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.


Tirienne Anne said...

"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 barely attended breaches through which the enemy is carrying our children."

Dear Dad, how did you get to be so brilliant? And how did I get to be your daughter? That is all.

PrinceOfTheWest said...

This post seems to confirm my theory that the imagination is a more powerful avenue for effecting change than discursive reason

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