This past fall, I had just attended a local writers conference, and I was filled up with creative energy. Late that night, I went digging for my old college writing folders. Some of my memoir and poetry stuff was pretty good. I felt proud reading it. But I had to hide my face in shame when I pulled out my fiction folder. At the time I wrote the pieces in the folder, I was still of the mindset that fiction written by a Christian had to end with a conversion story in order to be worthwhile or redemptive. I was beginning to read good literature that did otherwise (Flannery O’Connor, anyone?), but the idea that every story did not have to end in conversion and that my readers were unlikely to believe the story if it always did had not yet quite sunk in. I am still learning and growing as a writer–and right now it’s probably still safe to say that my forte is in non-fiction. But I think I’ve come to better understand what makes art redemptive.
It helps to define your terms, so here’s what I mean when I describe “redemptive art” as it relates to Christians:
Redemptive art is that which clearly shows the reality of our broken world and doesn’t try to clean it up to make people comfortable. But redemptive art does not stay there in the brokenness. Rather, this art takes us through a journey through darkness to the light of hope. It may explicitly direct people to Jesus, but more likely it will form a parable that may not explicitly mention religious faith but which registers truth at the deep heart level of its listeners. Redemptive art is not always made by Christians, but because all truth is God’s truth, Christians recognize God’s truth in it and can use it to think and talk about the real work the Gospel does to bring new life. Redemptive art, from a Christian perspective, is a bridge to deeper discussions about brokenness and new life. It is also a means that God uses to bring hope and inspiration to our lives.
When I was in college, the theater professor at my school, Jay Sierszyn, used to say, “It’s art’s job to ask the questions; it’s the Church’s job to answer them.” I love this beautiful synthesis of the separate calls to artists and to the Church. I don’t think that Jay meant that the Church has all the answers and should pontificate about them, but I think he was reminding us of the vast and strong tradition of Scripture and church teaching we have to draw on when faced with culture’s questions. His statement reminds us that art and Church are meant to be in a long conversation with each other.
As a writer who is a Christian, my temptation is to tie everything up neatly with a bow. I am even tempted to do this with non-fiction. (Or with life!) I sometimes feel as though I will let God down if I don’t “fix” everyone–including myself–in my writing. But God is honored by truth. He is present in the real stuff of life. I love the name of Jesus, Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” God is with us in our very real brokenness. That is essentially what the Gospel is about. God is with us in the real world where we are not “fixed” and perfect (outside of heaven, anyway).
Donald Miller begins his book Blue Like Jazz like this, “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve….I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.” God is vibrant and real and we who are created in His image are vibrant and real too. This is a journey we are on in this life. The truth found in God’s essential character and being and in Scripture does not change, but we change as we are gradually apprehended by it. If our real lives are journeys of being apprehended by God, not stories of “arriving” followed by perfection, shouldn’t our art reflect this reality? Redemptive art does not tie things up neatly with a bow. It wrestles with God, with life, with questions, with brokenness. But the light shines in the darkness. There is hope–not flippant hope, not easy hope. This hope costs. It cost Jesus His life. It brings us to the point of death before it brings us to resurrection.
By the way, I believe art can be good, truthful art without being redemptive. Sometimes art just tells the brokenness side of the story. I think of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards. These shows tell the truth about the brokenness of humanity, but they don’t necessarily provide a lot of hope. Still, they are extremely valuable cultural touch points. They show ordinary, everyday people being capable of great evil, being caught in the net of their own regret and poor choices. They show the bondage that sin brings. It is encouraging to see our culture which so eschews the idea of sin connect so powerfully to these shows. We may bristle at being told we are sinners, but when you show our sin to us on the screen, we recognize ourselves. We admit that we are deeply lost and broken. We long for rescue, for redemption.
God can use the dark truth to draw people to Himself. As I watched the first season of House of Cards, my stomach was turned by Frank Underwood’s bitter pursuit of power in retribution for a political slight. But I also recognized that bitter, angry heart. I know that I have lived in that head space before, full of rage and unforgiveness. Frank Underwood shows us where unchecked anger and unforgiveness leads. Now, most of us won’t end up actually murdering someone, but we might murder them in our heart and with our words. We might deal death instead of life to them. Our internal monologue might not be so far off from Frank’s. Do I want to be Frank Underwood? No. House of Cards might be unbelievably dark, but it doesn’t glamorize evil. It reveals it. It shines a light on it. And the picture you see is awfully ugly.
So–some art is worthwhile simply because it is truthful. But to be redemptive, art must shine a light in the darkness. Again, it doesn’t need to be written by a Christian or express this hope in explicitly Christian terms, but I would argue that it will be a hope that comes from outside oneself. So much of pop psychology encourages us to seek the “god within,” but shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad show us that to do so is folly.
The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV).
Redemptive art will tell the truth about evil, but will not glamorize evil. I am struck by the difference between the show The Fall and the AMC show The Killing. I stayed away from The Killing for years because I thought it would glamorize the murder of a young girl. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much care is given to showing the dignity and value of Rosie Larsen’s life. Furthermore, her family is treated with great dignity. Most crime shows show you only a brief moment in the life of a family–the part where they find out from the police that their loved one has been killed. The Killing shows the value and importance of this one lost life by revealing the journey of grief her family embarks on with all of its crazy ups and downs. It never glamorizes the violence does to Rosie. By contrast, Gillian Anderson’s BBC show The Fall while well-acted and suspenseful seemed at times to be glamorizing the murders committed by a serial killer. There were quite a few scenes which I found myself fast-forwarding and turning away from, not because they were dark, but because they were dark and I felt like the filmmakers wanted me to like it. Feeding this kind of hunger for evil in the human soul is not a healthy thing, in my opinion. The Killing (through all three of its seasons) shows us that you can go to some pretty dark places in art without being excessive in “edgy” content. Real art should discomfort us, shake us up, challenge us, but it shouldn’t glamorize evil.
Redemptive art will offer a hint of resurrection. I can think of no better example of this than one of my favorite films (and books) The Shipping News (the novel is by E. Annie Proulx and the film is available on Netflix streaming). In this story, Quoyle, a ne’er-do-well haunted by his past, the generational sin of his family, his impotence in life and ambition, his failure with women, and the messages of shame constantly being thrust upon him finds redemption and healing. He grapples profoundly and honestly with the darkness. But the story ends with a storm which shakes his community, which unseats the power of evil heritage in his life, and which brings one member of his community to a miracle of actual resurrection.
In both the film and book, the closing language of resurrection blow me away. This is not at all a “Christian book,” but without a doubt its author is using the Christian image of resurrection to evoke the new life and healing that can come to a broken life. There is rich material here for meditating on the hope of new life. This story has powerfully impacted my own life in my experience of family brokenness and dysfunction. I have sometimes felt shame for these things in my life, but Quoyle’s story of redemption brought me hope and gave me a concrete visual for what redemption can look like. Not the mere abstract language that we sometimes throw around in the Christian community, but redemption in real flesh and blood.
Here are some of the closing lines from the film:
There’s still so many things I don’t know. If a piece of knotted string can unleash the wind, and if a drowned man can awaken, then I believe a broken man can heal.
And from the book:
For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.
Redemptive art shines the light of hope in a very dark world.