Misplaced Idealism: Looking for Inspiration in the Wrong Place

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As the holidays come upon us and we prepare to enter a new year, movie buffs like me also prepare for “awards season.” The critics’ awards, the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and ultimately the Oscars will determine the highest-quality output from Hollywood last year (at least according to Hollywood itself).

Full confession: I watched all the award shows last year. Full repentance: Lord, I wish I had been a better steward of my time and attention, and I resolve never to watch them again. It’s not that the award shows of Hollywood are unapologetic displays of narcissism. That’s always been the case. Rather, it’s because they have ceased to celebrate the kind of idealism that ought to be inherent in great works of art.

Just look at some of the films that have won or been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in the past several years: The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Birdman, Argo, Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, The Post, Spotlight, Hell or High Water… and the list goes on. What fundamental characteristic animates most of these films? Do they attempt to take us out of the “real world” and inspire us with a vision of what life can be and ought to be (to borrow Aristotle’s criterion for the arts)? No. Instead, their apparent function is to hold up a mirror, confronting us with a starkly realistic and unsettling portrait of life as it really is (or as the artist sees it). Most of the current films up for consideration this year are no different.

In many cases these particular films were singled out for recognition because of the explicit or implicit socio-political agendas contained within. The award shows themselves are characterized not by celebration and inspiration, but virtue-signaling, condescension, and leftist rhetoric. And this is not unique to the film industry; anyone with a television can see the same consistent trends, right down to the existence of “Reality TV.”

On the other hand, observe our political discourse over the past year. Observe the media’s near-hagiographic rhetoric following the deaths of Senator John McCain, Former First Lady Barbara Bush, and most recently Former President George H. W. Bush. Observe the presence of the other former presidents with their wives, all of them seated and treated like royalty, still referred to as “Mr. President” even though (in some cases) they vacated that office decades ago.

Most tellingly, observe the tacit assumption—on both sides of the political aisle—that all of what ails America can be healed if only we elect the right people, then grant those people more power to “transform” the country, no matter what it costs financially and morally. We judge our politicians not by their respect for the Constitutionally-imposed limits on their offices, or by the practical effects of their actual policies, but by their ability to galvanize the people with idealistic rhetoric and ambitious promises from Washington, D.C.

If I were asked to point out a glaringly obvious symptom of America’s cultural dysfunction, this would be it. Many Americans have misplaced their idealism. They no longer find deep insight, passionate motivation, and spiritual fuel in great works of art: books, movies, and television shows that present grand themes, interesting plots, heroic characters and exalted language. Most of the art and literature presented in popular culture (and even more insidiously, in our universities) do not elevate our vision but merely reinforce the cynicism and nihilism that is already present all around us. In many ways, the American church has adopted and reflects this aesthetic declinei.

Instead, it is to our politics that we turn for idealism, which is the last place that we should hope to find it. As James Madison once argued, the only reason politics and government exist is that men are not angels, and hence there must be a structure and order to society whereby men’s sinfulness is curbed by objective lawii.

Or from an even more authoritative Source: The Old Testament is brutally honest about the lack of idealism inherent in human politics. God Himself only reluctantly authorized kingship in response to the people’s idealistic wishes, and their history demonstrates that—despite some achievements by the centralized state—their ideals were ultimately unfounded. In the New Testament, Christians are commanded to obey the government but never to idealize it. In fact, one gets the impression from the New Testament that politics and government are (at best) mixed blessings, and (at worst) active inhibitors to the realization of godly ideals on this earth.

What is the practical consequence of this misplaced idealism?

The distinctive power of art is that it impacts the individual soul, for good or ill. The artist concretizes a certain fundamental view of reality, which shapes and fuels the vision of each person perceiving it. A work of art that communicates certain ideals is a powerful motivator for individuals to work towards those ideals. When art does not communicate ideals but merely reinforces a stark realism (such as most art work today), there is no motivation for individuals to expect anything more out of life than what is already there.

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Conversely, when politicians are the focus of our idealism, the motivation is not so much for individuals but for the collective. Rarely do we hear our “leaders” in Washington tell us that each person has the intelligence, freedom, and resourcefulness to achieve great things for themselves, their families, and their communities. Instead, the idealism is directed towards what “we,” collectively, can achieve…and that it can be achieved only when “they” have the power to make it happen.

In short, the misplaced idealism in American culture results in glorifying the collective and diminishing the individual human person. This is the same cultural reality that existed in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, and every other variant of collectivism…and the consequences of those can be known objectively by a casual glance at the historical record.

I would never counsel anyone—Christian or not—to neglect his civic duties or to minimize his potential impact on public policy. That said, I believe we overplay our hand if we think that a political agenda will inspire people to embrace a noble, virtuous and godly vision of life. Instead, I believe we ought to follow in the footsteps of people like Dante, Bernini, Handel, Bunyan, Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis who saw the high arts as a true mission field. We may not win awards for it, but we will understand the power of art to communicate ideas and ideals, in a deeply personal and transformative way, to individuals made in the Image of Godiii. And that’s worth a lot more.

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i.  See the works of Anthony Esolen for illustrious examples: Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2010); Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2017)

ii.  Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, The Federalist Papers, Clinton Rossiter, ed. (New York: Mentor, 1961), 322.

iii.  For a general philosophic presentation of the place of art in human existence, I recommend Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, 1971).

Jeffrey Kahl

Jeff holds a B.A. degree in history and political science from Ashland University and an M.Div. from Ashland Theological Seminary. He’s a full time pastor and part time scholar. Like C. S. Lewis, he considers himself “a converted pagan living among apostate puritans.”

 

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