Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Gospel Coalition, David Maine and "Magnolia": Recs for pastors

Edd Blott, good man that he is, filmed me while Chicago church-planter Aaron Youngren fired the questions. Aaron asked me what art I would recommend to pastors as a way for them to understand both how art "works" and what might be going on in our contemporary culture. I recommended two easys: David Maine's novels and Paul Thomas Anderson's movie Magnolia. Easys, right.

As with the last time I recommended this movie (around 2002, I believe, and I got in trouble for it then), I might get in trouble for this too. All I'll say for now is that both of these artworks open up very complicated artistic, missional, pastoral and theological questions--complicated and complex.

Be that as it may, here is the video courtesy of The Gospel Coalition. Many thanks to all at TGC for taking risks on artists. It does not go un-noticed. Thanks to Edd and Aaron too, fabulous gentlemen both.

(If the video appears kattywompus, you might have to click on it to go straight to YouTube or you can click on the Gospel Coalition link and watch it there too.)

31 comments:

JS said...

Best. Movie. Ever.

w. david o. taylor said...

It's in my Top Ten All-time.

b-rad said...

Thanks for sharing. I just bought one of the novels you suggested. I am a pastor in Durham (near Duke) and would love to meet up for coffee if you have some time.

w. david o. taylor said...

B-rad (is that your name? or are you secretly a hip hop guy, which would be pretty awesome): glad you bought it. Be happy to meet up at some point, though that might have to wait to the new year. Where do you pastor? I'm on FB if you want to ring my bell there (assuming you're on facebook too).

Anyhoo, thanks for saying hello.

Allen said...

As an artist (with an undergrad degree in visual arts) and as a pastor, I have a difficult time reconciling how you could recommend the movie, Magnolia. There are many more movies that are not as vulgar nor offensive that will transmit the same values you describe in the video. Believe me, I am not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist. I embrace Christian liberty.
I like what John Piper says in this post, which sums up what I want to say more eloquently than me.
http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/why-i-dont-have-a-television-and-rarely-go-to-movies

w. david o. taylor said...

Allen, thanks for expressing your concern. I always appreciate an honest and genuine response. When the responses are gracious, they're even better. So thank you.

Let me say quickly, because I've got two papers to write today, that there is no way that a small blog entry or the length of a comment can answer your question. It's an important question that requires a great deal of careful thought and an expanse of paper. Unfortunately I cannot offer that at the moment.

I appreciate John Piper's observations (through the link you copied there). I'm not sure how helpful it is for him to simply tag together a series of Scriptures and let that make his point. He's a careful exegete, and I've always appreciated his fierce love for Scripture, but I don't think he gets it right on all accounts. I don't follow him on this one.

So for the time being, if you're still interested, I would encourage you to read a few things that might say it better than I could here. I have a five essays that I wrote for Christianity Today on movies. They're linked towards the bottom of the left side of my blog. I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of Robert Johnson's *Reel Spirituality* (Baker Academic) as well as his *Reframing Theology and Film*. Jeffrey Oversteet's *Through a Screen Darkly* is very good. I might even recommend my own edited book, *For the Beauty of the Church*. A lot of the authors there, including Eugene Peterson, Andy Crouch, Jeremy Begbie, deal with a number of artistic questions in very sensitive ways.

You could track down Mike Cosper at Sojourn Community Church. He'd have some good thoughts. Or maybe even Edd Blott and Aaron Youngren, who helped make the video happen. They're thoughtful guys.

The main thing I would say is this: Let's make sure there is always a gracious line of communication open, let's keep asking good, hard questions, let's keep reading and learning, and let's be open to the Spirit however he may lead. If we do that, we'll be in a good place.

Again, thanks for braving the question, Allen. I'm glad to meet another artist-pastor.

jeremy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeremy said...

I am in the process of reading your articles

Could I just ask one question and get a straight forward and simple answer?

Do you believe it is ever within the scope of Christian liberty to look upon the nakedness of others for the sake of entertainment and/or art?

w. david o. taylor said...

Jeremy,

I appreciate your question and I appreciate your persistence in finding one. Perhaps the best way I can help you at the moment (I'm bearing down on finals) is twofold. You're question is an important one that contains several complex parts to it. As such I cannot give you a simple answer, because your question is not a simple question--but it is one worth understanding carefully.

Your question, to my mind, falls into the same category as the following questions:

1. Should Christians go to war?
2. Has the nursing industry made our society more Christian or less Christian?
3. Should I establish an elite prep school in East LA for business/political reasons?
4. Would you kill the guy that threatened your wife's life?
5. Does the Spirit heal people from cancer?
6. Is it possible to speak of "new" things in metaphysically coherent ways?
7. Should we serve wine during Communion?

These questions do not have an easy yes/no answer. Very thoughtful, humble Christians throughout the centuries have given them long, careful and disciplined attention. I can do no less.

Christians on both sides of an answer--and we really can't say that there are "both" sides because there are probably many different kinds of sides--have been able to cite Scriptures that support their position. I find your question to fall into a similar category.

If you're still keen to keep exploring this question--and I hope you are--I can recommend a few sources to start with:

1. Jeffrey Oversteet's book: *Through a Screen Darkly* (chapter 2 in particular)

2. Robert Johnson's *Reel Spirituality* (esp. chapters 1, 2 and 8).

3. *Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians and the Arts* by Brand and Chaplin does a good job of dealing with similar complicated questions.

4. The book Ned Bustard edited, *It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God* (which includes an essay by Tim Keller) offers a range of helpful essays to think about these issues.

5. If you have energy left over, Margaret Miles takes a sharp sociological look at your question in *Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies* (chapters 7 and 8).

6. Like I told Allen, my book might prove helpful from a macro perspective.

7. Some acquaintances run a good blog called "Transpositions" and they recently posted an entry in which they list several "film and faith" related websites that you might be interested in: http://itiablog.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/transpositions-tidbits-theology-and-film-2/.

Ok, that's it for now. I need to get back to the library. All grace to you as you continue your quest.

kelly said...

One of the challenges of discussing movies (or any other form of media) with content that may be inappropriate is that they tend to lead us into the logic of 'Should I let myself experience that questionable thing?' in an exclusive and unbalanced way. If this logic is the only one we have then it will pretty much always lead to watching nothing or watching only the blandest things.

If on the other hand we value the experience of quality art-making and story-telling as an integral part of a good and full life in God's world we would ask ourselves a different question. Instead of 'Should I let myself experience that questionable thing?' we would ask ourselves 'How is the positive experience of good art balanced against this questionable thing?' If the quality of the filmic storytelling is of high enough value and it requires showing some questionable things to tell the story honestly then the balance may fall towards experiencing it. Individual weaknesses of course need to be taken into account, but in the context of competing values, not in the context of avoidance exclusively.

In Piper's article, I mostly agree with him especially in regards to TV. Life is too short to spend significant parts of it on what I find to be largely mediocre work. I also don't think there are very many movies where the quality of the movie is enhanced by violence, nudity, etc. But I worry that his general logic of avoidance is one that doesn't consider the experience of good movies to be of high enough value to begin with.

All that being said, I didn't much care for Magnolia for reasons entirely separate from its offensive elements.

jeremy said...

David, thanks for responding so graciously thoroughly to my question. I will begin to work through the material you have suggested. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

However, I do not believe that my question is as complex as you make it out. The word "ever" is what simplifies it. Apply the same word to most of your example questions and I think you will see how it does make answering such questions much more straight forward.

I recognize that we may not agree on this point and I ask this question not to attempt to beat you over the head with your answer but to make it clear where you are coming from.

As you may have guessed, my current understanding of God and His Word would lead me to answer the question in the negative. I have no desire to fight over this issue but I do seek to hear thoughtful Christian arguments in the affirmative.

To my mind, language and violence are much, much less clear issues in regard to what actually violates the Scriptures. That is why I am attempting to strictly deal with the issue of nudity which I think is much clearer.

One further caveat: I understand the Romans 14 principle that If I doubt that it is sinful for me to view regardless of if it is not strictly forbidden. I also understand that if the Scriptures are clear on the point that I would be wrong in trying to force my conscience issues on others. That is why my sole desire is to try and discuss whether or not the Scriptures speak clearly to this issue; whether or not it is simply a conscience issue.

As I read the Bible I see a unified picture about Gods view of our nakedness and that is that in our current sinful state that it is inherently shameful, and that apart from the marriage bed (“cloitos” in Heb 13:4) we should seek to cover our Brothers and sisters nakedness. And this aspect of nakedness has nothing to do with protecting ourselves and others form lust. Some examples of this include: God made clothes for Adam and Eve. Ham acts shamefully in contrast to his brothers honoring and covering of Noah. The priests must wear long pants so as not to “uncover their nakedness” when they ascend the steps. Paul even speaks of our “unpresentable parts” on which we bestow the greater modesty.

It is true that there are cases where love demands that we endure this shame such as a doctor attempting to preserve life, The Samaritan helping the beaten and robbed man, or soldiers freeing men from the concentration camps. I am sure that many other examples could be given. But I myself cannot see how love would demand this for the sake of art or entertainment.

To your mind, what are some valid motives in art that justify the revealing of the nakedness of another? When it is permissible to uncover what should otherwise remain covered?

I apologize for the length of this post and understand that you are busy, I do not expect a reply soon. :)

Thanks for your thoughts on this.

w. david o. taylor said...

Jeremy, just want you to know that I've seen your questions here. I want to say a) thanks for asking graciously and b) if you'll give me to the new year, after I've passed the end of finals and we have completed our cross-country trek to visit family for Christmas, I'll try to get back to you with some form of a clear-headed, careful answer.

Thanks for being willing to carry on a dialogue.

A happy Christmas to you in the meanwhile.

jeremy said...

Sure thing David.

I will take the time to start to read som eof the works tou recomended. That for your graciousness in this matter as well.

God bless and have a happy Christmas. I look forward to hearing from you in 2011! :)

Allen said...

David,
Thanks for your thoughtful answer and your kindness. I appreciate very much how you have been writing responses ... I am learning and hope to be able to extend the same courtesy as you with more consistently in my life.
I have read Jeremy's post. He is asking questions that I have, and is asking in a manner much better than I. So, I will sit at the feet of both of you (and Kelly too) and enjoy the conversation (unless there is an unanswered question I need to pose).
Blessings to you during your finals and during your Christmas holiday.

Mark Chambers said...

I'd like to chime in here very briefly. There is one thing I think that Jeremy's question misses and that is the Incarnation. Talk about scandal. That is the scandal of scandals that God had to condescend to us to meet us in our current state in order to draw us to himself. He entered into our suffering, nor our sinfulness mind you, but our calamity.

This is what I think truly artistic renderings of nudity do for us, they allow us to enter into another's predicament or even their beauty. How could I have understood the shame the Jews felt living through the holocaust if I didn't see them as they were when the Nazi's uncovered their nakedness in Schindler's List. Or how can I grasp the depths to which Marion Silver fell in trying to satisfy her addictions in Requiem for a Dream. I simply could not do it. I did not live through the holocaust and I have not fallen into rampant drug addiction. Sometimes we need to see those things to arrest our attention, just as Isaiah did.


But viewing nudity can also point us to the beautiful, particularly when it rings out in our own hearts that our own nudity, even within the marriage bed, is fraught with brokenness and that there is an ideal of true intimacy that we will never achieve this side of eternity.

Also it should be noted that I am not advocating the use of porn as I have seen and counseled people whose lives have been torn apart by that most abusive media. But we must recognize that prudent and mature discernment is needed on the part of the viewer. We should not place ourselves in situations where we may "fall" but we also should not bind another's conscience when the scriptures are not as clear in some of these areas.

jeremy said...

Mark,

In my opinion a movie like Schindler's list is the closest candidate for a valid use of nudity that I know of.

But even there I must ask it the direct shots of nudity were necessary, or if long shots and shadows or other types of shots could have communicated the same effect.

It is too easy to turn this into a false dichotomy. It is not as though our choices are only "Schindler's List as is" and "No Schindler's list" the movie could have been shot or edited slightly differently and we have no way of truly knowing how much such changes would have to the overall power of effect of the finished product.

Am I mistaken, or isn't Requiem for a Dream a work of fiction? Marion Silver is not a person; you cannot incarnationally enter or understand her suffering because she did not suffer.

But all this discussion seems to be getting hte cart before the horse. The very question I am asking is "has not the BIble made the issue of nakedness clear?"

We must first ask what lawful means we may make use of in our pursuit of art and beauty. Once it is established that a medium or method is unlawfull no amount argument about predicted experiencial incarnational benefit should be able to overcome the Scritpure's judgment on the matter.
Do you not agree?

D.C. said...

As one of only a handful of movies that I own on DVD, I am deeply moved by the picture of grace that Magnolia presents. Scour that film of its gritty depictions of sin and depravity (although I believe non-gratuitous--the nudity and lasciviousness depicted in Magnolia are not glorified, but always retain an undercurrent of emptiness), and you limit the full-swinging, powerful arc of the film's cleansing denouement.

I'm really a bit surprised that images of brief nude sex scenes, profane, misogynistic tirades, profound greed, explicit drug use, brooding anger, and death (par for the course if you read the newspaper - and accurate depictions of our world), somehow trump the really remarkable image of judgment and grace in the form of a deluge of frogs raining from the sky.

D.C. said...

Everyone did keep watching until the part where big slimy animals poured from the sky right? I'm sure it was just special effects, but it sure did closely resemble what I was imagining as a supernatural wake-up call in the form of a torrent of croaking, web-footed, cold-blooded amphibians. But that's probably just me... We just don't get precipitation like that where I live. It's a shame too, because we do have all that evil stuff.

ceciliabrie said...

I'm daring to chime in. With some fear and trepidation (and noticing that i'm the only woman, i think).

Regarding Jeremy's question on nudity, Mark breezes over the most compelling argument for me: God had Isaiah walk around naked for THREE YEARS "as a sign and a portent against Egypt" (Is20). Three freaking years! Huh?

Anyway, people saw Isaiah naked. That was the goal. He probably felt shame somewhere in those 3 years, but in this case, obedience required public nakedness.

I guess it's the "for the sake of entertainment or art" part that is the question? (and there's a vortex--what denotes entertainment or art? what if art is prophecy? what if prophecy is performance art?)

However, I do think that an important part of the conversation is: even if we do agree that nakedness can be merited for a work of art, what is the loving way to handle caring for/ honoring/ protecting the one (the actor or model) who submits to the nakedness for the sake of the art?

Mark Chambers said...

Thanks ceciliabrie for your comment. I am sorry that I was not clear in my comments. That is the difficulty with the medium and my own limitations.

I think that Isaiah event is significant as well as the crucifixion. On both situations God allowed these men to be naked and put on public display. I think God was after something else in those events rather than being concerned that there was nudity involved.

So to Jeremy's question as to whether the Bible has sett;ed the nakedness question?: I would say yes and no. There are times when it is clear that nudity was a problem (perhaps pointing to something else, such as lust in the heart rather than the act itself) and there are times when God permits public and blatant nudity.

Jeremy, i am sorry that I miscommunicated about Requiem for a Dream. I did not mean to imply that the character in question was a real person. I only meant to point out that artistic endeavors such as this allow us to enter into other people's suffering and the depravity and brokenness of this world in a way that we could not before.

As C. S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory: "The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing."

David Howard said...

Great to see your video - I found what you said interesting and vital. It reminds me of the discussions, I had at art college back in the early eighties with a bunch other artist who were mostly Christians - at that time we were all reading Schaeffer, Rookmaaker, Lewis, Ellul and the like. We weren't generally understood by the general congregation or leadership back then, and generally things haven't changed too much. Great stuff - keep it up.

w. david o. taylor said...

Dayton: I like the way you think. If St. Paul had had a chance to meet you, I think he might have re-written 1st Cor. 13 to say, "Love protects all things, trusts all things, hopes all things, endures all things, humours all things." Yes, he would have spelled it the British way, because that's how the movies depict him: as a Brit.

Brie: I'm so glad you chimed in. You've said it very nicely.

Mark: appreciate your clarifications.

David: so sorry to hear that things haven't changed much. Hang in there. We're not giving up on folks like yourself, and those of us who are younger offer you thanks for your faithfulness early on. We wouldn't be here without you.

jeremy said...

Cecilabrie,

Thanks for your comments. Isn’t the whole point of Isaiah’s nudity to communicate shame? Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not contending that nudity is in and of itself sinful. I am contending that it is inherently shameful and that as Christians we should avoid shame and cover it where we can. Does not Paul write about things which are shameful to even speak about (Eph 5:12). We instruct to take no part in what is shameful.

The record of Isaiah’s nudity is descriptive and not proscriptive. God told him to do it, but that does not mean that we have license to follow suite any more than we should all go and attempt to sacrifice our sons like Abraham, of that we should go marry prostitutes like Hosea.

God is God and He can tell us to do as He please, but unless these actors and directors have special direct revelation from God it these examples become mute when put up against the didactic teachings of Paul and Jesus.

I don't have much more time right now, but I will after the weekend.

This is a good discussion and I greatly appreciate everyones attempt to communicate clearly and lovingly!

Joshua Banner said...

This is truly a David Taylor kind of forum discussion! Love it.
My (unsolicited) 2 cents:
* I'd warn against any black and white on the topic of nudity. The Bible gives us wisdom but it will lead us each to various convictions. Insert here Paul's dictum used in 1 Corinthians, "all things are lawful but not all things are profitable." This is a scary thing for Christian brothers and sisters to accept, that what I am called to you may not be called to.
*I'd also caution against an overuse of the Incarnation to defend this issue or the arts in general willy nilly. I'm not saying the Incarnation doesn't have bearing here. Yet we have to be careful in how quick we ascribe something true about God (becoming human) to what we believe to be true about humanity. We have to maintain a distinction between us and God. See J. Begbie edited collection of essays, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation and the Arts.
*We also need to be careful in our viewing/reading/art imbibing habits. While some of us might find merit in a movie like Magnolia, I don't think it should be part of our regular 'diet.' Yes, I believe God can speak through such things, but he can speak much more plainly through the Scriptures.
*While Magnolia is a favorite of mine, I don't recommend it to people unless I know them well. In the video David is recommending the film for pastors and lay leaders who are wanting to broaden their understanding of culture and art. For a film like this to be 'profitable,' the viewer needs the maturity and training to discern the film carefully. Such a film requires not just the discernment of one person or pastor, but a good dialogue like the one here on this blog between all you good people.
*I'd also suggest that the issue of the body is much more of a poignant issue in dance than in film. Those of us working to discern such things need a theology of our bodies. Film is too close and loaded for most of us. A theology 'through the art' of dance would freshen and better frame and therefore inform questions about the body as depicted in film.
*Personally, I am more concerned about our lack of discernment in the area of violence in film. For example, why don't more Christians show concern about Peter Jackson's embellishments of war in his adaptations of the Tolkien books? My review of Showtime's Dexter is here: http://www.valpo.edu/cresset/2010/Lent/Banner_L10.html
*I watch most films with my wife. She is pretty good at helping me in the moment discern what parts of the body I shouldn't see...with her hand over my eyes!

jeremy said...

Joshua, I agree with a lot of what you are saying (especially the overuse of “incarnational” to justify almost everything), but it seems to me that you (and many others on this blog) have passed over, or already concluded, on this issue of nudity. But this is the very discussion I am trying to have. I do not yet concede the point that the Bible treats it as a matter of conscience. I am open to persuasion on this issue but until it is established most of what you and others here have to say is really not germane.

To everyone else: I said this earlier in this discussion, but will say it again: If this is not a matter of conscience but rather a clear Biblical principle then it matters not if movies with nudity have had a positive impact in your life. I trust you see this point. If it is not a lawful use of liberty then we must not become pragmatists who justify all methods simply because they can be shown to have positive results.
I am not trying to claim that I have conclusively or irrefutably made my case, but I have put forward some Biblical argument that I find very compelling and as of yet there has been very little interaction with them by anyone here. If I am misusing the Scripture or drawing wrong conclusions form it I would like to be shown how and where.

As a Pastor, if I am wrong in my convictions and teach others them I become guilty of going beyond what is written, and unduly burdening the consciences of other. I do not want to be guilty of such sin. So please show me where my reasoning and use of Scripture is wrong.

Joshua Banner said...

Jeremy,

I'll be the first to admit I could be sloppy on the 'biblical principle' here. I could go to various passages but I'd rather learn from your manner of addressing this. Do you keep a blog or have any way to point us to your position?

w. david o. taylor said...

Jeremy, would you mind giving me your email address? As I think these different questions over, it might help me to ask you directly rather than having us both troll through long a comments section. If you feel comfortable sharing your email address with me, I might be interested to hear more detailed thoughts on the things we've been writing about here.

Everybody else: Yay for irenic debate!

Allen said...

David,
Since I was interested in Jeremy's line of questioning, as I share the same concerns, I ask that you somehow post the conclusions so I can learn from you both. I think this is an important matter. I desire holiness and to remain true to the Scripture and I also desire to keep my theology relevant so as to reach the culture. This dialog is helping with this issue.
I have to admit that I had to look up the word "irenic." GOOD word! I also appreciate the tone I have seen on this blog.
Blessings

w. david o. taylor said...

Allen, if I don't post something on my blog, I'm going to write up an article. I've been hovering around this issue for ten years. I wrote up notes in 2000, then 2003, then again in 2007, and now I'm at it again in 2010. I simply need to pull together all my material and attempt to say something coherent. Will keep you posted.

By the way, where did you study art and what media did you work with primarily?

Allen said...

David, I look forward to your future posting. Thanks for considering the idea. FYI, I studied at University of Southern Maine, not the most prestigious of art schools. However, the coastal Maine area is rampant with great art. My primary love is mixed-media on paper (combination of gauche, watercolor, graphite, and acrylics). I love the interaction of a good rag-based paper with the materials, some absorb, others staying onto the surface. With six children and full-time ministry responsibilities, my tinkering in the crafts has waned. Thanks for asking.

I think it is worthwhile to mention that in many of my classes, we used nude models. Honestly, I found I had lust on occasion (depending on the model, not my state of holiness). I easily could have learned to draw whether the model was with or without clothing.

Any of the Godly virtues we desire to communicate artistically (faith, grace, forgiveness, etc.) can be done without the revealing of the flesh or graphic depictions. In other words, I know what goes on between the sheets, the camera doesn't have to show me. At this stage, I am leaning towards Jeremy's position, but like him, am looking for Biblical reasons why I may be in error with this.

jeremy said...

David, sorry I did not get back to you sooner. I only go t back to my computer today. My E-mail is Kidder.jeremy@gmail.com

Josh, I do not have a blog. Most or my arguments are spread out on this blog and on another similar one linked form the Gospel Coalition. I will take the next week or so to try to put together a cogent and concise treatment of my position.

Praise the Lord for the bond of peace indeed! I thank you men for taking the time to reason and think with me through this all!