Giving Hope: It Will Take More Than Politics

John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Monday, November 1, 2010

Giving Hope: It Will Take More Than Politics

Hoping for a Happy Ending

There was no good reason that Hope should love me, but I hoped she would. When I saw her across the room at the High School reunion, there seemed no good reason she would go to dinner with me. In fact, in tenth grade she wisely refused to have anything to do with me.

What evidence I had was not promising, but then there she was. It was hard to be sensible when I saw here standing there and so the room somehow was crossed and the question was asked. Twenty-five years of marriage later, she says she just went for the fun of it, but at the time I thought I saw love in her eyes.

Or so I hoped. At every step of the process, I hoped and my risk was rewarded. A more pragmatic man would have quivered to take even the first step, but Hope filled my heart and so with hope I pressed forward against the odds.

And reader, she married me.

Still I wonder why and it should never even occur to me to woo her with anything less than my best.

In the life of a culture, just like a man, Providence often favors the bold and the hopeful. If the citizens of a republic wish a thing were true, they will often work hard to make it so. If they hate the very thought of a thing, almost no amount of evidence will compel them to act even in their own interest.

If men long for it, hope for it, the nation will strive to do it. It if cuts against the hopes of a nation almost every opportunity will be missed.

A hopeful man cannot do the impossible, but he will dare to risk and often achieve the improbable. Hope allows love to drive a man to great or infernal deeds.

Christians have the truth and goodness. We know God, but we often present Him lamely. Being right, while making everyone wish you were wrong, makes the truth odious and is a form of impiety.

If we love Jesus, we will wish to show His goodness and truth beautifully, because beauty will create hope in our fellow citizens that we are right. Hope will allow desire to grow and with desire comes the possibility of love.

A man will do things for his beloved that no law could make him do.

Unbeatable Beauty

Singing off key can destroy any good effect from even a love song having the best of words. Christianity is true and good, but if our presentation is ugly, incompetent, or self-serving, then our music will contradict our lyrics.

American Christians have striven mightily to create philosophers and politicians, but we have done too little to produce artists. We have done well to make good arguments and to create effective governors, but we must also have effective artists.

If we said the truth beautifully, people would wish for our victory instead of dreading it.

Today Christians might win arguments or elections, but only with forbearance. Imagine with me for a moment what would happen if the moral argument for prudent government spending were combined with world class story telling.

At this moment, Christians should offer to trade three governors for one great filmmaker.

Frank Capra and other artists made Americans want Franklin Roosevelt to be right and so we forgave him many sins that would have done down a man we disliked. Most men have not changed their marriage views through reason, but by siren calls from media.

Beauty can make even a bad cause momentarily attractive. Great artists have argued for Stalin and for Hitler, but the evil and the falsity of their causes soon cracked the veneer of beauty created by the artist. It is an indictment of American Christians that secularism inspires more art and beauty than the Lord Jesus Christ.

The God of Rembrandt, Bach, and T.S. Eliot has not changed, but we are unworthy of the Beloved.

Christianity is true and good, but it is the calling of the American Christian community to witness to it beautifully. Sadly, the message of movements like the Tea Party is sound, but the aesthetics often contradict the profundity of the message.

Too often we rely on trite music or past artistic triumphs to express our message. We need new battle hymns, not just endless recycling of yesterday's pop anthems. Some of the resources directed to political action committees would better serve our cause if used to fund artistic efforts. Such funding will produce few immediate benefits, but is vital if Christian witness is to thrive in the long term.

We don't need one great work of art, but hundreds of works out of which great work can come. There are four practical things we must do: create competent artists, take some risks, reward small positive steps, and save all we can from the rest of the culture.

Four Steps to Hope:

Creating Competence

My students too often associate Christian music, film, or any other kind of art with incompetence. Partly, this is the result of the overly critical attitudes anybody feels toward the "family business." Christians don't feel critical of "movie of the week" quality from a mainstream studio, because it does not bear the name of Jesus.

We shudder when the Beloved is attached to the mediocre and crude.

Many a good idea for Christian art, literature, or film has been spoiled by a failure of craftsmanship. Too often Christians have been unwilling to fund "unglamorous" programs in film lighting or script editing.

We hope instead that some Mel Gibson will magically come to our rescue or that the Holy Spirit will cover for our lack of technical knowledge. Sometimes miracles happen, but to count on them every day at the multiplex is lazy and presumptuous.

Hope exists in film programs like those at Biola University that are creating a generation of craftsmen, but that is not enough. The rest of us must be willing to take risks on their products. 

Taking Risks

If there is not some tolerance for early steps, then we will strangle promising artistic children in the crib. If there is too much tolerance for continued incompetence, we will provide a niche for the mediocre and also fail.

We need Christians who will become patrons for young artists, writers, and filmmakers and allow them to fail for a time. They must demand progress, but also be willing for progress to be measured in years and not in cable news cycles.

Even more challenging is to recognize that much of what is comfortable artistically today was risky or even controversial yesterday. We shall have to tolerate much that is new and strange to us in order to allow for the innovation that an artistic community needs to thrive.

We cannot keep demanding Swan Lake and Nutcracker and hope to encourage our dancers. Instead, we shall have to pay for many failures in order to find the next classic of dance.

Rewarding Small Steps

If an artist is not against us, we must point out that he is for us. Christians must create prestigious awards and recognize those artists that agree with us.

Groups much smaller than American Christians have honored artists that advanced their cause, even if they did so accidentally or imperfectly. Too often we enjoy the work of an artist, but refuse to honor him or her because of their imperfections.

People do more of what they get applauded for doing. Some people are not Christians, but are allies in our cause. In the same way Christians are willing to work with and honor allies in politics who do not share all our views, we must be willing to applaud artists who are not Christian.

We need more awards like the Briner Award at Biola University with better funding in order to create such a culture. Anything that is beautiful is ours and we need to make this plain.

Redeeming Excellence

Many of us will enjoy a work of art, a film, or literature and wonder how as Christians we could do so. The message is not what we wish it to be or the morals are not as good as they should be.

What do we like in the art?

Sometimes what we like is the beauty or the craftsmanship of the film. Anything that is beautiful is like God to the extent that is beautiful. This does not mean that the falsity is any less false or the depravity any less depraved, but we can recognize that the beauty is there and it comes from God. An ugly or poorly made film denies God just as a false or immoral one does.

Almost any work of art contains elements of ugliness, falsity, or depravity. Any great work of art will express some truth, some goodness, and often a great deal of beauty. All of what is worthwhile comes from God and can be claimed by His people.

Our first reaction must be to find what is good in a thing and then see what is twisted. Sadly, before Jesus returns everything produced by men will be imperfect. It is also true that everything will also contain fragments of the Image of God that exists in each human being.

No man that is still alive can escape the common grace of God. He may mean to blaspheme, but some element of his art will still give glory to God. If Satan cannot escape God's court, and Job indicates he cannot, then no living artist can either.

We can reclaim an element of any great masterpiece for Christ and His Kingdom.

Grounds for Hope

After World War II, conservatives and Christians lost their voice in the academy and the arts. The last few decades have seen a slow revival in both areas, but it is not enough. Christians in particular do not have the influence their numbers would suggest they should have.

And yet I am more hopeful than I have ever been.

Hundreds of bright conservative Christian adults long to write great books, make great movies, or produce other works of art. And yet to get the revival of a conservative artistic tradition, we must accept that most will fail.

If we tell the right stories, then our fellow citizens will hope we are right. They will demand more from our foes than they demand of us. Our arguments are already sound and the facts are with us.

So instead of being crabby and cynical, shouting at every aspiring artist to get off our cultural lawn, we must open up our churches, homes, and living space to baby steps.

We must hope beyond hope that every aspiring writer is a young Dorothy Sayers, every budding instrumentalist a young Bach, and every kid with a camera will have the vision of Tarkovsky with the popular appeal of Spielberg.

When I read Rachel Motte or watch the films of Josh Sikora, I have hope. When Robin Dembroff writes poetry and politics, then hope stirs. The improbable, that American Christianity produces a global artistic renaissance, is not impossible.

After all, if Hope would stay with me, the improbable happens every day.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily. 

Publication date: November 1, 2010