Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
A. O. Scott
Penguin Press, 2016
288 pp., $28.00
The Critic's Job and Why It Matters
We've produced all these in spades; I've probably written all three varieties myself. But what evangelicals have lacked on a broad scale is a vibrant culture of criticism. We know how to criticize, even critique, but true critical engagement with entertainment and the arts has been restricted to small pockets that take hits on all sides. We don't know what criticism is, or what it's supposed to do. We don't read it, support it, or produce it, and in many cases, we actively disparage it as harmful to our mandate to be creators.
Of course, I'm overstating the case. Books & Culture itself has raised a vibrant standard for criticism that stems from an evangelical perspective. Publications like Image and Christianity Today have published and encouraged the development of critics for decades as part of their mission, and in the past few years, upstarts like Christ and Pop Culture, Mockingbird, and The Curator have worked hard to foster new, young voices.
But it's still difficult, outside these sterling exceptions, to find (for example) robust, informed writing on the visual arts. In his 2008 book God in the Gallery, Daniel Siedell noted this paucity: "[M]ost Christian commentators rarely address modern art on its own terms, within its own framework of critical evaluation," he wrote. "Rather, those commentators produce theology, philosophy, apologetics, or politics that rely on—or even require—a superficial understanding of modern and contemporary art. They do not produce art criticism." Similarly, apart from the outliers it's difficult to find a forum for Christians writing incisively from a theologically robust perspective about the best mainstream contemporary literature—about sentences and paragraphs as well as general plots and themes—and nearly impossible to locate writing on dance or theater informed by historic Christianity. Those that do exist are woefully underfunded, especially compared to their peers that deal in political engagement. For evangelicals, this signals a deep-seated apathy (if not outright antipathy) toward culture, despite the strides we've made.
Though those three common forms of writing about cultural engagement are miles apart from one another, what's lacking in all three is the same: none of them require writers to engage in the actual work of criticism. None of them require writers to both pay close attention to particular works and then articulate their particular experience with those works. In the first, at its best, we get a general framework for engagement; in the second, we might understand ourselves better but gain little to no understanding of how the film, show, painting, or dance works as art (that is, as more than just plot); in the third we lose perspective on the work altogether, fixating on elements without taking in the whole, and suggesting that there is only one correct way to respond.
That last one can be poison. All the Christian film critics I know (myself included) who have written for a Christian audience for any length of time have had their legitimacy, intellect, humanity, and indeed their eternal salvation openly questioned on dozens of occasions—whether for praising a work with "problematic" content, or refusing to praise shoddy work made by Christians largely for Christian audiences. We need to support those works by buying tickets or DVDs, the argument goes, and besides, it's hard to make a movie or write a book, so why can't we just kick back and enjoy it? (Of course, this is just another version of the "intellectualization" accusation that Scott points to.)
It's even more rare to find openly evangelical voices writing criticism in the mainstream—a curious fact usually rationalized under the faulty idea that there's no room for writers with religious commitments in "the mainstream media." In fact, popular culture today is teeming with religious themes, characters, plots, and creators, and there's a yawning vacuum for informed, winsome commentary aimed at a non-sectarian audience who's very interested in what this resurgence means.