Engagers or Separatists?

by Mike Duran · 6 comments

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:

Engagers tend to see Separatists as narrow-minded nit-pickers who ignore good art, impose their conservative values, and generally alienate non-Christian audiences with their sanctimony.

Separatists tend to see Engagers as snobbish, excessively tolerant liberals who are enamored with artistic nuance and wishy-washy about Gospel truth.

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”?

Eric Wilson March 8, 2010 at 2:47 PM

Great conversation about our role as believers. Thanks, Mike.

I know I can learn from both sides, and I love that Jesus Himself exhibited both approaches. He was abrupt and direct, as well as engaging and empathetic. The first approach seemed reserved for the religious folks, and the other for the nonreligious.

Noel March 8, 2010 at 3:05 PM

I like this muchly, Mike. Esp. the CT excerpt. Had not seen that before. Wilson made me think of "all things are permissible but"… and "by the renewing of your mind," and all other sorts of interesting things to ponder.

I think perhaps I am an oddball Separatist. I don't feel called to write quote unquote Christian fiction, and I read very little Christian fiction. As a librarian, I have high standards of art. However, my tastes are conservative. If I see one more "Finding God in…" book I think I'll throw something. Finding God in HP. Finding God in Twilight. Finding God in The Golden Compass. (not really… at least, that I know of.)

Why is "American Christianity" so set on salvaging? There is a time and place for salvaging, yes, but it should not be our only energy. (note: interesting Wilson should say American Christianity. This salvaging is not so popular abroad. Random example: some countries have requested that missionaries not bring in CCM.)

Mike Duran March 8, 2010 at 4:45 PM

I'm with you on the "oddball Separatist" account, Noel. All the while I was watching Avatar I'm thinking "this is incredible" AND "this is incredibly anti-biblical". The Separatist part of me feels guilty for liking the film, while the Engager part of me feels guilty for not highlighting the film's convoluted religion. Maybe I'm a "conflicted Engager"? Makes me wonder if the connection between discernment and aesthetic isn't more tenuous… Thanks for your thoughts!

Rebecca LuElla Miller March 8, 2010 at 7:16 PM

Mike, I'm a little confused. When you say "the two approaches that dominate contemporary Christianity’s approach to art," are you referring to our approach to art as those who create it? Or as those who interact with the art of others?

I'll assume the latter because of the tenor of the discussion re. Avatar. But even here, I think there is confusion. Are we talking about what we say to non-Christians about said art? To Christians? Our own opinions that we hold in ourselves?

I guess, my first thought is, This topic is NOT one that should be couched in either/or terms.

When I advocated discernment in my series of posts on Avatar, I was talking to the Christians who have a ho-hum attitude toward the movie's spiritual worldview, or to those who don't see the false teaching at all.

Would I say the same to non-Christians? Not at all. Why should I expect them to measure what they view against the Bible? They don't believe the Bible.

As far as my own opinions go, why can't I see it all? The beauty and creativity of the movie making and the imagination of the world; the sweet love story; the panentheistic world view; the biased socio-economic positions; the evidence of spiritual longing; the imperfect incarnation of the protag; the imperfect beauty of the imagined utopia, the weak story line, the inconsistent working out of the spiritual themes. It's all there.

Why can't I love what is lovely and hate what is hateful? Why have we become this all or nothing society, so that if I say on my blog that Christians need to think about what they view, I have "Na'vi" followers coming in to tell me how stupid I am for dissing their wonderful new best friends. LOL OK, I exaggerated a little, but not much.

The point is, I don't think we need to reduce our reaction to a star-rating, or determine if I will engage or separate. I personally think I engage the work and the world if I speak my mind. If the "world" I am engaging is Christian, I may emphasize different points than I would if I am engaging non-Christians. But isn't that as it should be? We're coming from different worldviews. How can we think that the same language is appropriate?

On a side note. Eric said Jesus reserved his abrupt and direct approach for the religious folks. Well, if he believes that, then the appropriate thing would be to approach panentheists abruptly and directly. The "religious folks" of Jesus's day were NOT Christians. They were the people who rejected Him as Messiah. Which was the point. No need to engage them. They had made up their mind. He wasn't God; He was of the devil, they said. Those were the people Jesus threw out of the temple.

Becky

Mike Duran March 8, 2010 at 9:17 PM

Becky, I agree with your overall point that we needn't "reduce our reaction to a star-rating, or determine if I will engage or separate." I also agree that having a different approach toward believers and non-believers is appropriate. However, I think we ARE seeing two camps, two different approaches towards the arts (if you haven't read the CT piece, it elaborates). Many Christian critics air their objections to anyone who will listen, as if an unbeliever cares about monotheism vs. pantheism. On the other hand, some Christian critics do seem to "neglect their prophetic presence in the public square." So I agree, ideally it shouldn't be an "engage" or "separate" dichotomy. Nevertheless, I think there is. Thanks for your comments!

Jay March 9, 2010 at 3:35 AM

I lean more toward the engagers, even though I don't like that word because it implies that we as a Christian have to put on our "talking to nonbeliever" hats and put away our "talking to other Christians" hat.

Really, the only thing commanded us to keep separate from the world Biblically is our "hearts" (here's where I'm supposed to have a verse reference); the rest of whatever separation the church needs to do isn't necessarily outside of God's plan, but it should be considered incidental and temporary. To start thinking we are required to withdraw from the world as an absolute we start getting into gnostic territory. Christianity is one of the only religions that says the physical = good. Why not ramp it up and emphasize the church sense's of aesthetic as a distinctive?

Sorry, this comment is kind of disjointed.

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