The Arts are the Pulse of Culture

Francis-SchaefferI'm currently reading The God Who is There by Francis Shaeffer. I have been amazed by the cultural analysis he has done in the first half of the book, especially his analysis of art. The philosophical teachings found in much of the artwork the past two centuries absolutely fascinates me.

It is amazing to me the power in such a medium. The arts have indeed shaped the culture around us. Paintings, literature, and architecture are not merely entertaining hobbies but philosophy on display. Artist comment on their society, creatively displaying their worldview, their quest for meaning, and their final conclusions.

The amazing thing Shaeffer pointed out was that many of these men lived in complete and utter despair, particularly the modern painters such as Van Gough. Their artwork shows they were seeking for a universals while building and focusing on the particulars. These men were searching for answers in a world devoid of God and a world devoid of truth. The lives of such men are tragic, and their final conclusions are epitomized in their epic demise by the taking of their own life. After searching for meaning and significance, they found themselves in a dark hole of meaninglessness.

Francis Shaeffer concludes with this observation

These paintings, these poems, and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they life; yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.

What an accurate critique. The tortured work of these men reveal the desperateness of those around us. Just as these artist express their own lostness in their artwork, they are in good company. There are neighbors, co-workers, and friends who are lost in the nebulous of the denial of absolute truth, seeking a meaning in a world where —at least in their worldview— is not possible. Subjectivism and existentialism merely mask the reality of their worldview - hopelessness and despair.

How does this reality change the way we look at the expressions of art around us? I suggest the following ways.

We Must Take Art Seriously

Christians are not very artistically inclined. Although there seems to be a reclaiming of the arts among Christians, many Christians have failed to take the medium seriously.  We must understand that art shapes culture. It speaks into the souls of men in a deep and profound way. Art teaches. Always. This means that Christians must greatly understand the profoundness of the medium. As Christians, we know why men and women create art, it is because of the imago dei. There is something about our created nature in the image of God that compels us to create, explore, imagine, and speak. Christians must not dismiss the art of culture as immaturity, foolishness, or even irrelevance. Where philosophy teaches in the academy, art takes the philosophy of the academy and presents it initially to culture.

We Must Examine Art Critically

Christians must be cautious not to immediately accept all art forms and the message they communicate. Although we can enjoy the skill, precision, and creativity implored enjoying must not lead us to accepting. Let me give us a relevant example in the medium of film, the most powerful cultural shaper in western civilization.

The movie Avatar was a box office hit that made millions of dollars. It was a visually amazing epic adventure on an uncharted world. Although we can go see Avatar and enjoy the medium and creativity of the film, we must not accept its philosophical message, which is a retelling of the eastern worldview (which is become increasingly westernized), panenthism, which is a worldview in which a impersonal divine spirit indwells and connects all things together (think the force from Star Wars). This is completely contrary to the Christian worldview who says that God is not an impersonal spirit, but the personal God who exists in trinity.

The great danger is that so many christians embrace the art without critically thinking about its message. Art has a way of teaching us and shaping us in a way that we don't realize is happening. The message of the theater, of novels, and of artwork instructs often times subconsciously. Christians must examine art seriously, but also critically.

We Must Observe Art With Scrutiny

We can know a great deal about our culture and about our society if we carefully examine the art it produces. From the latest oscar winning film to the latest Justin Beiber album (which can hardly be considered art). The arts reveal the values, the morality, and the worldview of those who are creating.

Christians must learn to view art with evangelistic interest. As we observe the art of culture, we must look for Gospel incompatibilities (this is not compatible with a Christian worldview) and Gospel bridges (that points to the meta narrative of Scripture). Christians must get their head out of the sand and observe the people and the culture God has placed us in. Then with investigative critical thinking we can accurately and contextually communicate the Gospel, answering the questions that the culture is asking.  The Christian must take the pulse of culture by observing the arts.  In order to share the Gospel effectively, we must no the walls and barriers of the people we are trying to reach.

Conversion in Les Miserables

Conversion in Les MIsLes Miserables is a work of art that has greatly moved my soul over the past month and a half. To be honest, the first time I was exposed to it was the movie/musical version that came out this past December. It has been a long time since a movie has struck such an emotional core in my soul. What moved me so much isn't the amazing acting or the captivating song writing, but the incredible story written by Victo Hugo. I started reading the book in January, but with all the school reading I doubt I will be able to get too much into the massive 2000 pages of Les Miserables.  However I hope to maybe read it through this year. The story is filled with Gospel and Christian themes. The story addresses hope in the midst of suffering, tension between Gospel and the Law, conversion as seen in the life change of Jean Valjean as a result of the bishops grace, fatherly love and sacrifice. and forgiveness and mercy to the worst of enemies. This whole work is filled with those amazing themes that draw me to the true story of the whole world, the story of God.

It is a work that continues to flood my mind as I think about the emotions of the story and listen to the sound track over and over again. It is a story that I have yet to wear out. The wonderful themes come back and resonate my heart time and time again.

The character that amazes me the most in Jean Valjean. Here is a man who was thrown into prison just for stealing a mouth full of bread. His young life was taken from him, just for trying to survive. As he “looked down” in the chains of his slavery he grew embittered and hatred in his heart spread to the depth of his soul until the man has a conversion experience. A kind and compassionate Bishop shows mercy to this ex convict and invites him in for dinner and rest. Jean Valjean is amazed that the bishop would do this, but his heart had become so dark and bitter that he stole the precious silver of the bishop and escaped in the middle of the night. He stole from the only man who showed him kindness.

Jean Valjean gets caught and brought back before the Bishop with the silver in his hand. Valjean came up with the excuse that the Bishop “gave it to him”. When the Bishop is told the story, the Bishop does the most astonishing thing. He shows Jean Valjean compassion and he goes along with his story saying that not only did he give him the silver, but forgot the most valuable pieces. Jean Valjean, by an act of the Bishops sacrificial generosity,  is spared from the return to the pit of imprisonment.

This incredible unimaginable act of mercy stands in stark contrast to the life Jean Valjean has come to know. The bishops generosity is out of place in the suffering of revolutionary France. This incredible grace shown to Valjean has a born-again experience in his life. He is converted in response to the grace given to him by the bishop.

This leads to my favorite song in the musical, Jean-Valjean's soliloquy. I've yet to read this in the book, but the song's lyrics and melody captures the emotional intensity of his conversion. He begins as a man hardened by the suffering and injustice of the cruel world. He hates the man that this world has turned him into. He is swimming in the whirl pool of his own sin, and it disgusts him. Jean Valjean gets up and declares “Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin!” Jean Valjean has been “born-again”. He is a new man who has been given a new life/

This moment sets up the whole rest of the story and powerfully communicates the beauty of the Gospel. For the rest of the movie we see Jean Valjean who extends mercy to others because he first was extended mercy by the bishop. He shows compassion on the suffering Fantine, adopts the helpless and abused Cossette as his own daughter, has mercy on his archenemy Javiar, and saves Marius from the lonely barricade. The whole movie is one man who responds to mercy with extravagant mercy himself.

Valjean's transformation is foiled by the law keeping Javair. The themes are made complete at the end of the tale. When Jean Valjean shows Javair the same underserved mercy that the Bishop showed him, Javair experience despair rather than conversion. Javiar cannot accept mercy in his world of justice, rules, and legalism. Rather than accepting the mercy given to him, he hardens his heart and spits back Valjean's mercy by taking his own life.

Two men and two different responses to grace. Humanity has those same two same responses to God's grace. We either humble accept the forgiveness given to us in Christ or we reject it and harden our calloused hearts. Grace can melt our hearts our stiffen them with pride. When the Gospel is presented we have those same two options. We can respond like Jean Valjean or we can respond like Javair. Accepting God's mercy and forgiveness frees us from our past and empowers to live lives of extreme compassion. Rejecting God's mercy leads to hardness, intolerance, and hatred. Accepting God's mercy leads to life. Rejecting God's mercy leads to destruction.

What Gospel themes have you seen in the story of Les Miserables? Why do books and movies so often point us to the true story of the whole world? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments!