What Christians and Critics Have in Common

VennAt this point in my life, becoming a movie critic feels like the most attractive and most pursuable career goal — and if a career doesn’t pan out, at least it can be a lifelong avocation. This blog will now focus even more closely on movies, because when I look at the other categories in which I’ve written, nothing else excites me as much. (There will definitely still be a short story next week, and I will try to continue writing those periodically.) Now feels like the right time to make some statements about who I am and what I do. The limited experience I’ve had in both the Christian cultural sphere and the sphere of film critics has revealed some interesting similarities between them. Since my hope is to occupy a spot in the middle of that Venn diagram, I find those similarities important.

First of all, there’s plenty of overlap between art and religion, no matter how strongly some partisans on either side may want to separate the two. Both inspire devotion, embrace ritual and seek transcendence. A critic, like a believer, yearns for reinvigorating spiritual experiences, opportunities to forget the outside world for awhile and focus on something beautiful. Ideally, art and religion bring people together instead of driving them apart, overcoming barriers of race, gender, politics, language, space and time. People who might not otherwise find anything to talk about can find a connection in a larger community because of these two grand ideas. Certainly, there are distinctions to made as well. Religion has used art for its purposes just as art has used religion for its purposes. The one thing missing from art (and much religion, for that matter) is Christ. Without him, art is just another idol. With him, it’s an invitation to worship anew the God who is Light, who communicates with us through eternity by means of the good, true and beautiful.

Believers and critics are united, even if they don’t realize it, in trying to stoke a fire in a cold universe. But the world seems to be getting colder, and that’s another cause for sympathy. At least in America, Christians and movie critics alike have seen their cultural influence waning for at least a generation. This has been attributed to shifting societal norms and new technologies, so that these groups are seen to have become “out of touch.” The question “Is film dead?” has been asked almost as many times as “Is God dead?” The most common attack leveled at both these camps is that they’re too judgmental. In my experience, that accusation has at least a grain of truth to it, but as a blanket statement it leaves much to be desired. Christians, if they’re doing their religion right, do not set out to bash people as wretched sinners, but instead are motivated by love to explain to them their need of a savior and the gift of the gospel extended to them. Movie critics, if they’re doing their craft right, do not set out to bash a movie as incoherent garbage, but instead are motivated by love to explain to readers how great a film can be, and how some films miss that mark. The challenge in coming days, as both groups continue carrying the torch for art and religion, is knowing how to adapt to change while clinging to the traditions that are truly essential.

There’s something else to remember about “waning cultural influence,” however. Christians and critics can boast in having produced American celebrities, from Jonathan Edwards to Roger Ebert. Celebrity has always been an American fascination. But when it comes to these two groups, it’s more than a little beside the point. When a critic publishes an article about a masterpiece, the quality of the writing is a means to an end. It points to the work of art, not only encouraging people to see it, but showing them how. When a Christian leads a holy life, the good works of that life are a means to an end. They point to Christ, not only encouraging people to know him, but showing them how. These people don’t (or at least shouldn’t) want to be the center of attention. Here’s a quote attributed to the composer Jean Sibelius, embittered by some critics’ negative opinion of his work: “No statue has ever been put up to a critic.” That statement isn’t strictly true; it doesn’t become any more so if the word “Christian” is substituted. Regardless, it’s not an insult. We — the Christians, critics, and Christian critics — are much more interested in building monuments than in becoming one. In the end, it’s not about us.

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