We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling.
Baptist news wires recently carried the story about a successful protest by a Baptist preacher to remove a movie from Lifeway stores. The movie is “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock. It was based on the book by the same name by Michael Lewis, who also wrote, Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.
I happened to meet Michael Lewis years ago when he was writing the book, and he told me he was working on a “really interesting story.” It was about a young man from the meanest streets of Memphis who was adopted by a family and placed in a white private Christian school. The story is well known by now—Michael Oher went on to be a football star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.
I bought and read the book when it came out, and went to see the film. Football movies are pretty well required viewing in Alabama. So I was more than amused with all the other moral problems at the moment—debt, wars, racism, the disintegration of families, and do I need to go on?—that a PG-13 movie could cause such an uproar. According to the report,
LifeWay Christian Stores will no longer sell videos of “The Blind Side” after a Florida pastor proposed a resolution for next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting protesting the sale of a PG-13 movie that contains profanity and a racial slur…[the stores decided to] pull the movie, an inspirational film starring Sandra Bullock that tells the true story of a white Christian family that adopted a homeless black teenager who went on to play in the NFL, to avoid controversy at the June 19-20 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. [The pastor who brought the resolution] said there is much about the film to be commended, but there is no place in a Christian bookstore for a movie that includes explicit language that includes taking God’s name in vain.
I get it. It’s Baptist to speak your mind. I know language has become debased and misused. And, it’s the right of any store and its owners to sell or not sell what it wishes. Still, it stirred a few thoughts about the mostly non-existent tie between Christians, especially evangelical ones, and the world of the arts. And why fewer people want to be Baptists.
Walter Brueggemann once said that in the book of Leviticus, which for some odd reason has become a moral center for a lot of people today, there is an emphasis on holiness as “purity.” There are other forms of holiness in scripture—moral and ethical righteousness, for one, that sometimes comes into conflict with the notion of purity. Jesus encountered this among the Pharisees, who could not do the deeper right things for fear of disturbing their own ethic of remaining personally removed from what might compromise, taint and violate their ethic of purification holiness.
I have thought a lot about Brueggemann’s distinction since I first read it. Somehow, a fully biblical notion requires more than avoiding “impurities.” Yet purity is important. An obsession seems to lead always to a rather puny moral energy that dispirits more than it inspires. Inevitably, it ends up with an account of morality that is always boycotting, removing itself from sinners and sin, and circling the wagons.
This moral molehillism is odd to me on a couple of fronts. First, this kind of discipleship is so different from Jesus and his moving among sinners in the New Testament. He has moral conversations with them, heals them, loves and welcomes, but his scathing indictments seem reserved for the moral puritans who quibble with words instead of stories.
Second, it also underlines the irony of our desire to re-engage and influence the culture with a profoundly Christian witness. I have been reading James Davison Hunter’s 2010 book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World Hunter surveyed the Christian landscape and concluded that not only is Christian impact on the culture waning, the Christianity that wants to affect it is weak and superficial. While we make great impact on individuals and meet many needs, it does not tend to move the influence makers of our society.
Nowhere is this lack of depth and power more evident than in our engagement with the arts. Those who tell the stories, produce the art and who think the world changing ideas are not, by and large, among Christians. This is not a problem, he says, that can be overcome by forceful politics, organizing or by withdrawing into the artistic ghettos of our churches where terrible or, at best, mediocre art is produced to satisfy the internal audience but which makes virtually no impact on the larger culture and particularly those who are the shapers of culture.
The antidote is not to somehow regain some imaginary lost control of the culture but to think more brilliantly, achieve more truthfully, and to produce more beautifully the genuinely great ideas, art and cultural expressions that will, finally, draw by their intrinsic and persuasive superiority.
This, sadly, is not the path we choose. We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling. So, says Hunter, evangelicalism’s
music is popular music, its art tends to be popular (highly sentimentalized and commercialized) art, its theater is mega-church drama, its publishing is mainly mass-market book publishing with a heavy bent toward “how-to” books, its magazines are mass-circulation monthlies, its television is either in the format of a worship service or the talk show, its recent forays into film are primarily into popular film, and much academic work is oriented toward translation—making the difficult accessible to the largest possible number. While there are exceptions to the rule, overall, the populist orientation of Evangelical cultural production reflects the most kitschy expressions of consumerism and often the most crude of market instrumentalism.[i]
In short, we quibble over words and fail to tell stories. We are horrified about avoiding improprieties, all the while serving, supposedly, a gospel whose book tells unflinchingly disturbing, violent, cruel, and even vulgar stories about adulterers, philanderers, thieves, and every other kind of human with a failing. In the telling of those stories, the artistic power of it continues to help us talk. Our Savior is a man hanging naked on a cross, surrounded by blasphemies and lies.
Add to that all manner of “taking in vain” that happens in our own expressions of faith without a whimper, and it seems odd to kick a story of redemption out of the Baptist Book Store. But then, when the center of our story has become a fussy, tepid, vision of Christian living that is obsessed with remaining free of wrong more than finding what is right, it is not surprising.
Our artistic vision is sterile, more akin to a Norman Rockwell painting and a Hallmark Card than the gospel or real life. When we realize that, then kicking a story of redemption out of the book store makes perfect sense. In a Christian world free of impurities, Michael Oher might never have been let into the private Christian school in the first place.
[i] Hunter, James Davison (2010-04-14). To Change the World : The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (p. 88). Oxford University Press.