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No Life in LifeWay? A Story of Christians Failing to Create Culture

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LifeWay, the publishing and retail arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently decided to pull the film "The Blind Side" from its shelves due to the complaints of a Florida pastor that the movie contained inappropriate things. Among those things? Cursing, violence and racial slurs.

Many Christians have expressed their frustration with the decision. Author Eric Metaxas, whose recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been a best-seller, had harsh words to say about LifeWay's decision and its broader impact on how others view evangelical culture, saying that "If we Christians can't get [what makes 'The Blind Side' redeemable], then maybe we really should refrain from commenting on culture in the first place."

This whole debacle gets at something that has been on my mind for quite some time, which is that the mainstream evangelical church in the U.S. often fails to encompass the complete range of human experience. It produces almost no art, nothing culturally noteworthy in any fashion. It recoils from anything that could be deemed too gray or too dicey or too dark. Instead it creates its own subcultures that often (though not always) prize the neat, tidy and redemptive over the realities of life.

As Eric Metaxas also points out, I think this does a huge disservice to the church. I know many creative people who pull away from the faith because it has nothing compelling to offer them. To my knowledge, a robust theology of art in mainstream American Protestantism does not exist as it does in Roman Catholic thought. Thus, many creative people leave, only to find something richer and more exciting in the "secular" art world, where they feel free to express and explore.

This is a shame, because the Bible itself does in fact speak to the entire range of human experience. Depths of despair? Read the Psalms. Some of the most beautiful erotic love poetry ever penned? Read Song of Songs. Existential crisis? Read Ecclesiastes. Tales of epic battles and mighty kings and tortured souls abound. Oh, and there's also the New Testament, where we hear about that guy Jesus and end with that sweeping vision of the apocalypse...

One blogger named "Pastor Jeff" wryly commented that "One writer already pointed out that if it is sex and violence that is found to be objectionable then the first volume to be 'pulled' [from a Christian bookstore] should possibly be the Bible."

And I happen to know Southern Baptists have a high regard for the Bible.

Having grown up in a Southern Baptist church surrounded by other Southern Baptist churches, I'm no stranger to their proclivity for fighting against the tides of the prevailing culture, generally in a attempt to live out the biblical dictum to "be in the world but not of the world." Yet the way in which Christians often live out this sentiment stifles the church's ability to create culture for themselves. Instead of proactively creating, the church is characterized as perpetually prohibiting; it's characterizes by what it stands against, not what it stands for. Thus, the Christian narrative has all but disappeared in the world of high art, and even in the tiny glimmers it does appear, it is mostly to provoke or be pushed against as a kind of power structure.

Though I don't really consider "The Blind Side" to be " high art," per se -- despite the fact that it did win some high-profile awards -- I think that the fact it isn't "high art" only proves my point. If a movie like "The Blind Side" isn't even allowed to exist on the shelves of LifeWay Christian Stores, then why should we expect any real art to flourish in the mainstream evangelical church? Surely we can create art "in the world" that is not "of" it?

It has been done before. Just ask: Where would LifeWay put a book like Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" or the forthcoming screen adaptation of the award-winning musical based on this 19th century masterpiece? Where would they put Trollope's "Chronicles of Barsetshire"? Or the works of Tolstoy? Of Dostoevsky?

Barnes and Noble doesn't put them in the "Christian Fiction" section, and I think that tells us something.