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Can art save us from fundamentalism?

London, rain, and Rothko—each was foreign to the missionary encampment on the Navajo reservation where Jakob grew up, in the 1980s. Back then, he seized every opportunity to share the gospel with his Native American friends, even as they played endless games of cowboys and Indians in the deserts of Arizona: “The Navajo kids always wanted to be the cowboys, because the cowboys always win, they said.” Into his early twenties, Jakob assumed that he would follow in the footsteps of his Pentecostal parents, attend Bible school, and enter into full-time ministry. He nearly did.  “But then, one day” he tells me,

“I came into a room that was dimly lit. The space had the feel of a small chapel. [. . .] Tall dark paintings stretched from floor to ceiling. I sat with them for hours, soaking in the lines and colors, venturing into the empty spaces, and the spaces beyond them… I’d later learn that Mark Rothko said, ‘those who weep before my paintings are having the same religious experience that I had in painting them.’ That’s what was happening to me, and it was like no religious experience I’d had before. I can say with confidence, looking back 20 years later, there never would have been an undoing of my conservative evangelical worldview without this encounter with the transcendent work of Rothko on that rainy afternoon in London’s Tate Modern. Indeed, if it weren’t for the arts—Rothko, Bob Dylan, Hemingway, Kerouac, to name a few—I am not sure there would have been an unsettling of my religious certainties. Sometimes gradually and sometimes with immediate effect, aesthetic experiences burst the evangelical Christian bubble that was my world.”

Each line in this brief account is fascinating and instructive. But I want to focus on Jakob’s phrase, “aesthetic experiences burst the evangelical Christian bubble.” Whether he knew it or not, Jakob was restating a concept that it is ubiquitous in modern aesthetic theory. Philosophers from Kant and Schiller to Adorno and Zizek have waxed persuasive about art’s unique ability to unsettle and rework our most deeply rooted concepts, categories, and presuppositions. It was exactly this theory—of art’s disruptive capacities—that inspired me to track down hundreds of former evangelicals who, like Jakob, had left the fold through the intervention of the arts.

Tate_modern_london_2001_03 (1)
Tate Modern, London, 2001, by Hans Peter Schaefer CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I began this ethnographic project as a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, where I had undertaken a course of study in religion and the arts. As I immersed myself in modern aesthetic theory I became aware of an almost obsessive fascination with art’s disruptive capacities. If philosophers in previous eras have waxed poetic about the soothing and elevating qualities of the beautiful, the modern aesthetic theorist tends to emphasize art’s capacity to destabilize our certainties and disfigure our selves. With due respect to the philosophers, I wanted to test for myself the limits of these claims through ethnographic study: would the theory hold up to the lived experience of actual human beings? Could art disrupt the beliefs and practices of, for example, people who had been steeped—for a lifetime—in a particular religious community? What about a person who had been raised in the more conservative strains of 20th Century American evangelicalism? Could art disrupt even that?

Formulating the general idea for the study was easy enough, but how would I actually find these former evangelicals? I landed upon two extraordinary field sites.  The first is The Oregon Extension, a semester study-away program in the southern Oregon Cascades, which was founded in 1975 by a small crew of renegade professors from evangelical Trinity College in Illinois. Each fall semester this small school draws between twenty-five and forty students from conservative evangelical Christian colleges and challenges them—through fiction and poetry—to ask difficult questions of their faith. Many Oregon Extension alumni look back on their time in the program (even 20 years later) as the moment in which they disavowed the “fundamentalist side of evangelical Christianity,” as one alumnus puts it. The arts are often at the very center of the stories they tell.

My second field site is the Bob Jones University School of Fine Arts. This dynamic art school, founded in 1947, is housed at the self-described “fundamentalist” Christian university in Greenville, South Carolina. It has the largest faculty of any of the University’s schools, and it is famed for its world-class Shakespeare productions, operas, museums, and galleries. For many Bob Jones students and alumni, the arts go hand in hand with their faith, even if certain aesthetic experiences challenge them to revise aspects of their religious heritage. As one devout alumnus and now faculty member of the School of Fine Arts recalls: “The arts at Bob Jones were a key part of my break with the fundamentalism of my upbringing… Hamlet, Goethe’s Faust, and many more… deepened and enriched my evangelical faith.” But for other Bob Jones alumnae, an anguish of irreconcilability between Bob Jones–style religion and the experience of certain aesthetic masterworks sent fissures through their evangelical identity—sometimes a wrecking ball.

Hundreds of alumni from the Oregon Extension and the Bob Jones School of Fine Arts agreed to participate in my study; almost one hundred of them wrote memoirs for the project and underwent a series of interviews with me. As I got deep into the weeds of their experience, I found some answers to my questions about the extent of art’s unsettling effects on deeply ingrained religious belief. Virtually every participant in the study provided vivid examples of the ways that art unsettled at least two particular aspects of what they call “a fundamentalist mindset”:

1) Art unsettled their felt need for “absolute certainty” in matters of religious belief.

Holly S., for example, contributed a detailed account of the process by which she went from being a 20 year old street evangelist—who preached about the love of God and fires of Hell without a flicker of doubt in her mind—to being a post-Christian artist.  Right after her twenty-first birthday, a professor at the Oregon Extension put a thick book of Russian fiction in her hand. “The characters in The Brothers Karamazov began to feel like family to me,” she recounts, “and the doubts of Ivan Karamazov slowly saturated my soul.”

2) Art unsettled their hardline of division between insiders and outsiders, between “real” (evangelical) Christians and non-Christians.

Barry S., for example, provided a stirring account of how the films of David Lynch, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Ingmar Bergman “made me tremble with recognition that the full range of human needs, wants, fears, and longings were as intimately woven into my being as they were into anyone else’s—Christian or non-Christian. I could no longer deny it. And I didn’t want to.” The stony wall of division between himself and all nonevangelicals “came tumbling down.”

I’ve given you just a few real life examples here, but I could have given you hundreds. The modern aesthetics theorists were clearly on to something. Of course we need to steer clear of claims that modern aesthetic experience has universalizable effect. So much depends on context and reception. And yet the accounts of the men and women in my study lay bare the staggering power of the arts to unsettle and rework deeply ingrained beliefs and practices.

As much as my ethnographic work has convinced me of the great extent of art’s disruptive capacities, they have also taught me something else about art. The very same post-evangelicals who emphasize the unsettling effects of aesthetic experience will often describe the arts as a source of great “comfort.” The arts, they say, lent a comforting and pliable form to the perceived formlessness of belief and identity that accompanied their initial forays out of evangelicalism and into the disquieting realms of questions and doubts. The arts, they suggest, become a different way of knowing and unknowing that generated and intensified the experience of uncertainty, while rendering it habitable by increasing their capacity to dwell in mystery and half-knowledge.

If this is true for these former evangelicals, it may be true for any one of us human beings. The participants in this study have thus taught me to keep my eyes pealed for the many ways that the arts save each of us—each and everyday—from what these Oregon Extension and Bob Jones alumni refer to as a “fundamentalist mindset”—religious or otherwise. In this sense, yes, art can save us from fundamentalism.

Featured image credit: The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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