I was encouraged last week to see an article on cultural engagement get some commentary. At Christianity Today, Alissa Wilkinson’s article on “Lazy Cultural Engagement” was dead-on, providing a more personal/vocational take and bringing in the helpful and germane framework of content and form. At ThinkChristian, Josh Larson’s commentary was also helpful, if a little divergent from our take:

In a broad sense, I agree with what both of these folks have to say. Certainly, as McDavid suggests, Christians are needed as critics outside of our Christian subculture. (I’m grateful to have other outlets where I can do that.) And Wilkinson’s call to focus on form is one way our Christian criticism can avoid the dreaded, pop culture Jesus juke. Yet I wonder: if we allow these perspectives to be our guiding directives as Christian critics, might we be giving up what makes us distinctive?

Film criticism, for instance, has a rich tradition of specialized analysis. From the Marxist criticism of Harry Alan Potamkin to the feminist criticism of Molly Haskell, movies have long been analyzed by particular people through their particular lenses. And film culture has been the richer for it. Surely there’s a place for Christian criticism of this sort as well?


It’s a good point, that analysis through an ideological lens has become standard, but I wonder whether that’s a necessary thing. Of course, to lay claim to an “objective” view of something sans presuppositions would be impossible after the last couple centuries, and especially the last few decades, of philosophy and philosophical hermeneutics. Plus, because literary works aren’t textbooks or factsheets, and it’s the subjective tension between work and reader which gives those works their life.

My reservations here, though, are threefold. First, the proliferation of specialized criticism has come to resemble a fideistic outlook, namely, the assumption that we all have different frameworks for viewing things, and our criticism makes sense primarily as regards our framework, not the work itself. Such a view allows criticism to be meaningful or meaningless within its given framework, but evaluations of the criticism’s truth-value are deferred: that is, criticisms may stand or fall with the framework’s validity, but not necessarily with the criterion of the work under consideration. This seems dangerous.

Second, there’s not really any such thing as a school or framework of “Christian criticism.” Not that the development of such a school would be impossible, but only that it doesn’t seem to have been developed yet. Of course, Marxist and feminist criticism can themselves be nebulous labels, but no one seems agreed upon what Christian criticism would look like. Would it be using the work as an apologetic? Would it be looking for patterns of death and resurrection in literature? Maybe it would be going back to classic works and exposing how authors’ optimistic anthropologies bias their work, or maybe it would be mining works for gestures toward mystery and the need for help from beyond ourselves. In any event, saying that Christian criticism is needed is no substitute for specifying of what such criticism consists; something feminist and Marxist theorists have not failed to do.

9780664253264Third, and to my mind, most important, the Christian worldview and Marxist worldview cannot be compared on the same plane, a dangerous tendency promoted by fideism. Christianity and Marxism are not competing worldviews; Christianity goes beyond being merely one option among many in a pluralistic world. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture is helpful here:

Some thirty years ago Walter Lippmann described the situation of pluralistic modern man in words even more applicable today. ‘Each ideal is supreme within a sphere of its own.’ There is no point of reference outside which can determine the relative value of competing ideals… His impulses are no longer part of one attitude toward life; his ideals are no longer in a hierarchy under one lordly ideal. They have become differentiated. They are free and incommensurate.

For Niebuhr, this state would be called polytheism, the worship of many value-centers. But when we choose one value to the exclusion of others, it produces “henotheism”, the worship of one God among many. He describes Christian henotheism, which to him is an error, a contradiction:

To be a Christian now means not so much that through the mediation and pioneering faith of Jesus a man has become wholly human, has been called into membership in the society of universal being, and has accepted the fact that amidst the totality of existence he is not exempt from the human lot; it means rather that he has become a member of a special group, with a special god, a special destiny, and a separate existence.

God forbid we become a special group with a special god, a special knowledge, the ‘right’ god among many (edit: in Niebuhr’s sense). For Niebuhr, true faith is “radical” (meaning “at root”) monotheism:

For radical monotheism the value-center is neither a closed society nor the principle of such a society but the principle of being itself; its reference is not to one reality among the many but to One beyond all the many, whence all the many derive their being, and by participation in which they exist. As faith, it is reliance on the source of all being… It is the assurance that because I am, I am valued, and because you are, you are beloved, and because whatever is has being, therefore it is worthy of love… It is not a relation to any finite, natural or supernatural, value-center that confers value on self and some of its companions in being, but it is value relation to the One to whom all being is related.

And so forth. It’s a short and straightforward book – certainly worth the time – and the general idea is a strong focus on God as creator, the One not among the many (exclusive) but beyond the many (inclusive). As a disclaimer, this does not mean that all truth-value is distributed equally, nor is it pantheism. What it does is advocate a much-needed levels distinction: God is not one ideology or belief-system among many. Turning back to criticism, this distinction frees the Christian from the burden of ‘Christian criticism’, because all truth, to the extent it is truth, falls under the umbrella of God’s truth. Because God is beyond the context among the many, the Christian’s advantage as critic is that she does not have to justify an ideology, but is, all else equal, perhaps more free to seek the truth. It is perhaps distinctly the Christian who may operate faithfully, that is, independent of ideology and in full confidence that the work must, if it represents reality, point back to God regardless of the angle taken. Thus we have statements like this one (David Dark):

How do we know if art’s Christian? If it’s good, it’s Christian. This isn’t to to say Christian tradition somehow owns goodness or that people who presume to call themselves Christian–arguably a very tacky move — are the always best discerners of goodness. I tend to think [Madeline] L’Engle was saying something more provocative, that any goodness, beauty, truthfulness, or enlivening candor we have the wit to discern is something for which we have God to thank.

This one (Jacques Maritain):

Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian. They are one, if you really are a Christian, and if your art is not isolated from your soul by some aesthetic system. But apply only the artist in you to the work in hand; precisely because they are one, the work will be as wholly of one as of the other.

Or this one (James):

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

If there is a distinctive feature of Christian criticism, it may well be the freedom to celebrate the good in any kind of critical school – Marxist, feminist, etc – and to celebrate a work with freedom from the constrictions of ideology. That may not necessarily mean our criticism is good, but it certainly would make it less burdensome, more enjoyable, perhaps more credible.