Does Art Matter in a Pandemic?

The only way out of COVID-19 is toward the place where all the beauty comes from.

I’ve seen more than one Christian theologian in the blogosphere sneering at the federal government’s decision to dole out grants to arts organizations, as part of the historic coronavirus stimulus bill. One pastor said the grants were evidence of conspiratorial hysteria, or “covidiocy.” In an otherwise superb piece, Carl Trueman writes: “‘Redeeming the arts’ doesn’t seem quite so urgent when your immediate problem is not that of obtaining tickets to the Met but of potentially dying before the box office reopens after the COVID-19 crisis.” From what I can gather, the point is not about the particular worthiness of the National Endowment for the Arts, but about the self-evidently unimportant nature of art in general, which is obscured in times of wealth and ease but exposed during  crisis.

There’s a point here, to be sure. We take entertainment far too seriously and spend too much money and time on it. And Trueman is right to say that our elite aesthetes trivialize life. All variables being equal, it probably would be better for our collective souls if a few film studios were allowed to go bust.

Yet I’m not sure that a deathly plague is the correct launch point for reflecting on the futility of art. Trueman is absolutely right that the church must take seriously its charge to prepare believers for death and eternity, but is such seriousness opposed to something like “redeeming the arts”? I don’t think so, for a few reasons.

First, as Trueman himself notes, bad art has conditioned many in our culture to feel flippancy toward their existence. Good art, on the other hand, awakens our spiritual senses and makes us feel the weight and givenness of everything. If glib depiction of things like suicide and sex numb our moral imagination, good, true, and beautiful depictions can also animate it.

A couple nights ago I re-watched 1917 and was moved again by its visceral depiction of courage [warning: spoilers in this paragraph]. For me, the most powerful moment in the film is when Schofield happens upon a young woman living underneath a town engulfed in flames. She is caring for someone’s infant—she doesn’t know who. He calms the uneasy child and offers it some of the milk he found on the farm that was the site of his friend’s slow, agonizing death. The scene is unspeakably beautiful, and we wish it could go on–that Schofield could somehow escape from the flames of the Nazis and find solace in this dimly lit room. Yet he pulls himself away:”I have to go,” and the words have to reveal the kind of spirit that builds and defends civilizations.

That is the moral power of art. It is one thing to know that soldiers are brave. It is another thing to somehow imaginatively participate in the moments of such bravery. This is the kind of art that can help us prepare for our own deaths.

God invented art and he intended it to have this kind of power. That is why the Scriptures are full of stories, poetry, music, and parables. Failing to nurture our God-given, creative nature can have devastating consequences when we come to the Bible. As Russell Moore has noted, evangelicalism is worse off when believers emphasize rote Bible memory to the exclusion of allowing ourselves to be shaped by the story of redemption.

Second, I think we should be leery of pitting good things against one another. It is good that General Motors can switch its machines around to make ventillators instead of transmission lines. It should do that! But the current desirability of ventillators over transmission lines is not actually a statement about the worth of cars. After this virus has abated, the future flourishing of many will depend on those machines making cars once again.

Like Imrahil urging the Captains to leave behind a defense for Minas Tirith, we ought to use our time and resources to preserve what we will need after this crisis is over. We can debate how many dollars such a goal is worth in a federal stimulus. But dismissing artistic reflection brings us perilously close to the utilitarian reasoning of many contemporary universities that shutter their philosophy programs at the first sign of financial stress. Such decisions do not result in the end of philosophy, they simply ensure that Silicon Valley technocrats will be the only ones teaching it. Likewise, Christians deciding that the gospel doesn’t speak to art will not make movies and music less distracting, but it will mean that more are distracted by flippancy and materialism instead of by truth and beauty.

Here we must admit that we need discernment between the American value of efficiency and the Christian virtues. If efficiency were a Christian virtue, there would be nothing to mourn and everything to celebrate about being forced to livestream a sermon. The time it takes for believers to wake up on Sunday morning, get dressed, and lasso children (in the home and the Sunday school class) merely for the sake of sitting on hard seats with people they wouldn’t otherwise befriend is what the smart people would call a sunk cost. Yet the Bible tells us that something mysterious happens in that physical gathering—that somehow that disparate group of sinners can be in the presence of the King of the universe, commune with him, and bear each other’s sorrows and joys.

The danger in forgetting art is not that we will forget to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” but that we might forget what “as it is in heaven” even means. Let’s say instead with Lewis that the only way out of COVID-19 is toward the place where all the beauty comes from.

 

It feels wrong to think about anything else (that’s why we must)

This is probably the most captivated the collective American imagination has been since 9/11. COVID-19 dominates the news and reminds us of its existence every day (and will continue doing so). The stakes are as high as life and death. It feels pointless to try to think about anything else. In fact, it feels wrong. How can we peel our soul away from awareness, prayer, acts of kindness, and watchfulness to indulge in things like literature or film? Isn’t that trying to flee from stress into the arms of indifference?

I’m reminded of a passage in The Return of the King. After the captains of the West decide to sacrifice themselves in a sure-to-be-crushed march on Sauron’s black gate, Imrahil, the Steward of Gondor, reminds them that they must leave an army behind to guard what’s left of the kingdom.

To prudence some heed must still be given. For we must prepare against all chances, good as well as evil. Now, it may that we shall triumph, and while there is any hope of this, Gondor must be protected. I would not have us return with victory to a City in ruins and a land ravaged behind us.

Imrahil is the only one of the Captains who considers that they might emerge victorious. The whole point of the march is to invite the full weight of Sauron’s army onto them, distracting attention away from Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom. Gandalf counsels that they have “little hope for ourselves.”

But then it works! Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom and the ring is destroyed. The lone voice that showed concern for defending what is left rather than throwing everything at the imminent threat is proven wise.

Here’s the point. To be supremely urgent is not to be exclusively important. This isn’t a sneaky way to argue against lockdown measures. Yes, the economy matters, and unemployment kills people too, but triage exists for a reason. My point is not political, it’s spiritual. Our temptation now is to abandon any thought or attention toward non-pandemic things, because those things are not supremely urgent. Our temptation is to turn absolutely everything into a parable for getting through coronavirus. But in so doing, we risk leaving the soul unguarded.

Worship of politics, a long-term problem in American culture and especially in evangelicalism, will intensify in the aftermath of COVID-19. This pandemic will fill the minds of many so completely that the things of heaven will grow strangely dim. That’s part of what makes global tragedy so tragic. This virus will kill people, economies, and it will try to kill minds and hearts. We have limited power over those first two. The third, however, is a willing surrender. We can resist it by actively cultivating a love and pursuit of truth and beauty that transcends utility.

As difficult as it seems, we must try to redirect our gaze away from this pandemic. Even as I write those words I hear the inner critic saying, “Come on. Is this what you would say to someone holding a hand in a hospital bed, or someone who can’t even bury their loved one?” No, that’s not what I would say to them right now. But it is what I would say eventually. The generational wreckage, the elevation of political conscientiousness as the highest moral state and activism as the most pious sacrament, is not going to happen because bereaved people grieve their loss. It’s going to happen because people who didn’t lose nearly as much will write and Tweet and preach in such a way to justify the idolatry that existed long before the coronavirus.

The city must be left manned. Why? Because of victory. The possibility of preserving life means preserving the things that give life meaning. While there is any hope, the eternal things must be defended. Today it feels wrong to think about anything other than a pandemic. That’s precisely the reason we must try.

 

Close the Churches

A response to R.R. Reno.

R.R. Reno writes from a Roman Catholic perspective when he bemoans the closure of churches and suspension of Mass during coronavirus, but I’ve seen enough similar sentiment from Protestants to know he’s not alone. HIs argument however is both rife with logical fallacy and lacking in thorough biblical reflection.

First, the either/or fallacy pops up quite a bit in the piece. Consider this line:

Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care.

It feels like that final sentence is missing an ending. It sounds like Reno means to imply this concluding clause: “Instead of the physical health of those entrusted to her care.” I think I’m on solid ground in supposing that hidden finish, because in the next paragraph Reno writes: “In this environment the faithful need spiritual truths from their church leaders, not recapitulations of public health bulletins and exhortations to wash their hands.” The pitting of spiritual nourishment against physical care is a false dilemma that is explicitly rejected by the apostle James, and has been rejected throughout Christian history by the scores of believers who have served as evangelistic doctors, nurses, caretakers, not to mention the Christians that established such global relief organizations as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. To suggest that churches need to ignore the risks of serious illness for believers (the most serious risks being for the elderly and already infirm) so they can “sustain spiritual health” is by extension to claim that individual believers should likewise ignore the risks, and that is a bewildering claim.

I think it’s better, both biblically and ecclesiologically, to say that the gospel is an intact gospel. An intact gospel is one not divided against itself, as if there were “good news” for your soul but bad news or no news at all for your body. Indeed, Scripture relentlessly portrays the Lord as a healer (Psalm 103). The promise of Christ’s resurrection is that he will one day give life to our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). God loves the human body and expects us to share that love. In a season of pandemic, love of the body means taking a virus seriously, at least seriously enough to not present others with a choice between faithfulness to the Lord and protecting communities from a potentially fatal disease.

It’s quite likely that not every church in the US need cancel services right now, but there are many that do need to. This is not kowtowing to fear or the supposed preeminence of the magistrate. For churches in communities that have been visited by coronavirus, canceling physical gatherings is by far the most effective way of protecting both congregants and non-congregants from the illness. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. Perhaps protecting people from sickness at the cost of the worship service sounds like elevating the physical above the spiritual, but it’s not, not anymore than a man rescuing a trapped animal on the Sabbath was elevating the economic over the spiritual.

It would be an inappropriate elevation of the physical if churches were to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and say, “Actually, this whole livestream thing is just so much easier and safer and cost-effective. We’ll be going all-online now!” All those adjectives are true, yet the church exists to be physically gathered together in a way believers cannot neglect (Heb. 10:25). But suspending physical gatherings while the world withstands a brutal but temporary viral epidemic can, and I think must, acknowledge that something truly has been lost, even with a livestream. In this way the church can testify to the already-but-not-yet: in sitting under the preaching of the word online even as we yearn for the day we can come together again without members under threat of pandemic, and yearn even more for the day that death is dead forever and every tear is wiped away.

I understand the discomfort with doing church online. I think there should be some discomfort with it. But the coronavirus crisis need not be a referendum on the goodness of technology. It can instead be a referendum on the absolute goodness of our embodied selves and our embodied churches: of physical people, with faces and moods and hungers and stories and burdens. In a sense both Reno and the e-church enthusiast are making the same mistake. They are failing to properly value the humanity of Christ’s body, one through preference for technology and the other for neglect of care. Sometimes the best way to honor complementary truths is to not have a perfectly clean solution.

To this end, I would commend to you the letter that my former pastor, Greg Gilbert, wrote to the members of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, right before the suspended service last weekend. Here are two paragraphs that will encourage you:

Brothers and sisters, Christians should never be motivated by fear, not when we serve the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. But there’s a crucial difference between fear and prudence, and in this case love for our neighbors compels us to join our nation’s extraordinary efforts to minimize contact between people in order to slow the spread of this virus and “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.  We are not cancelling our services because we ourselves, as Christians, are afraid to get sick or even afraid to die.  God forbid!  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Rather, we are cancelling because we believe it is imperative for us to be a part of our society’s response to this virus that, at best, will be serious for the most vulnerable, and, at worst, could put even more people at risk by creating a severe and sudden spike in demand on our health care system.  So don’t be afraid or fearful, brothers and sisters.  Read God’s Word, remember God’s promises, help those who are needy, and trust in God.  He is sovereign over all, and he loves you dearly.

Brothers and sisters, thank you again for your help and understanding in these matters.  These are not easy decisions, but we think they are the best way for us to love our neighbor in a critical time.  And again, just like we’ve said before, don’t be fearful about this.  Be prudent and wise, but not afraid; there’s a profound difference between the two.  The fact is, this fallen world has always been a dangerous place.  We as Christians know this, we have always known this, the Bible teaches us to expect this, and there is a wonderful fear-smashing confidence in knowing that our God is sovereign over it all.  So let’s live our lives, let’s be wise and careful, and at the same time, let’s rest in the hands of our sovereign Lord, who is working all things together for the good of those who love him.

This is Probably What We Needed

Will a pandemic tie us closer to social digital technology, or expose it as empty?

As we continue to try to wrap our minds around the surreal events of COVID-19, one thought has been recurring for many:

This will destroy the last motivations in our society to actually interact with other human beings.

I understand this fear. It’s reasonable. As the jokes and memes attest, social distancing was happening well before it was mandated. Loneliness has been pandemic a lot longer than coronavirus. It’s logical to imagine that a society voluntarily isolating itself to death would interpret mass quarantine as a validation of the wisdom of living online. I think this fear is probably what kept many churches in the US from closing their doors this past Sunday. People already ask what’s the point of waking up to go to church if I can find a world-class preacher on the Podcast store. If we start asking them to say home, it’s over. Right?

Maybe. But maybe not. There’s another version of this whole story that keeps playing out in my head and I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t shake the feeling that an oppressive pandemic might actually be the one thing that disrupts the unthinking embrace of virtual social behaviors. When the toxic dust settles, I’m wondering if we’ll find that the punishment fit the crime, and that the anxiety of not knowing when we will see the people we love in real life is sadder than getting a new “Like” is fun.

I’ve written previously in this space about Facebook, and how over the past decade Facebook has made a series of design and functional choices that drop even the pretense of trying to connect people to each other. I’ve been without an account for almost a year now, and even I’m surprised how little I’ve missed it. When I’m looking at wife’s personal feed, here’s what I see: influencer post, influencer post, meme, link to an article, influencer post, somebody trying to sell something, etc., ad infinitum. In other words, Facebook has shifted from a tool to facilitate contact among friends, to a platform by which individuals can communicate with the masses, preferably to help turn a profit. The friendship ethos is totally gone.

People know this, which is why just about everyone you know under the age of 30 has either deactivated their account or gone to Instagram. That’s why predictions that places like Facebook or Twitter  will just become more and more omnipresent until they’ve essentially totally  replaced communities have never been compelling to me. A lot of us are addicted, yes, but that doesn’t mean we cannot tell when the grass is greener somewhere else. Twitter has the advantage of monopolizing the journalist class and therefore being the substance of choice for  “informed” people. But people leave Twitter too, and the odds are good that if Jack Dorsey keeps it up, they’ll keep leaving Twitter. Eventually the same will happen to Instagram.

Before COVID-19, most of us held the assumption that when these companies decline, it’ll be because their users find some other platform. But that’s what I wonder about.

If people in the West will be, as is expected, confined for several months to an absolute minimum of social contact, holed up within their homes and cut off from classmates, church members, concerts, and sporting events, then I think it’s more than possible that social media will fail the cultural test that is given to it. In the coming months social media will be asked to fill a void that is fundamental to who human beings are. Count me among the number who believe that it will fail that test because it cannot do otherwise.

It’s not difficult for digital technology to replace human contact. It is impossible. Silicon Valley advances not just tools for harnessing human nature, but an alternative belief system about what human nature is. That belief system is sort of like the prosperity gospel—it works as long as it doesn’t have to work. When the infrastructure of normal life crumbles, when suffering and sea billows roll, the check always bounces. I understand the fear that people will emerge from their quarantine wondering why they ever left their living room in the first place. But I see another question coming: “Why did we ever bury ourselves with our machines in the first place?”

The logic of tech addiction has been so powerful in part because it almost never feels like we’re losing control. We’re so agile, so upwardly mobile as a society that literally limitless options available to us make retreating into our screens feel like a necessary act of self-care. The infinity potentialities of self-expression in offline life make online life feel accessory rather than replacement. What COVID-19 is about to strip away is the illusion of options, the illusion of total control over what our tech does to us. We are faced with several months of having little else aside from our screens. There’s a gut check coming. And a lot of us will decide we don’t want to live that way.

Maybe this is what we needed. I’m not talking about death, obviously. The deaths of thousands from coronavirus don’t serve the “higher” purpose of rehabbing a culture off technological delusion. I’m talking specifically about those who survive, and go on after this crisis is over to live relatively normal lives. For us, maybe this is the only thing that could really trigger change. I’m optimistic that it will. Once upon a time meditating on death was a spiritual discipline that wise believers said would fortify against complacent worldliness. Hardly anyone remembers their death until they have to. That’s human nature. Human nature.

Why Panic Won’t Save Us

A response to Peggy Noonan

“Sometimes paranoia is just good sense.”

So writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Her point is well-made. Everyone should take the COVID-19 virus seriously, listen to experts and make choices that take into account the well-being of others. These are high-stakes times. Churches and schools are shuttering for weeks; hospitals sit on the brink of being overrun. There are moments when wisdom and compassion look like overreaction, and right now is one of those moments.

Still, I wish I could tell Peggy Noonan that panic won’t save us. It never does.

The Bible has much to say about fear, and nearly all of it is either a promise or a warning. On the one hand, God’s people have boatloads of promises from our sovereign king that he is with us and fights for us. Fear, even fear of death, melts in the beams of eternal love and security.  On the other hand, God’s people also have many warnings about misdirecting our fear. Jesus warned us that we ought not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul, and the context implies that misdirected fear can be a sign that our souls are not as safe as we think.

There is a kind of “fear” that gives birth to prudence. Washing your hands many more times than usual because of a viral contagion in your community is prudent, and it comes from an awareness that failing to wash could endanger you or someone else. To some extent that is fear, but it is healthy.  But we should clearly distinguish fear from panic. Noonan writes

“Don’t panic” is what nervous, defensive people say when someone warns of coming trouble. They don’t want to hear it, so their message is “Don’t worry like a coward, be blithely unconcerned like a brave person.”

Noonan is a brilliant columnist, but I think she’s wrong here. For Christians especially, courting panic is not rooted in realism, it is rooted in the opposite. A heart captivated by crippling, all-consuming panic is living in a fantasy world, in which there is no God, no divine power over pathogens or nations, and no promise of forever good to all those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Panic says, “This fearful thing is ultimate, thus it is worthy of my fullest dread.” That’s not realism because it’s not true. Coronavirus is not in charge because God is.

That’s not a false dichotomy, it is a crucial one. Contrary to the scoffers who sneer at those who offer “thoughts and prayers” in moments of cultural unrest, remembering God and his power are part of what it means to respond rightly to real threats. In an essay in her volume The Givenness of Things, Maryilnne Robinson points out that one of the most noticeable characteristics of a secular age is its widespread fearfulness. Commenting on Leviticus 26:37, Robinson writes, “Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety…can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears.”

Of course, coronavirus is not an irrational fear. But the power of panic is in turning normal concerns into abnormal ones. One of the clearest signs we have surrendered our emotional lives to the reign of fear is that we swap putting our real daily burdens on the Lord for trying to mentally stomach all kinds of imaginary trials. In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape counsels his underling to spiritually attack a human by redirecting his attention away from what’s actually happening and toward what could happen.

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s [=God’s] will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say ‘Thy will be done,’ and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided.

It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it.

God’s promises that he will always be with us, that he will strengthen and establish us, and that nothing will ever separate us from his love in Christ are so precious precisely because they are calibrated for the exact suffering we are facing. The voice of panic tells us that unless we fantasize sufficiently about every possible kind of suffering we may face, we will be unprepared, out of control, and ultimately left alone. But faith is honest and clear-eyed. It sees the trial right in front of it, but it also looks above and sees the One who tells it to cast all cares on him, because he cares for you.

While giving in to panic may feel like “realism” in the moment, it actually hinders our ability to serve others well. Several years ago it was revealed that the icebergs that decimated the HMS Titanic were spotted with more than enough time for the ship to turn and avoid them. But the  second officer panicked after seeing the icebergs and turned the ship the wrong way, leading the Titanic directly into harm.

This isn’t just about theological correctness. Wise actions, the kind of wise actions that preserve life, almost never happen in a context of utter panic. Emotional fortitude is realism minus impulsiveness. That’s why we’re supposed to let the fog of anger response pass before speaking (Psalm 4:4). It’s why wisdom is found in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 15:22). Panic tends to turn inwardly on itself, rejecting patience as foolish and outside review as pointless. That the overwhelming portrait of the Christian life in Scripture is one of calm and humble submission to wisdom tells us how much God values a heart freed from panic.

Panic won’t save us. Instead of panic, let there be wisdom. Wisdom can heal the flesh and refresh the bones (Prov. 3:8), and it actually starts with fear—not of a pandemic, but of the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

photo credit: Gage Skidmore