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If It Needs Interpreting, It Ain’t Christian

I recently watched a film that reinforced one of my growing convictions about good art — it evokes multiple interpretations. It’s true of any good book or movie, isn’t it? The more you think about it or discuss it, the more a new angle, a new subtlety, a new layer emerges.

The film I’m referring to is John Huston’s version of the Flannery O’Connor novel, Wise Blood, which was recently re-released by Criterion. The movie captures O’Connor’s signature style of “Southern grotesque” with audacious characters and disturbing religious imagery. So stark, so paradoxical, were those images, that I found myself puzzling over them days after I watched the film. What was the author trying to get across?

Apparently, I’m not the only one to wrestle with interpreting Ms. O’Connor’s material.  In the DVD extras, actor Brad Dourif who played the lead character Hazel Motes, was interviewed about the making of the film. At one point, he cites disagreement with the director over the central meaning of the movie. Dourif insisted that Hazel Motes, his character, genuinely converted to Christ. John Huston disagreed. “Motes went mad,” contended Huston.

Interestingly enough, a recurring theme in the remaining extras is how Huston, a strident atheist who fancied spoofing religious nutjobs with the film, came to agree, begrudgingly, with his lead actor. “I believe I’ve been had,” the director is reported to have exclaimed near the end of production. “Jesus wins.”

Some artists and writers don’t like this kind of ambiguity. “If Jesus wins,” they say, “then make it clear! Why make readers or viewers wrestle with interpretation?” These folks believe that the “meaning” of a piece should be fairly obvious, unobstructed by metaphor, mystery, unconventional structure and unresolved plot elements. In other words, if it needs interpreting, it ain’t Christian.

I dunno. In preaching, clarity is essential. But in art, ambiguity and paradox can be pretty powerful. That is, of course, unless we see our art as preaching.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Heather July 22, 2009, 3:33 PM

    I'm currently reading Wise Blood. I wasn't aware of the movie version. I'll have to check it out after I finish the book.

  • Jason July 22, 2009, 6:40 PM

    I wrote a short story where the ending turned on one word in the last sentence. People who read it loved that, but they kept going the *opposite* way of what I intended. I wanted the ambiguity, but I didn't want *everyone* to go against me. I thought then maybe I didn't write the rest well enough to show where it was going. I entered it into a contest but changed that one word to make the ending clear.

    Now I regret it.

    • Mike Duran July 23, 2009, 1:28 AM

      That's funny, Jason… I mean in a learning kind of way. I mentioned before how when I went back to rework my first book for the general market and I was pretty embarrassed. Certain plot points just seemed so predictable, so conventional. I made several changes that, I think, made the story much truer to itself, but also unintentionally more ambiguous. Perhaps we need to risk being interpreted wrongly, in order to write the best story possible. Thanks for your comments!

    • Mike Duran July 23, 2009, 1:29 AM

      That's funny, Jason… I mean in a learning kind of way. I mentioned before how when I went back to rework my first book for the general market, I was pretty embarrassed. Certain plot points just seemed so predictable, so conventional. I made several changes that, I think, made the story much truer to itself, but also unintentionally more ambiguous. Perhaps we need to risk being interpreted wrongly, in order to write the best story possible. Thanks for your comments!

  • Michael Ehret July 27, 2009, 10:04 AM

    I love ambiguity in art. If there can't be different, yet reasonable, interpretations of the same piece of art, you haven't created art, you've written a book report. I think the ambiguity is a function of the Holy Spirit. After all, I can hear a sermon and you can hear a sermon and we can both hear what we need in that sermon — and it won't be the same.

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