When Christian Art Is Prostitution

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At this point, everyone is pretty sick of hearing about the Left Behind movie. And I can’t really blame them; I’m tired of remembering it exists too. But before we cue the final notes on the topic, there are a few observations that Christians should be making. For, as the iceberg to the Titanic, so the Left Behind movie is merely the tip of much grandeur issues sitting just beneath the icy water of the cultural era which Christianity is currently navigating. And as it stands we’re not concerned and therefore not steering away. But we really should be, and here’s why:

Firstly, the film got canned by critics. When it was first released on Friday, the composite rating granted by critics was a whopping 3%. Since that time that number has actually dropped to 2%. There’s not much more to say about this because, frankly, it can’t get much worse.

…except that despite getting canned by critics, Left Behind still grossed over 6 million dollars on its opening weekend. While this isn’t necessarily record-shattering, the movie did out-perform some critically-acclaimed films that also opened over weekend, such as The Good Lie, a movie Rotten Tomatoes assigned an average approval rating of 84%.

So what?

The point is nothing we didn’t already know: the Left Behind saga isn’t just a book series; it’s an industry. It’s a moneymaking machine in a way that makes the success of the Twilight series look like the self-published diary of a depressed, emo prom queen. And in the same way books like Twilight are written to target specific audiences, so the Left Behind series is a paragon of marketed artwork. And what’s to be understood through acknowledging the multi-million dollar industry that has been built around this book series despite getting canned by critics at every bend and turn, is that the creators of this series aptly set their sights on a particularly lucrative market: Christians, specifically of the American Evangelical variety.

The problems with this reality are infinite.

In common vernacular, prostitution is defined as “the practice of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.” But this is really just a contemporary understanding of the word that’s been culturally nuanced and derives from a more general meaning, which is:

“The unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for the sake of personal or financial gain.”

Under the true definition of the word, then, what occurs when someone targets a specific audience and utilizes artistic talent solely to get into their target’s wallets is prostitution. And when it comes to Evangelical Christian filmmaking, we consistently witness a mode of artistic expression that is notorious for getting critically canned and yet still makes a good wad of cash in the theaters; enough, at least, to continually motivate filmmakers to produce more such films.

Which begs the question: why are producers, actors, studios, etc. willing to invest in films knowing they’ll tank among critics?

Because, regardless of the critical, artistic appraisal of the product, the money is still there. The Left Behind book series alone, without the miles of additional media contracts that followed, exceeded 63 million despite containing a writing style that one literary commentator claimed “makes Robert Ludlum look like Shakespeare.” This, once again, betrays the bitter reality: it’s not being read because it’s good, just like Twilight isn’t being read because Stephanie Meyer is the 21st century’s answer for Ayn Rand (and God help us if she actually were). Left Behind is being read because if you slap the label “Christian” on a product, you’re guaranteed to draw a crowd, and since this is America, and it is the 21st century, said crowd will have hands reaching for thick wallets.

And when Christians flock to poor products such as the Left Behind films, like they did this weekend, art gets prostituted. Plain and simple. And the blame isn’t just on the producers. Christians may not be the pimps selling girls on a street corner but we are buying the product and thus we are just as guilty if not infinitely more guilty for the problem at hand because we perpetrate the economy that provides for it’s existence.

There is an argument to be made against my accusations. The proposition could be offered that producers behind (what I am arguing is) bad but profitable Christian art such as the Left Behind film are not out for a quick buck. The argument could be made that, instead, they are out to use art as a medium for preaching the gospel and did so to the best of their abilities. And this is a fair argument.

Except that:

“Many times, that’s how people see Christian art, or Christians making art: They see the art as having an agenda. Christians have really used and almost in some senses prostituted art in order to give answers instead of telling great stories and raising great questions.”

At 34, Lecrae is the first artist to simultaneously land an album at the top of Billboard and gospel charts.
At 34, Lecrae is the first artist to simultaneously land an album at the top of Billboard and gospel charts.

The author of the above quote is Lecrae Moore. Known to hip-hop fans solely by his first name, Lecrae recently became the first musician in ever to land an album at the top of gospel music charts and Billboard 200. In a recent discussion with The Atlantic, Lecrae shared his objection to the notion of Christian art that attempts to sermonize.

But shouldn’t all ‘Christian’ art carry the gospel message? Well, yes, but:

“We’ve limited Christianity to salvation and sanctification. Christianity is the truth about everything. If you say you have a Christian worldview, that means you see the world through that lens—not just how people get saved and what to stay away from.”

Reading Lecrae’s words, one cannot help but think back similar sentiments from Marilynne Robinson, a Calvinist novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her fiction. When asked in an interview with The Paris Review if she considered herself a religious writer, Robinson responded by saying:

“As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.”

Robinson’s thoughts on the topic may appear to drift into some sort of pluralistic/relativistic take on culture and art, but not if you’ve ever read Augustine. In Chapter VII of his Confessions (and further elucidated in City of God) Augustine lays out his thesis that evil has no substance; it is merely a deprivation of good. Therefore goodness, wherever it appears, is created by and testifies to God. In other words: all good is God’s good. Or, if you’d simply like to quote the traditional doxology, God is that “from whom all blessings flow.”

Robinson, a devout Protestant, has won multiple awards for her fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Robinson, a devout Protestant, has won multiple awards for her fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize.

If that’s the case, then art does not have to scream the gospel message, it does not have to sermonize in order to be ‘Christian.’ Because all good testifies to God. Therefore art that is done well and earns the praise of its critics is more worshipful to God than art that adulterates its medium for the sake of preaching:

“God does not ask for ‘religious’ art or ‘Catholic’ art. The art he wants for himself is Art, with all its teeth”

-Jacques Maritain

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“Let choirs sing well or not at all. Otherwise we merely confirm the majority in their conviction that…this culture and religion are essentially marginal, amateurish, and rather effeminate activities.”

-C.S. Lewis

If an artist is going to pursue art whilst claiming it be for God’s glory, then the art must be done well. If it is not, then the artist ought to feel immense regret. And time and time again, critical reviews of Christian art, whether it be in film, music or literary forms, have betrayed an attitude among us that the label “Christian” covers over a multitude of sins, among them: laziness, mediocrity, and pathetic pursuit of our craft.

And yet, Left Behind grossed 6 million this weekend. And it will probably make a whole lot more.

Perhaps I’m being overtly cynical and harsh (though, in my defense, it’s been noted on more than one occasion that Nicholas Cage “whored himself” to the producers of this film due to insurmountable debt).

But the reality is that artistic expression: poetry, writing, music, films, these are the mediums by which the world will be changed in the post-postmodern age. Politics, religion, economics even education will continue to have less influence on the psychological and philosophical development of upcoming generations; the average teenager is influenced more by JK Rowling and Ke$ha than their local pastor.

And in the cultural conversation taking place, in the war for influence and voice that’s being waged on the battleground of art, Christianity is losing ground without ever noticing it. If American culture is a frat party then Christian art is a pimply teenager with an awkward stare, one who sits with his back to everyone staring into a corner, occasionally turning around to yell things like “John 3:16!” and “You’re all going to hell but Jesus can save!” I’m not saying we need to be doing keg-stands, but perhaps we could learn to dance or at least engage in a conversation.

If not, if Christians are willing to settle and pay for products like Left Behind, then we’re willing to continue to be the joke of the party. If we’re not willing to stand up and say “enough is enough”, if we’re not willing to demand that art be true to itself and worship God as such, then we might as well leave the party, we might as well cordon ourselves in a bubble of Christian bookstores and propaganda, because that’s the only influence we’ll ever have.

And if that’s what we choose, then I pity those of us who have artistic talent, who have the ability to praise God within culture and yet choose to waste medicine on the healthy. Because the end result for someone who hoards God-given abilities doesn’t look too good.

And the prostitution of our talents? Well, I’m willing to bet that won’t make our indictment any lighter:

“But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?…So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

-Matthew 25:26, 28-30

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Willen De Poorter's depiction of The Parable of the Talents.
Willen De Poorter’s depiction of The Parable of the Talents.

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What General Motors And Christian Subculture Have In Common

In case you missed it, there was a recent controversy over the surfacing of a General Motors policy prohibiting the use of certain words in their safety reports. Since about 2008 General Motors has, evidently, outlawed the use by their employees of over 68 words in any account regarding the safety of one of their products.

First of all (and I really can’t believe I’m saying this) I’m going to suggest that General Motors ought to hire less former English majors and more engineers. What with phrases like: “disemboweling”, “maniacal”, “lacerating” and “Hindenburg” included on the list, it seems as though they could use less energy on the right side of the brain and a greater understanding of math beyond 2+2 in the hopes of building cars that aren’t “grenadelike powder-kegs”. English majors may do wonders for your marketing department but, as a general rule, we also tend to be fairly incapable of building cars that won’t lure the description “Kevorkianesque”.

Secondly, I think it’s safe to say that there’s no way in the name of heaven, hell and this sneezing panda

that I ever want to buy, lease, drive or be within fifteen feet of a General Motor vehicle, lest the safety report was completed by an engineer and, in a lapse of creativity, they couldn’t find a sufficient way of warning that it tends towards “spontaneous combustion”.

This is also why I don’t trust Christian sub-culture.

If there’s any movement that’s subjected itself to the siren-call of censorship, it’s Christian subculture. For within the realm of Christian music, books, films, art and our culture in general, we have adopted the notion that removing certain words thoughts and phrases from our vocabulary will somehow produce a beautiful, functioning product. “Christian” music is known for it’s lack of profanity and refusal to chant about any gender-specific body parts. “Christian” books are centered on 1 Corinthians 13 romances (in the most boring way possible). “Christian” films refuse to show any females who ignored the one-piece swimsuit policy and turn the camera from gambling, drinking, smoking and similar deviances (unless the offender is an atheist). I’m making massive generalizations here. But if you want to prove my point, walk into a Christian bookstore and search all the materials for one inclusion of the word “shit”. That’ll put the brakes on a scavenger hunt.

And yet what General Motors is currently learning via a $35 government fine is the same lesson we Christians should have learned years ago had we taken the moment to remove our heads from the sand: flowery language can’t cover up a shitty product.

Words describe things, things that need describing. Censorship and the abhorrent belief that we can escape this world without using phrases that have a sting to them do not make problems go away, they just allow them to be ignored.

If Christian culture and the products of said culture are truly based off a Biblical worldview, then it should start with an uncensored look at the Bible itself. Song of Solomon is an X-rated document. Read it slowly sometime in the most literal translation you can find and you’ll be like:

Jesus referred to the Pharisees as a brood of vipers; I can assure you this wasn’t a polite gesture for use over the dinner table. The book of Job describes Satan using a phrase we English folk have translated to “skin for skin”, mostly because a literal contextual translation of this would make a sailor blush.

And here’s the thing: the Bible is a good book. Even people who don’t agree with what it teaches and label it as fictional poppycock can at least agree that it’s interesting and timeless. The same cannot be said for some, uh, lots of, okay most of our censored “Christian” artistic endeavors today. If the Biblical meta-narrative required some colorful language for diagnosing the problems of sin and the pervasiveness of grace, then you can damn well bet ours do too.

Literature does not need profanity to be good, that’s not my point at all. And most if not all of the objectionable material we find in culture is neither necessary nor edifying. And I am not proposing that Christian families swap Veggie Tales with Kill Bill for family movie night. I am not proposing that our playlists must include Michael W. Smith and Flo Rida (although come on: “Friends Are Friends Forever” and “I Cry” remix? Just a thought).

What I’m saying is that we open up our minds and allow ourselves to see that quality products sometimes involves the use of squeamish words, that our basis of “good” and “bad” ought not be the MPAA rating system. Furthermore, just because we describe our wonderful little subculture as “Christian” does not mean it isn’t in fact “ghastly” or “horrific”.

When we operate under the notion that the only good literature is literature that doesn’t say “damn” or “hell”, when we pretend that the only music worth listening to are songs that include the words “worship”, “Jesus” and “Lord of Heaven and Earth”, we are not promoting quality products, we’re just whiting out words on a safety report. Meanwhile, the cars we’re producing, the culture we’re propagating, does not safely transport the gospel message from us to the world outside but rather acts as a “rolling sarcophagus” (that’s a word for tomb or coffin, I had to look it up too) in which our message suffocates and dies.

Personally, I’d rather purchase a General Motors “powder keg”.