How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
These days, Christian culture often values success, power, and glory above the private, hidden virtues of life in Christ. Christians flock to the leaders, artists, sports stars, and entertainers who can boast numbers, influence, and—above all—an impressive platform. When we have someone important on our “team,” it makes us feel good about ourselves as Christians.
Influence is not bad per se; it’s a tool God can use, just like any other tool. But it’s certainly not all-important. In fact, the entire Christian faith revolves around the cross, a place where nobody expected to see a glorious God show up, and yet a place where his presence was most revealed.
Trotter did not see her decision as necessarily a universal one for all artists and leaders. It was simply what God was calling her to do.Laura Waters Hinson’s documentary film Many Beautiful Things (produced by Hisao Kurosawa, son of the late Japanese director Akira Kurosawa) tells the story of a woman who had to wrestle with the conflict between glory and cross. In 1853, Lilias Trotter was born to an important London family. She lived a life of wealth and privilege. When it became evident that Trotter was a very skilled painter, her mother reached out to the artist and cultural critic, John Ruskin, one of the most famous men of his era, and asked him to mentor Trotter. He was delighted at what he saw in her—beauty, perspective, a unique visual “voice”—and once told her that if she applied herself to her craft, she could become the greatest living painter in England.
Trotter appreciated Ruskin’s mentorship and spent a great deal of time with him. In fact, they corresponded with one another for over twenty years until Ruskin’s death in 1900. Under Ruskin’s influence, she continued to grow and develop as a painter, finding herself part of the high society art world of her time. The future lay open to her. It was a heady time.
There was just one problem. Trotter was also a devout Christian and had a heart for the underprivileged women of London, including prostitutes. She would frequently go and serve them, working to train them in marketable skills. London was going through a spiritual awakening at this time, and Trotter was as well, deepening in her devotion to God. As she walked among the poor, even venturing into dangerous, unsightly situations, she lovingly saw people through the eyes of love. But her work among the poor was taking up more and more of her time, taking focus away from the development of her art. Ruskin complained and bemoaned her split focus; gradually, it became more and more clear that she needed to make a decision about the chief thrust of her life.
Many Beautiful Things feels like an immersion in a masterful painting. Through exquisite animation, Trotter’s paintings leap off the screen, as the narration of Michelle Dockery and Jonathan Rhys-Davies brings Trotter and Ruskin to life. About midway through the film, Trotter’s crisis comes to a head. The chaotic panoply of image and sound, the soulful soundtrack by Sleeping at Last, and the sensitive, believable portrayal of Trotter by actress Ashley Lane Adams—sleepless, not eating, agonizing—underlines for us how severely Trotter struggled with her call. She was sincerely tempted by all the glory, fame, and success Ruskin was offering her, while simultaneously believing God was in fact calling her to serve the poor. She came, finally, to a decision, writing, “I cannot give myself to painting in the way [Ruskin] needs and continue to seek first the kingdom of God.” One of the researchers interviewed in the film points out how shocking Trotter’s decision was: “When she said no to Ruskin, she was turning her back on the possibility of fame and embracing obscurity. It’s a very rare thing to do. To turn down the kind of renown she might have known and the praise of the society that she was really the part of, in order to do something that garnered no praise at that time, no fame, [and] almost the promise that that would not happen . . . is almost perverse in its willingness to renounce what most people value.” And yet, Trotter did not see her decision as necessarily a universal one for all artists and leaders. It was simply what God was calling her to do.
After making her decision, she went on to serve the poor of London with even more dedication. Then, she experienced a call to serve God as a missionary to North Africa. Rejected by mission boards because of her heart condition, she and two friends decided to go to Algeria on their own. They had no idea what they were getting into and did not even speak Arabic. But they moved into the slums and began to work with poor, oppressed women there. Again, Trotter helped women develop marketable skills so that they could become more independent. After political tensions in French-colonial Algeria led to investigation by the French government, Trotter made another unconventional move: she went into the desert and lived among the mystics there, seeking God together with them.
Trotter never gave up her art. She continued to paint, sketch, and write throughout her life. What had shifted was the focus of her life. The focus of her life was now God and service. In the course of her life, she came to encounter many different examples of beauty, hidden in places you would least expect them: a foreign country, the desert, the poor, her death bed. At her death, Trotter looked out her window and exclaimed, “A chariot and six horses!” One of her friends asked, “Are you seeing beautiful things?” “Yes,” she replied. “Many, many beautiful things.”
Theologian and Protestant reformer Martin Luther wrote about the theology of the cross, contrasting it with the theology of glory:
He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.
While all of us who write, paint, sketch, make music, and play sports must come to our own conclusions about how we live out our calls, we, like Trotter, must all wrestle with the powerful cultural pressure to place success and glory as the highest value of our lives. Resisting a theology of glory, we must dare to believe God is in the poor, the servant, the desolate, the forsaken, and the mourner. God chooses children, little brothers, old ladies, and unimportant folks. God is in the silence, not the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. If we come to idolize glory, we might miss out on experiencing a beauty that is peculiar to places of the cross, a beauty like rises from the desert dust like a hardy sand lily.
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