Christian art at its height was the greatest art the world has ever seen. There is no painting greater than Michelangelo’s; no music greater than Bach’s; no poetry greater than Milton’s. (I would argue that Shakespeare was a distinctly Christian writer too, but that’s for another time.)
Now? Well, let’s put it this way. In the early 19th century, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that Christianity had devolved into nothing more than “banal optimism.” If Schopenhauer could see much of what passes for Christian fiction and film today, he would feel well justified in that assessment. It’s not that movies like God Is Not Dead, and novels like the Left Behind series are bad exactly. I think of such stuff as Heavenly RomComs, with God in the role of the guy who gets the girl in the end. It’s pleasant, reassuring comfort food that leaves Christians feeling good. Nothing wrong with that.
But Christian art that challenges and deepens and enriches our sense of our own lives — that does what real art does, what Michelangelo’s work and Bach’s and Milton’s does — that’s a lot harder to find. I see more realism and depth and revelation in fine cynical works like the novel A Simple Plan and both the novel and film of Gone Girl than I do in The War Room or Heaven is for Real.
That’s why those of us who love both God and art should celebrate a movie like The Revenant, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. It presents a harsh, honest view of human life, and yet one that strongly implies, rather than preaches, the presence of the Christian God. It is a vision rather than a sermon: which is what art is meant to be.
No spoilers. I won’t give anything away that’s not in the trailer. Leonardo DiCaprio plays 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass, who is left for dead by psychopathic fur trapper John Fitzgerald played by Tom Hardy. The movie tells the story of Glass’s search for survival and revenge. DiCaprio, Hardy and Inarritu are all up for Oscars and all ought to win.
The film is beautiful, elemental and epic. With a complete lack of moralism, it shows men of many colors and nations committing terrible atrocities against one another for fully comprehensible and sympathetic reasons. Even the bear who mauls Glass in the movie’s most celebrated scene has an understandable motive. And yet for all the hatred and violence on display, Inarritu manages to convey a sense that the entire drama is overseen by a God who cares only about the love that inspires them, and who is working by slow and invisible degrees to bring that love closer and closer to the center of human affairs. Without a message or an overt theme, the simple sense of God’s presence makes the film profound and haunting.
That’s the way Christian art is done. And those of us who believe — and those of us who want to believe — and those of us who simply understand that without belief none of our values makes any sense — should celebrate Inarritu’s achievement and look forward to his next work.