A few weeks ago I wrote something that was a kind of defence of the the amount of time I spend in the world of movies and novels and popular culture. My basic argument was that artists help us pay attention – to the world around us and to our own lives.
The woman I live with asked a troubling question (as she tends to do) in the comments which I’ve been pondering ever since: “why is it, Jayber, that much of this good art you watch, read, listen to, is so melancholy and even at times disturbing?” I’ve been asked this question more than once in the past, and I have more than one friend who has declared they will “never watch a movie on JM’s recommendation again” after watching something they found tedious, depressing, disturbing or baffling.
I’m quite happy to attribute some of this to differences of personality and taste, and to accept that my own mind is, for whatever reason, often drawn to the strange and the startling and the melancholy. But I also want to make a modest case for why, in general, we all need some of the art we engage with to be sad and even disturbing. (The “some of” is important here – we all need some pure escapist entertainment in our life, which is why God invented New Girl and Community and Firefly).
I guess it comes down to this: if the role of good art is to help us to pay attention to the world, and if the world we live in is in some real sense broken, damaged, not-the-way-it’s-supposed-to-be… Then we need artists to tell the truth about that brokenness. Even if that truth is at times uncomfortable or troubling. Art which tells the truth is an ally of the gospel. When a movie pretends that our troubles are trivial, so that any difficulty which arises can be resolved neatly by the end of an hour-and-a-half narrative, it distorts the truth. That old, melancholy prophet Jeremiah put it this way:
They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
One of my favourite movies is called The Ice Storm. It’s a movie that tells the truth about the impact of “the sexual revolution” of the 60′s and 70′s on families and children, on trust and community. And so it’s one of the saddest movies you’ll ever see. But it is a film which, I contend, does us much more good than a hundred chirpy romantic comedies which pretend that infidelity and casual sexual encounters are a right laugh.
In the same way, I would suggest that any war movie which is not difficult to watch, or which leaves us with a warm glow and a simple moral “message” is not telling the truth about the horror of war. A voice in The Thin Red Line tells the truth: “war doesn’t ennoble men… it poisons the soul.” I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet, but I find myself agreeing with those who have written about it and said that a movie about slavery should not (must not) be easy to watch.
Sometimes a desire to only watch things that are “wholesome” can lead us to prefer comfortable illusions rather than uncomfortable reality. Steve Turner expresses this beautifully (and I think this applies to the art we consume as well as the art we create:
Christians have [0ften] thought that they should only create art with a Pollyanna quality to it: paintings of birds and kittens, movies that extol family life and end happily, songs that are positive and uplifting – in short, works of art that show a world that is almost unfallen where no one experiences conflict and where sin is naughty rather than wicked.
Now here’s my slight pull-back, and where I’m thinking a bit about my own habits. It’s one thing to tell the truth about brokenness. It’s another thing to tell the truth without hope. And I think it’s undeniable that some of our culture’s storytellers look at the world through a lens that is hopeless, leaning towards cynicism or despair, or a kind of nihilistic shrug.
We need help to face the truth. But we must not give in to cynicism or despair. We must be people of hope. And if we spend enough time in the company of those who look at the world through a cynical lens, it starts to wear away at our hearts. So I’ll confess I’ve abandoned both The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. And I’ll take some convincing to embark on a five-season journey into the heart of darkness with Breaking Bad. (This is maybe a bigger issue with a long TV series than a one off movie).
Some of you will make a spirited defence of the shows I have named here (please do!), and wonder how I can stomach the relentless melancholy of Mad Men. (Why do I remain hopeful, against all reason, for Don Draper?) But that’s where I think there’s a need for quite personal discernment here. It’s not for me to tell you what to watch. We need to pay attention to the effect these things have on our own minds and hearts and souls. I think I’ve been careless here at times, and too much influenced by what the critics I trust say is “great art.”
But to swerve back towards my main argument. To say we need hope is not to say we need comfortable stories with easy answers. Genuine hope is a grittier thing than shallow optimism or naivety. Which is why – forgive me! – The Shawshank Redemption is a decent piece of entertainment but not the great movie about hope it is sometimes claimed to be. Hope faces the darkness and “wrestles with despair,” as Dr. Cornel West puts it:
The categories of optimism and pessimism don’t exist for me. I’m a blues man. A Blues man is a prisoner of hope, and hope is a qualitatively different category than optimism. Optimism is a secular construct, a calculation of probability. Black folk in America have never been optimistic about the future – what have we had to be optimistic about? But we are people of hope. Hope wrestles with despair, but it doesn’t generate optimism. It just generates this energy to be courageous, to bear witness, to see what the end is going to be. No guarantee, unfinished, open-ended. I’m a prisoner of hope. I’m going to die full of hope.
I’m interested in your thoughts. Which artists help you face the truth about the world with genuine hope? Which sad movies do you think we need? Which movies and TV shows and novels do you find tipping over into cynicism? How do these works of art impact your soul?