“Glee” and Christian Fiction

I stopped watching Glee for the same reason I avoid almost all Christian fiction: as a general rule, Art is buried by Agenda. I am a Christian, and I absolutely support gay rights (an often ham-fistedly presented message on Glee), but I don’t like being emotionally manipulated by art.

In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the character Stephen Dedalus makes a distinction between what he calls “proper art” and “improper art.” Searching for the relevant passages online, I came across this description from Joseph Campbell:

By “proper art” [Joyce] means that which really belongs to art. “Improper art,” by contrast, is art that’s in the service of something that is not art: for instance, art in the service of advertising. Further, referring to the attitude of the observer, Joyce says that proper art is static, and thereby induces esthetic arrest, whereas improper art is kinetic, filled with movement: meaning, it moves you to desire or to fear and loathing.

Art that excites desire for the object as a tangible object he calls pornographic. Art that excites loathing or fear for the object he terms didactic, or instructive. All sociological art is didactic. Most novels since Zola’s time have been the work of didactic pornographers, who are preaching a social doctrine of some kind and fancying it up with pornographic icing. (Reflections on the Art of Living, p. 246)

That last line is an equally good description of “bonnet books” or Glee. I have just one question: Did New Directions win nationals last year?


7 comments on ““Glee” and Christian Fiction

  1. ‘didactic pornographers’…lord, what a phrase. Thanks for these thoughts, John. In my opinion, they could be applied to our current political season as well.

  2. They really could!

  3. This post reminds me of the difference between James Cameron’s Avatar and Studio Ghibli films (Ponyo, etc.) Both have environmental themes, but the latter is more artistically handled while the former definitely falls under the category of “didactic pornography.” Would that the art were more popular.

  4. I’ve struggled with the notion of leaving the Christian fiction genre for mainstream. I don’t want my work to be heavy handed and preachy. It’s a struggle for those of us who want to write truth in fiction without manipulating our readers. Thank you for this post.

    • Susie, I think you’re right. I think it is hard to write truth in fiction without manipulating readers. But I think it can be done (and is being done) by Christian novelists. Several of my favorite novelists – including Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson – are Christians, and I often consider what it is those writers do so well. They are often writing about explicitly religious themes, and the writing is full of truth, but the writing isn’t “pornographic” or “didactic”: it’s luminous. The best description I’ve heard so far is, again, from James Joyce and Thomas Aquinas. In Joyce’s “Stephen Hero” (the book that was the basis for “Portrait of the Artist”) the character Stephen Dedalus describes three elements of beauty: integrity (wholeness), symmetry, and radiance. A thing of beauty Joyce names an “epiphany”:

      “By an epiphany [Dedalus] meant ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”

      In my experience, these epiphanic moments in art can convey truth in subtle, yet powerful ways. They sneak through our defenses. (The brother of the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens is a Christian, and I once heard him say that his brother would never be convinced of the truth of the existence of God through argument or debate; it would have to come – as his own conversion had – through the more subversive power of a great painting or beautiful poem.) A book like Robinson’s “Gilead” is full of epiphanic moments, but the novel as a whole feels like a single epiphany, almost like being inside an explosion in slow motion.

    • A friend just posted this on Facebook tonight, a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder.”

      Joyce tried to secularize “epiphany,” a word that means “revelation” in Greek, but I wonder if the “submerged sunrise of wonder” Chesterton is talking about here is what lies beneath Joyce’s luminous epiphany.

      • Yes! I think we may have a mutual friend.

        I also should note that I found a publisher in the Christian market which is very happy to let me write authentically. However, I think that within the CBA, that is a rarity. I know that plenty of novelists can be found who strike the balance. Sadly, most of them would not thrive at most CBA publishers.

        Thank you for this discussion.

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