[A]fter birth, man is nurtured with physical pleasure. Throughout the early years of childhood the power to reason is not developed, and the mind is unable to use the senses of the body in order to activate its own energy and be preoccupied with its own rationality and spiritual delight. Consequently, only the body uses these senses, not merely for its necessary nourishment but also for its passionate pleasure. And to make things worse the body even draws the mind itself, being still imperfect and indiscreet, to the same physical pleasure, thereby enslaving the mind to physical pleasure. -- Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, Handbook of Spiritual CounselsI’m still pondering the matter of cultural reformation and the failure – the inability, even – of Christians to have any lasting effect on American culture. I hinted at the reality of the evangelical right’s becoming like the left in the sense of its becoming rationalistic.
Too often, the Christian’s engagement with culture amounts to little more than entering into the culture, almost chameleon-like, in order to participate in its reformation. But, of course, the last thing a chameleon wants is to destroy its surroundings. This is an important consideration because it strikes me that not very many Christians have adequately reflected upon the fact that cultural reformation requires the death of the culture to be reformed. (Opponents understand this all too well, hence their militant animosity.)
Before a seed sprouts, it dies. It seems like an obvious fact, not even worth pointing out. But the Calvinist teaching that there is no sacred-secular distinction has really worked out in a manner contrary to what it should be. Instead of “redeeming” the putatively secular, that secular ends up being baptized and chrismated. The culture really doesn’t need to be reformed; it just needs a bit of cleaning up. Rather than be always scandalized by the absence of Christ (note that I did not say “Christian values”) we look for the truth conveyed in contemporary, mythopoeic, artistic offerings. This is because Christians, especially Christians of the Reformed stripe (in contrast with fundamentalists) are all about truth, wherever it shows its ugly head. (After all, all truth is God’s truth.) If there is some grasp of truth in Seneca, then one can surely take note of it, as Calvin did on several occasions. If there is some grasp of truth in a movie like Pulp Fiction or V for Vendetta, then one can surely take note of it.
So goes the advertisement, anyway. But how does it really work out? Let’s take Pulp Fiction, for example. On one hand we can note with some satisfaction that it is a bit of pop culture, produced by pop culture and which takes critical aim at pop culture, calling its moral relativism into question. So far, so good. Reformed people are, or should be, all about calling culture into question. (Whether we ourselves should produce works of pop culture in order to do so is another question.) Of course, in viewing this cultural critique, the viewer is treated to racial slurs, graphic heroine use, close-ups of what bullets do to human heads, and a man raping another man. Do scenes such as these accord with truth? Certainly they do. And, besides, they’re fake. Should we, for that reason alone, rationalize our viewing of them?
Yes, these things are fake. But consider the implications of the fact that producers of movies try very hard to make the fake seem real. Why do they do that? They do it because we want them too. “Realism” is one of the properties we judge in appraising a movie. We judge as being of poorer quality movies which contain scenes that are obviously fake. We know it’s fake; we just don’t want to see that it’s fake. We need “realism”. Realism – from a movie. (No, let’s not go there just yet.)
What feeds this need for “realism”? If we can rationalize our viewing of movies like Pulp Fiction on the grounds that the otherwise-objectionable is fake, why then is it that a film purportedly depicting real deaths attained some popularity when I was young. (Actually the movie was full of faked deaths. Pretty darn good faked deaths, though.) Why would people who excuse violence in moves on the basis that it is fake be eager to view a film supposedly filled with “faces” of real deaths? My friends and I, happily excusing violence in movies on the grounds that it’s all fake, snatched up Faces of Death eagerly. And we were disappointed – felt robbed! – when we found out it also was fake.
St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1749- 1809) said that truth is everywhere, but it’s often covered in slime. For that reason we each must learn how to discern truth and, at the same time, carefully handle the “package of sensory assaults” it sometimes comes in. The problem with our rationalizations is that they do not account for something which humans who have attained to adulthood ought to know about themselves: humans can easily become addicted to pleasure. And if the “package of sensory assaults” which (perhaps!) convey truth to us is pleasurable, we can become addicted to, and obsessed with, viewing, or hearing, the packaging rather than devoting our attention to discerning the truth carried by that packaging.
Think about food. Food is a sort of packaging, conveying nutrients to our bodies. We need the nutrients, so we consume food. What our bodies do not need for nutrition is eliminated. But note that humans can become addicted to food – no, not to food: addicted to eating. And this, not because of the nutrients but because of the pleasure involved in consuming the food, the pleasure provided by the package of sensory assaults on the taste buds.
Like those who become consumers of food out of love for the package of sensory assaults it brings, we can become consumers not of truth but of pleasurable packaging in the forms of the movies we watch, or the music we listen to, the books we read.
Of course, we may very well tell ourselves that we are “meditating on whatsoever things are true” (Philippians 4.8). But are we meditating on anything? Or are we simply indulging a package of sensory assaults to which we’ve become addicted?
As an example of how package obsession may look when it comes to movies consider another movie, Christiane F (1981). It was broadcast on (then-West) German television in 1986 or 1987. For some reason the different reactions of two people have always remained with me. A fellow soldier took particular delight in describing for me a scene in which Christiane catches her boyfriend, Detlef, engaging in sodomy-for-heroine as if it were a play in a football game. Then there was Rita, wife of a friend of mine: watching the movie made her “very, very sad” – for days. She wondered what could be done, which, get this, was the intent of both the book and the movie! Amazing.
Out of curiosity I wanted to read various people’s reactions to the movie posted online at various websites. Given the subject matter of the movie, especially since it was based on the biographical book, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo(We Children from Bahnhof Zoo), this reaction, from Mae was a bit disappointing: “I…like the film a lot!”. Translation: “I like the package of sensory assaults a lot.” She doesn’t comment on the truth contained in this package. In fact, very few people do.
Take, as another example this comment in which the writer commpares Requiem for a Dream with Christiane F. (here) :
Style... Rarely will you see a film so evocative of a certain time/place as Christiane F... It could almost be viewed as a period piece... It is a raw, dirty film when compared with Requiem -- both deal with raw/dirty subject matter, but Christiane F. is not tricky and that's the difference. I fear that Christiane F., were it to be made today instead of 25 years ago, would look a lot like Requiem and that would be a shame. Christiane F. feels like the camera crew, lighting technicians...everybody is either on dope or has done dope. The film feels like the producers reall [sic] got it.
This one also enjoys the package of sensory assaults as a package which evokes “a certain time/place”, as a “period piece”. And the children from the Bahnhof Zoo? Christiane F., herself, who has continued to struggle on and off with drug addiction? And Detlef, whom no one seems ever to have heard from again? And Axel, whom Christiane and Detlef found dead in his apartment from a drug over-dose? And Babette, another of Christiane's friends, also dead of an over-dose (which Christiane learned by reading the newspaper)? What about them? Oh, yes, a real period piece.
Who cares? What we’ve got here is a package of sensory assaults which is a brilliant period piece, man. Lighten up, Francis.
Never mind all that for the moment. There is another matter, another issue raised by the movie, as a movie this time. What follows is a ten minute clip from the movie. There is a scene which begins at about seven minutes into the clip in which a guy makes, shall we say, unwanted advances, very aggressive, unwanted advances on Christiane. (Not the kind to willingly take, “No” for an answer.)
An artistic depiction of a probable historical fact. But this isn’t some guy behaving poorly with Christiane. This is an actor, a real person, placing his real hand on a real actress’s thigh, a fourteen year old actress named Natja Brunckhorst. Thought experiment: That is your 14 year old real-life daughter on the movie set. Do you want her to play that part? (Well, maybe if you’re Billy Ray Cyrus.) They may be depicting a truth. But in real life, does anyone have any business depicting that sort of truth in that particular way?
A rationalist, the same sort of person who looks at bread and wine and sees only bread and wine and is unable to see anything else looks at a scene like that and sees only a movie. Many Christians are like that with most of the movies they see. They watch a movie with scenes like I discussed above and see the “truth” depicted in it, not the reality on the set.
So, in reality, therefore, because of what they are willing to accept in the name of and for the sake of the arts, most Christians end up simply connecting with the culture. And by connecting with it, they imbibe it, absorb it and are transformed by it, rather than the other way round. Because they contain some truth or truths, the packages those truths come in are irrelevant; there is no harm in suffering those sensory assaults. To object to viewing or hearing those packages of sensory assaults is to ignore the important truths they purvey; it is to bury one’s head in the sand. We can’t do that. (I’ve been there. I was once accused of burying my head in the sand when I informed a friend I had no intention of watching the short-lived television series “Nothing Sacred”. But really now, the show’s theme – “the complexity of faith in the modern era” – was for me yesterday’s news, a theme I myself have been dealing with since 1988. And besides, I prefer non-fiction. More importantly, I prefer reading to television-viewing; for me it’s more time-efficient. Besides I think anyone who believes he’s going to learn something – i.e., not burying his head in the sand – from a fictional TV series needs to have his head examined. Art may do many wonderful things for us, but in the end there is no propositional content, only images.)
Consequently, Christian contributions to the stream of culture may be nothing more than yet more packages of sensory assaults. If our packages resemble their packages (with the idea that this will provide a hearing for the truths our packages contain) the fact of the matter may be that our packages get lost in that already-crowded stream of packages. (Where’s Waldo?) It may also be that, in a culture addicted to and obsessed with packages of sensory assaults, rather than the truth within the packages, Christian packages may say nothing that non-Christian packages don’t. Why? Because the content is being ignored (if it’s even noticed) in favor of the pleasure provided by the packaging itself. That is the danger. And when that sort of thinking is extended to other areas of culture, it may also explain the failure of "Invader Christian".
So, the question may not be, “Can we not package Christian truth in the same sorts of sensory assaults in which non-Christians package theirs?” but rather, “Does the truth to be conveyed dictate anything about the 'packaging'? In other words, should the sensory assaults be different? I well remember my professor of linguistics saying repeatedly, “Language is a vehicle for communicating culture.” As I have meditated upon that over the years I have learned that sometimes language can be transformed so as to make it difficult, perhaps even in some cases impossible to communicate certain ideas. One wonders if the same is not true of certain sensory-assault packages.
It could very well be that certain Christian truths don’t package very well because it would require a regenerate heart even to care about, much less to notice the packages’ contents. If that be the case, then there may be very little point in our employing the same sorts of sense-assaulting packages as non-Christian artists.
To be fair, then, to contemporary Christian artists, perhaps the mediocrity some of us think we see and hear and read is due to our own dulled senses and hardened hearts.
- James Frank Solís
- Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 22 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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