What we enjoy, we embody; our entertainments become our axioms.

This has been long understood, fleshed out for evangelicals of a certain stripe as a carefully curated distance from mainstream popular culture. The line has sometimes been drawn even farther back—in 7th grade, my small Christian school had a minor dustup over whether to include The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia in the library, what with the witches and all. It is easy enough to go off the rails with this approach, driven by fear as much as faith. Still, its appreciation of the catechetical role of literature and media is laudable, as is the sound desire to protect the Church and its institutions from secular influences.

More recently, sentiment has shifted to a warmer embrace of the popular and a desire to befriend and become culture-makers for the sake of mission. How can we, the new conventional wisdom goes, have real relationships with our unbelieving friends and neighbors if we can’t converse with their favorite shows, movies, music, or books? As in the other stream, there is a heart here to be praised, but the danger on this side lies in forgetting to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

This is in no wise a thorough discussion of the subject, but it should move the chains far enough for us to take a shot at thinking about art and theology. Whichever path is taken, we are often reluctant to make room for the best art, because to do so is to open doors of uncertainty.

Good stories well told stretch and strengthen our faith, and create space in the wider cultural imagination for the truth of the Gospel to thrive. They can also drive those already wrestling with doubt to walk deeper into it. The pull of art itself is powerful—there are more than a few stories of how the God-given drive to create can draw people away from the faith of their fathers (see Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, for example)—so the Church needs to be a place where those gifts find fulfillment rather than shame. There will always be real tension between robust doctrine (without which there is no Church) and the need for creative freedom (without which there is no art).

Trying to walk that line, we slog along, tepidly applauding a middling work of fiction here and a mediocre “Christian” film there. These are stereotypes to be sure, but they come from someplace. I can’t help but feel that if a manuscript for something like  To Kill a Mockingbird showed up on the desk of a mainstream Christian publisher, they would cut 2/3 of the book, add an emotional conversion scene at the courthouse, and then wrap it up with a newly-chipper Bob Ewell dropping all charges against Tom Robinson and throwing a town picnic.

IMG_2445The best of literature and visual art, of course, mirrors life as it is—filled with sin, darkness, and despair as surely as hope and joy. In Jesus’ parables, there were characters and scenes of the most unsavory nature (renters who murder the landlord’s son, a child who tells his father that he wished he was dead so he can have his inheritance now, etc.). The entirety of the Old Testament shows the depravity of nations, especially that of God’s own chosen people. The world is a horrible place and we are horrible people, but what a blinding light is God’s holy justice and mercy at the cross of Christ!

It is this juxtaposition that makes the best art in service of the Lord. All our creative work only really “works” insofar as it draws parallels to this story, likening the things we know all too well to the glory we see now through a glass darkly.

Lately, I can’t seem to stop talking about the new novel Laurus. I fell so hard for the writer’s vision there, because he came closer to crossing through that looking glass than anybody I’ve read in a while. Beyond that, his humility as a writer spoke volumes. My wife and I laughed to hear his story about how he told his wife that no one would read his book; we could see ourselves saying that if I ever finish the things I’m working on, and it is so easy to look at the mainstream and despair of finding a market for that kind of work. He said it touched a nerve because people are hungry for something more, that they “need other things to live by.” That hunger comes as the Holy Spirit is drawing men to Christ, and the right piece of art at the right time can indeed be another stepping stone on their journey to rest in Him.

I’ve spent much of my adult life studying theology, not for academics, but to write pieces for Disciple Magazine and my day job at a missions organization and teach Sunday school. I find that the deeper I go into Scripture, into staring at the face of God (so far as we can do in our fallenness), the more I have had to get used to saying “I don’t know.” You only ever have to have faith when you encounter the Living God—all the lesser pretenders to deity are quite explainable.That is why Christ’s call is “Follow Me.” Until glory comes, we are not equipped to understand. The best works of literature operate on that level. You have to give yourself to the author until he is finished working out what he has prepared for you.

Far from causing doubts, that apparent ambiguity serves to draw me closer to Him. He wants us to know Him; we can know Him. Our knowledge is never fully realized in this life, but sufficient to point ourselves to Him. As we create, we must remember that there is only one story that actually gets us to Him. Art will not save, but it can steer us to seek the One who will.

For Further Review…

A brief update to “The Curious Difficulty of Numinous Fiction

A friend (who serves as a missionary in Latvia) shared this comment via my wife’s Facebook page (I, myself, still a Zuckerberg denier):

Here are a couple thoughts in reaction: 1) Maybe one reason American Protestants (I think really it is more of an “evangelical” problem than a protestant one) don’t write better fiction is that there is insufficient market for it. I mean, why does LifeWay sell Thomas Kinkade prints and not better art? 2) Here I am just thinking out loud; this is just an idea for conversation/controversy. You ask: ‘Why is it that those who take the Bible most literally and believe Reformed doctrine most fully write fiction most dreadfully?’ Maybe that is the problem? Evangelicals (again, I think it is more of an evangelical problem than a Protestant one) have a need to read too much literally and insufficiently value symbol, indirection, “telling the truth slant” (to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson). And perhaps Reformed doctrine thinks everything can be systemetized into neat boxes, or sees too much in black and white, instead of shades of gray in which real life is lived. I would suggest that neither of those two ways of thinking are helpful for good fiction. By the way, it seems to me that John Updike, John Irving, and Frederick Buechner should figure in the discussion.”

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Stacked Against Her

Everyone had a right to knowledge. Rosa had convinced herself of this.

For five years in her twenties, she plead with seventh graders to learn English grammar. She never doubted her maxim. The student-teacher ratio (which, on some days, was only slightly higher than the ingrate-fool ratio) was the real problem. A “promotion” to central office taught her otherwise. Two quick years there left her forehead scarred and the responsible wall as yet unmoved.

Her truth yet unconfined by that branch of dysfunctional bureaucracy, Rosa took it to the streets. She hired on as a junior librarian with the county. The pay cut was just the price of principle. Her first encounter with the public in their library stamped confirmation on what she knew. Gabriela, writing a paper on Vonnegut for a community college class, was glad to have some reference help from her old seventh-grade teacher. That glow carried Rosa through the first week. No matter that, of the next fifty inquiries she fielded, twenty-eight were looking for the wi-fi password, seventeen needed help with a computer or copier, four needed directions to relieve themselves, and one simply wanted to talk, having locked his keys in the car.

The bloom was off this rose, too, by February. In just four months, she’d learned to hate Mondays. They were open late, and the dark of winter made her IMG_20150316_183243818shift all the gloomier. As she was closing one week, the mystery section decided to live up to its name. Reaching for the light switch, she met sounds and smells worthy of the cryptic tomes nearby. Both were coined by a middle-aged man with his boots on.

His insulated coveralls ended at a knotted beard and dreadlocks bound with a paisley bandana. He snored, his obstructed airways hiding behind a copy of The Fierce Urgency of Now from the recent releases shelf. Rosa’s nose declared in no uncertain terms his need for a shower. She gently touched his shoulder. He growled, gurgled, started, apologized.

“Um, we’re closing now,” she squeaked. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Awright, awright! A fella’ knows where he’s not wanted,” he said. “Mighty cold night to turn me out, but I specs you just doin’ yo’ job.”

“Yes sir. But you can come back to read anytime between nine and five tomorrow.”

“Read? Haw! Sho’ baby, jus’ keep tellin’ yo’self dat.” He gathered up his oversized knapsack and staggered through the parking lot into the night. Rosa’s adage held timidly, and only in a most idealistic corner of her mind.

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