Discussing
In defense of Christian cultural engagement

Josh Larsen

Josh Larsen
October 5, 2014

While Christian cultural engagement can be clumsy, we should still engage with art in a way that will make our criticism distinct.

Went East
October 6, 2014

Thanks for the piece -- I think you're on the right track! I think part of what it means to be a Christian in our society is to think intelligently AND critically of what is going on around us, avoiding the twin errors of embracing everything and rejecting everything.

Amanda Cleary Eastep
October 6, 2014

Josh,

During the Mumford and Sons campout/stopover tour in Dixon, IL, a few years ago, I asked my husband--who was also still awake in our tent at 2 a.m. because of the din of trumpets and all night sing-alongs--if we were engaging in culture yet. I find it amusing how we tend to label supposed trends, as I would argue that I have been engaging in culture all my life. But I get Wilkenson's dread of the term "cultural engagement."

I more so agree with your thoughts on Christian criticism as another form of specialized analysis that is as distinct as some of the others you mentioned. Depending on my audience and the topic, I may or may not offer an overtly Christian commentary on music or film or art, etc., or even intentionally seek what McDavid calls a "Christian take on everything," but then again, I can't view those topics from outside a Christian perspective since I am a Christian.

I wonder if the issue isn't so much about Christians searching for a "personal angle" (McDavid) as much as it is the criticism (like drunken trumpeters at midnight) often being just plain critical instead of a thoughtful analysis offered humbly through a Christian lens.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
October 6, 2014

I think you're onto something, Amanda, when you say that Christian criticism should be "thoughtful analysis offered humbly." Alissa and I were tweeting back and forth earlier today about some of the distinguishing characteristics of Christian criticism, and certainly humility should be among them.

Bethanykj
October 6, 2014

Thanks for taking on this big topic Josh! I really appreciate your perspective, and I think Amanda's emphasis on humility might really be an important key. Perhaps the risk of bad "cultural engagement" is reducing christianity into something easier to apply and reducing films to their relationship to that already poor version of christianity. I think the best works of christian cultural engagement enter into a cultural discussion with some bit of grace or love or truth that is really refreshing.

Tamara Hill Murphy
October 6, 2014

Josh,
This is a great post, great questions, great conversation. I think there's a line between "a tradition of specialized analysis" and "specialized self-consciousness". In one, we walk in and through the world with eyes trained to notice that "earth's crammed with heav'n and every common bush afire with God". (you could use a thousand different poetic lines to describe this sort of "seeing"). In the other we self-consciously, tediously turn over every stone for a moral or meaning. When I began thinking about this subject (around 10 years ago) I didn't realize I'd sort of become a cultural zealot. When my kids didn't want me to watch movies with them anymore and told me I was one of the toughest critics they knew, I realized I'd moved to the self-conscious side of the line. I totally agree with Wilkinson's encouragement for us to pay attention to form -- this will train our eyes to not only see but also to make and to enjoy. (p.s., Andy Crouch's Culture Making is one of my favorites on this subject.)
Thanks for all the work you do and for pressing on!

JKana
October 6, 2014

Evangelical Christianity offers a distinctive worldview. No one denies that. But didn't Jesus say his followers would be in the world, even if they were no longer of the world?

For my part, I think all of us "in the world" deserve to hear what it looks like through the lens of the Good News.

Jkyoga
October 7, 2014

Interesting article and if I could veer topic (not off topic but tangentially related) to criticism in general. I would argue that real criticism doesn't consider a film as just good or bad (or even how well it's done at all) but talks about how the film's mores intersect those of our culture (and the world at large). This is not necessary to definitively say that life imitates art or art, life but to ask deeper philosophical questions. It'd go so far to say that "Christian criticism" (for the sake of culture engagement or not) that just tells us whether something in morally wholesome is a bit shortsighted.

Amanda Cleary Eastep
October 7, 2014

Josh, I would love to see an article about those distinguishing characteristics. Great thoughts, everyone.

Jason Summers
October 8, 2014

Josh,

Important points here.

This whole dialog is a bit foreign to me insomuch as the sciences have a methodology and set of immediate ends that don't lend themselves to proof texts (save ID, but I won't mention that further).

The conversation does remind me of one 30 odd years ago among the reformed crowd that took "engagement" to a point that anything explicitly Christian was sort of outre.

It comes down to how folks feel about having alternative institutions (cf., Kuyper's Free University).

I, for one, say, fine have them, but not exclusively.

I mean, sure, if you're going to do good critique, make sure you actually do it. And if you write in a plural journal our outlet, your work will be imbued with (those "distinguishing characteristics" you mention) but not explicitly reference Christian thinking. But if you write for an explicitly Christian outlet, I would hope one would address the ideas explicitly.

That's why I write, for example, articles about science and faith for some outlets and academic journal articles for others. That's not dualistic, that's respecting diversity of structure in publishing.

You do something that is essentially the same.

But that makes sense for folks that do something professionally.

I don't see any reason we should insist that, e.g., a casual book critic need present a full-blown critical-theory analysis when his or her venue is one that requires only an assessment of whether it serves well the moral formation of one's children.

js

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
October 8, 2014

Good to hear from you Jason! Yes, a plurality of critical approaches is what I'd also encourage, which allows for those distinctive perspectives/lenses to be part of the cultural conversation. And what partly helps us determine which approach to take is considering the audience to whom we're writing/speaking.

Clb
October 9, 2014

I agree with what you are saying 100 percent. The problem is most Christian do not think this way. They feel it's just a movie, but it is someone's worldview put to film, so we need to look at it through our Christian worldview lens. You can look at the movie and grade it on what you think about, but then I believe it is our duty to point out what their message is to see if it is helpful or harmful to what we are trying to accomplish as Christians. Please keep up the good work this is very much needed.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
October 9, 2014

Thanks for the encouragement, CLB, thought I would caution against turning every movie into a face-off of worldviews, where we are charged with declaring whether a movie's worldview is "good" or "bad," as this largely leaves out any attention to form, which Alissa Wilkinson rightly notes as a crucial part of criticism.

Donna Millard
March 18, 2017

I loved this article. My one solid response is the hope that more venues like TC would flourish and become a norm. Perhaps everyone is critiquing through specialized lenses than are willing to acknowledge the practice. My mind and soul were searching unknowingly for the kind of insights I find in TC. Please, Dear God. keep this kind of spiritual, cultural, Christian lens firmly in our reach.

Tyler Domske
March 18, 2017

I applaud this article and this whole site. It's been a breath of fresh air to me (actually found it through the FilmSpotting connection). Ten years in youth ministry and now solo pastor of a church, I was always more interested in looking for God's fingerprints in the popular culture, rather then the fabricated "Christian culture" of lackluster movies, music, and tv.

If nothing else, it invites people to know it's okay to see God in a Coen Brother's movie or a Kendrick Lamar song, and let them know that our faith is set loose in the world, not simply cordoned off to bible studies and worship services. I think that this sort of thing is not simply helpful, but essential. If we cannot let our faith be invited to the "regular" media and art that we interact with, then we create a fractured mind, and a conditional faith.

I've tried to echo that sentiment with the types of conversations and lessons taught in youth ministry, and put that into practice for my whole church this year with a daily lenten blog looking at God in "non-Christian" songs http://faithisaverb.tumblr.com/tagged/lent2017

Thank you again for this site, and for providing a voice in the conversation that is Christian yet full of wonder, valuing faith and art, and not afraid to go looking for both at the same time.

Jerry
March 18, 2017

Thanks for your work on this essential topic. However, I was a bit confused by your comment at the end of the fifth paragraph when you said, "Surely there’s a place for Christian criticism of this sort as well?". Isn't it obvious that a Marxist, who takes their Marxism seriously and was not for some reason suppressed, would critique something as a Marxist? Isn't it obvious that a Christian, who takes their Christianity seriously and is not for some reason suppressed, would critique something as a Christian?

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
March 19, 2017

Thanks for the words of support Donna, Tyler, and Jerry. To answer your question, Jerry: yes. But it also is a matter of audience. A Christian critic writing for the New York Times, for instance, would still be writing from a Christian perspective, but would not be discussing movies explicitly in theological terms, as we do here.

Perry Lassiter
March 19, 2017

I agree with you and would extend it a bit to include quality of writing and drama. I find most specifically Christian works to be of inferior quality. The best religious drama I've seen in movies or tv is Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He exposes our existential despair, and someone of that quality needs to find a way to present Christ as the answer. The best written plays I've read are Shaw's Androcles and the Lion and Joan of Ark. An atheist or agnostic, GBS presents a valid C'n viewpoint well and with emotion. Among novels I can only think of the Brothers K and East of Eden. The church library "Christian" novels, I'm sorry, strike me as surface, obvious, and bordering on drivel.

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