Can Art Save Us From Fundamentalism?

"Jesus Spells" Megan Hansen-Knarhoi

In his new book, religious studies scholar Philip S. Francis uses personal stories from young evangelicals to explore how one’s experiences with art can dramatically reorient Christian beliefs and practices.

What inspired you to write When Art Disrupts Religion?

 My obsession with one big question: can art save us from fundamentalism? I was reading all kinds of aesthetic theory about art’s “disruptive capacities,” its unique ability to unsettle our preconceived notions of the world and ourselves. I decided to test the theory against the lived experience of people who had grown up with deeply engrained religious beliefs and convictions—with a focus on conservative American evangelicals. Could art disrupt even that? I tracked down hundreds of former evangelicals who had left the fold through the intervention of the arts, and I got deep into the weeds of their experience. Their stories shed brilliant light on the complex ways that art can function in the process of upending and reimagining one’s beliefs. In a more general sense, they can teach us a lot about the role of art in education and social life.

People often ask me, “How did you track these people down?” And I always say, “I can pick the post-evangelicals out of a random crowd from a distance of 20 yards.” But the truth is I found my participants at two very unique field sites.

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When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind
Philip Salim Francis
Oxford University Press
March 2017

The first site is the Oregon Extension, a semester study-away program in the southern Oregon Cascades that was founded in 1975 by a small crew of renegade professors from evangelical Trinity College in Illinois. Each fall semester, this small school draws between 25 and 40 students from conservative 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 the program (even 20 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 has the largest faculty of any of the university’s schools, and it is famed for its world-class Shakespeare productions, operas, museums and galleries. For many Bob Jones students and alumni, the arts go hand in hand with their faith, even if certain aesthetic experiences challenge them to revise aspects of their religious heritage. As 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 alumnae, the anguish of irreconcilability between Bob Jones and the experience of certain aesthetics sent fissures through their evangelical identity—sometimes a wrecking ball.

You can imagine how alumni from the Oregon Extension and the Bob Jones School of Fine Arts would help me to answer questions about the extent of art’s unsettling effects on deeply ingrained religious belief.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

I don’t think the most important thing about the book is the “message.” The most important thing is the humanity that is strewn across its pages. In writing this book I thought so much about William James’ insistence that “Life is in the transitions […] often, indeed, it seems to be there more emphatically.” It is in transition, as my participants demonstrate so well, that human beings seize upon an extraordinary relationship to their own creative powers—to remold previous conceptions of the self, the other and the world.

I hope my readers come away convinced that the creative dynamism at the heart of the species is revealed as we—and our fellow human beings—negotiate experiences of profound change and redirection. There are few life events that represent more of an individual sea-change than a religious conversion or de-conversion. I think the book captures at least glimpses of how much life is in the transitions—and how multi-facted the role of the arts can be in navigating our way to other shores.

 Is there anything you had to leave out?

I left out sex, and how dare I? I was asking my informants questions about the ways that art helped them to break from or reimagine their religion. But many of them nonetheless talked about the equally powerful role of sex—or the lack thereof.  I could have written a book called When Sex Disrupts Religion, or even better, Can Sex Save Us From Fundamentalism?  It shouldn’t surprise us that conversations about religion and art can lead naturally to sex talk. In both aesthetic and religious experience, we are already waist-deep in the realms of pleasure, the senses and the body.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

 I’d say three things:

  1. The assumption that people fit into neat categories like believer, atheist or agnostic. I’ve come to see the ways that the men and women whose stories fill these pages inhabit modernity’s middle spaces between belief and unbelief.  Relatedly, there is a common and misplaced notion that modern secular people have “lost religion.” In fact, many of us have simply found a makeshift substitute. We have founded what historian Martin Jay refers to as “the secular religion of art.” That so many of the post-evangelicals in this book come to refer to the arts as sites of “transcendence” and a “stand-in for faith” is in keeping with the times. This book gives us a chance to see how that untidy “substitution” of art for religion takes place within the course of one lifetime.
  1. The misconception that evangelicalism is monolithic, and that all evangelicals are against good (modern) art. This relates to a broader, common, lazy assumption of an inherent opposition between conservative religious practice and the modern arts. One of the reasons that I chose the Bob Jones School of Fine Arts as one of my ethnographic field sites is exactly because they are a self-described “fundamentalist Christian” institution with a large and dynamic art school. That fact is counterintuitive to many us, but why? Did you know that the division of fine arts at Bob Jones was founded and directed for 40 years by a man—Emery Bopp—who had studied abstract painting with Willem de Kooning? He taught Bob Jones students about the “gospel power” that resides in modern, abstract and non-representational art—and he stayed in touch with de Kooning! I wanted this book to explore cases in which art did disrupt religion, but without presupposing an inherent opposition.
  1. The assumption that it’s easy to spot a “fundamentalist.” That it’s never me. Its always those crazy people over there. In other words, we’ve mistakenly reified the term “fundamentalist,” forgetting that it is a vague and historically relative term, generally used to mark ourselves off from the “other.” If we use the term at all, it should probably be in reference to a species-wide phenomenon: what William James referred to as our “inherent conservatism of mind.”  

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I probably had too many audiences in mind. Of course, I’m trying to make a contribution to scholarship in religious studies and the humanities more generally. So I had my fellow academics in mind. But, even more vividly, I held in mind the men and women who contributed their life stories to the book. I wanted to do justice to their accounts. I wanted to write something that they would recognize as authentic to their experience, something that they might nod subtly along with while reading. At the same time, I tried to write for that reader who has little or no intimate knowledge of evangelicalism or religion. I wanted even that reader to feel a common sense of humanity with the men and women in these pages.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off? 

I’m just a song-and-dance man.

What alternative title would you give the book?

Can Art Save Us From Fundamentalism? 

How do you feel about the cover?

I like it. The cover for this book had to walk so many lines. I wanted it to convey the seriousness of the journey that my participants had embarked upon, and to connote the disruptive power of the arts without being heavy-handed. I kept picturing an old baptism photo that had been altered in some way. The Warhol-esque blue-wash was a good call, I think.  The white, hand-written font gives a sense that part of the photo has been wiped away. The faces that stare out at us from the photo seem distant and present. I like the expression of the little boy or girl in the bottom right. I like the fact that no one is smiling.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

The Brother K, a sparkling novel by David James Duncan. I’m not sure there is a better account of what it’s like for children and adolescents to come to terms with their religious inheritance within the maelstrom of American family life.  It’s the prequel to my book (!), which picks up in the college years.

Also, The Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression, and Intersubjectivity (Museum Tasulanum Press, 2002) by Michael D. Jackson (not to be confused with the Thriller). It’s a beautifully written, politically important, perfect blend of ethnography and high theory, which is so hard to pull off.

What’s your next book?

This is What a Queer Evangelical Looks Like. Its an ethnographic study of how evangelicals are changing their tune on LGBTQ issues. Its especially about queer spaces opening up within evangelicalism.

You can read more from Philip S. Francis at the OUP Blog.