Must our Art be Uplifting?
Flannery O’Conner responds to an accusation from a reader that her stories were not meeting the needs of the “tired reader” who comes home and wants to be uplifted:
And his need, of course, is to be lifted up. There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence (“The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” Mystery and Manners, 48-49).
This brings up an important point for the storyteller–to truly write that which expresses redemption or at least offers it, one must understand something of the darkness of the world we live in. I think there is a faulty assumption among evangelicals that “uplifting” art is a necessary adjective for the art which a Christian produces. Taking cues from O’Connor this would seem to inadequately appreciate the horror that was the cross. Christ’s humble self-sacrifice at the hands of lawless men was the darkest hour the world has ever known. Our redemption cost Jesus his life and more importantly his standing with the father–we will never truly appreciate the victory gained for us on the cross unless we truly understand its horror. Thus art that only and always lifts up offers a “mock innocence” as redemption which isn’t costly is no redemption at all and thus fails to adequately understand the value of redemption.
O’Connor illustrates the tension that inevitably follows from such a conviction:
The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to his work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and I feel it is a vision which we in the South must at least try to understand if we want to participate in the continuance of a vital Southern literature. . . . I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the reader” (50).
This is not to say anything against art that is predominately uplifting, but I do think that if we are interested in a “vital” art, we must take O’Connor’s encouragement to know our world and be gravely aware of its darkness. We need to at least be asking the question, “how far may we distort without destroying,” lest we submit a redemption that costs nothing.
As a community we may have too closely associated “uplifitng” with “building up”. It seems to be assumed that anything that exposes our pain and fear, or shows us the darkness in the world around us — a darkness that we and others are constantly living in, but rarely apprehending — cannot be build up the body or the believer, because it doesn’t lift the spirit. But I’m struck by the simple insight that, as a result of only being exposed to uplifiting stories, the reader’s “sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.”
I think I had the first light of understanding this idea after reading Lev Grossman’s Codex. The end was deflating, but the point of the story wasn’t simply my entertainment, it was something more enriching. Uplifting art has power, but it can be diluted if it’s all we know.
I think part of the problem is that people often have a rather one dimensional view of many of these words. Take for example the word ‘love’. To many people that means something sappy, emotional, and positive. In reality though, true love can sometimes be tough, blunt, and seem harsh, particularly when its recipient doesn’t want to receive it. When a parent disciplines a child in love, in can be painful but it’s love that sees the long term. I think Christians ought to think of art in these terms. We should make art that is uplifting or edifying, but not in the way that many define it. We should tell the truth in love with art regardless of whether the audience is prepared for it.
Well said, David. “Uplifting” does not always mean “warm fuzzies”. Some art should accomplish “uplifting” by reminding us who we are, broken people in need of costly redemption.
I’m all for ‘feel-good’ religion, but there should be room for our sorrows, and weeping for sin and a lost world. Though, hopefully these feelings would never hinder joy bursting from a life redeemed by Christ.
bad editing there…
I mean to say that ‘feel-good’ religion is useless unless it is rooted in the cross of Christ.
Yeah I agree–the term “uplifting” is actually often misapplied. I think it can even be “uplifting” using the actual definition of the term to see some tragically destroyed by their own sin–you see this all the time in the Bible (Pharaoh, Sodom, Annias and Saphira etc).
I was greatly encouraged by this article and challenged to consider the media I consume more closely with an eye for truth despite dark terrain.
Comments are now closed for this article.