The Spectacle Blog

The Art and the Artist Are Different

By on 3.12.13 | 10:24AM

Perhaps the less said the better about the continuing misrepresentations, either willful or dense, by Matthew Walther, with regard to my semi-defense of Roma Downey and her husband. The latest on the subject by Jackson Adams, however, is thoughtful, constructive, and enlightening. He writes:

Questioning motives is the easiest thing to embark upon and the most difficult thing to prove, and Mr. Hillyer is especially correct in urging caution on this point. To criticize motives one must be able to point them out in the producers’ own explanations. 

It is for that reason that I try to avoid attacking motivations in the first place, at least until multiple occasions have provided enough history of bad will that the motives, rather than just the actions, are all too clear. That said, Jackson helpfully provides a video clip of the producers to demonstrate what he means. Having watched the clip, I find myself even more impressed, not less, by their motives. On this, Jackson and I will just respectfully disagree. Jackson makes a debatable point: "To encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization” is to quietly take away its self understood place as the inspired Word of God. To read the Bible merely in order to understand cultural references innoculates it, reflecting a kind of arrogance that is indeed well known on the continent of Europe."

Hmmm. I think that understanding the Bible as literature and as a cultural reference is, or at least can be, an important stepping stone to understanding it as the inspired Word of God. I know all sorts of people who came to faith purely through intellect (C.S. Lewis did so largely through intellect) -- and they could not have done so if they had not been fully introduced to its claims and its roots in the first place. In fact, in a secular culture where most school children just aren't taught anything at all about the Bible, the exposure they might get to it in the classroom could mean the difference between faith and no faith. Furthermore, it remains absolutely true that even if the Bible is, as we believe, the inspired Word of God, it also is indubitably a cultural and literary touchstone and thus absolutely legitimate as a part of school curricula, which indeed are empty if schools make conscious efforts to avoid all mention of the Bible even where other literary or historical works make references that make no sense without the Biblical context.

I do continue to do more than quibble, however, with Jackson's use of the word "hypocrite" (or "hypocritical"). That is a very strong word indeed. I think Jackson is misusing it; perhaps he misunderstands it. To be hypocritical is to be intentionally two-faced or misleading. It is almost axiomatic that one cannot be sincere and be a hypocrite at the same time. If one produces art that cheapens faith, and one knows that one is cheapening faith, but claims to be enhancing faith, then that is hypocrisy. But if one's entire motive is to bring faith to the masses, in a loving way, then a misunderstanding (or different understanding) and misportrayal of faith can lead to an unfortunate lack of artistic competence or even to a product that other people of faith find wholly and even destabilizingly misguided. That is not hypocrisy, then. Bad results, even awful results, do not always result from bad intentions.

("The road to Hell is paved with good intentions," goes the old saying. That saying does not imply that the person on that road is a hypocrite; it means the person is thoroughly, soul-riskingly misguided. There's a huge difference between the two. Indeed, the hypocrite is on a very different road to Hell, a road on which it is far tougher to make a U-turn, than is the person on the "good intentions" road -- because the latter's good intentions will allow him to change his direction if only someone can convince him that the direction actually is harmful.)

I think what Jackson is trying to say is that the effect of the production in question is both bad art and bad theology, born of an utterly mistaken starting point. (If I have misinterpreted him, I apologize). That is a point worth making, and debating. What I just don't see is anything other than a loving, faithful, whole-hearted attempt by the producers to bring faith as they sincerely understand it to a broader audience.

Finally, as background, I have a long, long history of objecting to the very modern tendency (especially abused by Michael Kinsley over the years) of turning criticism of actions into criticisms, based on mere assumptions, about intentions. Until the analysis of intentions reaches well beyond the "assumption" phase, and into the realm of certainty or at least near-certainty, I think one is advised to stick to the product and not the person. For one thing, to do so allows far more room for cordial debate than is allowed by an immediate attack on motive.

Against Jackson's last sentence, I think that while name-calling has its place, its place should not even come into sight until other approaches have been essayed.

All of which is to say that Jackson has embarked on an entirely fruitful discussion about the role of both The Bible and The Bible. It's just that the case can better be made without asserting that bad faith (of the religious kind) is the result of, well, bad faith.

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