The Awfulness of Religion-driven Art

The other night I watched, beginning to end the movie Faith Like Potatoes. It’s based on a ‘true’ story of a farmer who leaves Zambia for South Africa, and how he becomes a lay Evangelical preacher.

I liked the setting in Kwazulu Natal, and hearing Zulu spoken. It was beautifully filmed. Those two things kept me from getting up 20 minutes in and turning it off. After 40 minutes, I wanted to see if it ever found a way to redeem itself. In the end, though, it is an example of how fundamentally some people misunderstand how to make religious art.

Case in point — the protagonist is driving a tractor, carrying his brother’s son. They hit a bump, and the child gets run over by the tractor. He dies, and both the protagonist and his brother go into deep, demonstrative mourning. The protagonist weeps and wails about how he feels responsible. Maybe a bit over the top but not inconsistent with the reality of the situation.

Then one night, the brother has a dream, where he sees his son again, and the son tells him he’s OK, he’s waiting for him in heaven. The brother calls the protagonist to tell him, they both cry tears of joy, and the movie moves on; the kid isn’t mentioned again until the credits, where they dedicate the film to the real-life kid who died.

The problem here, and the problem in a lot of religious ‘art’ is that it is arguing from its own conclusions. The idea that a) the dream is accepted as a literal supernatural contact with the dead kid and b) that since the kid is in heaven, everything’s hunky dory just doesn’t ring true. It’s what the film-makers, and presumably some Christians wish was true, but it is completely at odds with actual human experience.

A very similar event — the accidental death of a child — occurred in my family. My mom’s family are deeply religious Mormons, who believe in eternal life as sincerely as is possible. Yet the entire family — not just my uncle’s family, but all the cousins, my grandmother, everyone — were and are affected deeply by the wound this accident left. It is one of the seminal hurts around which the whole family curls. My Grandmother died unable to mention the child’s name without tears brimming in her eyes.

There is great religious art. That’s why people go to Europe and haunt old churches. There’s Marian Anderson singing spirituals. There’s Bach’s B Minor Mass. There’s Aretha Franklin testifying in the pulpit of her father’s church. There’s religious art that makes a stubborn, confirmed agnostic like me wish I could share that faith in God. There’s Chaucer’s “Canturbury Tales” — humorous, scatalogical, irreverant; but he states in the preface “all that is writen is writen for oure doctrine.”

Unfortunately there’s the ‘art’ religious people create that seeks to cleave to doctrine in ways that turns it polemic or Pollyanna. The real impulse to religious art is unruly and heterodox and disturbing, but stuff like “Faith Like Potatoes” has more in common with Socialist Realism than it does real art. The love of God can be one of the most beautiful impulses in art, but it gets turned into bathos and kitsch by artistic cowardice. Which is a shame.

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