We live in a bipolar and schizophrenic culture. On one hand it is extremely crude and licentious and on the other, excruciatingly puritanical and legalistic. A robust and mature Christian cultural witness recognizes that this is two sides of the same coin, and thus resists the temptation to reduce the radicality of the gospel into “Christian virtues” that are then applied to artistic and other cultural practices in an effort to regulate and maintain an aesthetic of public decency (i.e., eliminate penises, breasts, and four-letter words).
But a robust and mature Christian cultural witness must be built on a theology of culture that is not fooled by what is seen, that is, what is obvious artistically, but attend to what is heard, the “sound” that emerges gradually from painting, poem, song, or film. An artist I have known for over a decade once told me that “paintings tend to distract us with how they look.” They are much more than what is immediately obvious or recognizable to us. Our eyes tend to distract us, even within the context of the visual arts, drawing us to what immediately impresses or repulses us, which is why Martin Luther argued that the ears are the only organs of the Christian. Grace comes through the earhole, through the preached Word. A painting, then, is more than what you see. It is a feeling, an experience, that emerges through but not defined by what is seen. This is often why abstract painting is such a challenge. Our eyes often deceive us. And so an acute ear is as important for art, literary, and film critics as it is for music critics. In the visual arts our eyes fool us into believing that what is ugly, deformed, and vulgar is not worth taking seriously. We want imagery that is cleaned up and virtuous, triumphant, not broken, angst-ridden, and dark, reflecting back to us what we wish to deny in ourselves. We want Thomas Kinkade’s easy, nostalgic landscapes, not Edvard Munch’s difficult, distorted, vulnerable girls. Put another way, we want art that participates in our theologies of glory rather than art that embodies a theology of the cross. Many Christian approaches to art and culture are uncomfortable with weakness, brokenness, and failure because they are assumed to be poor vehicles to declare the glory of God. But it is precisely in weakness and failure that Christ and His grace comes. And it is also where art is at its best. And that means that in this context, the language will be rougher, the content more vulgar and sexually explicit, the content dark and depressing.
A powerful example of hearing rather than looking, of not being led astray by appearances, but listening for the sound of grace is Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 (1998), a brilliant independent film starring director Vincent Gallo and teen-age Christina Ricci. Vincent Gallo (b. 1961) is an authentic cultural outlier. He is an actor, movie director, musician, performance artist, photographer, and painter whose aesthetic vision is aggressively original. Gallo is also an artist who has struggled with and battled his own demons. The concluding paragraphs of his biography on his website reveal the singularity and massive scope of his vision,
Gallo has no agent, manager, assistant or intern and he makes his films without producers, and with extremely scaled down crews. He has self distributed his movies and is directly involved in his films’ sales for distribution. Gallo has also created all of his films’ trailers and posters.
Gallo is one of the most misunderstood, misquoted, misrepresented talents in the past 25 years and a brief review of his IMDB page suggests he has also been incredibly prolific.
Buffalo ’66 is a harsh and bleak film. It is based in large part on Gallo’s own difficult life. A young man returns to his hometown to see his parents after spending five years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The problem is that he has lied to them about his long absence in an effort to protect himself from their judgment. He kidnaps a young girl, played by Christina Ricci in order to prove to his parents that, with a wife, he is not a failure. Gallo’s character is rough, harsh, violent, and vulgar. His hostage-wife comes to learn that this is a response to his neglected childhood, his selfish and unloving parents who hide under the guise of the ordinary. They like the Buffalo Bills more than their son, whose birth forced them to miss the only championship the Bills had won, in 1966. The young man’s violence is matched by his child-like vulnerability and his desperate desire to be justified by his parents, winning their recognition and approval. But it never comes. Yet his hostage-wife begins to see something else in him, beyond appearances.
And so nothing prepares us for the moment at the end of the film when the young man leaves his hostage-wife, now lover, in their motel room to get something to eat. Suddenly, we recognize that the young man can and probably will leave her. But he inexplicably returns. And at that moment, his life turns. There is no reason for him to return to her. Neither his upbringing nor his experience in prison can explain it. And that is why it is such a surprise to us and why it is full of grace, breaking the fateful chain of abuse that is his family nature and culture. And at that moment, the heavy darkness that has saturated the film fades away.
Gallo’s movie opens up the insides of relationships to reveal the bile, the oppressive selfishness and horrifying cruelty of an “average” family that appears “normal” to those around them. Yet it is this dark backdrop that sets the stage for the experience of grace, in fact, it makes grace possible, and highlights it. The insightfulness of Gallo’s movie is that this moment of grace sneaks up on us, catching us off guard in the insignificant and inconsequential decision to return to his motel room where his girlfriend awaits him.
If we are distracted only by what we see, we miss this moment, in which the insignificant is freighted with the utmost significance, where the decision to return is a means of grace, transforming a suffocating and restrictive narrowness to breath, breadth, and life. If we reduce Christian participation in culture to cleaning up nudity and language, we miss this moment. Indeed, if Christ is to be found in weakness, brokenness, and suffering, found amongst the prostitutes and tax collectors, the sick and hurting, then it is art that honestly confronts this condition, that reveals that we are all sick, hurting, and broken, that will reveal the presence of grace, opening up space to breathe amidst the narrowness of life.
The task of a cultural theologian is to search for those moments of grace, where genetics, social position, and addictions do not have the last word. But that often means that a cultural theologian must at times look beyond what he or she sees, beyond what is obvious, and use that most important of organs for the Christian, the ear, to listen to the work of art for the faint sound of grace, which does not come with impressive visual displays, but with a still small voice.