Thursday, April 7, 2011

ADDICTED TO MEDIOCRITY (1981) - by Frank Schaeffer (book review)

Frank, or "Franky" Schaeffer is quite the interesting fellow. His very first book, Addicted to Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts, explores and attacks the currently low view with which most, who hold to Christianity, still look upon the Arts. Written back in 1980, Schaeffer's criticisms of modern Christianity's interaction with the Arts are still legitimate today. Even some of the cartoons Kurt Mitchell illustrated for the book have proved weirdly prophetic (like one of a "Holy Land" amusement park which is now really being constructed in real life by "Ark Encounter LLC" and "Answers in Genesis."

Son of famous theologian, Francis Schaeffer, Frank had to have been given one hell of an education. Just imagination the nonstop conversations at the dinner table. While his father certainly understood some things that he didn't, it's also fair to say that, growing up as he did, he understood some things that his father didn't. After the publication of this book, Schaeffer gave both filmmaking a try (and failed badly) and further writing a try (successfully writing a number of satirical novels and other reasoned criticism of modern day evangelicalism). Some try and describe his writing as shrill or angry, but 30 years later, I can't help but find his writing ring more true, perhaps, than he even realized it would at the time.

Judge his writing for yourself:

... in this small volume I have pinpointed one particular area which has had an outsize influence on our ability as Christians to communicate to the world around us and, more important, our ability to truly enjoy God and our fellow human beings. This is the area of appreciation, activity, thought and action, which I loosely describe as "the arts." (pg. 11)

Today, Christian endeavor in the arts is typified by the contents of your local Christian bookstore-accessories-paraphernalia shop. For the coffee table we have a set of praying hands made out of some sort of pressed muck. Christian posters are ready to adorn your walls with suitable Christian graffiti to sanctify them and make them a justifiable expense. Perhaps a little plastic cube with a mustard seed entombed within to boost your understanding of faith. And as if this were not enough, a toothbrush with a Bible verse stamped on its plastic handle, and a comb with a Christian slogan or two impressed on it. On a flimsy rack are stacked a pile of records. You may choose them at random blindfolded, for most of them will be the same idle rehash of acceptable spiritual slogans, endlessly recycled as palabrum for the tone-deaf, television-softened brains of our present-day Christians.

The airwaves as you leave the shop are jammed with a choice avalanche of what can generally be summed up as rubbish, ready to clog your television and radio set with "Christian" programming. The publishing houses churn out (measured by the ton) a landslide of material which can scarcely be called books, often composed of the same themes which are viewed as spiritual, rehashed by writers who would be better employed in another trade.

In fact, without making the list endless, one could sum up by saying that the modern Christian world and what is known as evangelicalism is marked, in the area of the arts and cultural endeavor, by one outstanding feature, and that is its addiction to mediocrity.
(pgs. 22-23)

Unfortunately, things have only grown worse. We now live in a time when the word "Christian" is a legitimately derogatory term when used to describe films, books, music or just about any other art form. Heck, even the cartoon series South Park currently makes fun of how easy it is to sell entertainment of poor quality to Christians as long as you throw the word "Jesus" in there somewhere.

The behavior in the area of the arts and the media has caused some intelligent people to reject Christianity outright on their observing of this phenomenon. (pg. 25)

This hasn't changed. If you are not a Christian, the garbage currently being sold in today's Christian bookstores is reason enough to honestly decide that you just don't have any reason to be interested. Music on the Christian radio stations is currently so bad, that if I turn to it accidentally I start immediately remembering some of the worst ideas advocated by Friedrich Nietzsche with fondness. Creed, The Devil Wears Prada, Planetshakers, or Lust Control are almost enough to make me turn to atheism.

... we must actively resist the avalanche of mediocrity coming to us in the form of Christian "arts" and proppaganda. Why is there so much of this stuff? Simply because man, Christian or non-Christian, is created in the image of God, and a vacuum, formed in his soul by denying the God-given arts their proper place, has to be filled with something. He has an inward emptiness. But without proper base, man fills the void with only twisted, pale shadows of what art could be. This is why we face a torrent of mediocre media-artistic propaganda. (pg. 41)

... There are only two kinds of art, good art and bad art. There is good secular art and bad secular art. There is good art made by Christians and bad art made by Christians (and all the shadings in between). There is no such thing as Christian art any more than there are Christian bricks for the house builder. (pg. 62)

Unfortunately, most of the art modern Christians make is bad art.

... most of the output in Christian media is aimed at maintaining the evangelical establishment, a whole little subculture with its own writers, journalists, TV hosts, and musicians. Success is measured by comparing the sales and popularity of these inbred artists as they are rewarded by those who populate this little ghetto. Unfortunately, they are rarely matched against accepted objective artistic standards, and the heritage of Western culture. (pgs. 72-73)

It's amazing the whole vast treasury of art throughout history that we, in our modern technological age of infinite information, now have access to. Oddly enough, most of us know less about these riches, and have spent less time seeking and reflecting upon it, than past generations with much limited access did.

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the genuine high art forms of the twentieth century is cinema. Any real appreciation of today's forms of cultural expression must include in its scope the cinema ...

Federico Fellini is the maestro of sets, atmosphere, imagination and fantasy. His films are a great and enjoyable collection of visual spectacles. In addition, his works stand out as the sharpest and most satirical examination of the decadence and decline of a post-Christian culture, moving toward a new paganism.
(pg. 76)

The illiterate repetitive hash of Christian dramatic films is unbelievable. As with most Christian books published today, they could be summed up in a few simple categories which are endlessly and timidly reshuffled: the sob story, the dramatic conversion, before and after ("I used to be high on drugs, but now I'm high on the Lord"), the narrow escape, the testimony (always famous and infamous people), the how to in three easy lessons, and so forth. The point is not that none of these subjects are worth ever treating and thinking about, but that they are seen to work for the church market and therefore are reused to redundancy. (pg. 78)

Yes, Franky Schaeffer tried filmmaking himself, mostly unsuccessfully, but that doesn't make his words on the subject any less true. Modern films from the "Christian" movie industry have become parodies of themselves.

Personal taste and quality should not be confused. To a certain extent we all see things subjectively in all areas of life. This does not mean, however, that there cannot be clear standards. While we must allow for individual taste, there is such a thing as objective integrity and quality. We must struggle to find this quality, truth and integrity in our work. (pg. 83)

Selecting what we do with sensitivity is as important as what we do not do. Often sensitivity to beauty and creativity will cost less, not more. Most of the time, it is a question of how we spend what we have, not a question of spending more or less. It is also a question of getting our priorities straight ... The cost of many of the accessories and gadgets of middle-class life today could be equally spent on many soul-enriching artistic experiences and enjoyable times. The cost of a mediocre Christian book could be spent on a fine literary work. The hour you spend in church listening to a lousy sermon could be spent reading the Bible on a great beach ... Less is often more, and ugly "wood" plastic paneling will cost more than a plain whitewashed wall against which a print can be hung and exposed to advantage. Often ugliness costs more than the simplicity of beauty. (pgs. 84-85)

That which is most in demand today is often not that which is valuable and beautiful. You may not be able to buy the latest popular best-seller for less than $14.99, but you can probably pick up one of the most voluminous books by Charles Dickens at a used bookstore for a mere $2. I've got to face this fact myself, I often spend my limited finances on the latest trendy new technology (of short term value) when I don't really need it. Maximizing my financial resources on that which is lasting is usually a goal I completely forget.

God in Scripture has left the church for us as an institution to serve a very real and worthwhile purpose. However, the constant activity-oriented nature of the church today, which is more like some combination health club-golfing society-bowling tournament-Sunday school service-inspirational message-fellowship-Jesus advertising machine-growth program all rolled into one, does not seem to have very much to do with the institution we read about in the New Testament. As mentioned before, the level of teaching is often so shallow, repetitive, and worthless as to be more destructive than helpful. (pgs. 86-87)

And I wondered why Schaeffer has been so harshly criticized by other Christians.

But a large segment of the secular world nevertheless maintains a higher standard than the Christian arts and media. This it seems to me, can be understood simply by the fact that the secular world at least has the standard of the marketplace which it must meet.

The Christian world has not even a poor standard, because it operates on a double standard principle. It judges its spiritual activities, in which it includes its media and arts efforts, by spiritual standards, unlike the standards it applies to the rest of life. Thus an art work, song, or whatever can be highly acclaimed because of its spiritual content, even if it is a miserable exhibition of a lazy addiction to mediocrity, which denies those very spiritual facts it is claiming to proclaim. (pg. 92)

Because of our mediocrity we Christians all too often provide the excuse the world is looking for to ignore the truth of Christianity. (pg. 93)

So the contents of the average Christian bookstore are more likely to turn a nonChristian away from Christianity than vice versa? This is probably true. When we replaced caring about quality with caring about whether we could use entertainment as an evangelistic tool, the results were the opposite of evangelism. Interesting thoughts.

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