As implied by the title, this is the third (and final!) part in a series about the ways Christians (and particularly, though not limited to, Catholics) engage with art that criticizes Christianity or the church in general. It started with a piece about the humbling responses from Catholic leaders to the movie Spotlight, a film about the reporters who exposed the cover up of clerical sex-abuse in Boston. Not a fun topic, but the film stepped carefully (as well as critically) and avoided the temptation to play the thing up as a sensationalized shindig. As noted in the post, Catholic leaders responded in kind by thanking the filmmakers and acknowledging the ways that the church is moving forward with the process of healing and reparation.
Then began the “Beyond the Spotlight” series of posts – the first one contrasted the positive and humble response to Spotlight with the often less-than-charitable reactions to art that criticizes the church. Examples of particularly critical pieces include the song “Take Me to Church,” which characterizes Catholicism as something twisted, sick and repressive to psychological and social health; the movie The Magdalene Sisters, which shows a highly sensationalized/fictionalized version of the already very terrible Magdalene Laundries in twentieth-century Ireland; and Sinead O’Connor’s SNL protest where she adapted Bob Marley’s song “War” into an ode against child abuse – she infamously finished up by tearing a photo of Pope John Paul II apart and saying right into the camera “fight the real enemy.”
While the first part mostly talked about the rather hostile (and loud) reactions these artistic expressions received from Christians, part two zoomed in on one band and one song in particular in hopes of trying to piece together how we, as a community, might relate to this kind of art – the tune was Arcade Fire’s “Here Comes the Night Time” off the album Reflektor. The gist of the song goes somewhat thus: we’ve been told by the missionaries that heaven’s going to shut its doors on our faces. But, from what we’ve understood so far their, heaven seems like a pretty empty place – so what use is it to us anyway? We want to find life, and follow where its music leads.
This kind of art can lead to a plethora of hand-wringing, cries of “blasphemy!”or an attack on the artist’s mental/spiritual/moral well-being. While this might be justified in some cases, maybe a more productive (and humane) response from the Christian corner of the ring may look like this: a) note the difference between an intellectual argument (rising from ignorance of what the church says) and a relational wound (coming from they ways Catholics have problematically acted and embodied theology over time), b) recognize that these two different issues have different responses, namely that the former might benefit from a direct answer and the latter may need a ready ear, open hands and the willingness to walk with a person through their aches,* c) see how, when artists are railing against God/heaven/missionaries/churches/whatever, they’re often responding against an incomplete image of those things – basically they’re rebelling more against unChurches, unGods and unHeavens than against what Christianity actually holds to be true, and d) become aware of the two** main roads a Christian often walks down in response: either taking an artist’s beef as an attack on God himself and proceeding to attack back with fervour on ramming-speed or identify with the artist’s rage against the unChurch and ally with them against it.*** No big deal.
Actually who are we kidding: this is a huge deal.
The past two posts have done a lot of finger pointing (with said fingers pointed mostly at Christians) but here we come to another knotty checkpoint: uncritically judging those who we think have judged wrongly can lead to just as much cultural stagnation. When we get down to it, a lot of the issue boils down to the fact that not everyone can be as informed a cultural critic as we’d like ourselves to be. And I’d suggest it doesn’t come down to desire or the lack thereof – it usually ends up that we just don’t have the time, resources, exposure to formative resources or really solid examples to take from. We’re making this road as we walk, and while that can be an exciting thing it also means that we don’t have a guidebook to fall back on.
If you’re building a house but forget a couple important bricks then you’ll still end up with a structure in the ballpark of a home. A worldview, on the other hand, works on a completely different level – remove a couple essential pieces and you don’t get half a culture so much as a pseudo-culture or a kind of dark copy. An unSomething. Good intentions aren’t enough to get it right, and so when someone makes an inevitable misstep we can either blame them for not knowing what they possibly couldn’t have known or, the harder option, opt for empathy and try for the patience necessary to work through the consequences of our collective bewilderment.
Jonathan McDonald touches on this, albeit in a very different (though awfully related) context, in his recent Deep Down Things post “Purifying the Source.” Jonathan’s writing engages with (among other things) the place of self-censorship in the life of the religious writer, and the theme’s been generating a cool amount of conversation on the blog. If you jump down to the “Who Watches the Watchmen?” section you’ll start seeing the conversation turning to how to relate to particular kinds of criticism – he writes about the temptation of self-appointed cultural critics to “dismiss the concerns of homeschooling marms and uneducated bloggers as the ravings of simpletons [or] mere moral brutes” or as the uncritical outcry of people who, in the words of Katy Carl,**** are “given to jumping at shadows, raising red flags, pointing fingers: who […] are not with confidence capable of identifying anything but obscenity in literature, because obscenity is all they have been trained to find.”
The context here is the abolition of the Index Liborum Prohibitorium, a list of books not approved by the Catholic Church for publication. What followed in the wake of its disappearance was the absence of a structured, top-down way of gauging what may or may not be spiritually healthy, meaning that things ended up being on the shoulders of the average Joe or Jane to figure things out. Which could have been an awesome and empowering reality, but there was an issue with how walking away from the Index wasn’t accompanied by an equally widespread attempt to raise the level of cultural, artistic and moral literacy (read: the ability to critically sift through what one takes in) among churchgoers. This, as well as particular cultural developments over the past seventy years, has lead to a catch-bag of cultural confusion.
In today’s particular cultural nebula, said average churchgoing Jane/Joe (the one who might be too busy with, uh, the actual living of life to become an informed critic) might feel, again ripping from Jonathan’s article, “tossed into the deep end and told to sink or swim, and as they flailed wildly they watched the lifeguard slip indoors for a drink. A man who is drowning might inadvertently kick even the person who’s trying to save him.”
One might feel justified (even self-righteous) for pointing out the chronic mistakes of contemporary, English-speaking Christian subculture as we attempt relate to art with some degree of wholeness, but this sets a different, equally vicious cycle in motion. What follows next in Jonathan’s article is my favourite line: “Fiction writers are adjured to develop sympathetic pity for their characters. The same could be done for their critics.” And so we come face to face with the difficulty of not only being called to understand a) the fault of Christians in twisting the world and b) how understandable it is that artists both mistake an unChurch for the church and reject it with such vigour and spittle, but also c) how misguided cultural crusades must be met with the same empathy, understanding and commitment to not creating an “other” out of them.
In the end we’re all humans – we are all us. We’re all still on the journey to become as charitable and wise as need be in situations like this. No one’s there yet, not completely, and we’re constantly faced with the eternal struggle of balancing how much slack we give ourselves/each other in the name of mercy while always pushing ourselves onward and upward in the name of finding whatever kernels of truth lie at the center of things.
It’s a heck of a task, and one that we are bound to screw up an innumerable amount of times in the future as we’re very good at being less-than-ideally-Christ-like. We are not yet whole – no matter how informed or compassionate or sanctified we are there’s always going to be something we’ve missed, and that something will, in the end, contribute to some kind of unChurch here on Earth. We are called to run, but most of us are only in shape to hobble.
Being concerned with the state of the world and our culture, we obviously want to intervene when we see things going off course, but it’s a paradox as we conversely have to be aware that our attempts to correct one thing might send something else terrifically off-spin – our desire for intervention will always need to be something to be stepped lightly with. At the same time we cannot stop ourselves from moving – maybe there’s to be a little bit of Hamlet in all of us, caught between deliberation and action. But we can do the Prince of Denmark one better by striving for the humility to recognize that we’re always going to screw up – that we are all, to an extent, misguided, staggering crusaders. And keeping this fact in front of us will help us realise again that there is no “other.” Just a people united in our stumbling.
But just as children of a certain age find it hard not to fall flat on their faces, they might also find it easy (as compared to an overthinking, overstimulated adult) to sit still in the midst of wonder. Similarly, thank God, even people who keep getting it wrong can be equally dazed by the light hidden behind things. The fact that such critical decisions are entrusted to fallible screw-ups is a perplexity – and that this might be allowed by (and held in the hands of) the Am that Am is a scandal inspiring a scream and the highest level of awe. Basking in the face of that, I find myself in utter bafflement. You, if you’re reading this, probably know something of what I’m talking about. And you, if you’re like me, are lonely. You are incomplete. You are sometimes exasperated, desperate and exhilarated by the world in all its jagged edges. You even find yourself sometimes at the edge of a joy that’s ready to consume you whole. You’re drawn to and thrown off balance by it. You, too, hobble.
There is nothing we can do to permanently correct that hobbling – the best we can hope for is to direct our frail, staggering jaunt against the unChurch, that unChurch we can’t help creating with our own two hands. But if we really believe in the words that say in weakness will be found strength, then we don’t just have to settle for self-knowledge and frustration, but hope. A hope stemming from a place located well outside the edge of comfort or control.
Bringing things back in, part of the continual tragedy is that Arcade Fire, like many before them (and after), believes that to engage in Truth, Goodness and Beauty means to reject the church, having mistaken it for the unChurch. What are we to do with that? How do we relate to them, their ideas, their albums, to their bleeding and open wounds?
Karen Ullo asked the main question in a comment on Part II: we know we have to engage, but “what does this deeper engagement look like?” She also repeated the same plea for concrete examples in her comment at the bottom of Katy Carl’s new post in the ongoing discussion on censorship and moral formation. But one of the frustrating things is that there’s no (comprehensively helpful) one-size-fits-all strategy, and as many essays can be written as there are pieces of art.
But thankfully that awareness doesn’t just have to express itself in essays and blog posts – it starts in our aortas when we engage with art that causes us the kind of pain that comes when someone misunderstands (or is hurt by) the Something that we ourselves have tried very hard to understand. And come to love, if we are given that grace.
These artists are not, have not been, and cannot be our enemies. In the strange, inscrutable mystery of justice and mercy only God can parse the human heart. And we, in our fuzzy understanding of both world and soul, are beyond humbled and small before that throne and Sovereignty. I hope we learn, in the end, the dangers of throwing the first stone.
What follows is “Intervention,” the Arcade Fire song most critical of Christianity.***** The tune was released on Neon Bible, which is far and above their album most critical of the same. I guess I want to finish this series with an opportunity to look again at what it is that’s being said against the church, in hopes that we take the opportunity not to struggle against the artist but, alongside them, direct our hobbling against the unChurch.
The king’s taken back the throne
The useless seed is sown
When they say they’re cutting off the phone
I tell ’em you’re not home
No place to hide
You were fighting as a soldier on their side
You’re still a soldier in your mind
Though nothing’s on the line
You say it’s money that we need
As if we’re only mouths to feed
I know no matter what you say
There are some debts you’ll never pay
Working for the Church while your family dies
You take what they give you and you keep it inside
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan, “We’ll go at it alone”
I can taste the fear
Lift me up and take me out of here
Don’t wanna fight, don’t wanna die
Just wanna hear you cry
Who’s gonna throw the very first stone?
Oh! Who’s gonna reset the bone?
Walking with your head in a sling
Wanna hear the soldier sing:
“Been working for the Church while my family dies
Your little baby sister’s gonna lose her mind
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home”
Hear the soldier groan “We’ll go at it alone.
I can taste your fear
It’s gonna lift you up and take you out of here
And the bone shall never heal
I care not if you kneel
We can’t find you now
But they’re gonna get the money back somehow
And when you finally disappear
We’ll just say you were never here
Working for the church while your life falls apart
Singing halleluiah with the fear in your heart
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan, “We’ll go at it alone”
Hear the soldier groan, “We’ll go at it alone”
*This is not to say that there’s no overlap – we’re people after all and blessed/cursed with equally operating heads and hearts. We just gotta pray for the discernment to know how to relate to both in incredibly nuanced situations.
**Obviously we can respond in more than two ways, but these two are kinda pertinent.
***Yes, that was actually all just one long, run-on sentence.
*****Whether that criticism is leveled at Christianity, Christians or just to popular Christian attitudes is up for debate.
Josh Nadeau lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.