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A Tale of Two Conferences

A Tale of Two Conferences

This spring, there occurred two conferences, on two Christian college campuses, on the general theme of “Christianity and the Arts.” As a lover of art, a lover of Christianity and a critic of both, I made a point to attend these two events: The Calvin College Festival of Faith and Music (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and the Biola Media Conference (La Mirada, Calif.). All along I had this idea that it might be interesting, in lieu of this topic having been nearly exhausted on over the years, to take a fresh look at it by contrasting two very different (conveniently for me) methodologies of Christians engaging with the arts. Granted, the juxtaposition of these conferences isn’t perfect, since one conference is music-focused and the other film/visual media focused; however, the underlying discussions and ideas set forth in each beg to be viewed in contrast.

Thus, I will give you a taste of both of these events—who spoke, what was said, what I learned, etc—and withhold my opinions/favor in hopes of leaving it open for discussion.

The Festival of Faith and Music (Calvin College, March 30-31, 2007)

Overall “Message”: Christians should love art, especially if it is good.

Marquee Attractions: Speakers like Lauren Winner, David Dark; concerts by Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, Emmylou Harris.

Comments: To understand the perspective of this conference toward the arts, you must first understand Calvin College. Nestled in the smallish, Christian-book-publishing-friendly town of Grand Rapids, Mich. (home of Rob Bell, “the evangelical Steve Jobs”), Calvin can perhaps best be described as the Christian hipster paradise. Consider the lineup of artists on the 2006-07 college concert calendar: Danielson, David Bazan, Jars of Clay, Los Lonely Boys, Bill Mallonee, Andrew Bird, John Vanderslice, Patty Griffin and Jose Gonzales. Not to mention on-campus screenings of movies such as United 93, A Prairie Home Companion, The Prestige, Children of Men and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 version). This is a place where there are “vintage” fashion shows, Mario Bros video game nights and Sigur Ros listening parties (they performed here last year). It’s a school where it’s easier to spot a student smoking or protesting President Bush than it is to catch one reading a John Eldridge book. If Wheaton is the “Harvard” of Christian colleges, Calvin is probably the Berkeley. This is not to say Calvin is “liberal”… just open minded, theologically reformed/Calvinist (hence the name) and, subsequently, very arts friendly—hence, the Festival of Faith and Music.

Though a lot can be said about the festival’s curious amalgam of musical artists, which ranged from the heavenly (Sufjan Stevens) to the gloriously worldly (Neko Case), I’d like to instead focus on the keynote address given by author Lauren Winner (author of books including Girl Meets God, Real Sex) in the opening session. Essentially, Winner presented an argument for superfluous art—art that exists for itself, for beauty. “God cares about senseless beauty,” Winner said, citing the Exodus passages of building the opulent-for-its-own-sake tabernacle. Christians should create art for art’s sake and not in the service of utility, because while our culture promotes the logic of scarcity, we know that “God is a God of abundance.” Winner also spoke of the importance of getting rid of litmus tests about “the message” of our art (does it have any value for our lives?), as well as the notion that art must be pretty. Citing “The Thomas Kinkade problem,” Winner proclaimed that “art that doesn’t depict sin is ultimately false,” a bold statement to say the least. Winner’s message that, in art, “useless is high praise,” set the tone for the entire conference. It might be impossible to explain to someone like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson how Sufjan Stevens’ or (especially) Neko Case’ music has any “kingdom value,” but that is just the point. Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Music was a celebration of art for its own sake, creation for the sake of creativity—which is, according to Winner, “at the heart of what we as Christians are created to do.”

The Biola Media Conference (Biola University, April 21, 2007)

Overall “Message”: Christians should make films, hopefully good ones.

Marquee Attractions: Speakers including Erwin McManus, Ralph Winter, Craig Detweiler, Steve McEveety; preview screening of the film, Bella.

Comments: The theme of the 12th annual Biola Media Conference, “The Goldrush: Mining for Opportunity in the New Hollywood,” reveals a lot about the general angle this gathering took with respect to Christians and art. Tapping into the standby iconography of California/Gold Rush/manifest destiny, this theme emphasizes how we as Christians should think about art/media in terms of opportunity. Far from the “useless” beauty of Lauren Winner’s address at Calvin, the speakers at Biola largely emphasized how art (film and new media, in this case) might be useful in a Christian context. In the “new” Hollywood (post-Passion, post-Narnia, post-FoxFaith), how might Christian filmmakers capitalize and make a difference in culture?

Numerous panels and discussions addressed these questions, with occasional very spirited debates arising, such as a panel on FoxFaith in which a very cantankerous Dean Batali (executive producer, That 70s Show) complained that FoxFaith’s movies are preaching to the choir, and “the choir isn’t even showing up!” Batali argued for an escape from the Christian movie ghetto (which he compared to the porn industry), and for a more infiltrative perspective: “We need to get a Christian on the staff of every show on TV.”

This “tactical” language was evident in several of the day’s other seminars, such as a presentation I sat in on by George Temple, head of (a Christian YouTube type site in which users upload videos which pastors pay to download and use as sermon illustrations). Visual media is a “powerful tool” for Christians today, noted Temple. “Screens have replaced the hymnals in most churches … that gives us a ready and captive audience.”

There were notable exceptions to this type of tactical discourse, however. Christianity Today film critic Jeffrey Overstreet presented a seminar in which he made statements like, “If you capture something good, something true, something beautiful, you are capturing something of God.” The film screening of Bella (to be released in August) was surprisingly earnest, unconditional and lovely. And Erwin McManus sounded almost Winner-like in his pronouncement that “beauty doesn’t shine as beauty unless there is the backdrop of tragedy.” But these instances of borderline artistic superfluity seemed to be the exception, not the rule. The Biola Media Conference was chiefly a setting for panning for “gold” (the next Braveheart perhaps?), understanding new media opportunities and networking (hundreds of Christian media professionals + Los Angeles = networking bonanza). Lots of good, useful stuff (keyword: useful).

Conclusion: Is there a right way?

I hope it doesn’t appear that I’m pro or con either one of these approaches—the “superfluous art” (Calvin) or “useful art” (Biola) perspectives. And I must admit, such categories are rather reductive, to be sure. But I think it is important to look at two ends of any spectrum (not that these two represent the definitive opposing extremes of the Christians-art continuum), so that we might better understand the spectrum itself.

What do you think? With respect to the question of how best to approach the arts as a Christian—and indeed, with respect to a far wider range of theological issues as well—is it better to understand/appreciate/enjoy something for what it is, or for what it can do?

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