Confessions Of A Bitter, Disillusioned Churchgoer
I make no secret of the fact that I hate end-times babbling. Why do I hate it? Because it's a major part of an Evangelical culture that devalues human accomplishment. This is not even subtextual, this is something they actually say: "it's all going to burn anyway."
This is a major reason why contemporary Christian culture blows chunks: paint a masterwork? Compose a sweeping, majestic twenty-minute suite? Make a film that changes the whole face of cinema? Who cares, it's all worthless in the long run! They make less of a fuss about things that directly and measurably improve the human condition, but the message is still there: don't get, you know, involved in anything, because any minute now Jesus could pop in and sweep everybody off to heaven (for real this time,) and then what good would your new hospital/brilliant e-commerce revolution/cold fusion reactor have done, huh?
Heck, why bother at all? Why build when everything will be destroyed anyway? Just go back to living in caves. Have fire as the peak of your technological achievement; what has science ever brought us but the atom bomb, anyway? Watch your wife die during childbirth. Croak from influenza at age 30. After all, you're going to Heaven.
Worse yet is that since everything but the soul will perish in the Apocalypse, to Evangelicals the only legitimate reason for anything existing is to convert people and save their souls. Are you a Christian who makes music? Well, you should be making Christian music, then. Don't bother making it good, that's a waste of time you could be using to convert people. The only good art is art that serves (to use the lingo) a "Kingdom purpose."
Back in 1984, David Edwards wrote an article titled "Art And The Altar-Call" for The Wittenburg Door. I could pretty much just insert about half of the article here, ° because he says the same thing more eloquently than I ever could, but in brief, for all the belief Evangelicals profess in absolutes of artistic value (a belief they primarily use to deride things they don't care for, like music with actual song structure,) they don't actually believe in any kind of artistic value. Nothing is good or beautiful in and of itself. The only value anything has is as a tool for evangelism. Aesthetics are wholly irrelevant except to the extent that they can be used to "reach the lost." It's a cold and hideous utilitarianism that makes the B-movie mad scientists of yesteryear, who so often wished only to free mankind of its fleshy weaknesses like "emotion," look nuanced. It is an affront to the very God they claim to serve, the one who created the world "and saw that it was good." Not "useful," good.
Listen to your local Christian radio station and try and find more than two or three songs you could honestly label as "good;" you'll be lucky to find more than half a dozen that rise above "mediocre." Pop into a Christian bookstore, if you dare. Look at the Thomas Kinkaide paintings; aside from the above-average technical aptitude in rendering light, is there anything that good about them? Aside from the fiery devastation the supernova of the Sun is wreaking just off-camera, you'd be hard-pressed to tell a Kinkaide painting from the art that adorns eagle-themed collector's knives. They're not even creative; there's the lighthouse painting, the cottage painting, and the landscape painting, in myriad slight variations, all covered in surreally massive quantities of light, like someone detonated a nuclear bomb in the upper atmosphere. It's joked that Vivaldi wrote one concerto and then re-wrote it five hundred times, but Kinkaide actually does that.
Open up one of the extraordinarily popular Left Behind books and try to read through it. Marvel at the stilted prose, dimwitted characters, and terrible pacing. This is a series that has sold fifty-eight million copies. That's one Left Behind book for every hundred-odd people on the face of the planet. This despite the fact that it is a terrible piece of fiction. To cite just one of its many literary crimes, it is lacking in subtlety to the point that the villain is the product of genetic engineering and artificial insemination from two gay men, just so you know he's evil. This is the kind of writing typically reserved for direct-to-video horror movies. But the fact that, objectively speaking, Left Behind is literary dog feces doesn't matter, because hey, it sure led a lot of people to the Lord! Or so they claim; the sheer impossibility of confirming any numbers on this makes it a safe argument with which to thrust the undefendable above any criticism. (See also: Chick tracts.)
And that's all that matters. Nothing good, nothing real, nothing worthwhile can survive in Evangelical culture, because it doesn't fit the one acceptable purpose. Even on the rare occasions a Christian artist surfaces who does care about art, it won't last. The Evangelical culture is second only to the Borg at assimilating and subduing those who do not conform to its ideals. Just look at the Newsboys.
In the late '90s and very early 2000s, they were one of the few groups on Christian radio that provided songs that were witty, catchy, creative, and worth listening to. In Christian music, these groups are few and far between. But then came Adoration, an album devoted wholly to praise songs. For the unchurched who happen to be reading this, a "praise song" is like a normal contemporary Christian song, only more vapid and completely devoid of song structure and musical complexity, so that any old church worship team can play it, the worship leader mashing the song around any which way for no particular reason. Where secular music has three-chord three-minute pop songs, Christian music has praise songs, but at least "Louie, Louie" was more than half a verse and a chorus. Anyway, these things are as popular on Christian radio as Left Behind was in Christian bookstores, and Adoration produced an enormous hit by the title of "He Reigns." Now, as far as praise songs go, "He Reigns" is actually pretty good, but suddenly that was the only Newsboys song radio stations would play. And that was the beginning of the end for one of the few Christian groups that was ever worth listening to. Now they've followed up one praise album with another, and will doubtless keep doing so until Time mercifully ends their career, like the last survivor in a zombie movie capping her now-shambling former sidekick. This is the fate that awaits any Christian artist that shows promise, unless they have the good fortune to die first, like Rich Mullins.
Humanity was created in the image of the Creator. Creativity, art, it's in our very souls. (See Tolkien's idea of "subcreation" for another example of someone explaining my points better than I can.) We were made to aspire to be more than we are, but Evangelical culture tries to deny us that. It's no great surprise that most of the lasting Christian cultural contributions were made by people who are dead; modern churchgoers are told that accomplishing things on this earth is a worthless endeavor, and it is wholly apparent in Evangelical culture. We contribute next to nothing to the art or culture of the world at large, content to stay within our insular little bubble of "safe" and "family-friendly" churchgoer culture. We affect politics only on issues that directly affect us, except when we see a way to stomp down and harass those who engage in sins we ourselves don't commit or hold views we disagree with. We build nothing lasting, write, paint, film, and sing nothing worth experiencing, °° and leave only memories of our clueless self-righteousness to those who escape our efforts to assimilate them. The whole of Evangelical culture is Macbeth's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
And it all comes back to the fact that Jesus could come back any minute, for real, like in the next four years even, and everything everyone has ever accomplished will all be gone. There's only one day left of summer vacation, so you may as well spend it getting ready for school. Life is finite, why do you bother living? Such is the legacy of the last book of the New Testament, the most obsessed-over piece of prose in world history. The very book that is supposed to give us hope for the future and reassure us that the problems of human existence are only transitory and something better is coming is the book which has robbed the modern Church of all but a tiny shred of its human creativity. The knowledge that the end is coming is supposed to inspire us to be ready for Christ's return, but Evangelicals take that to mean becoming Jesus zombies who think, speak, and write only in churchgoer buzzwords. In the history of Christianity, our generation is the one that comes closest to sounding like a Bibled-up version of Dilbert's boss.
Is there any hope for art in the Church? I would like to believe there is, but I've yet to see enough potential for true, honest greatness in modern Christianity (as opposed to the the slightly-more-meritous mediocrity which passes for greatness at present) to assuage my fears of waking up one morning to find the American church literally incapable of thinking or communicating in anything other than Jesus-speak; Childhood's Beginning, perhaps. I don't think I could honestly say I'd prefer Hell to a Heaven filled with these people, an eternity of Precious Moments figurines, praise albums, and Bowdlerized Shakespeare, but I certainly wouldn't enjoy such a place. I'm sure that God in His infinite wisdom had good reason for handing down the book of Revelations, but in my short-sightedness I wish with all my heart that He hadn't.
° In fact, that's just what I'm going to do. Since the Door is a rather obscure publication and difficult to come by, I've transcribed the article referenced; click here to read it.
°° I am, of course, exaggerating, but not by nearly as much as I wish I were.