At the dramatic and comedic conclusion of the first Austin Powers movie, Dr. Evil defines the cultural shifts that occurred while the International Man of Mystery was sleeping through a few decades. “Isn’t it ironic that the very things that you stand for—free love, swinging, parties—are all now in the ’90s considered to be evil? … Face it, freedom failed.” Austin offers a snappy comeback, “No man, freedom didn’t fail. Right now, we’ve got freedom and responsibility. It’s a very groovy time.”
This story originally appeared in issue 14 of RELEVANT.
What Austin Powers finds groovy, many Christians find frustrating. When it comes to the movies we watch or the music we listen to, we’d rather not have so much freedom. Wouldn’t it be easier if God drew sharper lines around what was acceptable in his sight? Why did Jesus complicate things by saying that our problems were more internal than external? Paul asks us to assume responsibility for our cultural diet. For some of us, it is easiest to simply turn off or never even buy a TV. But I’ve always been a culture vulture, devouring whatever is being served. Neither choice reflects the groovy combination of freedom and responsibility advocated by Austin Powers and exemplified in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians.
To the uptight Galatians, Paul emphasized freedom and joy, but to the swinging Corinthians, he stressed responsibility and sexual restraint. Dr. Paul offers completely different prescriptions to cure their communal needs. For those crippled by guilt, Paul proposes a party to celebrate forgiveness. For those doing a bit too much partying, Paul suggests a glimpse of adulthood, learning to just say “no.” But what happens if we fail to understand what ails us as Christians? The prescriptive truth of the Bible could actually be the wrong medicine. Christians already trying too hard to be perfect may indulge in a double dose of Corinthians’ list of don’ts. Party people may take the freedom offered to Galatians as a license to chill even further. Without an accurate assessment of our situation, even the truth of the Bible can be blinding. Cultural discernment (and Christian maturity) begins with a merging of descriptive and prescriptive truth.
DESCRIPTIVE VS. PRESCRIPTIVE
The artistic community deals primarily with descriptive truth. Artists attempt to hold up a mirror, to reveal the human condition as is, quirks and all. While music, literature and film can inspire us describing the depths of our depravity. Haunting and enduring art raises all the right questions and challenges audience to search for answers.
Movies are great at capturing moods, feelings, the spirit of the times. The combination of clothes, style and slang makes Austin Powers a perfect time capsule. The jokes are funny, too. But Austin Powers falls slightly short as a guide for life.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does a great job of capturing the pain of breaking up. It reminds us why we throw away pictures of ex-boyfriends and -girl-friends in an effort to purge them from our memory. It also suggests that brain surgery might not be the most satisfying solution. Garden State also reveals truths about love, loss and the fragile human condition. It uses bands like The Shins to capture the angst of its youthful characters. But in no way is director Zach Braff suggesting that the answer to life resides in marching to the deepest cavern and shouting at the top of your lungs. (Although many viewers were undoubtedly tempted!)
Great art describes life as we know it. But art that tries to tell us how to live, how to vote or what to do can come off as annoying propaganda. Fight Club offers a powerful description of how numbing consumer culture can be. The solution it proposes (beating each other to a bloody pulp) may not be the best strategy for escaping the corporate grind. Fight Club helps us get in touch with our feelings, but it doesn’t know what to do with them. Art raises questions. Religion offers answers.
Artists must resist the temptation to preach. I admire the restraint demonstrated by directors like Richard Kelly. He purposely left aspects of Donnie Darko a mystery, allowing viewers to fill in the blanks. The rabid interest around his film arose from his commitment to descriptive rather than prescriptive truth.
The faith community has been the primary repository of prescriptive truth. The Bible offers a prescription for many human ailments. It offers a prescription for how to overcome the two most troubling human conditions: sin and death. Pastors, ministers and missionaries offer valuable, concrete answers to life’s ultimate questions.
WHAT ABOUT THE WORD?
When it comes to cultural discernment, we often rightly bring a Bible along. But how are Christians to engage cultural artifacts like movies, music and TV? Do we hold up the word of God as a filter, blocking out every scene that does not contain a scriptural equivalent? Does a film’s value derive from its adherence to Colossians? Are the most important songs all spiritual allegories, how the love of God is like “a hurricane,” “a heat wave” or “oxygen”? Reading a film with the same glasses we’d bring to one of Paul’s letters is an injustice to both the film and the Bible.
Perhaps the distinction we pay to the various sections of Blockbuster Video could actually enhance our understanding of Scripture. We do not pick up Old School expecting an historical epic. We don’t grab Braveheart looking for laughs. So, why do we approach all books of the Bible with a single highlighter? The Psalms offer all kinds of catchy truths about the glory of God, but the book of Esther doesn’t even mention the Almighty. 1 John offers detailed instructions about how to live and what to do. The Book of Job offers an example of what not to do. Genres matter. The wisdom literature of Solomon describes things. The letters of Paul and Peter prescribe things. The key to cultural discernment is learning to recognize the difference between descriptive and prescriptive truth.
When we consider what movies to rent, what songs to listen to, what television programs to watch, Paul’s challenge to the Philippian church often serves as the starting point for our discernment. “Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
We question whether a particular artistic expression is noble, pure and lovely. What is often left out of that equation is Paul’s starting point in Philippians 4:8—“Whatever is true.” Far too often, the verse is misquoted or truncated to everything but Paul’s admonition to think about “whatever is true.”
God’s truth has been communicated across the centuries in words, in images, in deeds. Yet faithful wordsmiths and Christian image-makers have often found their deeds created controversy. Preachers have questioned artists. Artists have critiqued the Church. Both desperately need each other to understand the full breadth and depth of God’s truth.
We must affirm and embrace the Christian community’s profound artistic heritage. In stained-glass windows, illuminated manuscripts and towering cathedrals, the Church served as the primary patron of the arts. People of faith both commissioned and composed haunting requiems, glorious statues and poetic paintings. Artists and preachers exercise different gifts in a complementary mission. We must see the world as it is before we start trying to fix it.
The Bible contains plenty of descriptive truths. Ecclesiastes describes how the wicked get promoted and the righteous get laid off. Song of Songs celebrates the joys of sex. Job chronicles what friends don’t want to hear during trying times.
Movies, music and TV can offer prescriptive truth. The Beatles sang, “All You Need is Love.” The J.Geils Band sang, “Love Stinks.” At the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, a teen drama called Thumbsucker allows Keanu Reeves to satirize his heavy, philosophical reputation formed in films like The Matrix. As a New Age dentist, Reeves tells a young patient, “The only answer is there is no answer.” After two hours of cinematic searching, this comes as a fairly disappointing “truth.”
The Psalms offer a holistic approach to the truth. Artists may find themselves drawn to the plaintive, descriptive truths of Psalm 22—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” Pastors may concentrate upon the comforting, prescriptive truths of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” A mature faith will affirm both the descriptive cries that Jesus adopted on the cross and the prescriptive promises of Psalm 23. Thank God for psalms of lament and psalms of joy, occasions for tears and occasions for triumph.
WHOLE TRUTHS vs. HALF TRUTHS
We must bridge the perceived gap between the Church and the creative community, challenging and encouraging both to view and tell the whole truth—descriptive and prescriptive. The greatest error in recent faith-fueled art and filmmaking has been our tendency to tell half-truths. Christian artists and audiences have come to expect either a sanitized view of the human predicament or a picture of conversion that shortchanges the high cost of following Christ. Our products may be noble, pure, lovely and inoffensive, but if they are not true, then they have failed Paul’s most basic test.
Given these historical errors and oversights in both our biblical interpretation and our artistic engagement, we must support efforts to study and present a true, uncompromising picture of both the glory of God’s creation and the depths of human folly. Our inspiration and measuring stick will remain the Bible, God’s inspired, infallible and holy Word. We refuse to omit, edit or sanitize this Bible. As a parent of two small children, I understand why we want to skip over embarrassing passages of Scripture. We omit tales of fratricide, gang rape and onanism. We expect our faith-fueled artists to produce music and films suitable for family viewing. But as Mel Gibson so ably demonstrated in The Passion of the Christ, God’s story revealed in Scriptures may also deserve an R-rating. The Bible is full of profanity, sex and violence. We will never celebrate these aspects of the human condition. But as emerging Christian adults, we must study and depict the R-rated aspects of both the Bible and our world. Praise God that the Scriptures show that the sacred emerges even amidst the profane.
We also take seriously Paul’s discussions with the Corinthian church about freedom and responsibility in relation to meat sacrificed to idols. As the early Church navigated the tension of “everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial,” we will continue to wrestle with tensions Austin Powers addressed. While we no longer deal with meat sacrificed to idols, we do argue about art, politics and American Idol. Paul offers a helpful, two-sided approach to seeking the good of others. Our art must never cause anyone to stumble in their burgeoning faith. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul offers a strong warning: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” If Dr. Evil can’t handle freedom, then Austin Powers must act more responsibly around him.
At the same time, Dr. Evil’s immaturity can’t be allowed to squelch Austin Powers’ unique gifts. We cannot allow Christians’ artistic freedom to be driven by the objections of the weak. Paul also warns in 1 Corinthians 10, “For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?” We must affirm and negotiate the widely divergent artistic standards and cultural practices represented within the Christian community. We must lead with sensitivity, engaging in conversation, challenging our brothers and sisters to grow up in every way into the fullness of Christ. We will seek the good of the many, so that they (we? I!) may be saved.
Rather than reducing the Bible or our world to a debate about body parts (or meat sacrificed to idols), we will instead focus upon Paul’s more important question of truth. Is the film realistic? Does the song reflect both the depravity and glory revealed in the Bible? Is the wisdom offered in a work of literature in harmony or conflict with the wisdom literature of the Old Testament? From the Garden of Eden to David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba, from Jesus’ sin-filled genealogy to Peter’s denial of the Christ, we will challenge and encourage people of faith to tell the whole truth revealed in the Bible about foolish human decisions and the consequences of sin. We will both view and depict the world as we see it—fallen and full of death. We will also celebrate the power of Christ to redeem prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners—people like us. Thank God for the prescriptive truth—that even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
How grateful we are that our biblical foundation allows us to grapple with the greatest art, the best music, the most enduring films. We do not need to fear the whims and tides of changing tastes. We can encourage Christians to grow up into maturity, to develop the critical skills necessary to discern what is true, what is noble, what is right. What a prime opportunity to help the emerging generation hone their understanding of art and aesthetics, to identify the good, the bad and the ugly, to hear the voice of God arising in unexpected ways from unlikely sources.