The following is part of a series on American evangelicals, considering why American Christian artists who produce high quality work tend to Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox or other high church denominations.
In a previous post, I argued that evangelical culture is essentially suburban, and averageness tends to be a central feature in suburban cultures. A related problem is that suburbs aren’t very specific. You’re not in the city, you are not in the country. Your homes all look the same. There’s a sense of generalness designed to make you feel comfortable in the conformity. This means that suburban evangelicals struggle to appreciate things for their own sake. Crafting something requires immersing yourself in the material, sometimes in ways that may seem silly from the outside. Greta Gerwig tells an interesting story about getting advice from Steven Spielberg for making Little Women, since Lincoln was set in the same period. Spielberg recommended many resources, and convinced Gerwig to use celluloid film by having her smell a roll of film. He got her to appreciate the qualities of film stock, which Spielberg believed was part of what makes celluloid film perfect for making an 19th-century period film. Spielberg understood the qualities of film stock, even in small details. To put simplistically, he understood the “thinginess” that made that thing special.
“Thinginess” isn’t a great word to describe this quality, but you can see the point. There is something that makes a tree treeish, a rock rockish, and so forth – qualities that sum up its unusual essence. You can tell when an artist has immersed themselves enough in the material to capture its particular essence. Walter Wangerin said when he taught writing, “I teach my students that writing requires paying attention. Be attentive. Develop an attitude toward existence, an awareness.”
You don’t have to be a “people person” to write a good story – acclaimed fantasy novelist T.H. White wrote that his books were “blood from a stone” because he struggled to relate to people. You have to be aware of the particular, the details that make something unique, so you can describe it in a way that feels real. Until you have that, you don’t have good art. Babylon 5 creator Michael J. Straczynski gives a good example in Becoming A Writer, Staying A Writer. He describes the most important lesson he learned about characterization is you can’t sum up a widower’s story by talking about how he felt when his wife died. You have to give a detail, like the couple arguing about fruit jam before the wife dies, and him finding the jam after her death. That little detail makes the scene, takes it from generic to tear-jerking.
Because so many evangelicals haven’t been taught to appreciate “thinginess,” they’ve struggled to tell good stories. Suburbanism is just one of many factors that have helped create this problem. For people of a certain age, 1970s-90s End Times theology was another important factor. That particular brand of postmillennial theology, kickstarted by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, often sent the message “everything’s getting burned soon, so why care about it?” Graphic novelist Craig Thompson sums up this attitude in his memoir Blankets, in a story about him and his father burning garbage. When he asked his father about recycling some of the material, his fundamentalist Christian father replied “Why? Because of the environment? The lord will be back in 10 years.”
Writers like Skye Jethani (Futureville) and Jake Meador (In Search of the Common Good) have dealt with this thinking’s shortfalls in more detail, and I’ve given my own thoughts on it a couple of years ago. Suffice to say, it was a view of the End Times that downplayed the Biblical mandate to care for things and use our skills well. It’s probably significant that Left Behind, a novel series that capped off this period and became its most popular product, were pretty mechanical. Characters are set up to get the plot going, sometimes they have bits of pithy dialogue, but they’re never fully realized. Explanations for events for event are given, but the view of Revelation feels pasted in, without any interesting nuance or twists (or discussions of the many ways Revelation has been interpreted over centuries). Halfway through the series, it’s hard to escape the sense that Left Behind is imitating Tom Clancy, with religious explanations pasted where the engineering factoids would be, and without the interesting characters that Clancy creates in books like The Hunt for Red October.
Given this struggle to love things well, it’s interesting that the people who’ve come closest to being great “evangelical artists,” with solid theology and well-crafted work, often have a “folksy” background. They may not be country or folk musicians, but they have an interest in landscapes and the everyday which we often associate with “folksy things.” Andrew Peterson’s book Adorning the Dark has some great chapters on making music, but also on the value of connecting to a natural landscape and appreciating it, crafting things from it like building a cabin. Mark Heard and Rich Mullins, who might both be described as folk rock mystics, are frequently cited as great pioneers of Contemporary Christian Music. Arguably, all three musicians played on ideas (fascination with nature, the messiness of sin, the perseverance of underserving saints) mined earlier by Johnny Cash, the prototypical country-rock-gospel-evangelist.
On the literature side, Wendell Berry has become very popular in recent decades, with his detailed narratives about country living. Walter Wangerin’s memoirs about his childhood and pastoral career – less interested in landscape but very interesting in a down-to-earth Christianity – seem to have a similar attraction. For filmmakers, this gap seems to have been filled by figures like Wim Wenders and Terence Malick. Wenders (cited in Jeffrey Overstreet’s Through A Screen Darkly for mentoring Scott Derrickson and producing great religious films like Wings of Desire) cut his teeth as a filmmaker making road trip movies that draw viewers into eclectic landscapes. Even his more commercial projects like the crime thriller The American Friend draw you into the setting in ways that make it so close you worry it will seep out of the screen. Malick, whom Overstreet and many others have analyzed from a Christian perspective, seems to turn every one of his movies to exploring signs of the divine in nature. Whether he’s making war films (The Thin Red Line), crime thrillers (Badlands) or historical dramas (A Hidden Life), the idea that there is some beautiful, eternal design behind nature always seems to come up.
Granted, many of these artists didn’t fit well into evangelical frameworks. Cash received lots of support from Christians for his gospel music and Greg Laurie’s recent Cash biography seems to view him as a symbol of old-school Christian music, but his infamous drug history make him an uneasy fit for the “clean Christian artist” ideal. Mullins and Heard famously both clashed with the cultures that wanted to make them into successful entertainers, and Wenders’ European background gives his films a very different flavor from most “Christian filmmakers.” Berry and Malick could both be described as artists whom evangelicals have come to love, and to some extent have co-opted. A key question for future artists will be how to learn from these models, develop an appreciation for things, while considering how much they want to fit into evangelical models.