(Originally published on A Clear Lens)
During the first class of the morning at the small Christian college, our professor stopped the lecture and used his walking stick, curiously similar to a wizard’s staff, to step from behind the podium to the front of the class. He did this when he really wanted us to listen.
He leaned on the staff as if he was Pastor Gandalf and scanned the class before muttering a kernel of weathered wisdom. It was a heartfelt opinion, but it resonated with the force of a command: “Christians ought to be at the forefront of every discipline.”
Are we at the forefront of the Art that’s shaping our culture?
No. We’re lagging, relying on tropes and stereotypes to preach simplistic sermons when people want to experience compelling stories (although The Case for Christ is a recent example of success).
So yes, we must learn how to make better art, but what good is that if we aren’t speaking the same language as the culture around us?
In Apologetics and The Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway insists that the lost meaning of Christian terminology is what prevents many believers from being intelligible to unbelievers. For example, our world doesn’t hear “Jesus,” “faith” or “sin” as defined by Christians. She argues that an effective, and underused, way to reclaim lost meaning is to create art with sound doctrine (her specific focus in the book, however, is apologetical literature).
In a word, Christian artists need to learn apologetics in addition to their craft. If you have the creative drive and you believe Jesus is the Son of God, then learn apologetics. Know what you believe and why. Your art will be better because you’ll be confident enough to tackle tough issues.
Christian artists don’t have to hide in the realm of “self-expression.” If we study apologetics, the more we’ll naturally see how we can demonstrate Christianity in our work.
The Power of the “Dramatic Question”
Art enables us to raise deep worldview questions without coming across as hostile. How? Well, in storytelling, there is a single question called the dramatic question, which involves the protagonist’s (main character) central conflict with the antagonist.
This clash arises from conflicting desires, which arise from conflicting values, which are motivated by their conflicting worldviews (or perhaps variations of the same worldview).
To put it plainly, the main character wants something and the bad guy wants something else. But they both can’t get what they want because they value different things, so a conflict arises.
For example, the dramatic question of The Lord of the Rings is: “Will Frodo destroy the ring?” And the antagonism is that Sauron wants to reclaim it.
If desires drive characters, values drive desires, and worldviews drive values, then destroying the ring drives Frodo, selfless heroism drives his desire to destroy it, and Goodness motivates his selfless heroism.
With Tolkien creating this conflict, we are drawn in. We want to know what happens to Frodo.
When we empathize with characters by vicariously experiencing their journey (not to mention the world they inhabit), we participate in the worldviews involved in the story as well, albeit indirectly.
So whether we agree with it or not, we let the protagonist’s worldview speak as we follow the story because the answer to the dramatic question unearths deeper worldview implications based on which desires were met and which values are maintained.
How do we develop the expertise to naturally develop worldviews into our art? For starters, learn the craft of dialogue, character development, sentence structure, description, scene structure, etc. Study award-winning stories and the conflicts that generate them. Take a poorly-rated movie, TV show, or song and rewrite it. Then use that as an inspiration or primer for your own work (don’t plagiarize, obviously).
All it takes is the desire to learn. Ask experts. Google it. YouTube it. The Internet Age has its benefits!
Embedding worldview into the central conflict is perhaps the most important element in creating art because when it’s done right, deep questions are raised, which demand inward attention on the audience’s part. And that’s what we want to encourage!