The Personalist Project

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Accessed on December 04, 2022 - 1:14:28

Everybody’s a Critic

Devra Torres, Apr 05, 2014

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.