Eccentric Artist: Ken Russell and the Problem of Maverick Christianity

Recently I’ve been reading a great blog series by the Anselm Society on “centric artists.”

In essence (and I highly recommend reading Brian Brown’s introduction for the full concept), the series points out artistically-minded Christians shouldn’t follow the “eccentric artist” ideal. Christianity claims people’s talents are rooted in God and that people are called into community, so artists shouldn’t be mavericks. They may make unusual art, but they have a center and a community to help them find that center (thus they should be centric, centered).

As I read Brown’s explanation, I thought about one artist I’ve been researching recently who captured this problem: Ken Russell. Russell was one of Britain’s most controversial filmmakers, directing films that often combined sexual ideas with spiritual concepts. His best-known film, The Devils, is a historical film about a witchcraft trial in 17th-century France. The plot is filled with sexual overtones, from a priest who decides to get married to a nun obsessed with the priest. A weird, heady film about what happens when politics, religion, and sex become interconnected and go downhill.

Russell defended the way he used sexuality in his films, sometimes citing his Roman Catholic beliefs. To some extent, he had a point. Sexuality is a topic that artistically-minded Christian should be okay exploring. There’s plenty of sexuality in the Old Testament, particularly in The Song of Solomon, and  it’s not exactly absent from the New Testament either. Paul uses bawdy humor at least once in his letters.

But sexuality is a very personal topic. It’s hard to make art about sexual ideas without becoming too subjective, losing the lens that tells you whether you’re going too far or not. I mentioned Paul Schrader’s films in my blog series about portraying God in movies. He’s actually spoken about this problem in interviews about Cat People, a 1980s horror film he directed. The film had many sexual themes. Many of its scenes were written in a way that walks a fine line: they could have been lurid or they could have been provocative but worthwhile ways to explore sexual themes. Unfortunately, as Schrader explained in interviews with Kevin Jackson, he got too close to the film. He re-wrote one character based on his own struggles, and then he got involved with the lead actress while shooting the film. “The story of the film started to become very personal, so much so that I wasn’t really aware of how perverse it was getting,” Schrader explained.

Schrader understood (at least in retrospect) when he crossed the line from being provocative to being perverse. Russell, in contrast, seems to have never known when he crossed that line. The Devils addresses some fascinating questions about sexuality and religion, but it’s too fast-moving and darkly comic for these themes to shine through. You can see similar problems with his film Gothic, a biopic about Mary Shelley’s stay at Lake Geneva.

Russell’s book on filmmaking, The Lion Roars, shows this block in his thinking over and over. He alternates between brilliant insights and tasteless comments, and never seems to understand when he’s gone from one to the other. He talks about sexual love as being vital to making a movie about Tchaikovsky, and makes juvenile comments about actresses he found sexy when he was growing up. He notes that TV has become the new domain for great filmmaking (over 10 years before TV shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men got everyone talking about “New TV”), but of his reasons why this is true end up sounding like rants.

In short, Russell aspired to talk about great ideas, particularly interesting spiritual and sexual ideas in his films. But usually he was too much of a maverick to know when he took those ideas too far. This is precisely why artistically-minded Christians need community. They need sounding boards, people who can mentor and advice as projects develop.

Granted, these kinds of communities have to be a bit unusual. They need to have enough cohesion that they work as real communities, but be diverse enough that they don’t make everyone being the same into an idol. They need to be orthodox, but also believe that if truth is objective, and he seeks will find, then the community can let members search and question things. They have to okay with the fact that members may find interesting new ways to talk about orthodox ideas, which may confuse at first. This balancing act requires a lot of grace, and a lot of day-by-day trust in God.

But it’s possible to make such a community work. In fact, it’s vital if the church wants to cultivate artists who use their gifts well.

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