Anyway, Billy Graham recently spoke with Christianity Today, making a particularly interesting comment:
“Evangelicals have not tried to capture the intellectual initiative as much as we should. We haven’t challenged and developed the minds of our generation. Though there are many exceptions, generally we evangelicals have failed to present to the world great thinkers, theologians, artists, scientists, and so forth.”
I knew he’d been reading the blog…
But really, evangelicals as artists? What’s he talking about? Shouldn’t we all be evangelists? I mean, art requires independence, solidarity of vision and all that stuff. And we all know books in our industry are a collaborative effort, definitely even more so than in the larger market. Christian books are not a single artist’s vision; they require many. There’s a rulebook to follow and everyone has some different rules to apply before release. And while some say we’re following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it, what can really be done? The truth may be that “the spirit of the Law transcends the letter of the Law, and that those who enforce it to the letter don’t understand the need for the care of men.” But applying that is just not practical when it comes to particular books coming down the pipe.
Evangelical artists? It’s just not feasible, is it?
I mean, sure, no writers write in a vacuum. Writers are not fighters who do their thing in their corner and then come out when the bell rings and start swinging. The myth is perpetuated by ignorance, and the truth shows a different picture. There’s a team of people crafting Christian works behind the scenes in order to fit the standard, the expectations. This is just a fact, and a necessary one.
And sure, there may be real watchdogs on every level who restrict the work in specific ways, many in unhealthy ways. And maybe we’ve even seen it ourselves and know the frustration of the writers and editors who work on the books and believe in their freedom and ability to influence minds. Maybe we all know authors who have encountered this, and still others who are offended by even the suggestion. But if the books are being censored because of some delicate, albeit well-meaning, folks, what’s there to talk about? It’s a business and business is business. You can’t change it. The battles will be fought whether we talk about it or not, on high-quality and low-quality books alike. The restrictions will either cause writers to work harder or not; they’ll either be more effective or less, either more balanced or less. And if some are paying slavish devotion to the letter of the law rather than spirit in order to get their metered truth through the narrow gate, so be it. What’s it to us?
I mean we’re crazy to think the restrictions on art are going to change. It will not change until the current audience relents. And in the current system, books are rewarded for not achieving balance. Books are awarded for selling out to the lowest common denominator. Some books are given superior status for their lesser messages. What can we possibly do to change it?
And then there’s the issue of airing all this dirty stuff which makes it easy to cast us as extremists. Sure, the label is sticky: Calling someone an extremist may say more about the one using the term than about the subject, reducing communication and shutting down debate. In extremism, everything becomes either all black or all white. It’s much harder to accept shades of gray and admit uncertainty, a reason for others’ points of view. Those arguing for acceptance of “grittier,” “edgier,” “truer” fiction have been cast as extremists–and many even do it to themselves.
All of this is true. I can’t argue. I just have some thoughts about it all. Like this supposed extremism in calling for balance on the shelves. What’s more extreme? Supporting a fuller acceptance of creation and grace, or opposing its influence? Who are the extremists? Those who can’t accept reality, difficult topics, challenging ideas on grown-up’s bookshelves? Who’s fringe? And no, I don’t think “judge not, lest you be judged” is a warning to others. It’s to us. Look in the mirror and let’s make double sure we’re not doubling the evil by judging our judges. But let’s try to see things as they really are, however dimly.
No one should be trying to offend anyone. People may choose to be offended by the idea that God is diminished by this systematic erosion of reality that’s allowed in our industry. That’s their business. And they have a valid point too. Ugliness and evil are deceptive and dangerous. And while the removal of all ugliness and evil may shift, weaken, or reduce truth, it’s certainly safer. A sanitized world still has lots of problems to redeem.
Separating from the world, disengaging, may not be a biblical instruction. But the children must be protected and we can’t always be around to teach them discernment. And who knows who might see our books and not wind up more godly or mature if we didn’t include redemption and solutions? But then again, maybe if they’re old enough to read it, they’re old enough to be taught discernment and the book itself should be allowed to lead in this work without extra interpretations. Or further, maybe we should allow for multiple interpretations. Maybe God intended us to. Maybe that’s why faith is so important.
Can we allow stories to be used the way they were intended to be used, as Jesus used them, as messy and interpretive? Open-ended? Confusing? Unresolved? Might Jesus have intentionally led some Pharisees down the wrong path with his stories? What a scandal that would be. Imagine the opportunity to show them their supposed God redeeming even the worst of darkness. Do you think he backed down and softened it for them? Maybe. I don’t know. But they were offended, and some may even have been “led to sin” because of it. But these are the scandalous purposes of art: To reveal the world as it is, unqualified. To evoke a change in the viewer. To shine light on darkness and call meaning from the void.
How long can you ignore the world before you start seeing it differently? How many years have people been asking these questions and found no answers? Where will answers come from? These are difficult questions. And yes, artists have high purposes, but they’re accountable and they need to realize it. Publishers are not on their side. Editors are required to be double-minded about all this. But we all decide how we will use our time and talents. I don’t have answers, but I know–I believe through faith–that asking the questions is right.