Why I Won’t Despair for Christian Art (Yet)

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.”

This is one of many lines in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead that I thought was beautiful . . . and I found another writer who agrees with me, and who wrote a much more legitimate and literary tribute to the book than you’ll find here.

Seriously, guys, go read this book. Like, right now.

Seriously, guys, go read this book. Like, right now.

Interestingly, the author describes himself as “more or less a fully paid-up atheist,” but he praises the beauty of this novel—which is the fictional first-person memoir of an old preacher—and says he is more drawn to Robinson’s writings than that of the New Atheist crowd.

Here’s why, in his words: “She makes an atheist reader like myself capable of identifying with the sense of a fallen world that is filled with pain and sadness but also suffused with divine grace. Robinson is a Calvinist, but her spiritual sensibility is richly inclusive and non-dogmatic. There’s little talk about sin or damnation in her writing, but a lot about forgiveness and tolerance and kindness. Hers is the sort of Christianity, I suppose, that Christ could probably get behind.”

He concludes, “I’ll never share her way of seeing and thinking about the world and our place in it, but her writing has shown me the value and beauty of these perspectives.” And then, “This is not the kind of voice I normally associate with religious people, and it makes me wonder whether we might not be listening to the wrong voices.”

And oh, this gives me hope, friends. Because if at least some people are listening more to Marilynne Robinson than Pat or even Phil Roberston to get their picture of what it means to be a Christian, then maybe there will be something compelling and redemptive in the popular conception of our faith after all.

And it made me realize: in some ways, we can contribute to what others think of when they think of Christians. Not just by our individual actions (though that’s a really big deal). But I think it’s also important who we give weight to in our culture. Who we listen to and choose to represent us matters.

Sometimes it’s almost entirely out of our control—Westboro Baptist, anyone?

Other times we get behind movements, celebrities, and dogmas that maybe we should give a bit more thoughtful attention to. Think about the trends and worship songs and Christian films and children’s curriculum with sketchy theology that tend to populate the Christian subculture. They may not all be bad things. But have you thought about the theology behind them?

If you have, great. We can move on, even if you happen to appreciate some things that I find a little too kitschy or cliché or out-of-context. I just think sometimes as Christians we need to think more theologically instead of reacting in support of anything that feels conservative, moral, or safe.

Celebrating the Hobby Lobby victory? Great! I’m glad. Me too, not the least because I am slightly obsessed with that particular store’s selection of patterned paper. But I hope that when you talk about the ruling, you understand the issues it raises and maybe have even thought about how other business owners of a different faith might apply the same freedom Hobby Lobby used.

Want to post a Christian meme on Facebook? Cool. But if it’s a Bible verse, it would be great if you made sure it was ripped viciously out of a totally different context. And that you’re not doing it just to get a reaction out of people or to try to look spiritual (and believe me, I’m sometimes guilty of that).

InigoMontoya

I’m not telling you to second-guess your every move and to try to fit in with the culture as much as possible. But I do think we’re called to be deliberate in our choices, even the little ones that don’t seem to matter at all. What we say about our faith is what people will associate with it—and that includes bumper stickers, blog comments, overhead gossip and status updates and political slogans.

Everything matters. This should not be intimidating (“Oh no…what does it mean if I implicitly endorse this song by standing here while it’s played on the radio!”). I think, instead, it should be encouraging, knowing that it’s not just the “big choices” that count, that our lives are more significant than that.

Live out the truth in a bold way—but remember that opera singers and babies screaming on airplanes are both loud, but only one is loud with beauty and purpose.

I tend to shake my head despairingly at what the world thinks about Christians without realizing that, at least in some small way, I can be a part of changing that.

Let’s live out Christianity in ways that would make even an atheist say, “That is beautiful.”

8 comments

  1. yes, amen, hallelujah and I agree. Also, on a slightly different note, I remember hearing Marilyn Robinson speak at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing 2012, and one of the things she said, is: We christians think we’re under attack or something. We live in our bomb shelters and make choices out of fear and are always on the defensive because we think the culture out there hates us and if they hear we are Christian it will tear us down, so we try to leave our faith behind us so we don’t embarrass ourselves or make ourselves targets of attack. But I’m a writer in academia, and I am publicly Christian and I’ve never felt targeted or under attack by others in the academy. I don’t hide my faith, but I speak graciously and I’ve seen that others are gracious in response. She said, “As children of God, we have nothing to fear. There is great dignity in refusing to fear. God has never promised we will leave this world alive, but he’s given us a soul, and we should honor our souls and the souls of others. Because we know our God, we can risk respecting others, whoever we encounter, no matter what the outcome.” I think that maybe so much of the hype around certain lame christian art is from this fear thing… like we have to just band around anything that says its Christian because we’re under attack as a culture and we need to support anything Christian. But if we’re not living in fear, maybe we can be honest enough to say, “that’s lame art, this is good art, I disagree with that public Christian” or whatever. Maybe?

    1. I love this, Steph. Thanks so much for sharing. (Also I’m jealous that you got to hear Marilynne speak.) It reminds me of a question I asked some friends last week: should people hate us for being Christians? Jesus seems to say that people will, but as Marilynne said, when I’ve approached issues/discussions with both truth *and* grace, people have usually been pretty gracious, even if they disagree. Is something wrong with that? (I do think that sometimes Christians are hated in a totally different way than Jesus meant–for being obnoxious or hateful. Which is terrible.)

      1. That’s a good question. So recently one of my good friends just had a serious “cooling off” in a friendship with one of her non-Christian friends. It was based on the fact that this girl is now living a totally sinful lifestyle, and it wasn’t that my friend was judging her, she was being really sweet and loving, it was the girl *felt* judged just by being around her. So this girl started avoiding my friend not because my friend was mean, but because this girls conscience was bothering her. Does that make sense? So maybe if someone doesn’t know Jesus, but is moving towards the light, they’re not as offended (“shine your good deeds like light before men so they may glorify your father”), but if someone is moving further into darkness they hate you (“if they hated me, they’ll hate you even more”). Or like with Jesus: the ones who knew they were lost (tax collectors, prostitutes) were drawn to him, and the ones who were proud hated him?! Uh, that’s just the first thing I thought of.

  2. A very good follow up, Amy. This post gives me a better perspective and balance to your last post and my reply to it.

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