I agree with almost everything Carl Trueman has to say in this piece, which makes me all the more eager to briefly interject and explain why I think he’s wrong to make the movie industry his whipping boy.
Trueman’s contempt for Hollywood celebrity culture is understandable and justifiable. But like many Christian commentators who turn their face like flint toward Tinsletown, Trueman doesn’t seem to sufficiently appreciate the hypocrisy of our American culture makers. It’s true that the red carpet, “who wore it better” scene is not something with the aroma of godliness. But it’s equally true that what the film industry actually makes is often better than the industry itself. I’ve heard it said that many of us Christians “live below” our high theology. I think that’s true of Hollywood, too.
Movies help us cultivate, moreso than many evangelicals acknowledge, an imaginative perspective. Such an imaginative perspective is crucial to the Christian life, not only because we worship a Savior whom we have not seen, but because the essence of the Christian life is to live in light of an eternity which we cannot comprehend merely propositionally. Christian creators, from Dante to C.S. Lewis, have understood the aesthetic power of story to quicken the truth of the gospel in our souls. This effect isn’t an accident; it’s an essential part of what it means to, as Tolkien said, “sub-create” with God. The image of the Creator is impossible to ultimately scrub away from our sub-creations. Thus, Hollywood filmmakers often find themselves, perhaps unwittingly (or even anti-wittingly!), producing stories that reverberate with biblical imagination.
Trueman writes that the Oscars exemplify the “triumph of aesthetics over ethics, or rather that identification of aesthetics with ethics which is now the default position of Western society.” If the sin of secularism is to conflate the beautiful with the good (and I think there’s a lot of truth there), the sin of modern, Western Christianity is to divorce them entirely. It’s the reason so much Christian music is middlebrow, so much Christian writing is vapid, so much Christian community is superficial, and so much Christian political theology is little more than strongmanism. When Paul commands us to not only speak the truth, but to speak it in love, he is rebuking the idea that factual correctness alone bequeaths beauty. It is possible to speak truth but not in love, and it possible to speak lovingly but not the truth. The former is fundamentalism, the second is progressivism, and both of them are failures.
I think Trueman is exactly right to say that the “church’s task is to cultivate taste,” by which he means (I think!) that it’s the mission of the church to see and utilize the power of her doctrine and her practices to cultivate new liturgies of desire. Such a mission requires, in my view, that evangelicals check their own dismissive attitudes toward pop culture. It’s true that some Christians are hopelessly enslaved to empty talk about “relevance,” and in so doing the light of the freakishness of Christ has been put under a basket. But there are other Christians who are likewise enslaved to a hostile posture toward culture making. Maybe I’m wrong here, but my instinct is that the emerging pressures of a post-Christian age will bring the errors of the first group into a sharper and more immediate focus than those of the second group.
My point is not that Christians should engorge themselves on all of Hollywood’s latest offerings, or skip Sunday night church to catch every second of the Oscars. My point is that the problem of confusing aesthetics with ethics is not solved by putting them as far away from each other as possible. They are not the same, but non-sameness is not grounds for divorce. Recovering a Christian aesthetic is a crucial mission for the church, and in going about it, I humbly suggest we could learn a thing or two from some great filmmakers…some of whom, I expect, might even show up at the Oscars.