In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

I admit that I have a vested interest in A.O. Scott’s book Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. In this column, one of my side gigs, I try to persuade people to read worthy books (and sometimes unworthy ones) by offering up my reflections. In my primary work, I’m a college instructor who facilitates discussions on literature, assigns a lot of essays, and writes literary scholarship. It’s sort of my thing, too, to get people to think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth. And it’s one of my most dearly-held convictions that literary criticism makes not just literature, but also life, better.

We mustn’t offer a knee-jerk dismissal of criticism of so-called Christian media, because sometimes it’s bad art. And bad art, even with the marketing label Christian, does not glorify the ultimate Creator.

I sometimes feel rather alone in that belief—at least when I’m not scrolling through the Facebook feed of my like-minded colleagues and graduate school cohort. I’ve been called a snob for caring if a movie is any good before I spend my money on it. One family member describes my job—the one I spent 6 years in grad school to qualify for—as “picking apart books,” a process she derisively accounts as beneath her more pure and pleasurable practice of reading without thinking. That is, undoubtedly, my snarkier internal response. It reminds me of the trick question from my undergraduate literary theory class, when the professor asked us where we were when we read outside of theory. Then, as now, I contend that there is no such thing. It’s just that a lot of people prefer poorly-applied reader response theory without ever examining their own preferences.

I could call myself a prophet without honor among my friends and family members whose livelihoods do not revolve around textual analysis. That’s a bit too close to martyrdom for my taste, though. It’s just that I’ve heard enough times, from people whose taste I in no way trust, that I would just love [insert cheesy Christian novel, movie, song, etc. here]. I would not. There’s something about labelling art as “Christian” that makes me wince. Michelangelo’s Pietà is not an example of “Christian sculpture.” Just genius sculpture. I always feel like the religious adjective is supposed to make art somehow “safe,” so audiences know its motives and purposes without having to invest and do intellectual work. And aesthetics? What aesthetics!

So if you, like me, feel that art can (and really should) be both beautiful and true, then Scott’s book is an interesting read. There are three main threads running through the book. First, there are interviews interspersed between chapters where Scott interrogates himself. Some of these are gems:

Q: So you’ve written a book in defense of thinking? Where’s the argument? Nobody is really against thinking.

A: Are you serious? Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion.

I see these snippets as efforts to lighten the tone of the overall text and make the voice edgier; overall, I found them a bit brash, with a few exceptions like the quip quoted above. Then there are chapters devoted to Scott practicing criticism, usually of the meta-variety, in which he waxes poetic about works of art that wax poetic about works of art. It’s interesting stuff, and Scott is nothing if not fervent. Finally, there are the sections that defend criticism using its history, which to me felt like diluted literature reviews. To a reader less familiar with the field or profession, I imagine they’d seem less like reading cliff notes and more like a breezy introduction to a centuries-long debate.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were Scott’s attempts to define the role of the critic, a task for which he stands on the shoulders of giants. He says,

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name—the proper name—for the defense of art itself.

Much of art, as Scott explores in his own critical practice within the text, is itself a criticism of other art; scholars typically call this a conversation, where movements and artists alike respond to each other to push the boundaries (or hearken back to traditions lost). Scott’s claim here, and throughout the book, is one that Christians in particular ought to take more seriously with regard to criticism. It matters if something is good. We mustn’t offer a knee-jerk dismissal of criticism of so-called Christian media, because sometimes (maybe a lot of the time), it’s bad art. And bad art, even (maybe especially) with the marketing label Christian does not glorify the ultimate Creator.

Scott indicates that the critic’s role is particularly important when it comes to what we consume for pleasure:

We should not, ideally, have any use for critics at all, except insofar as we should all aspire to become critics. But this does not mean remaining comfortable in our prejudices or mistaking reflexive judgment for the operation of sensibility. We need critics to remind us that discrimination and evaluation, even—or perhaps especially—of our designated amusements, is a kind of work.

I wrote about this issue two years ago with regard to parenting in “The Kiddy Pool: Teaching Good Taste,” and the issue is just as relevant for adult consumption as it is for raising thoughtful children. Yes, it takes more work to apply discernment, yet we degrade our intellects as well as our spirits when we don’t think.

It would be too easy to assume that all merchandise labelled Christian is good, if not in terms of its artistic quality, at least in terms of its spiritual values. I just don’t believe that’s true, and I chafe at the suggestion that we ought to accept the separation of beauty and truth. I’ve encountered too many cringe-worthy, heavy-handed treatises thinly disguised as fiction or popular music or film; the label says Christian, sure, but the product is weak sauce, with a checklist of themes and no depth or ingenuity. As Scott writes, “It’s the job of art to free our minds and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” I’d say that freedom counts for Christ, too.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for writing this really fantastic piece, and for taking the careful work to apply discernment on the subject of applying discernment.

    Or something. The point is I really enjoyed reading this!

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