158. the problem when it comes to Christian art
I saw the Woody Allen movie, Match Point, today after work. As a film, I think it’s pretty (though not quite) great. But, it is also a deeply, darkly cynical film. It’s like a horror movie for the thinking mind. It states its premise right at the opening voiceover, which basically says, sometimes it all comes down to luck – implying that there is no order, no justice, no design to the world. And this premise is hammered home again at the end of the film.
As a Christian, I found this message frightening, not just because of its hopeless nihilism, but also because I found myself agreeing with it. I mean, look at the world and all of its decadent depravity. Look at Las Vegas and how people flock to its artificial facade with its sidewalks littered with flyers advertising strip clubs and porn shops. Look at the lives of celebrities in their cribs, rolling in their Maybachs. Look at the executives at Exxon Mobil whose company posted a record setting quarterly profit of $10.71 billion. That’s a quarterly, not a yearly, figure which comes out to something like $117 million every day.
Then spin the globe around and look at children in Africa dying of AIDS, surviving alone because their parents have died of AIDS already, living in an orphanage (if they’re lucky) with other kids living (barely) with the disease, watching their friends disappear one by one, wondering if their turn is next. Look at the warlords hoarding relief food supplies donated by countries who don’t care enough to make sure their aid gets to those who need it. These warlords dine in luxury while their people starve in the streets.
Then look closer to home. I read about men who abuse their wives, twisting loyalty and need into a noose. I see reports about the military dumping tons of hazardous waste off the Waianae coast – and of course it’s no coincidence that the dumping happened in the backyard of some of the poorest people on the island. And I think about how I’m living, driving, working on lands stolen from the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893.
It’s been said that the fact of suffering is the most profound argument against the existence of a good and loving God. And I watch a film like Match Point and its ideas about chance and injustice. And I think about the world and how right Woody Allen seems. He seems to be right because the world does look random (an idea verified by theoretical quantum physics) and justice does seem to be in short supply. And I suppose that’s why critics are raving so about this film – because of it’s piercing portrait of the human condition.
But I cannot agree with that assessment of the world – that civility in any given society is maintained solely by empty, hollow restraint. Despite what seems like evidence to the contrary, I have to believe that there is some kind of grand macroscopic order to the cosmos, that what seems like injustice and disorder is actually a problem of perspective, that if we could see creation as God sees it (infinitely and intimately), we would be able to see suffering as something other than mere suffering.
And again, this is something that seems to be confirmed in the area of cutting edge theoretical physics. Superstring theory (and the more recent M-theory) puts forward the idea that the foamy sea of quantum randomness calms down and becomes ordered when the mathematics that describes quantum interactions is expanded to describe a universe that exists in eleven (rather than our familiar three) dimensions. And here I think God is trying to tell us something (because he reveals aspects of himself through creation – Romans 1:20).
And finally to return to the title of this blog, “the problem when it comes to Christian art.” Movies like Match Point are powerful precisely because they tap into our suspicions about a brutal, unjust universe. They call neat, happy, fairy tale endings into question and we deem this profound because it seems like Woody Allen is courageously showing us the world unvarnished, and also because it seems to be an accurate portrayal of life as we know it. But the claims of Christianity stand against such hopelessness stating, instead, that there will be justice – if not in this life then in what follows.
The problem then, for Christians who want to portray a more Biblical, hope-filled view of the world, is how to do so without seeming false or overly sweet or blindly optimistic? How do we point towards hope and order, joy and love in a world so tuned into dark despair that it’s the light that seems foreign and offensive?
I don’t know, but it’s a big problem and one that needs to be looked at and overcome if we want to use art as a conduit through which the Kingdom of God can continue to seep in.
Well folks, I’ve done it again. I’ve written past my bedtime and I’m still working the early shift at work tomorrow. I can’t believe it’s February already.