How Art Can Save Us from Ourselves

By Philip Salim FrancisSeptember 2, 2017

How Art Can Save Us from Ourselves
I WAS 14 YEARS OLD, rummaging through a rarely accessed storage compartment in my family’s house, when I came across a bundle of old vinyl records wrapped in a tattered buffalo skin rug. As I brought the records into the light, and wiped away the dust and scraps of insulation, the album covers spoke to me immediately from the world outside my evangelical household. When I dropped the needle on the album with the most intriguing cover, Bringing It All Back Home, I was ushered into that world — and part of me never left. I had discovered my parents’ cache of Bob Dylan records: Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline, Desire, and Greatest Hits Volume I.

I was shocked that these albums had survived the purge of “secular” music that accompanied my parents’ conversion from 1970s back-to-the-landers to 1980s evangelical Christians. Even though the local Baptist minister’s sermons warned of the slippery slope from secular music to the fiery pit, my parents had somehow rationalized saving these records. I wondered: Had they sweat blood in justifying it to themselves? Had they bargained with the Lord, like Abraham dickering with Yahweh to save the lives of his relatives? Or was it God Himself who had saved the Dylan records, as Yahweh had spared Isaac, stopping the hand of my father just before he destroyed the vinyl on a jury-rigged altar in the backyard? Maybe the Bible had nothing to do with it.

My hunch is that my parents simply could not bring themselves to act on the idea that the beauty, authenticity, and poetry of those Dylan albums was in collusion with the Evil One. In this sense, Dylan himself saved his records — in a way that Donovan, I fear, was powerless to do for his. Because these Dylan records were saved, a glimpse of that disruptive beauty, staggering authenticity, and defamiliarizing poetry came into my life — and into the lives of my brothers, as we gathered around the record player for listening sessions when my parents weren’t around. To this day, we remain Dylan devotees — with an evangelical fervor.

Given this early experience of art dislodging me from the nearly all-encompassing world of evangelicalism, it was perhaps in some ways predictable that I ended up as a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School undertaking a course of study in religion and the arts. As I began to study modern aesthetic theory, I saw that these theorists were obsessed with art’s disruptive capacities. This stood in stark contrast to philosophers in previous eras who waxed on about the soothing and elevating qualities of the beautiful. Instead, the modern aesthetic theorists emphasized art’s capacity to destabilize our certainties and disfigure our selves. This all resonated deeply with my experience of Dylan and various other artists who had unsettled my evangelical self-understanding and set me off on a different path.

Who was it that said: We always end up writing about ourselves? Well, come dissertation time, I decided to conduct an ethnographic study of people like myself who had shed their evangelical skin through the intervention of the arts — and lived to tell about it. I framed the project as a test case of modern aesthetic theory’s claims about art’s disruptive capacities. What about a person who had been raised in the more fundamentalist strains of 20th-century American evangelicalism? Could art disrupt even that? I tracked down hundreds of people who, based on personal experience, answered this questions with a resounding yes!

People often ask me: How did you find your participants? And I always say, I can pick the post-evangelical out of a random crowd at 50 paces. But the truth is I landed on two extraordinary field sites. The first is the Oregon Extension. This semester study-away program in the southern Oregon Cascades was founded in the 1970s by a crew of renegade professors from evangelical Trinity College in Illinois. Each fall semester this small school draws 30 or so students from 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 Oregon (even 30 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 is famed for its world-class Shakespeare productions, operas, museums, and galleries. Many Bob Jones students and alumni say that the arts strengthen their faith, even if certain aesthetic experiences unsettle certain aspects of their religious heritage. 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 alumni 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 full participation in my study. They wrote memoirs for the project and underwent a series of interviews with me. In their accounts, I found many answers to my questions about the extent of art’s unsettling effects on deeply ingrained religious belief. Virtually all of my participants described the arts as unsettling their “fundamentalist way of being” in two particular ways.

First, they say, 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 a post-Christian artist. Just after her 21st 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.”

Second, my participants almost universally claim that art unsettled their hardline of division between insiders and outsiders, between what they call “real” (meaning evangelical) Christians and non-Christians. Barry S., a Bob Jones alumnus, provided an unforgettable account of how the films of David Lynch, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Ingmar Bergman made him “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 non-evangelicals “came tumbling down.”

These are just a few examples. I could give hundreds. It turns out I was not alone in my experience of art’s unsettling effects; the modern aesthetic theorists were on to something. I’m generally averse to universalizing the effects of art; so much depends on context and reception. But 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 deepened my appreciation for art’s disruptive capacities, it also taught me something else about art. The same participants in my study who emphasize the great unsettling effects of aesthetic experience will in the same breath describe the arts as a source of tremendous “comfort.” The arts, they often say, made their initial forays out of evangelicalism livable, even though the start of the journey entailed wells of confusion and uncertainty. The arts not only unsettled their certainties but also increased their capacity to dwell in the mystery and half-knowledge that characterize so much of our life.

If this is true for us former evangelicals, it may well be true for other fellow human beings. In completing this study, I feel that I have only just begun to appreciate the many ways the arts can save us — and our society at large — from the temptation of the “fundamentalist mindset”: religious, political, or otherwise. With the stories of these Bob Jones and Oregon Extension alumni clearly in mind, I can’t help but see funding for the arts as the just response to our indebtedness to the arts. A failure to fund the arts, in other words, is a refusal to pay our debts.


Philip Salim Francis’s new book with Oxford University Press is entitled When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. He is a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Maine in Farmington.

LARB Contributor

Philip Salim Francis’s new book with Oxford University Press is entitled When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. He is a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Maine in Farmington, and was recently a fellow in the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania Humanities Forum. Francis’s research explores the shifting interrelationship of religion, art, and sexuality in the modern West.


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