Church, Art and the Last Child of Gallifrey
Before I go on, I just want to clarify. I am not, what you might call, a Dr Who fan. I can’t name all the doctor’s assistants or write Gallifreyan or anything like that. I dabble in Doctor Who. Nothing more. Honest
Anyway, in this particular episode, the plot revolved around a young girl on a particular planet who was about to be sacrificed to ‘the old god’. The planet’s inhabitants seemed quite happy with the whole arrangement due to their reverence for this supposed deity and, as the episode unfolded, the Doctor took it upon himself not just to save the girl but to expose the folly of this whole system of worship. The ‘old god’, it turned out, was not a god of any sort. It was in fact a parasitic alien. Who would have thought!
It dawned on me though that this was not the first time I’d come across such a storyline in Doctor Who. I may be wide of the mark, as I’ve not watched every episode (remember, I dabble), but as far as I can recall whenever worship is encountered on the show, it gets the same sort of treatment. The worshippers are presented at best as naive fools, and at worst as part of some sinister system of control and exploitation.
All of a sudden a crazy thought popped into my mind: what if there is a coherent, atheistic worldview being channelled through the Doctor’s prime time sci-fi adventures?
Having entertained this preposterous idea, it was with some interest that I stumbled across an interview a few weeks later with the man who resurrected Doctor Who in 2005, Russell T Davies.
He wrote this:
Yes, I’m deeply atheist… That’s what I believe, so that’s what you’re going to get. Tough, really. To get rid of those so-called agendas, you’ve got to get rid of me.1
In another interview, he elaborated further:
The only way I can write — whether that’s good or bad — is to put my worldview into everything. I have to challenge that worldview from time to time, but in terms of the atheism of the show, I find that very powerful.2
Funnily enough, I’m not going to build on this introduction by rousing all you good Christians to storm the BBC studios and challenge the spirit of the antichrist that is infiltrating our homes and infecting the minds of our children.
Far from it. I want to put Russell T Davies forward as a something of a model to us. A model to be understood but also a model to be emulated. A model of how Christians should engage with the arts.
I help run an arts collective called Sputnik based in the Catalyst Network of churches, which is part of Newfrontiers. We exist because we think that art is one of the most powerful tools that there is to communicate into a culture and shape the thinking of people. It is my contention that the evangelical church’s suspicion and devaluing of art in our recent history has effectively removed us from one of the most important platforms available to speak into our society.
It’s not that we hate art and creativity as evangelical, charismatic Christians. It’s just that we’ve assumed that artistic skill is only valuable if it spices up our meetings or can be shoehorned directly into fairly utilitarian evangelistic events. In a sense, both of those uses of the arts are valid, yet I’m not convinced that they fully exhaust the depths of what the arts have to offer. Whether we like it or not, artists – visual artists, writers, musicians, etc – have a huge role in shaping our culture. We, as Christians, want our churches to shape culture too. Therefore, it follows that a different approach to the arts may be in order.
We need to take note of Russell T Davies. We need many, many (many, many) more Christian artists who become experts at their craft, not shoehorning in the gospel at every possible moment, but creating such fine pieces of work that they influence hundreds. Thousands. Millions of people. Artists who put their ‘worldview into everything’ and when someone asks them about what makes them tick, they can respond:
That’s what I believe, so that’s what you’re going to get. Tough, really. To get rid of those so-called agendas, you’ve got to get rid of me.
1 Doctor Who Magazine Issue 360, Sept. 14, 2005.
2 The Boston Phoenix, July 24, 2009.