The Atlantic recently ran an article on the idea of Christian persecution in America. Citing a recent report, Emma Green notes that nearly 8 out of 10 white evangelical Protestants “believe they are subject to religious discrimination in the United States.”
While this isn’t surprising or new (the persecution narrative is an old line in evangelicalism) it still warrants some discussion. The fact that we (white Christians) believe ourselves to be suffering from persecution points to the great deceit that has befallen the white church. The tenants of our Christian faith are plastered all over our monuments, laws, and politicians— a large majority of which are (literally and figuratively) white. This says nothing of the fact that claiming persecution spits in the face of those who face true religious persecution across the globe. And it should be pointed out that, ironically, those who are fleeing actual religious persecution are some of the refugees to whom we, as a country, have historically closed our borders.
I am not the first one to suggest that to those for whom the privilege is the norm, equality feels like oppression. Nor do I absolve myself from this critique. As long as I value my welfare and my freedom over the rights and well-being of the other, I will never truly be free. Instead, I enslave myself to the fallacy that my values, my security, and my beliefs are what matter. Encountering contradicting conversation (let alone legislation) feels threatening when I hold my comfort as absolute and sacred. It’s a shame that I often do this while also claiming to be an advocate of Christ’s love, all the while Christ is to be found well beyond the gates of my privilege.
I’m a white American Christian; this article is about my demographic, my posture and my tendencies. And it makes me sad. It’s a testimony to why so many in my generation would rather be spiritual than Christian. The hypocrisy is too much to bear. My hypocrisy is too much to bear. It’s so much easier for me to yell “persecution!” than to see the shifting tides of culture as an opportunity to reflect and reexamine. I am not saying I shouldn’t take a stand for what I believe in. But our dogma is cheap if its chief concern and expression is our personal well-being.
We must fix this. If we are going to claim any allegiance to Christ’s love, then we need to make the banner under which we fly not one of “hear us!” but “hear THEM!” When we use our voice to advocate only for ourselves, we lose the voice of Christ, whose voice was always for the other.
If we’re going to bemoan the loss of something, let’s bemoan the loss of our ability to speak with Christ’s voice, not the so-called loss of our freedom.
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:
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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”
“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.”
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.
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 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.’”