Chris Pratt and taking our place on Schaeffer’s Staircase
Pratt certainly went a bit further than your typical ‘I want to thank God, for without him none of this would be possible’ platitudes. He spoke of the reality of God, the power of grace, the importance of prayer and even managed an oblique reference to the atonement. Impressive!
What was most striking to me though was the way it fitted so neatly into the current conversation in the arts. With our culture increasingly at loggerheads with Christianity, you’d have thought that for a Hollywood A-lister to nail his colours to the mast so didactically would have resulted in, at least, some raised eyebrows, mild discontent, or ridicule. However, the worst criticism that I could find online was that it was ‘surprisingly religious’, and the general opinion of twitter was: ‘just when I thought Chris Pratt couldn’t get any hotter…’
You see, the spiritual tone in the arts right now is completely different from the one we feel in the general aether. Across art forms, Christianity is becoming more and more prominent and is being treated with increasing respect. Let me give you a quick tour…
Let’s start with Chris Pratt’s domain: film. As usual there have been some thought provoking films about faith doing the rounds in recent years, but Michael Scorcese’s Silence stands out as a particularly interesting example. An adaptation of Catholic author Shasaku Endo’s 1960s novel and a passion project in gestation for about 30 years, Silence hit cinemas in the UK in early 2017 and received acclaim and bafflement in equal measure. Generally, the critics loved it, but others failed to connect with it for the simple reason that it treated faith commitments too seriously.
It is also worth noting that one of Hollywood’s top directors at the moment, Scott Derrickson, is an outspoken Christian who openly explains his motivation in terms of spreading the Christian worldview, following in the footsteps of GK Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor.
Perhaps, despite the best efforts of the Christian film industry, God is not dead at the movies after all.
Moving from the silver screen to the sound of music, we see something even more dramatic. Space would not allow a thorough survey of all musical genres, so I’ll stick with the one that is presently at the top of the pile. In January 2018, it was noted that, for the first time, hip-hop had surpassed rock as the most popular musical genre in the US () and if we look at hip hop, something very strange indeed is happening.
The most popular and highly respected rapper on the planet at the moment is Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick’s latest solo album, Damn, is based upon the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and is a reflection on what it means for an individual and a culture to live under the curse of God. In 2017, on a prominent secular hip hop blog, he divulged his artistic goals thus: ‘I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD.’
Close behind Kendrick in the rap hotlist is Chance the Rapper. Chance’s 2016 album, Coloring Book, went full throttle gospel. It features key players from the gospel scene and includes a cover of Chris Tomlin’s ‘How Great is Our God’. It received widespread acclaim and was in most end of the year ‘best of’ lists from secular blogs and journalists
Such is the effect of artists like Chance and Kendrick and the success they’ve found, that other rap artists have started to get in on the action. Most notably Snoop Dogg, who this year curated a whole gospel album, on which he contributes a few verses of his own. He now too claims to be a born again Christian.
Curiouser and curiouser.
We can’t stop there though. Even in the traditionally hostile world of contemporary art, there is a new desire to take Christianity seriously.
At the turn of the century, contemporary art was seen to have pretty much banished all reverential treatment of religious subject matter, and many artists and thinkers in the field seemed very happy with this state of affairs.
However, it seems that the tide has turned. In 2016, in an article for Comment magazine, philosopher of art Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin wrote:
Religion is back, not only in political debates and the public arena, but also in the arts. Mainstream contemporary art now incorporates the kind of religious references and iconography, which since the origins of modern art in the 19th century, had largely been absent.
In 2017, London based fine artist (and Christian) Alastair Gordon published God Art a book all about contemporary art’s fresh willingness to engage with faith and a quick trip to Amazon will help you investigate further.
So what’s going on?
It is certainly true that many of the artists mentioned would be somewhat unorthodox in how they present their respective Christian faiths and it is also the case that it is still very difficult, at least in the field of contemporary art, for artists who are themselves Christians to create work that openly explores issues of faith.
However, there is definitely something funny going on. What it all means, I guess, time will tell, but there is definitely a way of looking at all this that is very encouraging indeed…
Are we moving down Schaeffer’s staircase?
In his book The God who is there, Francis Schaeffer explains how ideas go on to affect culture. To put it simply, imagine a staircase with academic thinkers at the top and the general populace at the bottom. Now, it’s obvious that those weighty ideas formed at the top of the stairs have a considerable impact on those at the bottom of the stairs, but they don’t do it on their own. The thinkers don’t often lower themselves to speak to the plebs (they won’t travel down the stairs) and the masses don’t badger their local libraries to replenish their stocks of Wittgenstein (they won’t travel up the stairs). So how do these ideas take root? Well, for Schaeffer, artists have a vital role. They live in the middle of the stairs, if you like, passing the ideas down from the top to the bottom.
Now, for some years, I’ve found this model very helpful in explaining the power of the arts, but I’ve tended to see it as something of a chastening picture for us as Christians. Our ilk has seemed strangely absent from the middle of the stairs in modern times. However, I wonder if this recent shift in the arts paints a more positive picture. Are we now witnessing the unfolding story of our own worldview finally coming down the stairs?
Let’s finish then by turning from the world of the arts to the world of philosophy, and you’ll see what I mean.
The Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has charted what he calls a ‘renaissance in Christian philosophy’. Whereas western philosophy in the first half of the 20th century was dominated by hard materialism in the form of AJ Ayer’s logical positivism, the latter half saw a growth in natural theology and a rising number of Christians at the top of their fields in the discipline. In 1980, Time Magazine featured an article entitled ‘Modernizing the Case for God’, an extract from which reads:
In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anybody could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers, but in the crisp intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse. (‘Modernizing the Case for God’, Time (7 April 1980), pp. 65-66.)
Twenty years later, the atheist philosopher Quentin Smith summarised how this turnaround continued apace:
God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.
(Quentin Smith, ‘The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism’, Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.)
Smith estimated that, at that time, a quarter to a third of American philosophers were theists. Many of these, Christian theists.
Now this may all seem old news, but we must remember that cultures don’t change overnight. It takes time for ideas to descend the stairs. Our cinemas and art galleries are often at least a couple of decades behind our philosophy and theology departments. And the trickle down to us can take a similar amount of time.
Therefore, Schaeffer wouldn’t have been surprised at all to see the resurgence of Christians at the top of their field in philosophy at the end of the 20th century (which has continued ever since, as far as I am aware) leading to an openness to Christian ideas and convictions expressed through the arts by the end of the second decade of the 21st century. He would probably then have gone on to redirect our attention to the future, when the effects could well be somewhat more earthy and practical.
Christian thought is shaping contemporary art in many of its forms. Let’s pray, in turn, for that art to shape lives more extensively in our communities and among our friends.
According to Schaeffer’s model, it may just be a matter of time.