Friday, July 06, 2012

Battleground Imagination (in which the author very nearly rants)

Recently there's been a fair amount of furor over the topic of entertainment for women. I'm thinking specifically of issues like the wildly popular pornographic literature 50 Shades of Grey, and the release this week of the film Magic Mike, about a male stripper. That these items and others are increasingly aimed at women is what is generating much of the conversation. And while thoughtful and articulate Christians are contributing many good things to the conversation, I'm looking at it along a different axis.

One thing I'm wondering is why we as Christians, the proclaimers and upholders of moral standards, always seem to be on the defensive in these discussions. While the world is proclaiming some new depravity as liberating or empowering or whatever-the-new-catchphrase-is, we seem to keep coming back with “Yes, but...” There are certainly many reasons for this, but I think I've identified an important one.

We're losing the war of imagination.

Christians, particularly thoughtful Catholics and Evangelicals, can be impressively armed with rhetorical skills. We can swiftly identify where our culture is going wrong, and we tend to respond with incisive analysis. Make no mistake: I appreciate this, and even indulge in it. For instance, this is a superb critique of 50 Shades of Grey, and this is a truly fantastic piece using Magic Mike as a point of departure. We answer threats with argument, exhortation, and education, often doing that very well. Yet still we seem to be losing.

Perhaps part of the reason is because we're not only responding to the assault using a different form, we're answering in a different arena. We're responding almost exclusively with appeals to reason, trying to get people to ponder what they're thinking and experiencing, and ask themselves questions about their lives. Not that I think this is a waste of time – I think people need to do a lot more pondering than they do – but I think it is simplistic of us to think that this is all we need to do to respond to the problems of our culture. We need to look at the avenues used by the world, and figure out how to respond effectively.

Maybe it's just the artist in me, but it seems to me that one of the avenues used most effectively by the world, and least effectively by the Kingdom, is that of the imagination. People don't read works like 50 Shades or go to movies like Magic Mike because they sat down and thought about it. They do it because the prospect forms an appealing image in their imagination. It makes them feel a little naughty, or self-indulgent, or adds a salty edge to an otherwise bland life. The images (visual or verbal) aren't formed in the rational mind but in the imagination, where they allure in a manner that bypasses reason.

It's useless to argue that people shouldn't do that. Of course they shouldn't. They should be integrated humans whose imaginations are informed by their reason and are guarded from incursions by good moral habits and well-formed consciences. But our culture is what it is, and the hard fact is that when people are led astray into dangerous and damaging beliefs and behaviors, it is rarely because they were argued out of them. They were allured by music that painted particular pictures in their mind and shows that presented attractive (and unattractive) images. Any arguing seems ex post facto, rationalization of a change that has already happened.

How to deal with this? Of course we shouldn't give up appealing to reason. Thoughtful argument will always be necessary. But another thing seems equally sure: we can't going on doing just that, or we'll keep ending up where we end up so often: on the defensive, responding to something the world is doing. We have to launch offensives of our own, and we need to do it in the same space that our foes are having so much success – the imagination.

This has been done, and with stunning effectiveness. Looming large in recent literary history are the masterpieces by Tolkien and Lewis, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia (and, to a lesser degree, Lewis' equally masterful Space Trilogy.) These are the obvious examples – works so stunning that they effectively invented an entire genre of literature. These are superb examples of what I'm talking about. They are many wonderful things – powerful Christian myths, superb insights into human nature, literary masterworks – but what they are first and foremost is great stories. They speak powerfully and directly to the imagination, without violating the reason. They do this so well that many non-Christians love the tales for their own sake, despite the overtly Christian themes. That's what I call success in the arena of imagination.Yet we seem to have forgotten their example. Too often when Christians turn their hand to imaginative work, we can't seem to leave behind our rhetorical framework. Our attempts at art often turn out to be little more than an appeal or exhortation with a story wrapped around it (I'm thinking Fireproof, but there are other examples.) These end up being modern-day morality tales of the type that so disgusted Tolkien and Lewis in their youth.

And yet, I don't think the problem lies entirely with Christians trying appeal to the imagination. (Here's where I'm going to have to be careful not to lapse into a rant.) I think there are artists out there who are trying to come up with appeals to the imagination, yet keep coming up against the mindset of fellow Christians, as well as what seem to be deeply ingrained institutional biases.

I'm an author myself, one that's even been critically acclaimed for the quality – not the message – of my work. Yet my sole work was published over 20 years ago, and despite several other works since then, I've had no further success. I keep writing – in fact, I have a set of short stories in to a publisher right now for consideration – but I'm not optimistic about my prospects for publication. The bind is simple: my works are not morality tales, but the Christian themes are clear enough for secular publishers to be skittish of them. The world knows how important a channel the imagination is, and they're not about to casually yield such an important advantage. Yet the Christian publishers I contact aren't interested in fiction – they're focusing on theological or apologetic or devotional works.

See the bind? From my perspective – literature – it seems the publishers are mostly interested in fortifying the very walls we've already strengthened, yet are barely attending to the breaches through which the enemy is carrying our children. I remember hearing some Christians hand-wringing and breast-beating over the success of Rowling's Harry Potter series (which I do not consider to be a dangerous work, but not all share my view.) So many wondered why Christians couldn't come up with anything like that. Well, at about that time I'd just finished a fantasy novel geared toward young people. Many who read it considered it better than anything they'd seen in print. But no publisher was interested in it. Maybe I wasn't persistent enough, or maybe it wasn't as good as all that. But it was grating to hear people complaining that nobody in the Kingdom was doing anything when I was doing my best – and getting rejected by Christian publishers.

But whether I ever have another work published isn't the primary point. The point is that we need to assess the axis of threat and respond in an appropriate manner. The soundest of arguments presented with winning eloquence will not succeed when the opposition is appealing through other channels. We have to find a way to use those same channels in ways that are appealing enough to capture people's imaginations. It should be easier for us – after all, we're on the side of the Author of truth, beauty, and wonder; the very source of creativity. It should be home turf for us. But to do it, we're going to have to expand our view of what it means to speak the Truth to the culture around us. Until we do, we'll keep losing to stories like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Our Hellenistic Heroes

Having a weakness for comic book movies, I recently saw, and rather enjoyed, The Avengers. It was nothing more than it was billed to be: a smash-em-up summertime popcorn movie with decent characterization and a non-taxing plot. However, it did get me thinking about a topic I've been pondering rather often of late: how Hellenistic our culture has become.

Hellenism has been a particular study of mine, especially since it was in the Hellenistic seedbed of the Mediterranean world that the Gospel first took root. Hellenism followed the conquests of Alexander the Great, and was probably the first large-scale example of cultural imperialism in history. Unlike empires like the Babylonians and Persians, who had been content with booty and tribute, the Greeks made an effort to convert their subjects to the Greek ways of life and thinking (not that there wasn't booty and tribute involved.) This stands to reason, since the Greeks thought they had the superior culture, and they would be doing nothing but a favor to the barbaroi whom they'd conquered to pass it along to them. Throughout the conquered territories they established cities on the model of the Greek polis, promoted Greek culture and political thought, and offered instruction to the locals on Greek manners. For those natives willing to buy the whole Greek program, including worshiping the gods of the polis and embracing Greek values, the door to citizenship was open, an entrée into the ranks of the powerful.

At least, this was the Big Carrot. If any conquered people resisted, and chose to cling to their own ways and gods in the face of Greek blandishments, eventually The Stick of oppression came out. You can read about that in First and Second Maccabees. Despite the image of tolerance and openness, ultimately the Hellenistic gods would have no other gods before them.

But who were these gods? Hellenistic culture was rich with legends of gods and heroes – in fact, most of what we know as Greek mythology rises out of that period. From the Hellenic thinkers there was a tradition of One God, but he was distant and unreachable, an abstract god of philosophy who was unconcerned with man. But when you looked past the legends and superstitions, which were used primarily for amusement and light instruction, you find that the true god of the Hellenistic world was man himself: his might, his dominance, his advancements in culture and learning and political sophistication. Heroes like Hercules and Perseus were common, portrayed in sculpture with idealized physiques and in legend with superhuman powers (or devices that conveyed them.) They battled gods, monsters, and other heroes to achieve notoriety. Though some gained immortality by ascending to Olympus, most died (usually heroically or tragically), achieving immortality by their renown, living on in fame and legend.

This is what I thought of as the carefully crafted and presented images of The Avengers flashed before me. These characters were Hellenistic heroes, and the fact that they were so popular says things about our culture. But what, exactly, does it say? That's hard to pin down in a blog post, but let me suggest a few things that it might indicate.

One thing it reflects is a moral detachment. As good Hellenists, we like our heroes – and our villains – “super”. This means the struggle between good and evil has nothing to do with us directly, and will demand nothing of us. We certainly aren't evil, at least in the sense that we're not seeking to introduce an alien army from another dimension to conquer the earth, or use an interstellar mega-ray to destroy a planet, or whatever. But we can't be expected to be “good”, not having had the serum injections or been bathed in the proper gamma rays or having the billions necessary to produce the omnicapable personal armor or whatever. Rather than being participants in the struggle, we become spectators, cheering and booing as appropriate.

Another level of detachment comes from the idealization of the characters. Perfection of face and form has become such an obsession with us (as it was with the Hellenists) that even those who are favored with physiques in the “perfect 3%” cannot escape digital retouching and enhancing. No human flaws are allowed, nothing to indicate that the subject was anything short of perfect. After all, imperfection stands right next to mortality, and nobody wants to be reminded that they're mortal.

But the thing that strikes me as most Hellenistic about our culture is the anthropocentrism. It's all about Man – his world, his perceptions, his reality. “Good” is the goods of this world (health, wealth, long life, “freedom” - usually defined as absence of commitments), death is the ultimate evil, and there's nobody out there to help us (and nowhere else worth worrying about). Salvation is up to us – our strength, our ingenuity, our cleverness. Threats are big and dramatic, and saving deeds are bigger, even more dramatic, and invariably take the form of the triumph of the might of the hero(es) and the putting down of the villain(s).

To me, this is the most telling point. Our moral imaginations have been allured by a vision of salvation that is the polar opposite of that presented by the Gospel. Christ's example, and vision for His Church, involves strength through weakness, even to death; the foregoing of the goods of this world for the goods of the next; utter reliance on the grace of God as expressed through the Cross for our salvation; acknowledging our weakness and helplessness in our sinful state. We are called by Christ to personal moral struggle, and in His grace we help in the conquest of evil in the world – first and foremost in the venue over which we have most control: our own hearts. The evil we face does not take the form of roaring monsters or sneering supervillains  and we don't conquer it by smashing it with powerful fists. We face it in our own mirrors, and grapple with it in moral struggle every waking hour. Certainly nothing dramatic about that! But if the True Superhero is to be believed, that's the path of true salvation – all other paths are illusion.

As I mentioned, I'm as attracted as any to this flashy, enjoyable view of the human drama. But it's helpful to remember that by the time the Gospel appeared in the Hellenistic world, the narrative was ringing hollow. People were realizing that man's problems were heart-deep, and freedom from them could not be won with a magic sword or enchanted cloak. But how this freedom could be won eluded men.  Many were becoming jaded and cynical, hopeless before the bleakness of existence. Into this world burst the foolish, impossible tale of a God who had conquered death and offered immortality to His followers. Following Him meant walking away from the amusing tales and illusions and grappling with reality as it was, but for those willing to leave the fantasy behind, true hope was there for the taking. Perhaps we need to more carefully examine how the Gospel was originally presented in order to understand how to re-present it to our modern Hellenistic culture.