It is hard to pin-point an actual moment in my life that made me question my beliefs. As stated in a previous blog, I can recall the first time I began to separate being a Christian and being a good person at the lunch table during my sophomore year of high school. We were an eclectic group and we all had a variety of beliefs and we all managed to accept one another without questions. It was around this time that I stopped being a judgement prat and became very chill towards people. So what if they cursed? So what if they smoked? So what if they didn’t go to church? They were people and as a Christian, I knew God loved them. Who was I to start telling them how to live? Apparently a rumor began to spread around school that I was a pothead. When my friend Hilary told me this, knowing full well that I’d be the last person you’d find smoking pot, I stared open mouthed. “Well it’s because you are so chill,” she told me. Yeah, I guess I was…
As an early teen I always imagined I would go to a Christian college (Eastern Nazarene College near Boston was a favorite) but when it came down to applying, faith was the last thing on my mind. I ended up going to a liberal arts school. The process was stressful and I was extremely reluctant to go through with it. I wanted to write a book and I was adamant about that. But I went to college despite not wanting to, a choice partially influenced by my mother and my inability to come up with a suitable plan after high school.
The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.” – Russell Baker
I wasn’t the typical college student as you can probably deduce based on the information provided throughout this blog series. I never got drunk, I never did drugs, and I never partied. Instead I read books, watched films (and tons of YouTube videos), and spent a lot of time perusing the internet. I saw myself as a lonely soul and probably came off as extremely pretentious. But it was during those times alone when I most contemplated my faith. I couldn’t put into words what I was feeling. All I knew was that most of my peers were disenchanted by Christianity. Why? And how come I was seeing glimpses of God in entertainment seen to many Christians as secular and dangerous?
There were rallies on the quad against abortion, pictures of dead babies printed on large signs being held high in the air. My peers were disgusted. My roommate was gay and dating a transgender guy and they both were nice to me and I considered them friends. I wondered, why does the church feel threatened by such good people? If God loves everyone, shouldn’t we? Then Osama Bin Laden was killed and outside my open window I heard people singing God Bless America and chanting, “U.S.A! U.S.A!” as if a man’s death was to be celebrated. With so many questions and no answers in the near horizon, I decided to stop defending Christianity. I was sick of one thing being preached but another being practiced. Too often I was defending the faith when really I was keeping the blindfold onto reality. It was time for me to start listening.
Art is a great tool for listening.
When I pulled my walls down and started listening to different perspectives through art and my peers, I began to see truth. I didn’t understand it all, and still don’t, but it was clear that God was in the midst of it all. Everything I had been told to avoid was what I needed to find true authenticity.
My “condition” was finally given some title and description when I was a junior. I was on Facebook when one of my friends posted a video called Sexual Healing. I clicked the video, seeing as I took great interest in the topic (I grappled a lot with the idea of sex before marriage and such) and found it to be a breath of fresh air. The video was made by Jefferson Bethke, a spoken word poet and now bestselling author. A few days later I found myself checking out his other YouTube videos and ended up clicking on one titled, Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus. The video spoke to everything I believed. It encapsulated what I had been searching for and gave a name to the sickness I had been trying to cure within myself. The sickness was religion and I needed Jesus, the authentic answer I had 8 years ago accepted into my heart.
Now I should clarify that I think religion has two meanings. One is the sickness, the constant need for rules to lead you to bitterness and dictate your life. The other is the sacred, the practice of belief and willingly and joyfully changing your life. Both can exist together or as separate entities.
Jeff Bethke wasn’t the only Christian I saw releasing good art. There were rappers like Lecrae, Andy Mineo, and Trip Lee releasing records about their faith that held up to Eminem standards. A band named Deas Vail put out incredible indie music that didn’t preach but incorporated their faith in beautifully written lyrics and composition.
There is a TV Show on Showtime called Shameless. I started watching it after an actress I like, Emmy Rossum, was set to star as a lead character. The first time I watched the show I was horrified. The pilot showed a great deal of nudity, sex, and non-stop swearing. It was new to me and felt wrong to be watching. But I continued with the show and tried to see the appeal because it was getting tons of praise.
Then I arrived at the third episode. To make a long story short, the main characters need an old lady to pose as their dead Aunt Ginger and they “borrow” a woman from a nursing home. It’s immoral, I know, but it is Shameless. The old woman suffers from dementia and believes the family to be her own. To the family, she is just a temporary fix to the problem at hand. But to younger sister Debbie who longs so desperately for a mother in her life to bake cookies with and do arts and crafts, she finally has someone to fill that void. “Aunt Ginger” is unfortunately temporary and when the family goes to return her to where she belongs, Debbie isn’t ready to say goodbye. The viewer has to watch poor, innocent Debbie sob as her first real mother is snatched away from her. “Aunt Ginger” was a luxury the family simply can’t afford since their father is a drunk and their mother abandoned them a while back.
I cried with Debbie. I recalled being young and crying when my mom would leave for a weekend business trip. The memories continue to make me tear up to this day. I can’t imagine my mom abandoning me. And yet somehow my experience can’t even measure up to Debbie’s. All I can share with her character is empathy. This is the purpose of art — to reveal truth and share experience. Within this immoral action was beauty. I saw God in the messiness. I began to seek out more content like Shameless and have not been disappointed since. The thing about a TV show like Shameless compared to the typical drama you watch on ABC is it’s ability to remain true to life. One thing I can’t stand about television is how they elude to certain topics but can never actually act said topics out or truly discuss them in a healthy way, thus distorting how we view them. Shameless, and a lot of entertainment today, says no. We are going to show that stuff. They aren’t showing it to be immoral. They are showing sex scenes and dark scenes involving suicide and violence not to get a reaction but to tell a story.
It was also around this time that I became obsessed with the Harry Potter books. As I reread the books over and over and over again, I saw clear Christianity imagery. I saw Harry as a Christ figure and saw his journey in the final book as a spiritual journey to letting go of his own desires and following God. In many regards the final book probably mirrors the life story of a saint.
But one brick wall I couldn’t seem to break down was books. I didn’t have someone like Hagrid to tap each burgundy rectangle with an umbrella to reveal another dimension. I jumped to Google for some answers. “Good Christian literature,” I typed. Of course lots of answers popped up but most of them were unhelpful. I came across one list that recommended the top literary Christian titles. One book on the list was called Watching the Tree Limbs by Mary E. DeMuth. I read the book and found it to be credible but it still had the forced “saved by Jesus trope which I talked about in my review of the book. Another book that I came across after seeing a film trailer was October Baby. I should have known the book was bad by the fact that it was adapted from the movie. That is usually a reader’s note to never touch the book. Anyway, the film trailer looked promising. It was refreshing to see a new take on the abortion debate and didn’t seem to be like the typical Christian film. Well, trailer’s are deceiving. It was not good which is a shame because the book contains all the right ingredients to make a delicious result but they just weren’t executed well.
I was losing hope. Did a well written Christian book exist? Clearly my Google search didn’t contain the right keywords. I didn’t know what else to type.
Luckily, the perfect seminar became available during my senior year — Christian Literature. I immediately snagged the class when it was my time to schedule and boy am I glad to have taken this course. The Professor, who I’d previously had in another literature seminar for 20th century American Fiction, is easily among the top at the university. Professor Maltby is an intelligent British man and he approached the subject of Christian Lit. with a refreshing objective viewpoint. There were a fair amount of books on our required reading list. We read bad Christian books, the ones I had grown to despise (Left Behind), we read books by atheists (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ), and we read solid books with Christian themes but didn’t shove a message down your throat (Our Lady of the Forest). I discovered that amazing literature with Christian themes does exist! It is a thing! Among my favorite authors to have discovered from that class are Ron Hansen, Frederick Buechner, and Marilynne Robinson who is my favorite author.
What sets Marilynne Robinson’s books apart from the October Baby‘s and Karen Kingsbury’s? Marilynne Robinson doesn’t have an agenda. Her books are pieces of art with beautiful characters and fantastic plot. Plus, they are intelligent and extremely well written. They stand next to To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, and Catcher in the Rye with ease.
These are the kind of books I have longed for which is why I can’t see myself returning to Christian books in the future. As Christians we must strive to indulge ourselves in well crafted art that teaches us empathy, contains truth, and reveals the face of Jesus. Lifetime plots and the same fluffy message that after you experience your “saved by Jesus” trope then your life will be perfect don’t reflect Christianity. These things only make Christianity hard to take seriously. Christians should be able to make good art just like everyone else. Christian art shouldn’t strive to make us forget about the harshness of the world but embrace the dark stuff and simply reflect human experience. After all, God created us. We are his art. Shouldn’t we try and reflect him by making good art ourselves?
For those who have had a similar experience, here are some great resources to check out if you also are interested in good Christian art.
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
- Home by Marilynne Robinson
- Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
- Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
- Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner
- The Wind is my Mother by Bear Heart
- Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
- Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher
- Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner
- Other Resources