I’ve lately pondered why too many Christians seem to settle for sappy, simplistic, shallow arts. Works of literature, music, and film labeled “Christian” and mass-marketed in such circles have tended away from any objective qualifications of good art. They’ve turned toward something more akin to self-help positivism promoting Christian faith as a quick solution to struggle or listlessness in life. While discussing the recent film Silence with a group of colleagues and friends, I wondered if the true culprit of this disconnect (between the church and objectively good contemporary art) was a watered-down hermeneutic.
If Christians have sat in church and been fed three-point topical sermons in which multiple chapters of scripture are reduced to a single grand take-away; if they’ve been taught that the life of Abraham is there in the Bible that they might learn to be a leader like him, then they have been taught in their most frequent and formative interactions with great literature a poor, simple, shallow, and often sappy hermeneutic. From such a hermeneutic, many in the church have been conditioned to expect from art that the main character ought to be who I, the reader, ought to be like, that any helpful art can be reduced to a one-liner that makes me sleep better at night, and that it is better, and even more “Christian” for something to be nice than challenging. So, even when approaching a film with an explicitly Christian subject matter, such as Silence, many Christians get uncomfortable. Because they’ve not learned to deal with scripture in any complex or nuanced manner, but have acquired a flat hermeneutic, they’ve gained eyes that are blinded when confronted with other arts.
This shallow hermeneutic demands little from the art it discerns. It, thus, works best on little art. Complex art must be contorted or stripped to fit in such small places, to flow through small holes in a strainer where there ought to be a window. Those who have learned from poor preaching or self-help books masquerading as theology struggle to read scripture on their own in any meaningful way. They are limited to a single reading of the Psalms as a flat set of prayers intended for the church to one day pray about Jesus (many of which become very confused in this light). They are limited to reading the historical books as a novel, truly about how to be a friend like Jonathan is to David, or lessons on why you shouldn’t sleep with your wife’s friends even if she tells you to. This manner of reading scripture changes these Christians’ manner of approaching all other art.
These Christians are not able to appreciate good art in literature or in film or in music, because any sensitivity to nuance, any strength to confront the darkness and depravity of the world in an honest way (one of art’s best and most necessary qualities), and any patience for complexity have been purged from their minds by preachers who have flattened the Bible, and so their congregants’ worlds. This skill they ought to have learned well through a robust hermeneutic of scripture that is able to wade through the nuance and complexities of the inspired, multi-genre, intricately-woven spiritual relaying of redemptive history that it is. But a person who believes they ought to receive from the book of Isaiah one solid application point will have little patience for Silence.
Do not hear me say we should approach any and all art with the same hermeneutic we approach scripture. Rather, hear me acknowledge that it is right and good that a Christian’s hermeneutic of scripture would affect their readings of any and all other art, not in a 1:1 manner, but in a real way. No matter how much I like the film Paterson or Goethe’s Faust, they are not inspired. Yet I see goodness, beauty, and truth; struggle, evil, and redemption in both works. And because scripture has taught me what those realities are, what they mean, and what their effects are on the world, I can appreciate art that deals with these in a meaningful manner.