A Vision of the Good

May 12th, 2012 § 0 comments

One of the problems with sections of our Christian subculture is that we’ve forgotten how to feel. There are many things that have contributed to this failure, but one key factor is our set of collective judgments concerning value. The more we value something, the more strongly we feel about it, and the more dramatically we act on it. People don’t get shot because they disagree over the best way to make pumpkin pie. Such a disagreement is not significant to warrant such strong action and the emotion necessary to drive such a decision.

I’m not going to present evidence that many Christians do a bad job of feeling (emotionally). If someone disagrees, that’s fine. Perhaps I’m being far too cynical. But I do have one suggestion to help us learn to feel more strongly and properly.

We need to learn how to view art properly, to interpret it and enjoy it. When we do that, and when we see what it shows us, good art has the capability to move us—to grab us by the shoulders, pick us up, and put us down where we were not—to make us feel what we did not, to make us want what we did not. And this is often something we need.

In particular, art that involves story is able to do this. (I have to admit that I don’t have any knowledge of painting, so I’m going to ignore it and related categories, and music presents its own set of challenges, so it will be ignored, too.) Drama, novels, poems, and films all have a capacity to stir us.

In what way is a film or a novel able to help us feel properly? By presenting us with a vision of the good. Films are not unbiased observers of emotionless events. There is always a relationship that is presented as worth pursuing or a battle that is worth fighting. Someone needs rescued and someone needs punished. These are not detached and uninteresting events, but a presentation of values. We are not merely to see that something is good, but we are too feel it. We are to want what the main character wants, or to hate him. We are to hope that the battle will end a certain way and not the other. Above all, we spend a great deal of time hoping. Something is presented, we are not merely to think that it is good, but to want it and to feel its goodness.

In this way, Gladiator presents a vision of the good. It is a pagan vision, but a vision nonetheless, of a fight that cannot possibly be won, of family, of justice, and an integrity that cannot lose. I do not claim that it is a perfect movie, or even a good movie. I do not claim that it presents a worthy vision of the good, or even an acceptable vision of the good, but it does present a vision, nonetheless, of what its creators think is good. And it picks us up and moves us. It pushes us to want certain things, to love and to hate and to hope.

So, too, Atlas Shrugged presents a vision of the good. It is an atheist vision, but a vision nonetheless. It shows that if we really thing something is valuable, all that is worthless must be sacrificed in pursuit of that value. It is an explicitly philosophical vision of the good; Rand tells us what she thinks is good, and then attempts to portray the logical consequences of her idea in such a way that we will feel its goodness and be repulsed by its opposite. I do not say that she is right, or that her vision of the good even is good, but her novel attempts to make us feel a certain way about the good. It pushes us to love and to hate—to want something.

If we find art that is skillfully made, by artists who do somehow grasp what goodness is, at least in part, we need that. Indeed, that is exactly the sort of thing we are commanded to think on. I do not say that we must go rummaging through the garbage heap of pop culture to find goodness, but I do not think we ought to throw the baby out with the bathwater either. In practicality, we must have the wisdom of Solomon. But if we want to feel rightly, and if we need to learn how to feel rightly, art, and its judgment of what is good, is a good place to start.

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