“I hope to be a catalyst for innovation in the future of seminary education, integrating the best of the arts into the church, seeing cities as classrooms for that integration, and helping the church to become the leading practitioner of culture care.” —Mako Fujimura
by Fuller Theological Seminary
Fuller Theological Seminary is pleased to announce that Makoto (“Mako”) Fujimura will join the seminary as director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. Fujimura’s appointment, effective September 1, 2015, follows a yearlong international search process. Master painter Mako Fujimura is a respected leader in the conversation between Christian faith and art. A devoted believer, world-renowned artist, and cultural influencer, his leadership has had a profound impact around the world.
Fujimura is the craftsperson of a movement toward renewal called “culture care.” This magnum opus work, his alternative to “culture wars,” is born from the integration of his work as an artist and his commitment to his Christian faith. He says it is worship that integrates all of his endeavors, acting as the heartbeat of a legacy that dovetails beautifully with the task before Fuller and with the original vision of the Brehm Center.
“I am filled with gratitude and joy at the rich opportunity I have to welcome Mako as the new director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts,” says Fuller President Mark Labberton. “This role ‘shaping culture shapers,’ as Bill and Dee Brehm noted in the early days of their vision, is key for Fuller, and Mako beautifully fulfills our commitment to innovation, collaboration, faithfulness, fruitful risk-taking, and courageous creativity. Bill has always said of the brainstorming process: ‘start with the universe!’ The appointment of Makoto Fujimura to the directorship of the center that bears the Brehm name lives up to that robust challenge.”
“Our relationship with Mako,” says Nate Risdon, Brehm Center program director, “has been one of mutual admiration for nearly 10 years: his lectures, work, and writings have inspired much of our work to date. To have Mako serve as our director brings an amazing convergence that will energize and magnify the movement of ‘culture care.’”
Fujimura will be a “vision director” for Fuller’s Brehm Center, working directly with President Labberton toward a “robust, imaginative experience for Fuller students,” says Fujimura. “My goal for all of us is to experience our God as the author of beauty. My studio is where I experience the presence of my calling the most, and is also where I can offer an integrated experience to others.” Through his studio practice he has mentored many, written several books, and had significant conversation with the church and the world. Fujimura says, “This Fuller appointment is intended to amplify those connections to share with many more.”
Fujimura argues for the importance of creating and conserving beauty as antidote to cultural brokenness by asserting a need for cultural “generativity” in public life. Beauty is vital to “soul care,” he believes, offering a vision of the power of artistic generosity to inspire, edify, and heal the church and culture. (See his speech on culture care at the National Press Club.) Fujimura’s book Culture Care is a support volume to the personal gatherings and international speaking engagements in which he shares that vision with like-minded artists, supporters, and creatives…
The relationship between music and science is more complicated (and beautiful) than you ever imagined
I love the interplay between art and science, because it often demonstrates my conviction that we have more than one set of “senses” by which we interpret reality. While our five physical senses–touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell–are critical for apprehending the physical universe, it is our “spiritual senses”–what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refer to as the “eyes of the heart”–that enable us to comprehend the spiritual universe. Music is but one place where the interaction between the two is so evident… and so beautiful. We’ve reposted Pam Belluck’s excellent introduction to Levitin’s work and Cory Turner’s report on a practical application of it for those less interested in the technical jargon. -GDS
To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons
The other day, Paul Simon was rehearsing a favorite song: his own “Darling Lorraine,” about a love that starts hot but turns very cold. He found himself thinking about a three-note rhythmic pattern near the end, where Lorraine (spoiler alert) gets sick and dies.
“The song has that triplet going on underneath that pushes it along, and at a certain point I wanted it to stop because the story suddenly turns very serious,” Mr. Simon said in an interview. “The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”
An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.
The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.
Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians.
And what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns…
Musical ability is popularly regarded to be innate: one either is or is not born with musical talent. Increasingly, neuroscientists are collaborating with geneticists to understand the links between genes, brain development, cognition, and behavior (Ebstein et al., 2010; Posner et al., 2011). Music can be seen as a model system for understanding what genes can accomplish and how they relate to experience. On the practical side, identifying genetic components that underlie musical ability can also help us to predict who will succeed or, more interestingly, what types of instruction will be most successful for individuals according to their geneticcognitive profiles. In all domains, successful genotyping requires an accurately described phenotype. Unfortunately, the latter has not yet been accomplished for music, creating a significant hurdle to further progress. Part of the difficulty in describing the musical phenotype is its heterogeneity, the wide variety of ways in which musicality presents itself (Sloboda, 2008). My goal in this article is to review those factors that might be associated with the phenotype and to discuss definitions, measurement, and accuracy, three common obstacles in understanding the genetics of complex behavioral phenomena (Ebstein et al., 2010), with the hope that this may stimulate discussion and future work on the topic.
The Functional Neuroanatomy of Music
We now know that music activates regions throughout the brain, not just a single ‘‘music center.’’ As with vision, music is processed component by component, with specific neural circuits handling pitch, duration, loudness, and timbre. Higher brain centers bring this information together, binding it into representations of contour, melody, rhythm, tempo, meter, and, ultimately, phrases and whole compositions. The idea that music processing can be broken down into component operations was first proposed as a conceptual tool by cognitive theorists and has been confirmed by neuroimaging studies (Levitin and Tirovolas, 2009). The early distinction that music processing is right hemisphere lateralized and that language is left hemisphere lateralized has been modified by a more nuanced understanding. Pitch is represented by tonotopic maps, virtual piano keyboards stretched across the cortex that represent pitches in a low-to-high spatial arrangement. The sounds of different musical instruments (timbres) are processed in well-defined regions of posterior Heschl’s gyrus and superior temporal sulcus (extending into the circular insular sulcus). Tempo and rhythm are believed to invoke hierarchical oscillators in the cerebellum and basal ganglia. Loudness is processed in a network of neural circuits beginning at the brain stem and inferior colliculus and extending to the temporal lobes. The localization of sounds and the perception of distance cues are handled by a network that attends to (among other cues) differences in interaural time of arrival, changes in frequency spectrum, and changes in the temporal spectrum, such as are caused by reverberation. One can attain worldclass expertise in one of these component operations without necessarily attaining world-class expertise in others
Musical training doesn’t just improve your ear for music — it also helps your ear for speech. That’s the takeaway from an unusual new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found that kids who took music lessons for two years didn’t just get better at playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also helped kids’ brains process language.
And here’s something else unusual about the study: where it took place. It wasn’t a laboratory, but in the offices of Harmony Project in Los Angeles. It’s a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities.
Two nights a week, neuroscience and musical learning meet at Harmony’s Hollywood headquarters, where some two-dozen children gather to learn how to play flutes, oboes, trombones and trumpets. The program also includes on-site instruction at many public schools across Los Angeles County.
Harmony Project is the brainchild of Margaret Martin, whose life path includes parenting two kids while homeless before earning a doctorate in public health. A few years ago, she noticed something remarkable about the kids who had gone through her program.
“Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU,” Martin says, “despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our programs.”
One of my theology professors, or perhaps many of them, (sometimes my entire seminary experience simply flows together as one great river) once said that bad art is bad theology. Think about that for a moment. Bad art is bad theology. Good art reflects the world around it. Good art unveils a deeper theme or emotion undergirding its story and truly great art oh-so-subtly transforms the worldview of its audience by making them question things they once thought stable. By breaking out the keen prophetic edge of a good story well told and using it to deftly peel back the layers of an unexamined life.
So what does bad art do? It reinforces preconceived notions about the world and about ourselves. It encourages the mundane and allows its audience to wallow in self-validating sense of security. All of which helps no one and leaves both outsiders and those insiders who are striving for something more scratching their heads and wondering at the inept mangling of something once called beautiful.
God is a vast and wildly wondrous thing that no human can ever hope to fully grasp. And so it disappoints me to no end that so much energy of the American church and particularly the American Evangelical church has been set to pearl clutching in an attempt to confine God, theology and by extension, art to a terribly tiny box whose corners have all been painstakingly mapped. The good news is that neither art nor theology nor God can be trapped in such a suffocating box. It is sheer hubris to believe that this might be so.
So where does this leave us if we want a living, breathing theology that is reflected in our art?
Ashley Ariel studied screenwriting at a college you’ve never heard of and got an advanced degree in theology (in theology! why?!?) at a school you might have. She’s attended several writing programs of fairly vague importance and has blithely put aside any attempt at snobbery, fully embracing her bizarre, hybrid love of the summer tent pole action flick and the soulful indie that inexorably crushes your feelings into dust.
She’s taught workshops on story in the wilds of Kansas City and once, accidentally, ran into Colin Farrell while stocking shelves at Borders. She’s worked on lots, on sets and has read a slew of very bad scripts for several teeny tiny production companies. She currently lives in somewhere in NH and is constantly asking herself how she found herself in this tree.
“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary. Few writers have come to write about it — and to it — more directly than the novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry, who describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts.” In his wonderful and wonderfully titled essay collection What Are People For? (public library), Berry addresses with great elegance our neophilic tendencies and why innovation for the sake of novelty sells short the true value of creative work.
Novelty-fetishism, Berry suggests, is an act of vanity that serves neither the creator nor those created for:
Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty — the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder.
Pursuing originality, the would-be creator works alone. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill.
Novelty is a new kind of loneliness.
Berry paints pride and despair as two sides of the same coin, both equally culpable in poisoning creative work and pushing us toward loneliness rather than toward the shared belonging that true art fosters:
To be honest, the title of this blog post pretty much describes how I feel being an artist within the evangelical church. In my experience artists tend to live on the fringes of societal norms due in part to seeing the world in a different way but when you add faith into the mix it can further cause the artist of faith to feel further isolated and without a community that really understands or appreciates their often unique vision and ‘take’ on the world. Interestingly, the first person in scripture to have the Holy Spirit bestowed upon them was Bezalel, the head artisan of the Tabernacle.
This topic has been an ongoing conversation between my husband and me for a number of years. Over time, I have observed what happens when my husband has been asked what he does and the responses typically go like this “Oh….you are an artist. How interesting…” And then…an awkward change of topic generally ensues. Immediately.
I’ve watched my very laid-back husband just roll with the conversation without getting perturbed about the perceived lack of comfort when the essence of his being is dismissed, albeit unintentionally. Over the years, he’s even stopped saying he’s an artist (which I chide him about), I think because he’s been around long enough to have learned that it’s a ticket to “no-wheres-ville” in most conversations. Now, he says he’s a Professor of Art, or a PhD student. People seem to identify a little more with those descriptors. If people hang around over time and discuss much with my husband they can’t help but be drawn into a conversation about art at some point. It’s his life. He lives and breathes art, and to ‘get’ him, one must have an understanding of what is important to him at his core and the top two things are matters of art and faith.
In recent years, I’ve found myself joining him in the vocation of artist. Now it’s not just about watching my husband navigate the question of “What do you do?”, now I have to navigate it as well. I sort of preferred him being in the ‘hot seat’, to be honest; it was more fun being an observer. : )
Why do people seem to be so uncomfortable around art and artists?
I have a few suspicions. Among them I think the genesis, in the evangelical church at least, may have roots as far back as the era of the Reformation Iconoclasts. I think there came to be a fear of esteeming created work too highly, and due to the destruction of so many religious works of art there came to be a dissonance, or dissociation, with art and therefore with the creators of art. I also think that as a part of that heritage and other factors we have come to de-value beauty in its various forms perhaps because we have simply forgotten how important participating in and receiving beauty is to our overall sense of well-being. There is a reason why home renovation and décor shows are a hit these days – people crave beauty and want to surround themselves with it. In my opinion, it’s an unconscious nod to something people can’t quite put their finger on…
I have seen several articles lately that discuss how the church can support artists and I’ll link a few at the bottom of this post. In my opinion, two of the best ways the church can support artists is to have art be a topic of conversation by bringing in those knowledgeable on the subject who can facilitate conversation, but also for the church to actually purchase a few competently done pieces of artwork and have them permanently displayed on-site. Providing shows for artists and their work in properly lit spaces is also nice and very much appreciated and can be a great outreach to the community. As an artist searching for a church, I can get a fairly immediate sense of whether or not a church values art (and therefore me, as an artist) through a short tour of their lobby and sanctuary. Churches that are void of elements of beauty do not hold much appeal for me in a very physical sense; they feel uncomfortable and more like stopovers on the way to…somewhere else. I don’t think I am alone in this feeling, nor do I think it is only artists who might feel this way. The more a place feels like “home” by acknowledging beauty and the creative process which are a large part of who I am, the more I am able to participate not just in body, but at my core, the place where I live deep down inside. The places people don’t ask about.
Over the years we have lamented conversed about the lack of beauty that is present in many churches we have attended. They tend to have a somewhat sterile feel, almost as if they are E.R.s for the spiritually minded, certainly not a place to worship the very Creator of all that is beautiful. I think values have shifted towards the more pragmatic and with it a very utilitarian look in architecture and church décor has been adopted. Beauty has been killed. Life is messy and we bring that mess to the altar, but beauty dwelling around that altar lifts the spirits and helps to impart peace which can open the door for hope.
It’s ok if one doesn’t ‘get’ art, but I think there are many more appreciators of art in the world than detractors. I think many feel in some respect that they are not qualified to speak about art, in one way or another, which results in the seeming unintended dismissal of the very subject and through that the dismissal of a whole segment of society. Let us artists know if our work evokes any emotion within you, let us know what you see, what you like, and even what you don’t ‘get’. In doing so, you will learn a little about us, and we might, too. : )
Remember, what we create is a reflection of us and often a form of personal worship for the artist of faith, not worship of the object or the thoughts behind its creation, but of the One who willed all things, even the beautiful, into being.
Pamela and Rondall Reynoso established Faith on View to encourage the arts within the church community. Pamela is a photographer and Rondall an artist and art historian. Read more on their blog.
In the fantasy tale Crow and Weasel, Badger declares: “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”It’s a Wonderful Life has been just such a story for me.
Sue and I were spending Christmas Eve far from family and friends, holed up in a downtown hotel in Kansas City, MO on one of the coldest nights on record. We had just made some of the most momentous decisions of our life. We would not return to China where we had thought we would spend our entire careers. We would not accept a prestigious internship that may have launched my career, but would have kept Sue and I apart for nearly a year. Instead, we would devote our lives to serving God as missionaries, not to a foreign country, but to a generation—young intellectuals, artists, and leaders who would shape the world for good.
To say that it was an idealistic decision is a gross understatement. We were going, “All in” to pursue a dream of cultural transformation that was hard to articulate without sounding crazy. Many friends, family members, bosses, and mentors simply didn’t understand. Frankly, we weren’t we sure we understood. Yet we were certain we were following God’s leading (at least as certain as two doubting idealists living in a physicalist culture can be.) So we talked our idealistic talk over a marvelous dinner in a famous KC steakhouse, prayed our idealistic prayers, and climbed into bed.
Enter It’s a Wonderful Life
Mindlessly, I flipped on the TV. A black and white image of two constellations talking to each other slowly materialized on the screen. Why we didn’t change channels I’ll never know, but slowly the magic of Frank Capra’s film drew us in. Instantly we identified with George and Mary Bailey and their struggle to live out their idealism in a world that seemed determined to beat it out of them. We were transfixed. It was our story. Here was a couple who kept taking punch after punch on the chin, but also kept pursuing their idealistic dream for the benefit of others, all the while wondering they were actually making any difference at all.
It was a holy moment. We wondered aloud if God wasn’t somehow using Capra’s story to communicate something of the kind of life our decisions would lead to. Boy, were we ever right. Since that cold Kansas City night our long and winding journey from Big Ten universities, to Christian schools, to the Ivy League, and now Hollywood has proven to be even more of a challenge than we could have ever imagined. And when things have been their darkest, we have returned to the story of It’s a Wonderful Life again and again.
I know it is a bit melodramatic, but I’m not sure we would have made it this far without George Bailey’s example of self-sacrificing idealism vindicated by God’s direct intervention in the physicalist world. George and Mary Bailey were true two-handed warriors. Watching how their small idealistic decisions added up to the profound cultural influence fills my heart with strength to do the right thing on a day-to-day basis. And in our darkest hours, just knowing that there is a God and his angels and a great cloud of witnesses looking on, helps us pray, “Lord, help me live again.”
So what lessons can modern day two handed warriors draw from Capra’s tale. Let me propose three.
Don’t lose your idealist nerve.
The first lesson is just for filmmakers aspiring to both culture-making and faith-building, and it is this: Don’t lose your idealist nerve. By rooting his film in present-day America (at least it was present-day in 1946), Capra went against the trend of his day to express a theistic worldview only in “Bible films.” By portraying a clear and unmistakable (if comic) divine intervention, Capra went against the trend of his day to limit modern-day religious faith to the private subjective realm. (See, Capra’s Saga of a Depressed Idealist.)
In an era when “magical” intervention in the physical world was established as a Hollywood staple, divine intervention is nearly completely missing. This is not to say that filmmakers of faith should never set their films in a physicalist worldview, or resort to a historical, fantasy, and even horror genres to convey their themes, only that Capra’s courage to root George Bailey’s idealism in the radical repudiation of skeptical physicalism through the supernatural in-breaking of God is what is so desperately lacking in today’s films. If filmmakers of faith won’t make divinely supernatural films, who will?
Certainly this kind of two-handed filmmaking will require remarkable wisdom and audacity. Wisdom, because physicalist Hollywood will automatically categorize any film with a supernatural element as “Fantasy.” (In fact, AFI now lists It’s a Wonderful Life as a “Fantasy Film.”) Physicalist (especially nihilist) films are held in such high honor in this town that nearly everything else is often viewed as “sentimental hogwash” (except when it is time to balance the budget.) Making films that are both excellent and idealist and even theistic will be an incredible challenge, but I believe it can be done, because it has been done. Gladiator is a recent idealist example, even if it was a period piece.
The truly audacious thing will be if someone follows Capra’s lead and manages to make a critically-acclaimed and commercially-viable theistic idealist film set it in present-day America. It will have to be a spectacular, genre-bending effort, but as Flannery O’Conner put so eloquently:
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
It will take the kind of courage Capra demonstrated in making Wonderful Life, and like Capra, it might take years for such courage to be vindicated on the earth, or in heaven. But is that any reason not to try?
In my life journey, I NEEDED a story like Capra’s “more than food to stay alive.” I don’t think I’m alone. But who will make the films that will sustain the next generation of two-handed warriors? Only filmmakers like Capra with the courage to live idealistically. Is that you?
Don’t rely on Idealism alone
The second lesson I’d like to draw from Capra’s classic is for those of us–like Ricky Gervais–who are stuck between idealism we intuit to be “true” and physicalism we face with our senses everyday. (See, Ricky Gervais and Sentimental Hogwash.) Let’s be honest, some of us are way too idealistic. We ground our faith in the unseen realm in such a way that our faith is little more than an existential and/or postmodern personal preference. Then, when someone criticizes or critiques our faith with data from the world of sense perceptions we defensively label them an “enemy of the faith.” Perhaps they are. But isn’t it more likely that they are simply a skeptical physicalist waiting for us to provide a demonstration of the in-breaking of the idealist world into this “present evil age.” Maybe they aren’t rejecting our faith so much as the shallow level of experience we’re basing it on.
Jesus never asked his followers to judge the truth-claims of his message based upon “pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye” idealism. He asked them to base it upon the ideals of the kingdom of God breaking into the physical world through the “miracles” of supernatural answers to prayer (John 14:12).
Until Christ followers live lives marked by supernatural power and sacrificial love, I’m afraid that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world are going to have a very hard time taking our truth claims very seriously. Roman Emperor Julian despised the Christ followers of his day, yet he could no escape the reality of their faith in their lives when he confided in a friend:
“…the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause… these impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own… outdoing us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness.”
Sounds like a perfect description of George and Mary Bailey to me. Yet, I mean no disrespect when I say that many of the “media leader Christians” I encounter today remind me more of Mr. Potter than George Bailey. In their preoccupation with wealth and political power, their lives and their careers seem just as dominated by “me, me, me” as any other (nihilistic) physicalist. Is it any wonder that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world have a hard time believing the message we preach?
Co-labor with God
The third lesson I’d like to draw from It’s a Wonderful Life is for all two-handed warriors—whether you labor in the Ivy League, Hollywood, Wall Street, or Main Street—Don’t allow the story of skeptical physicalism to deter you from seeking to co-labor with God in the in-breaking of his kingdom in the world. Follow George Bailey’s lead and grow a pair. We might just live to see our work transform our own culture every bit as much George and Mary’s self-sacrificing idealism transformed Bedford Falls. But even if we never see the full result of our idealistic actions on earth, we must live our lives the way we will wish we had lived them on that day when we finally will see our life from God’s perspective—because someday we will.
It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get a George Bailey-esque ‘advance screening’ of our life’s work. Yet Paul of Tarsus assures us that we will “all appear before the viewing seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). To be a true two handed warrior is to live for that heavenly red carpet affair, more than for its pale imitation at the Kodak theatre each year.
That day is the one when we want the Lord himself (and not some mere angel) to declare, “Well done, you good and faithful servant! You’ve really had a wonderful life.”
 Flannery O’Connor, Robert Fitzgerald, and Sally Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961). Italics mine.
 Julian Caesar, “Letter to Arsacius,” Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinnock, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901) pp. 75-78 as quoted in D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History(Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 314-315. Introduction and e-text copyright 2005 by David W. Koeller email@example.com. All rights reserved.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) provides a wonderful expression of the complicated interplay between the macro-worlviews of Physicalism and Idealism as life-interpreting stories in the life of its main character, George Bailey. At the outset of the film George is caught in the vice between these two warring worldviews. He is an idealist at heart, anxious for freedom from the physicalism of running the family business where his father is trapped “spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.” However, after his father’s untimely death, his own idealistic commitment to save the Bailey Building and Loan locks George into an ongoing struggle between these two powerful worldviews. Day after day he labors in the physicalist world of dollars and cents, while steadfastly maintaining his idealistic commitment to honesty, compassion, and justice.
George is a typical modern in that he simply cannot resolve the tension between physicalism and idealism.While the intuited ideals passed to him by his family’s worldview are strong enough to shape his own life, the dualistic skepticism imparted to him by his broader culture is dissolving his confidence that his ideals are actually making any difference in the physical world. Even a lifelong romance with his ever-ebullient wife Mary (Donna Reed) isn’t enough to stem George’s growing angst.
Physicalism at its worst
It is important to recognize how Capra sets up the conflict between George Bailey and the main opposing character, Mr. Potter: “the wealthiest man in town.”Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the very incarnation of physicalism in its most devastating form—nihilism. To him, there is no meaning in his universe save his own will to dominate others through the power of his wealth. Early in the film, George contrasts his father’s idealist view of human beings with Potter’s nihilistic perspective:
George: People were human beings to him, but to you,
a warped frustrated old man, they're cattle.
To Potter, men like Peter and George Bailey and their “so called ideals” are simply poor businessmen unwilling to dominate those around them for self-gain. Their idealism is nothing but “sentimental hogwash!”
Potter will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Building and Loan—coercion, intimidation, seduction. Yet, nothing succeeds. As a “steadfast main character,” George holds onto his ideals despite of the growing physical proof that his ideals have failed him.
The film’s defining moment arrives when George’s business partner, Uncle Billy, loses a $8,000 bank deposit. (Actually, Potter steals it.) Crushed between the physicalist realities of “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” George chooses the idealist value of self-sacrifice and takes the blame for the shortfall. Finally surrendering to Potter’s domination, George asks his wealthy enemy for a loan. Seizing the moment, Potter not only refuses to help, he swears out a warrant for George’s arrest. But before he does, he trashes George’s entire life story in a devastating radical physicalist appraisal of the failure of George’s ideals:
Potter: You once called me a warped, frustrated old man.
What are you but a warped, frustrated, young man?
A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands
and knees and begging for help. No securities––no stocks––
no bonds––nothing but a miserable little $500
equity in a life insurance policy. [laughs]
You're worth more dead than alive.
With nowhere else to turn, George makes the ultimate Idealist leap and turns to the one person in Bedford Falls he hopes might be more powerful than Mr. Potter: God. For the first time we see that George’s ideals are rooted not just in his family’s story, but in the broader Christian story of a theistic worldview. While he is “not a praying man,” George reaches out to the God whose story undergirds the ideals he lives by.
Idealism Breaking In
Don’t miss the courage of how Capra sets up the solution to George Bailey’s dilemma. From a worldview perspective, George is asking for the God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to intervene in the physicalist world. He is not asking for strength and courage to live out his ideals through this dark hour (as noble and important as such a prayer might be), he is asking God to reach into the physical universe and change it. He is asking God to reach out of the circle of heaven and break into the box of the earth.
George’s prayer is the very essence of Biblical theism wherein idealism and physicalism are reconnected and redeemed. George is not asking for the subjective private truth of his ideals to prevail, he is asking for objective public proof that God is alive and active in the world. In the pre-dualistic language of Jesus, he is asking for a God to exert his rulership on the earth so that “his will is done on ( the physicalist) earth as it is in (idealist) heaven.”
What’s more, Capra has insured that the audience already knows what George doesn’t: God is listening! The movie opens, not only with George’s prayer, but also the countless prayers of his family and friends flooding heaven with petitions on his behalf. While the corny constellation graphics are a bit over the top and his human-turned-angel theology flawed, Capra makes certain that audience knows that the world he has constructed in his film is inhabited not merely by physical human beings, but God, and angels, and human souls.
It is NOT a merely a physicalist world. It is an idealist one as well. They are interconnected. When a despondent George drives to the bridge to end his own miserable failure of an idealistic life, the world of ideals breaks into the physical world in the person of one very star-crossed angel–Clarence.
Clarence: You've been given a great gift, George --
A chance to see what the world would be like without you.
Needless to say, the rest of the film is slow and certain vindication of George’s idealist worldview in the physicalist world of sense perception. One-by-one, Clarence reinterprets George’s idealistic decisions on an even deeper level than George ever imagined. George was just trying to the “right” thing. As it turns out, he was also doing the “world-changing” thing. Not only is God willing to break into the physical world by his actions; George Bailey is changing the outcome of the physical universe in the direction of the will of God by his own idealistic actions.
Capra’s vision expresses the heart and soul of Christian theistic idealism: the possibility of the knowledge of God being manifest not only in the private realm of subjective knowledge, but also in the public world of sense perception. Jesus taught his disciple to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of God, because “through answered prayer Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world.” He not only proclaimed the reality of the unseen (idealist) kingdom of God, he demonstrated its reality in the (physicalist) world through supernatural answers to prayer. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)
Divine “in-breaking” is a key element of Capra’s film. Just as people could “know” that the kingdom of God was “breaking into” the kingdoms of this world through supernatural answers to prayer in Jesus’ ministry, George Bailey (and vicariously, Capra’s audience) “knows” (in Hebraic language, understands by experience) that God has broken into his world. Just as Jesus called for his followers to bet their lives on the “unseen” ideals of the kingdom on the basis of the “seen” supernatural interventions of God (John 14:11), so George Bailey reaffirms his commitment to his unseen ideals because of God’s physical intervention in his life. As Clarence concludes:
Clarence: You see George, you've really had a wonderful life.
Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?
Capra’s moral premise is clear: despite strong physical evidence to the contrary, living in the light of idealism is “a wonderful life,” because those ideals are rooted in God himself. It is worth being an idealist even in a world dominated by physicalism, because as important as the physical world is, it is not all there is. They are interconnected in ways that George’s dualism (and skeptical hold upon his idealism) prevented him from ever imagining. 
 I am fairly confident that, like most artists, Capra intuited these worldview issues and expressed them in his art far beyond what he could have explained philosophically. For more insight into the concept of a “moral premise,” see, Stanley D. Williams, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006).
Like George Bailey and Ricky Gervais, we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time?
Ricky Gervais’s God jokes as host of the last two Golden Globe Awards and his Wall Street Journal essay, “Why I’m An Atheist” provide perfect backdrops for examining one of Hollywood’s most famous attempts to defend Theism–It’s a Wonderful Life. (Plus, it is one of my All-Time Favorite Christmas Movies.)
Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to, in his words, “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” This certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combating atheism was in no way as simplistic as one would expect. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only one of the best Christmas movies of all time, it is also a remarkable example of using worldview conflict to construct a compelling story… and live a wonderful life. Students seeking to understand worldview and filmmakers seeking to make culture-influencing movies would be wise to pay careful attention.
Ironically, much like its main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life entered midlife as an apparent failure. Before its release, Capra believed it to be his greatest film. However, after a disappointing box office, and a complete shut out at the Oscars, Liberty Films didn’t even bother to renew the copyright for “Capra’s masterpiece” when it expired in 1974.
This lapse in judgment proved to be precisely the angelic intervention It’s a Wonderful Life needed. Television networks turned to the now public domain (i.e. “free”) film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers fell in love with the previously-obscure release.”  Capra had the last laugh when the film grew to become a beloved classic, now regarded by the American Film Institute as one of the 20 best films ever made.
Much of the greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life stems from Capra’s deliberate use of worldview conflict in the film. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin your Christmas buzz with a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but this first part is important). When philosophers speak of a “worldview” they actually mean more than one thing: micro-worldviews and macro-worldviews.
At the micro level, a worldview is a description of the stories that shape the principles that support the conventions that an individual uses to make their daily decisions. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview). The problem is, nobody’s worldview is actually “personal.” While we each have unique experiences that form the backbone of the “story of our life,” we interpret these experiences through the stories transmitted to us by our larger cultures. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview). Our personal micro-worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger macro-worldviews. In other words, (1) my (micro) worldview rests mostly within, (2) my family’s (slightly less micro) worldview, which rests mostly within (3) my sub-culture’s (even less micro) worldview, and (4) my current society’s (more macro) worldview, and (5) my historic civilization’s (macro) worldview.
While it is a gross oversimplification, you could say that the history of Western civilization has been comprised of the interplay of two key macro-worldviews: what I will call physicalism and idealism.
The ‘Box’ of Physicalism
Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world. Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world. If you can measure something’s length, weigh its mass, or quantify it in some way, then it is a reliable source of knowledge.
The worldview of physicalism can best symbolized by a BOX, because in physicalism the “closed system” of the material universe is pretty much all you can rely on. You can extrapolate from sense perceptions of the visible universe to a “spiritual” world, but every effect in the physical universe owes its existence to a cause within the physical universe. As cosmologist and the original host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”
This makes physicalism perfect for scientific experimentation. A laboratory technician wouldn’t be able to maintain a proper relationship between experimental variables if they had to account for factors from outside the physical universe messing with their data. A medical researcher who used ‘angelic intervention’ as a factor in studying the effects of an antibiotic on staph infections would be laughed out of the scientific community. Good experiments require the “closed box” provided by physicalism.
Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using the logic of scientific physicalism to defend a broader philosophical proposition-namely atheism. Ricky explained the rationale for his lack of faith by asserting, “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe… (Science) bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence…” By “hard” evidence, Ricky means things you can touch, taste, see, and measure. If there is no “hard” physicalist evidence for God, then he won’t believe it. It is a common position for modern physicalists (more below.)
The ‘Circle’ of Idealism
Idealism is a worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the world of ideas, values, spirits, and/or gods. Idealism starts with what you cannot see, touch, taste, see or feel as the only “really real” things in the world. You can’t weigh a pound of love, or measure a mile of justice, or put a soul in a beaker, yet idealists view these intuited unseen ideals as what really matters. As Immanuel Kant asserted, “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”
The worldview of idealism is best symbolized by a CIRCLE. Normally this circle surrounds the box of the physical universe, because in idealism the physical universe exists within the broader field of unseen realities. This makes idealism perfect for, say, artists and lovers. Everyone “knows” that beauty and love are what make life worth living, even if you can’t quantify them. To reduce love to mere chemical reactions, or art to the properties of sculptor’s materials is neither romantic, inspiring, nor “real.”
Idealists look beyond the hard realities of the physical world and point to something they view as much more “real.” When the Beatles sing, “All you need is love,” or Jean Valjean declares in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” they are giving voice to an idealist worldview. They are not appealing to hard physical evidence, but to an ideal so ‘intuitively true’ they need no “proof.” When Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” or MLK declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they were appealing to truth claims beyond the physical world and calling others toward them as ultimate realities.
A 2500-Year War
The struggle between these two worldviews is at least as old as the study of philosophy. Plato (and later Augustine and Kant) advocated for idealism, while Aristotle (and later Aquinas and Hume) sided with physicalism. Neither side ever scored a decisive victory, yet the philosophical underpinnings of each era of Western history can often be described by the relationship between the two at a given cultural moment.
For over 2000 years, Muslims, Jews, and Christians used both Idealism and Physicalism to support their faith. For Christians, the Hebraic worldview Jesus inherited from his Jewish heritage was more or less free from the dualism of having to choose between these two sources of knowledge. Truth was found both in the invisible God and in his visible creation. Faith-building and culture-making were therefore two sides of the same coin.
However, as the early church became less and less Jewish and more and more Greek, dualism began to plague the church. Idealism held the upper hand in ancient Greco-Roman society and nearly overwhelmed early Christianity with a radical form of Idealism known as Gnosticism. Augustine and other key thinkers restored sanity through a more moderate form of Idealism that helped salvage Christianity when the Roman empire fell. Physicalism began to gain serious traction in Middle Ages when both Muslims and Christians (such as Aquinas) began to use Aristotle’s physicalist philosophy to defend their faith. While increasingly disconnected by the “either-or” dualism of Greek thought, both idealism and physicalism remained key elements of both a God-centered view of the world as well as a number of attempts to support atheism.
The Rise of Radical Skepticism
Unfortunately, the Enlightenment gave birth to a “pervasive and astringent skepticism” that began to “dissolve” both Physicalism and Idealism (and any hope of reconnecting them.)  Physicalists lost confidence first in their sense perceptions, and then in their ability to extrapolate from the physical world into the spiritual. Idealists began to doubt that their own thoughts and intuitions were anything more than their own inventions (or the inventions of their community) so that there was no spiritual world “out there” only my own ideas and perspectives “in here.”
Skepticism quickly demoted Idealism to the ranks of second class truth, enthroning a weakened and highly dualistic form of Physicalism at the center of Western thought. When a modern Westerner says that something is objectively true, we mean that it is true from a Physicalist perspective. It is something that can be verified with the physical senses.
By contrast, when we say that something is subjectively true we mean that it is “merely” an ideal–something that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified. Ideals are therefore second class citizens in the world of truth. Idealist (subjective) knowledge has been assigned to the back of the bus as “private” knowledge. While physicalist (objective) knowledge is driving the bus of “public” knowledge.
A Comedian’s Circular (Logic) Dilemma
Whether he realizes it or not, this is exactly why Ricky Gervais, like many physicalist moderns, has to so much trouble with Theism–it simply doesn’t make any sense from his starting point of skeptical physicalism. When Gervais exclaims, “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary,” he is giving voice to an extremely common view of faith. Those damnable believers are appealing to knowledge derived from outside the realm of physical verifiability. Gervais continues,
“Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.”
And he’s right, of course, at least from a skeptical physicalist perspective. Which is precisely the problem. He’s right back to where he started.
He begins with the presupposition that your physical senses are the only thing you can only trust, and ends up right thinking that anyone who believes in something you can’t access with your physical senses is crazy. As Gervais explains, “I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me.” In skeptical physicalist thinking, ideals might be personally helpful to some, but as truth-claims they are, “Sentimental Hogwash!”
However, even Gervais has to resort to idealism to guide how he actually lives his life. The same skeptical physicalism that can be so helpful in a laboratory, can be an extremely unsatisfying way of life. As James Davidson Hunter explains, “radical skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.” Even Gervais resorts to very Idealist and Intuitive (and therefore unprovable) concepts of ‘right’ and ‘good’ in order to direct his life: “My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”
Enter George Bailey
Which is, of course, exactly what George Bailey is striving for in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Gervais, George Bailey only wants to live a good life here and now. However, like most of us in the postmodern world, the crushing realities of skeptical physicalism are squeezing the life out of our weakened idealism.
Like George Bailey (and Ricky Gervais), we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time? Like Gervaise, we simply cannot reconcile belief in God with the ideals of truth and honesty we strive for. Like George Bailey, we simply cannot reconcile the ideals for which we live with the harsh realities of our day-to-day existence.
Caught in the vise between nihilistic physicalism and sentimental idealism there seems to be nowhere to turn. Which is, of course, exactly where Capra wants us.
 James W. Sire identifies nine macro worldviews currently influencing Western culture: predominantly physicalist worldviews, such as Naturalism, Nihilism, and Post-modernism; Predominantly idealist worldviews such as, Christian Theism, Islamic Theism and Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and hybrids, such as Existentialism, Deism, and the New Age movement. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
 In worldviews such as Monism, the circle actually subsumes the box.
 See James Davidson Hunter’s masterful take on “dissolution” in To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 205-210.
If you are an artist who also happens to be a Christian, expect to be judged and misunderstood.
If you are a Christian and an artist, you live in the tension of creating art that is neatly wrapped up with a “happy ending,” art that is propaganda, and art that is shallow and without layers of meaning. In my experience, most of the Christian industry gatekeepers insist on one or all of these aspects of what I call “safe” art.
But there is a new generation of artists that happen to be Christians who refuse to bow to the almighty Christian dollar. They have decided to create “edgy” art not in order to be edgy but in the search for art that is true.
1.) Because they are not afraid of the darkness in themselves. Rembrandt painted his self-portrait 63 times not just as “a model for studies in expression” but as a “search for the spiritual through the channel of his innermost personality.” Rembrandt felt that he had to enter into his own self, into his dark cellars as well as into his light rooms, if he really wanted to penetrate the mystery of man’s interiority.
Rembrandt realized that what is most personal is most universal. While growing in age he was more and more able to touch the core of the human experience , in which individuals in their misery can recognize themselves and find “courage and new youth.”
We will never be able to create true art if we are not willing to paint and re-paint constantly our self-portrait, not as a morbid self-preoccupation, but as a service to those who are searching for some light in the midst of the darkness.
2.) Because they understand the healthy tension between art and propaganda. Author Philip Yancey, who also happens to be a Christian, writes, “Counterbalancing the literary tug away from propaganda, many evangelicals exert, an insidious tug away from art.
They would react to Tolstoy’s statement, ‘If someone were to tell me that it lay in my power to write a novel explaining every social question from a particular viewpoint that I believed to be the correct one, I still wouldn’t spend two hours on it. But if I were told that what I am writing will be read in twenty years time by the children of today, and that those children will laugh, weep, and learn to love life as they read, why then I would devote the whole of my life and energy to it,‘ with disbelief — to choose a novel that entertains and fosters a love for life over a treatise that solves every social (or, better, religious) question of humankind!
How can a person “waste” time with mere aesthetics — soothing music, pleasing art, entertaining literature — when injustice rules the nations and the decadent world marches ineluctably to destruction? Is this not fiddling while Rome burns? Currently, novels written by evangelicals tend toward the propagandistic (even to the extent of fictionalizing Bible stories and foretelling the Second Coming) and away from the artful.
Somewhere in this magnetic field between art and propaganda the Christian author (or painter or musician) works. One force tempts us to lower artistic standards and preach an unadorned message; another tempts us to submerge or even alter the message for the sake of artistic sensibilities.
Having lived in the midst of this tension for over a decade, I have come to recognize it as a healthy synthesizing tension that should be affirmed. Success often lies within the extremes: an author may succeed in the evangelical world by erring on the side of propaganda. But ever so slowly, the fissure between the Christian and secular worlds will yawn wider.
If we continue tilting toward propaganda, we will soon find ourselves writing and selling books to ourselves alone. On the other hand, the Christian author cannot simply absorb the literary standards of the larger world. Our ultimate goal cannot be a self-expression, but rather a God-expression.
3.) Because they know life has layers. Even Donkey in the movie Shrek knows this. Writer Madeline L’Engle states in an interview with Time magazine that one of the reasons she loves reading the Holy Bible is because it has layers—layers of meaning.
The artist writers of the Old Testament did not shy away from portraying the depths of depravity and heights of redemption. If the Old Testament were a movie today, it would be considered edgy at the very least. With scenes of incest, murder, lust, child sacrifice, magic and much more, the Bible does not shy away, as the typical Christian artist does, from vividly painting the layers of real life.
As a boy, I loved action-figures. GI Joe was my hero and if there was one guy I’d ever want in my foxhole, it was him. I had the GI Joe Navy S.E.A.L. Scuba set. The G.I. Joe Egyptian Explorer Jeep set complete with sarcophagus-mummy-winch holder. The G.I. Joe Jungle Python-Slashing set complete with authentic plastic machete. I was all things G.I. Joe. Boy, could I accessorize that man-doll: grenades, ammo, M-16, Howitzer, you name it.
What did I love about G.I. Joe? Popping muscles and cammo aside, G.I. was a man of action. He represented courage, initiative and risk-taking. Every quality one needs to be an action-oriented artist. Though G.I. Joe never practiced “The War of Art,” he has a lot to teach writers, actors, filmmakers, musicians, visual artists–every kind of artist imaginable–about the importance of being an action-oriented artist.
The Action Oriented Artist
If you’re an artist, you cannot afford NOT to be an action-oriented. Or, if your dream is to use your God-given artistic and creative abilities to become an artist, you must connect that dream to action. You need a G.I. Joe action-orientation to become the artist you really want to be and the artist you are meant to be.
I know many talented and successful artists. People who actually make money pursuing their craft. Artists who created high quality art on a consistent basis. It doesn’t matter what artistic discipline or medium they choose to work with; all of this successful artists have one thing in common: They take A-C-T-I-O-N!
The action-oriented artist is what separates the G.I. Joe’s who advance in their careers and the wannabes who fritter away their days with mediocre effort and navel-gazing passivity expecting the world to come to them. Ain’t gonna happen. I wrote about this in a similar post (Good Advice for Young Artists).
So what qualities characterize an action-oriented artist? Let’s start with three…
1. Action-Oriented Artists Balance Action and Contemplation: There is a big difference between contemplation (serious reflection) and paralysis by analysis. Some of the most prolific artists I know (like Wayne Forte) whose art you see on this blog reflects serious contemplation, skill and thoughtfulness. Artists like Wayne think and ponder and swim in the realm of ideas and concepts…then they move to action. Depending on how you’re wired, you may contemplate and work out your ideas as you work or you may need to first contemplate your work, like blocking out Acts 1, 2, and 3 of a play or screenplay, then get to the actual detail work of writing.
2. Action-Oriented Artists Keep Risking in Spite of Fear: I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to take my last breath wishing I would have risked more. I want to finish this life completely spent…living in the peace that I did my very best and I didn’t let fear rule the day. Enter risk. There are no promises. No guarantees. Not everyone is going to get a soccer trophy. Failure will happen far more than success and instant success is a spiritual mirage that we best avoid as we walk through the guaranteed deserts in pursuit of the dreams God has seeded in our hearts. I love the verse, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) With God’s love, power, and self-discipline, what do I have to fear? Really?An action-oriented artist steps forward in spite of fear and becomes a better man or woman in the process. It’s bound to show up in their work as well.
3.Action-Oriented Artists Stay Curious & Keep Learning: One sure way to stagnate in your craft is to become complacent by allowing creative and intellectual curiosity to go by the wayside. The action-oriented oriented artist who keeps writing, producing, painting, sculpting, singing, filming, dancing, and shooting will never be lacking for new ideas and opportunities if part of their action-orientation is a commitment to stay curious by exploring various artistic disciplines that can teach, inform and inspire them in their craft. Where do you mine for new ideas? What do you do to improve your craft? What next step, what action step, do you need to take your work to a next level? Take a class. Find a mentor. Join a small group of peer support. Watch that movie. Buy that book. Download that script. Stay curious and keep learning. It’s an essential part to becoming an action-oriented artist.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s all very simple: The world will never experience the beauty, truth, and goodness of God through your art if you don’t take action. Be an action-figure today. You may never blow things up, but you’ll be in good company with G.I. Joe.
Questions: How would you rate yourself as an action-oriented artist (1-low, 5-fair, 10-great)? What is the single most important thing to do this week to become more action-oriented?
Glee Faith Episode “Grilled Cheesus” Explores Two Kinds of “Christian” Faith
by Gary David Stratton, PhD
I was deeply moved by Glee’s “faith” episode (“Grilled Cheesus” 10/8/2010). It was honest, awesome television, and the highest rated Glee episode of all time. I think they hit faith from nearly every possible angle: Judaism (Rachel), Christianity (Mercedes), some kind of Theism (Quinn), hedonism (Brittany), cynicism turned desperation (Puck), disappointed with God turned to atheism (Sue), narcissistic idolatry (Finn), sacred searching (Kurt), and even Sikh.
It definitely fit the broad community of postmodern tolerance show creator Ryan Murphy is shooting for. Plus, it clearly made the point that the separation of church and state is neither an excuse for ignoring the spiritual lives of teenagers, nor for allowing only anti-religious sentiment to be expressed.
I know some Christians were offended by Finn’s “Grilled Cheesus” storyline, but frankly, I thought his banal prayers were painfully close to the self-centered civil religion that often passes for Christianity in America.
Worshipping God just to get what you want (a win, a girl, a job) is an all-too-common a reason to profess faith, but it has nothing to do with what Jesus taught his followers or modeled on the cross. I suspect the prophets of Israel would agree that “losing my religion” could be a good thing if it means I’m losing my idolatry.
The episode’s moral premise rings true for people of every faith (or none): Everyone wants a direct line to God and hates the idea that we’re all floating around in space alone. But, “You’re not alone. The big questions are really big for a reason: they’re hard. But you know what, absolutely everybody struggles with them.” We all need something sacred in our life, so don’t close yourself off to a world of spiritual experiences that might surprise you.
Given the pain Ryan Murphy has experienced at the hands of (perhaps) well -meaning Christians, I was shocked that the episode didn’t end with a vicious attack on the church. While Kurt certainly gives voice to those wounded by organized religion, writing him into a positive experience in Mercedes’ church was, well, AMAZING!
If you can watch Kurt’s rendition of “I Want Hold Your Hand,” followed by a prophetic hand-holding in Mercedes’ dynamic Christian church with dry eyes, well, then you’re tougher than me.
In truth, I would have been disappointed if it had been a propaganda piece for or against faith. Instead it asked a lot of questions. Art is always better at asking questions than answering them. And, yes, Ryan Murphy’s questions were most prominent.
If someone from another worldview wants their questions to be the prominent ones on whatever becomes next year’s hottest show, then they’d better start working on creating something as special as Murphy’s gem.
Kenyon Adams is a singer, songwriter and actor with a passion to see artists living out their kingdom callings. In addition to his life as a professional artist, Kenyon currently works in Arts Ministries at the Center for Faith & Work, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he continues to nurture community and dialogue among the arts community. His cultural advocacy has not gone unnoticed. Kenyon has served as a White House Presidential Scholar in the Arts and currently serves on the Alumni Board for the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts.
Helping Christian Artists Succeed
Each year hundreds of artists make the move to a major city to pursue their ambitions in the arts. This opens the door to a lot of unsolicited advice: “Be sure to have something else to fall back on.” “Give yourself a time limit after which point you should move on to something else.” “Beware of losing your morals in the theater.”
But rarely will you hear someone say: “Moving to New York? Get ready for a spiritual awakening!” or, “Hey, you should check out this great church there!” Can you imagine if the churches in New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago became so engaged with artists in the city that being an artist there was inextricably tied to questions of faith and calling?
On a crisp, autumn morning this November, I met in the loft space of the Neighborhood Church in the village. Sitting around a breakfast table with artists and pastors from various churches in the city, we talked about how to serve the growing number of artists in our congregations and communities. One pastor wept as he testified to God’s faithfulness in making a place again for artists in the church, and explained that he himself had once been an aspiring painter but quit after he became a Christian. At that time, there was no one to help him integrate his faith and his work as an artist.
That morning over breakfast we recounted the names of early contributors to art and faith dialogue: Francis Schaffer, Madeline L’Engle, Hans Rookmaker, Calvin Seerfeld, Colin Harbinson, Nigel Goodwin and many others who helped to build a bridge theologically and relationally for artists to find a home among Protestant, evangelical churches. We sat together in awe of those who came before us and prayed for the reconciliation of artists and the church.
The rapidly growing number of artists in the churches of major cities and the lay leaders equipped to serve them gives hope to the vision of Gospel renewal in and through the arts…