Monday, June 23, 2008

Through a Screen Darkly: A Christian Watches Secular Film

In a rare excursion last week to San Diego’s downtown Central Library, I came across an interesting new title from Jeffrey Overstreet, a film reviewer for Christianity Today. His first book, Through the Screen Darkly, chronicles his odyssey from a culturally isolationist Baptist home, one that distrusted serious engagement with popular culture, to a profound appreciation for cinema art and its ability to advance Gospel values. A movie critic, yet seemingly sensitive to criticism, Overstreet uses the book to defend himself on two fronts, each the polar opposite of the other. Through the Screen Darkly is his personal justification of his vocational choice from Christians suspicious of secular film, contending against the prevalent idea that movie criticism’s sole end should be the chronicling of objectionable content. With equal vigor, Mr. Overstreet ruffles at the label of snobbery, the notion that he may be paying insufficient attention to mainstream secular film in favor of languidly paced art house fair. His response to both criticisms makes for an interesting, insightful, and genuinely affecting read.

Mr. Overstreet doesn’t lament his somewhat sheltered upbringing, but is deeply grateful for being kept away from potentially harmful content before he could grow into a fully mature Christian man. Having gained maturity and conviction in the truth of Christ, however, he laments the desire of many Christian reviewers to throw the baby out with the bathwater by refusing to seriously watch secular art. “Christ’s incarnation,” Overstreet writes, “teaches us that spiritual things and fleshly things are not separate. The sacred is waiting to be recognized in secular things. Even those artists who don’t believe in God might accidentally reflect back to us realities in which we can see God working.” This reflection cuts, he believes, to the heart of what ails the Christian film/music industry, mainly the reduction of art to transparent message. Christians impoverish themselves by refusing to look closely at secular and morally ambiguous films, for the struggle to find meaning in a godless world reveals to us truths about reality and God.

It’s a mistake, however, to believe that this reduction is born out of naivety or superficiality, as many writers suggest. While Mr. Overstreet makes no effort to conceal his latent frustration with many Christians’ reduction of art to message, he does, however, give credence to the position he is attempting to counter. Plato and Tolstoy (in his later years) are two examples of profound thinkers who distrusted the volatile and subjective power of art. Plato famously banned it from his ideal republic, while watching Hamlet made Tolstoy shudder. For both thinkers, art was either served as unambiguous moral instruction or it was perverse.

Plato’s hostility to art was enough to turn me off in the ignorance of my undergraduate days. I once had the audacity and flat-out stupidity to declare to my philosophy professor father that I had no use for Plato’s work but only preferred Aristotle. Without mincing words, he told me I was mistaken. Mr. Overstreet’s book has force in its argument because he doesn’t dismiss art’s dangers. Overstreet draws through his gradual cultivation of his power of artistic perception in his youth and makes it clear that without such a maturation period the films he lauds may have been dangerous to him.

Art can be dangerous. Outside my window looms the giant cathedral-like edifice of the adjacent Edward’s Theater. Art can become an end in itself, rather than pointing to transcendent truth beyond itself. It can incite irrational passions and undermine reason. Without a mature faith and a cultivated power of perception, art can lead us down dangerous paths. But, Overstreet contends, the negative power of art shouldn’t deter us from encountering it. He begs us to look closely and humbly at secular art with the realization that God may reveal something to us about the nature of reality. “Mathematics, science, art,” he writes, “these are languages through which God is speaking. All truth is God’s truth. We mustn’t be afraid of science, numbers or surrealist paintings. If God is sovereign in the world, as we assert that He is, these explorations affirm and increase the faith of those who look closely.”

While I fundamentally agree with his thesis, I couldn’t help thinking he had taken it too far and my wife confirmed my suspicion. “How close are we supposed to look at secular art?” My wife pointed out. “If you ‘look closely’ at an atheist’s surrealist painting and come away with a message affirming God, aren’t you just imposing your belief on someone else’s art? Can anything then be communicated through art, if observers just ‘look closely’ to see what they want to see?”

My wife reminded me of a letter to First Things regarding classical music. A musician wrote, defending classical music against some review or other, to say that they thought a particular symphony “irrefutably” affirmed the resurrection of Christ. The author of the original piece said that if that was the case, then every hearer would have to be converted. We can’t look too closely, or we may come away with a horribly blurred vision of the work. All things considered, however, Mr. Overstreet’s thesis is valuable for Christians who are embracing evangelization through media. If we refuse to engage secular art, how can we ever expect to compete in the marketplace and actually move secular souls to truth?


Lafayette said...

Right on! Everything that is good affirms the faith or the path towards it.

Matheus F. Ticiani said...

Thanks for coming back to the blog.

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