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The Redemptive Power of Dark & Disturbing Art

Jesus told stories that did not always have a positive or uplifting outcome. Oftentimes, there was ambiguity in their resolve. Sometimes there were images of horror and dread. For example, The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) ends with the rich man in a “place of torment,” prevented from returning to warn his brethren. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24-30) is explained by Jesus (13:36-43) to refer to “children of the wicked one” who will be cast into an eternal “furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 42). The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats ends similarly bleakly (Matt. 25:31-46), with the unrighteous being banished into “eternal punishment” (vs. 46 NIV).

Jesus was not afraid to scare the hell out of people and use shocking imagery in the process.

Despite all this, much evangelical art and artists eschews images of terror or unease in favor of hope, positivity, and nauseatingly upbeat fare. But in doing so, Christian communicators often neglect the redemptive power that can be found in images and tales of woe.

In a recent podcast interview with the guys at Pop Culture Coram Deo, I shared a bit about my conversion to Christianity. A major step in that process was a shocking realization that evil — more specifically, the Devil — was real. And being that I was steeped in occultism at the time, the evidences of evil were all around me, from Ouija boards to Hindu icons to Satanic symbology. The representations of evil that I’d gathered around me pricked my conscience and became a springboard to repentance. God might have had a wonderful plan for my life, but it was Satan’s plan and his diabolism that set me on the straight and narrow.

Apparently, I’m not the first person to be scared into the Kingdom.

One of the more prominent cases is that of Peter Hitchens, brother of one of the world’s most famous atheists, Christopher. Interestingly enough, Hitchens’ spiritual wake-up call came in the form of a 15th century painting.

In How I found God and peace with my atheist brother, Peter Hitchens chronicled his slide into atheism and back again.

No doubt I should be ashamed to confess that fear played a part in my return to religion, specifically a painting: Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th Century Last Judgement, which I saw in Burgundy while on holiday.

I had scoffed at its mention in the guidebook, but now I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open, at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of Hell.

These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions.

On the contrary, their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.

I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head.

I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned. Van der Weyden was still earning his fee, nearly 500 years after his death.

Of course, there was more to Hitchens’ re-conversion than just an art viewing. Nevertheless, the sense of dread and the conviction that picture evoked is a testament to the power of art. Even after centuries, Van der Weyden “was still earning his fee.” 500 years after his death, his composition still possessed the ability to puncture the mundane, arouse the conscience, and extricate the viewer from their moral malaise.

Rogier Van der Weyden’s “The Last Judgment”

Perhaps Christian art would be better if we spent a little less time being “painters of light” and more being prophets of woe. After all, Jesus’ stories were not always feel-good paeans of positivity. Sometimes His hearers left feeling, like Hitchens, that they were “among the damned.” In this sense, redemptive art isn’t always about angelic choirs and sparkly Easter morns. Sometimes, only the image of the Rich Man in eternal torment can awaken the soul.

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Folk horror is sometimes considered “a subtrope of religious horror,” not for its address of organized religion, per se, but for its appeal to broader folkloric rituals, legends, and mythologies. It’s a very tangible intersection between the Land and its Monsters, Old World v. New World, if you would.

Interestingly, the genre appears to be trending. Some have called it a “Folk Horror Revival.” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948) may be one of the most notable contemporary iterations. But with the release of Midsommer, Ari Aster’s follow-up to the profoundly disturbing Hereditary, the director continues the cultivation of a genre that appears to hold an odd perennial appeal. Films like The Witch, Kill List, The Ritual, and, of course, The Wicker Man, the 1973 folk horror classic, are all parts a growing canon of stories that concern themselves with the collision of paganism and contemporary culture. Or in the case of the Wicker Man, paganism v. Christianity.

My short story, Bury Me in the Garden, is very much in that vein. It concerns a Midwestern lad named Owen who stumbles upon evidences of ritualistic magic in the small town of Stafford. With a little digging (pun intended), Owen learns that his father’s crops have roots in something much older than the both of them. And the irrigation is quite costly.

The story is included in a new anthology entitled Other Voices, Other Tombs, published by the fine folks at Cemetery Gates Media. But perhaps what excites me most about appearing in this volume is the fine selection of writers I’m published alongside. Folks like Bram Stoker award winners, Kealan Patrick Burke and Mercedes Yardley, friends Kevin Lucia and (recently interview) CW Briar, and others.

Anyway, I’m really thrilled about the story and the antho! You purchase a copy, either paper or digital, of Other Voices, Other Tombs HERE.

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Despite the recent closing of 170 Lifeway bookstores, Christian readers remain optimistic about the market. An article in Forbes magazine reflected this optimism stating,

Christian and faith-based books are a bright spot in the overall publishing industry.

The “bright spot,” according to the author, is that Christian buyers are loyal to the brand and could support independent booksellers of that genre. Another article in Publishers Weekly conveyed similar positivity, but from another angle. The headline read Indie Authors Find Firm Footing in the Christian Market.

Amid the shrinking Christian retail space of today… readers who shop online are more willing to try indie authors. This, coupled with the ease of publishing platforms such as CreateSpace and fewer openings on traditional publisher lists, has led to a growing number of Christian authors acting as their own publisher.

Indeed, independent publishing has played a significant role in bolstering or sustaining Christian fiction. Yet neither article seemed to connect the two.

One genre (or sub-genre) that has greatly benefited from the boon of indie publishing is Christian speculative fiction. Again, and rather glaringly, neither of the above-mentioned articles note the increase of Christian spec titles and how that growth has been fueled by indie publishing. Not only is this a significant oversight, it’s consistent with the historical unease between Christian fiction and the speculative genre.

For that, a bit of history…

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