2.02.2006

INsites: Interview with Brett McCracken of Relevant

Engaging the culture in meaningful, pertinent dialogue is essential to our Christian witness, and Relevant Mag does this as well as any Christian magazine. Brett McCracken is senior editor of the Progressive Culture segment of Relevant Online. I had a chance recently to ask Brett some question about Christians and pop culture, artistic integrity and the Great Commission, film and music, and well, bunches of stuff.

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Mike: What is the vision—the motivating force—behind Relevant Magazine?

Brett: To provide a forum that fills a neglected hole in evangelical culture. That is, the dearth of serious, progressive engagement with culture (both secular and religious). Relevant is an attempt to revive the idea that Christianity really is relevant in the 21st Century. It is not some dead, old white men’s religion, but rather something alive and transformative. Relevant’s goals are in part evangelistic (re-connecting to the post-collegiate, religion-shunning twentysomething), but also reforming. The Church needs a reformation, revitalization, and fresh look at what is happening in the world, and how Christianity exists in the here and now.

M: In your article, A New Kind of Hipster, you said this: “We are to be a counterculture—in and not of the world, accepting yet not acquiescent, flexible but not compromising, progressive though not by the world’s standards.” What do you mean that Christians are to be flexible, not compromising, and progressive, but not by the world’s standards?

B: The phrase “flexible but not compromising” is an allusion to the postmodern challenge Christians face. Our culture is all about relative authority and a sort of “anything goes” morality. Our society says it is bigotry to speak out against sin, or “backwards” to proclaim the existence of absolute truth/morality. Christians have to stand up to this, obviously. That is the “not compromising” part. But we must also take a few pages from the postmodern book in that we need to be open to the idea that truth is not as concrete and stationary as Christians have often proclaimed. It exists, but we cannot assume we understand or know all of it. This is the “flexible” part…

“Progressive, but not by the world’s standards” refers to an idea that I take from Neil Postman, among others. He often made the point that society in the post-WWII era (actually, probably post-Enlightenment) has been defined by a faith in the “progress” of technological and cultural advances. That is, society has come to believe that progress believes in a future that MUST be better than the past; that new innovation and technology is always progressive. This has bred a larger feeling that progress is defined by righting the wrongs of the past (a past which, society says, is by nature flawed), whether it be doing away with prejudice, modernism, or inferior technology. I contend, however, that the Christian’s concept of progress has to be counter to that. To be sure, we must be knowledgeable and aware of the world around us, but we must look to the past (specifically Jesus Christ, and the historical Church he founded) for notions of how progress can be enacted. Jesus laid it all out- how to change the world for the better. Any true progress, for a Christian, must come from His example. We must look to the past in order to make a better future. Of course, “better” is a disputed term as well…

M: A common tension faced by Christians in the arts, has to do with artistic integrity versus getting the Gospel out. Where do you see that balance? Is the first objective of the Christian artist to get the message out or be true to the craft?

B: This issue has been in my thoughts a lot lately. I recently wrote an article on the C.S. Lewis / J.R.R. Tolkien relationship for Sacred History magazine. What struck me in researching the article was the different views the two authors took on the question of Christian art as artistic mastery vs. evangelical tool. The question could not be more relevant to the Church today.

Tolkien had a view that in many ways corresponds to his Catholic character: the craft of art, to him, is the foremost aim. Christian or religious themes will arise inherent in art if it is made superbly and honestly. In this sense, art is sacramental; the sacred idea or Christian notion is organically tied to the masterful craft itself. That is why Lord of the Rings, for example, is much less explicitly Christian than Lewis’s Narnia. On the other hand, Lewis believed in a more direct approach. He used allegory (Narnia, Space Trilogy) and clever apologetics (Screwtape Letters) in his fiction so as to make explicit the Christian message he was trying to convey.

Where do I fall on the matter? Well, though I am no Catholic, I tend to side with Tolkien’s view of art. That is, I feel like art in general (Tolkien spoke specifically of myth) possesses a disposition toward the sacred. If creation is a God-sanctioned act, then I believe it plausible that to create is by nature a spiritual act. God gave us this human-only distinctive, which is the ability to reflect on existence and communicate our thoughts to others. We are a community of people (humans) who relate to each other by expressing our own thoughts on Being, Time, Love, Death, and other mysteries.

I believe art, when it is honest, questioning, and captivating, has a unique and ineffable quality that leads us toward God. Art that seeks breeds “the search” in others, one that can only ever be truly fulfilled in GOD. All that to say that I think “in your face” art is unnecessary and counterproductive. Forced-feeding God or the Bible to others is bad enough, but doing it through “art” is even worse. It feels icky and unnatural because it is. Art has no political agenda. That is antithetical to its nature. Art is a search, and one that has been going on for millennia, across all cultures and epochs. The best of art has always, I believe, been so because it’s revealed truths or mysteries that feel true.

M: As the editor, you probably spend lots of time keeping up on current books, films and music. But you can’t possibly read/see/listen to them all. How do you do it?

B: It is hard to keep “up,” but I try to do the best that I can. I spend a lot of time surveying critical opinions and consensus on what is new and good in movies, music, books, etc. I have resources I trust more than others, and of course I take friends’ recommendations very seriously.

Having been an arts editor for nearly 4 years now has also helped. I’ve been exposed to a huge amount and variety of things, and I’ve developed (I believe) a good understanding of how a work stands out within its given medium. I’m always reading books, papers and magazines and investigating “buzzworthy” things, and while I by no means catch all the good stuff, I think I’ve come to a point where I have at least a cursory knowledge of most wave-making artists.

M: So far this year (November '05), what’s the best 1.) books, 2.) films, and 3.) music you’ve encountered?

B: Books: this is hard, because while I’m reading them constantly, I don’t read new-releases very currently. That said, I loved the new Harry Potter, and Anne Lamott’s new one, Plan B, is fantastic.

Films: My top five this year so far would be Broken Flowers, A History of Violence, Good Night & Good Luck, Mad Hot Ballroom, and Batman Begins.

Music: Again, top five so far: Sufjan Stevens, “Illinois,” Sigur Ros, “Takk,” Gorillaz, “Demon Days,” Rogue Wave, “Descended Like Vultures,” Common, “Be.”

M: What advice would you give to a young Christian who wants to seriously impact and engage their culture?

B: In whatever field you are interested, excel. It is as simple as that. Strive for excellence, because that—more than anything—will show the majesty of God. Our culture often does just enough to get by, or enough to be noticed. Create beautiful things, do big things for God and beyond your own purposes. People will see this difference and God will be glorified. To impact culture, you cannot treat culture as a target or something waiting to be grabbed and saved. Things that impact culture are those that ask the most interesting questions—that push culture in directions that the masses resonate with.

M: What’s your plans for the future? Where would you like to see yourself ministry-wise, in 10 years?

B: I’m applying to graduate programs right now for next Fall, so hopefully that’s where I’ll be this time next year. I’m looking at programs in the media studies/cinema areas, and I hope to study the relationships between Christians and media, and explore the notion of a “transcendent” or “holy” form in screen media. In ten years, I hope to be working in some sort of media field (whether newspaper, magazine, etc) as a writer or editor, covering culture. I’d also like to write books, and hope to get started with that as soon as possible. Being a thinking Christian who asks resonant questions and works toward productive answers that forward the cause of Christ: that is the ministry I want to be in the rest of my life.

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Great stuff, huh? You can catch up with Brett over at the Progressive Culture segment of Relevant Magazine. You can also find one of Brett's most recent commentaries at Christianity Today online. Thanks again, Brett, for a great interview!

10 comments:

Gina Holmes said...

Great interview Mike and Brett.

Mary Yerkes said...

Mike,

Great questions and interview!

I loved what Brett said about Tolkien's view of art: "Christian or religious themes will arise inherent in art if it is made superbly and honestly. In this sense, art is sacramental; the sacred idea or Christian notion is organically tied to the masterful craft itself."

He expressed it so beautifully. It's what I've been feeling, but I couldn't seem to find the words to express it.

Well done!

Mary

Mike Duran said...

Thanks for visiting, girls. And I agree with you Mary about Brett's comments on art. He said, "art, when it is honest, questioning, and captivating, has a unique and ineffable quality that leads us toward God." In a way, part of the proclamation of the Gospel is the perfection of craft. One of the best things a Christian artist can do to fulfill the Great Commission, is get better.

Ame said...

"In whatever field you are interested, excel. It is as simple as that. Strive for excellence, because that—more than anything—will show the majesty of God. Our culture often does just enough to get by, or enough to be noticed. Create beautiful things, do big things for God and beyond your own purposes. People will see this difference and God will be glorified."

"...and beyond your own purposes." Wow - so wise. We tend to live for today and singular purposes. Can you imagine how God could transform the world through Christians who excelled in the talents, gifts, and abilities He has given us and did so for purposes greater than ourselves . . . and in truth? Wow - there would be no way to contain the radical changes that would sweep through this world for God!

Anonymous said...

Love Brett's choice of movies, especially Batman Begins. (Though I've never heard of Mad Hot Ballroom). Thanks M and B.

Kay

Mike Duran said...

Hey Kay, Mad Hot Ballroom is what my house is like getting ready for church on Sunday mornings. Just kidding. I agree with you though about Batman Begins. It was a great, dark movie. Christopher Nolan (director) seems to have found a niche.

Kelly Klepfer said...

"Strive for excellence, because that—more than anything—will show the majesty of God. Our culture often does just enough to get by, or enough to be noticed. Create beautiful things, do big things for God and beyond your own purposes."

Nice job summing up the entire Christian walk. We "little Christs" are called to excellence.

Anonymous said...

"Things that impact culture are those that ask the most interesting questions -- that push culture in directions that the masses resonate with." I LOVE that! Now, what are the questions?
Great interview, gentlemen.
Reni B

Anonymous said...

Geez, you're bossy, Mike. But here I am.

I like what Brett had to say in the artistic integrity section. Many Christian books contain salvation, but lack beauty, wonder, and joy. It's a stale Christianity. Too often, art devoid of Christ's name, yet containing those three qualities, is considered unsuitable output for Christian artists. When I'm listening to a particularly gorgeous strain of music, or reading a particularly delicious book, or watching a particularly stunning film, I am inundated with an indescribable joy. Somewhere, a curtain is drawn aside and I glimpse His numinous beauty. If secular art can accomplish this, shouldn't sacred art even more?

I think Lewis had it right in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader." Lucy reads a spell in the magician's book, "more like a story than a spell. It went on for three pages and before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real, too. When she had got to the third page and come to the end, she said, "That was the loveliest story I've ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years." Then, when Aslan comes, she asks, "Shall I ever be able to read that story again? Will you tell it to me, Aslan? Oh do, do, do." He replies: "Indeed, yes, I will tell it to you for years and years."

"For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not true and good in any other respect." ~Dorothy Sayers

Noel

Mike Duran said...

Dear readers, I threatened to do an expose of Noel's gnarly nighttime eating habits (or equally gnarly iPod playlist) if she didn't contribute to this blog. But after reading her contributions, you probably wonder why she doesn't contribute more. Noel? Would you care to answer? Noel? Oh well, she's back in her cave. At least we got one eloquent blast out of her.