The Personalist Project

I haven’t seen God Is Not Dead, The Son of God, or even Frozen.  I did just see Noah, but don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about it--or, if I find I can’t help myself, I will try very, very hard to say something new.

I cringe as heartily as anybody at the spectacle of Christians trying too hard to like cheesy movies because they’re wholesome, or to dislike wholesome movies because they’re cheesy.  I hate to see us laboring to unearth a godless message where there isn’t one, or to explain away a godless message where there is.

I’m entirely sympathetic to Flannery O’Connor’s point about religious art:

The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. 

The assumption that religious art (in the form of novels, paintings or movies) has to be insipid, fastidious, sappy or cheesy is an unfortunate recent development.

So if you’re a critic, criticize away.  If you’re just a spectator, of course, you can criticize away, too.  You don’t have to squelch your artistic sensibilities just because a movie purports to be edifying, and you don’t have to squelch your sense of decency because it purports to be artistic.

And if you’re the artist, or the moviemaker, or the musician, or the author, by all means, don’t put us in this position in the first place!  Don’t think you have to choose between faith and originality, piety and artistry.

There’s one caveat, though, and I think C. S. Lewis put it best in The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil instructs a junior one in the art of damning souls.  (It’s in the context of parish-hopping, but it has other applications, too.)

...if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches….the search for a “suitable church” makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil [emphasis mine]. 

What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble reciprocity to any nourishment that is going.

  (You see how groveling, how unspiritual, how irredeemably vulgar He is!)  This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our whole policy) in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul.  There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper.

­I’m not saying (at all, at all!) that we should sit quietly at the feet of moviemakers as “pupils” instead of “critics.” 

For one thing, we wouldn’t be doing the moviemakers any favors.  "Rebuke a wise man and he will love you," it says in Proverbs, but "a man who flatters his neighbor sets a net for his feet."

Still, it’s good to know when to exercise your critical powers and when to give them a rest .  It’s good to stop barging into every area of life with your inner-critic glasses so firmly plastered onto your eyes that you can’t get them off when you want to.  An artist doesn’t pick apart his toddler’s self-portrait.  A grown child doesn't sneer at his elderly mother's sentimentality.

 And a Christian doesn’t need to be blind to truth or beauty or goodness--"any nourishment that is going"--even if they're delivered by someone with an unfortunate fashion sense, a funny accent, a low budget, or a hackneyed story line.  

Comments (6)

Kate Ernsting

#1, Apr 6, 2014 9:43am

I like this blog article. Devra makes some wonderful points about faith and art while she invites Flannery O'Connor and C. S. Lewis to the discussion table. I'm still not going to see Noah, but I am grateful to Devra for introducing me to the persona list project.

Devra Torres

#2, Apr 6, 2014 4:41pm

Kate, thank you!  If you do change your mind and see Noah, you'll enjoy it a lot more if you read Fr. Ed Fride's take on it, and Patrick Coffin's, to head off possible misunderstandings.  But of course nobody has to see it--I'm even having second thoughts about writing about it, not being someone who thrives on conflict!

Patrick Dunn

#3, Apr 8, 2014 10:15am

Yet St. Paul has counseled: "Test everything; retain what is good." 

As to the movie itself, or the Catholic 'approach' to it,

"The scandal is this: of all the Christian leaders who went to great lengths to endorse this movie (for whatever reasons: “it’s a conversation starter,” “at least Hollywood is doing something on the Bible,” etc.), and all of the Christian leaders who panned it for “not following the Bible”…

Not one of them could identify a blatantly Gnostic subversion of the biblical story when it was right in front of their faces."

"Sympathy for the Devil", Dr. Brian Mattson

To me, the matter is simple: why do we even need to bother with something like Noah?  If it is as described above, and it comes down to entertainment vs. no entertainment (of this variety), I would rather suffer with none.  It is just clutter in my soul at that point.  Noise. 

Devra Torres

#4, Apr 10, 2014 4:49pm

Patrick, I read Brian's article, with great interest.  I've heard some responses to it, the gist being that many of the gnostic elements he identifies are not exclusive to gnositicism, and are motifs used by the Church, espeically early on.  I found the responses quite convincing, though not entirely.  I thought the movie was very thought-provoking, but I do think it's a mistake to let ourselves get sidetracked by lining up as pro- or anti-Noah, or any other movie.  Even with something like Passion of the Christ, about which there was a lot more unanimity among Christians, I didn't like the way people were sometimes pressured into seeing it, or the way it was treated as a litmus test.


#5, Apr 5, 2016 10:16pm

I didn't see the whole of God's Not Dead or any of The Son of God, but I saw Frozen and Noah. They were moving (I was crying actual tears) and they each told a story. I liked Frozen because it showed the love of sisters and I love my sisters (and I hate when people get engaged when they've only known each other for one day). And I liked Noah because to me, many people think that if God told you what to do, it would be so easy to just do it. But this movie shows even if God tells you to do something, you sometimes aren't sure of all the details or the reasons and you might misunderstand his purposes and get it wrong. I saw Bella and felt like though there were some beautiful parts in it, it didn't tell a story very well; it left too many questions about what happened to everyone. I was one of the ones who felt pressured to see the Passion of Christ when it first came out, but I never did see it and now I have decided to "let it go".  

Devra Torres

#6, Apr 6, 2016 12:12pm

Hi, Mary! I agree, though I haven't seen Frozen. It's true, about God telling you what to do--I remember somebody saying, we know perfectly well what God wants us to do (the Commandments, the precepts of the Church, etc.--it's all laid out for us, clear as day)--and I have a hard enough time obeying that--why would I want MORE specific instructions from Heaven?! 

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