Two responses have long dominated Christians’ discourse on the topic of art — separatism or engagement. The brouhaha over Avatar is a fine example. In my recent post at Novel Journey entitled Avatar and Agenda, New York Times best-selling author Eric Wilson left this comment:
I think some of us, personality-wise and gifting wise, are cut out for confronting the falsehoods in “Avatar.”
I think others, including myself, are cut out for finding the tidbits of truth in the mess and then engaging nonbelievers in conversation in a non-confrontational way. I’ve had great dialogue with others, dealing with ideas of heaven, rebirth, and the reality of the physical world compared to the “more real world” of the spiritual, based on this movie.
American Christianity has set itself up as an opponent of so many things. For me, personally, I’ve had Jesus work through me in the workplace, schools, and even church, by finding ways to connect with the heart and then redirect the mind, instead of attacking the mindset and leaving people cold. (emphasis mine)
“[C]onfronting the falsehoods” or “engaging nonbelievers”? “Redirecting the mind” or “attacking the mindset”? That is the divide. While Wilson derides neither side, he conveniently illustrates the two approaches that dominate contemporary Christianity’s approach to art. Should we stand as cultural, and spiritual guardians, so to speak, and point out lies and falsehoods? Or should we look past the worldly language, celebrate fine craft, and expound upon those themes that resonate with a biblical worldview?
Whatever one’s approach, these two camps seem to be polarizing. Several recent blog skirmishes have reinforced the caricatures that representatives from each camp impose upon the other:
Like it or not, there’s probably some truth to both caricatures. But isn’t there a balance that can be struck? Is it possible to point out the “falsehoods” in a film without “leaving people cold”? Vice versa, can’t we forgo doctrinal diatribes and simply enjoy good art without being charged with compromising our commitment to Gospel truth?
A recent Christianity Today article challenges Engagers and Separatists to learn from one another:
Sadly, the engagement impulse has led many evangelicals to neglect their prophetic presence in the public square, as we often seem more set on distancing ourselves from our fundamentalist cousins than on seeking personal and corporate soul care. Discernment becomes an exercise in baptizing secular critics’ top picks, celebrating their vague spiritual themes but downplaying or ignoring pernicious ones. Or we revel in our freedom to enjoy an array of films, belittling our separatist siblings whose consciences are offended (1 Cor. 8).
The reality is, the engagers could stand to learn a few things from the separatists, and vice versa, as both camps survey the pop culture landscape. The engagers have developed keen eyes to find Light in the most unexpected places. Yet the separatists, who have an instinct for sensing the subtly devastating aspects of culture, can quicken our steps on the path of sanctification. With the engagers’ vision and the separatists’ instinct, the church and its moviegoers can navigate Hollywood’s muddled spiritualities with rigor and grace.
Perhaps the divide between Engagers and Separatists is bigger than it should be. While Separatists must face the fact that an overly-rigid approach can, as Eric Wilson put it, “leave people cold,” Engagers must face the possibility that their approach “has led many evangelicals to neglect their prophetic presence in the public square.” So not only should we learn from each other, isn’t it possible that engagement and separatism are two sides of the same coin?
When it comes to pop culture, are you more of an Engager or a Separatist? And, depending where you fall, what do you think you can learn from the “other side”?