Friday, May 28, 2004

Protestant vs. Catholic - A Report From The Aesthetic Trenches

I pinched this bit of Left Behind dialogue from a terrific Slate piece by Steven Waldman highlighting the similarities between the evangelical pot-boilers, and the Harry Potter series. The scene: a romantic shoulder-rub.

"You're tense," she said.

"Aren’t you?"

"Relax, love. Messiah is coming."

This little exchange bids me run in so many rhapsodic directions, I tremble at the first step. It's corny, wooden and unbelievable enough to shatter whatever fictive dream Jerry B. Jenkins is able to conjure - provided you're not of the fold. If, however, you have invested some time and spiritual energy among the North American evangelical flock, the dialogue is sure to provoke a spectrum of emotion, because, in fact, it’s all too believable. "Relax. Messiah is coming," pretty much sums up an ethos that compels people to re-elect Bush, purchase multiple Hummers, and erect houses of worship using an architectural aesthetic as spiritually inspired as the neighborhood Costco building.

The political motivation is troubling enough - trash the planet with all due haste so children we've saved from abortion will live to see Messiah return - but evangelical attempts at art criticism really get under my skin. During a recent visit with my parents, I reached for the coffee-table copy of Christianity Today and perused its contents. The cover story dealt with the runaway success of artist Thomas Kinkade ("The Painter of Light"). The magazine respectfully allowed Kinkade to define his aesthetic in his own words, before gently concluding that, while extremely popular, the man's art was perhaps a touch too bright. After seven pages of treating this Titan of Kitsch with kid-gloves, the editors devoted a sidebar to several other artists - self-professed born-again Christians all - attempting a more nuanced aesthetic, including a woman who seemed to be stuck in a bit of a "dark" period. In the span of three paragraphs, the critic acknowledged biblical examples of despair and lament (hey, there's even a book or two devoted to the subject), before putting his foot down and suggesting there was room, perhaps, for her to include just a little light.

Too much, too little ... "Relax. Messiah is coming.”

Well, that’s fine for bumper-stickers, T-shirts, and cheerful apocalyptic pulp, but lousy for content. Waldman treats Left Behind with a generosity it probably doesn’t deserve, but he yields some delicious results. He concludes that the chief difference in perspective between the writers of LB/HP is not Christian/Pagan, but Protestant/Catholic. If that's so, then I have to admit I'm increasingly drawn to Catholicism.

Here's another quote I've been mulling over, drawn from a slightly deeper well:

"We must cling to a God who approves of blasphemy because he hates Jehovah and Nobodaddy and Zeus ... all the other kings of terrors and tyrants of the soul. To a God who appreciates obscenity because he looks not into the secret of our hearts, but into the hearts of our secrets, and knows that our bloodfilled guts and cocking guts are the real battlefield..."

That's from the journals of Northrop Frye. And while the man was unabashedly Protestant, I'd say the artistic possibilities he provokes with this cry are Catholic – positively Catholic.

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