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Sunday, January 24, 2010

If It Needs Interpreting, It Ain't Christian

by Mike Duran

I recently watched a film that reinforced one of my growing convictions about good art -- it evokes multiple interpretations. It's true of any good book or movie, isn't it? The more you think about it or discuss it, the more a new angle, a new subtlety, a new layer emerges.

The film I'm referring to is John Huston's version of the Flannery O'Connor novel, Wise Blood, which was recently re-released by Criterion. The movie captures O'Connor's signature style of "Southern grotesque" with audacious characters and disturbing religious imagery. So stark, so paradoxical, were those images, that I found myself puzzling over them days after I watched the film. What was the author trying to get across?

Apparently, I'm not the only one to wrestle with interpreting Ms. O'Connor's material. In the DVD extras, actor Brad Dourif who played the lead character Hazel Motes, was interviewed about the making of the film. At one point, he cites disagreement with the director over the central meaning of the movie. Dourif insisted that Hazel Motes, his character, genuinely converted to Christ. John Huston disagreed. "Motes went mad," contended Huston.

Interestingly enough, a recurring theme in the remaining extras is how Huston, a strident atheist who fancied spoofing religious nutjobs with the film, came to agree, begrudgingly, with his lead actor. "I believe I've been had," the director is reported to have exclaimed near the end of production. "Jesus wins."

Some Christian artists and writers don't like this kind of ambiguity. "If Jesus wins," they say, "then make it clear! Why make readers or viewers wrestle with interpretation?" These individuals believe that the "meaning" of a piece should be fairly obvious, unobstructed by metaphor, mystery, unconventional structure and unresolved plot elements. In other words, if it needs interpreting, it ain't Christian.

I dunno. In preaching, clarity is essential. But in art, ambiguity and paradox can be pretty powerful. That is, of course, unless we see our art as preaching.

So what do you think? Should Christian fiction need interpreting? Or must its "message" be plain enough so as to avoid ambiguity and misinterpretation?


  1. I love Flannery O'Connor's writing. And she pointed out that you have to draw large pictures for the nearly blind and shout for the nearly deaf. I don't think she was writing for those who insist on the obvious. Then again, maybe she was.

    Questions of interpretationa side, look at all the discusssion she evoked!

  2. Putting this movie on my to-watch list.

  3. Great thoughts, Mike. Yes, some seem compelled to preach--and in most cases I wonder why they don't just write non-fiction.

    I love the abstract nature of art, the way it can bypass the usual barriers to stimulate heart and mind. It's what I loved about Lewis, L'Engle, O'Connor, and others.

  4. if the meaning is inescapable, there is less chance of both christian and non-christian enjoying the work. they operate on different worldviews, and draw distinct conclusions. whereas, much great art of the past is so layered, there is room for the Holy Spirit to reveal truth and beauty to both, while promising more.

    i just discovered keats' theory of negative capability. "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." christians of course understand this, but so do anti-christians like Phillip Pullman. that respect for mystery, one of o'connor's great emphases, is the place writers should seek to begin if they seek to write of Mysteries.

  5. Thanks for your comments! Glynn, the film does capture the startling imagery of O'Connor's vision. I have long pondered how / if she would be received in today's Christian publishing culture.

    Eric, the downside of "abstract" art is multiple interpretations... especially if the artist is seeking to make a point. Perhaps this is why Christian art tends to be less abstract, huh?

    Great point, Noel. I wonder that many Christian authors do not like "being in uncertainties," nor view their mission as perpetuating uncertainties. So we tend to write from the perspective that the Mystery is solved, and our fiction is seen as provided answers rather than provoking questions.

    Hey, I appreciate all your thoughts!

  6. It's so complex. Since books that leave no need for interpretation are very popular in Christian Publishing, then there is obviously a market for it no matter what I think Christian Fiction should be. Someone recently mentioned to me that my work might be better if I would stop playing it safe. Jesus didn't play it safe, so why do we as Christian writers? We have a responsibility not to turn our backs on God for the sake of a sale, but we also have a responsibility to write the truth God shows us even when it's not comfortable. I'm happy for those who are supporting Christian Art in other forms than just the popular forms of Christian Fiction. Thanks be to those who are paving the road for the rest of us! I don't want to play it safe anymore.

  7. Preaching should be clear. Art, on the other hand, is at its best when it creates a question in the mind of the reader/viewer. I haven't seen this movie, but I did see The Apostle with Robert Duvall. At the end, the viewer is left wondering: was Duvall's character a Christian or not? His actions were unquestionably sinful, but he showed a true love for the Word and compassion for the lost. Duvall's character was flawed for a reason. He represents the basic human flaws that draw us to Christ in the first place, and why we still need to come before Him on our knees even after we're saved. I know a lot of Christians were insulted by that movie, but I think it was well portrayed and may have resulting in many coming to Christ.

  8. If it doesn't need interpreting, it ain't art. I'm always happy to see writers and movie-makers make us dig deeper for meaning, even if we don't all come to the same conclusions.

  9. Tina, what I worry about is not that there is a market for straight-forward Christian-oriented fiction with a blatant message, but that that becomes the entirety of how we define Christian fiction.

    Ron, I agree with you about The Apostle. After the movie, we had a spirited discussion about Duvall's character. Was he a sinner or a saint? Or both? The movie left the interpretation up to the viewers. My concern about today's religious market is that we don't tolerate such ambiguity. Preachers are either good or bad, we snort. That's why movies like The Apostle aren't usually found in Christian bookstores.

    Thanks for the comments!

  10. (Loved The Apostle. Great film.)

    "Should" being the operative word in the question, Mike. That makes giving a definitive answer impossible. Some will no doubt insist with a resounding yes or no. The story should be plain, even the worldview, to "avoid ambiguity and misinterpretation". Some folks won't fully understand the layers of meaning in any example of literature, but it serves both the art and artist to not centralize the message but rather to allow the theme(s) to flow in an organic story.

    I think Christian writers who want to tell an evangelical story do run the risk of "preaching" but should not be hindered from that very thing if they can make it innate to the story. I'm of the opinion that secular humanism is preached obsessively in many general market novels with little objection.

  11. Mike, I am in agreement with you on that point. I don't think I really made that clear. I would like to see more writers write outside of that "straight-forward Christian-oriented fiction with a blatant message" market and still sell.

    Personally, I don't need it to be clear that Jesus wins. I like pondering the meaning and application of the story layers.

  12. Personally I think the best writing engages the reader and leaves them wanting to think. The author provides the topic and the hints. And, if needed, the Author brings a sledgehammer.

  13. So many of us isolate ourselves in a fog of media, noise and chaos that thinking sometimes only happens at 2 a.m. after some bad pepperoni.

    I think the fiction and movies that make us slightly uncomfortable and leave us questioning, cause us to hang on to slivers of truth to sort out during those 2 a.m. sessions with the Pepto Bismal and silence.

    And those sessions are often divine appointments vs. the pizza.

  14. Life isn't clean an neat. It's full of paradox and oddments. So are the biblical stories. How could Rahab, a harlot, do such an about-face, hide the two spies, save her family, and end up a hero of the faith?

    Surely God has both a sense of humor and a huge intellect. Anyone that just has to have their Christianity spoon-fed is just that, a babe in their faith. As for me, I like being challenged to think and interpret scripture. There's far too little of that going on these days IMO.


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