The 2012 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture



Today’s young people are awash in a sea of brand logos, movies, advertisements, and pop-culture icons. These forces shape them to be consumers. In the midst of the noise, the Church is called to immerse young people in the waters of their baptism, unleashing the creative power of the Holy Spirit who has called them by name and commissioned them to “go into all the world.” Christ calls young people (all people, really) to share the Gospel with their God given creative abilities.

The theme for the 2012 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture is “Create.” The lecturers include an artist, New Testament scholar, professor of communications, theologian, and film studies expert. Each lecturer contributes their expertise to a conversation about the Creator, creation, creativity and the creative potential of young people as builders of the Kingdom of God. They tackle questions such as, “What does it mean to understand God as Creator, and what does it mean to be made in God’s image?” “How does the increasing influence of the entertainment industry communicate values to young people, and how should we respond?” “How might aesthetics and artistic expression grow and deepen ministry with youth?” We hope the insights offered in each lecture will fuel your own creativity and strengthen you for ministry.

Faithfully Yours,
Dayle Gillespie Rounds
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary

2012 Lectures

  • Cecilia González-Andrieu
    Taking Back the Aesthetic
  • Makoto Fujimura
  • Marianne Meye Thompson
    Made and Making in God’s Image: Biblical Reflections on the Creator, Creation, and Creating
  • William D. Romanowski
    Gotta Cut Loose: Youth Culture and Entertainment Media
    Off to See the Wizard: Cinema and Salvation, American Style
  • Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran
    Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: The Dark Side of Beauty
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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: The Dark Side of Beauty

Rebecca VerStraten-McSparran is the director of the L.A. Film Studies Center, serving students from Christian universities. She pastored an historic arts church in Los Anegeles, and was founding pastor of the Tribe of Los Angeles, an emerging church involved with the arts community. She mentors youth and young adults ranging from gang members to countercultural artists and Christian college film students and alumni. She is completing a Ph.D. in film and philosophical theology at Kings College, London.

Yesterday we heard an excellent lecture from Dr. Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, which I believe provides an important basis for our approach to theological aesthetics. Today I bring a very different perspective but not because I disagree. What I want to share with you today pushes on an aesthetic that poses problems for the church, Christian artists, and a unique form of witness in the world. As such, it hopefully will inform your whole view of art and assist you in listening to young artists and their potential.

A poem:
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
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Icicles filled the long window
with barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs. 1

The moments of this poem are haunted by something that cannot be named—an echo, a memory, a beauty illumined by darkness, the truth of an infinite fabric revealed. Yet there is no hint that this darkness is necessarily evil, nor is it simple. In this poem alone there are thirteen ways of perceiving this darkness in beauty. It hints of a deeper terror, awe, and power. As if standing at the borders of the holy, we glimpse the mysterium tremendum beyond.

In our churches we sing of the God of lights in whom there is no darkness at all. “The heavens declare the glory of God…” (Psalm 19:1). Our praise and worship rightfully celebrate God’s presence and glory. God’s glory is God’s beauty and loveliness. If we talk about darkness, it is the darkness of brokenness, of abandonment, hopelessness, darkness that is void of God. Darkness is considered the equivalent of evil. Consequently, there is a pressure to speak of the triune God in only positive terms: our creator, redeemer, page 3 sustainer, friend, God of love, healer, God of hope. For the artist or creator, there is likewise a pressure to portray God as the God of beauty, love and hope. Our art must be redemptive, by which we mean that the ends must be full of hope and neatly tied up to show that God is always the answer. I would like to suggest, however, that the biblical God is much more complex than this, and that there is a potent and necessary dark side to God’s beauty from this side of eternity. The dark side of God’s beauty also reveals his truth, and if we miss exploring this with our congregations, our youth, and our artists, we are limited in speaking with God’s voice into our culture. Most importantly, our culture outside of the church recognizes at a deep level that we are ignoring something profound and true, so that our community’s voice and art rings hollow and empty instead of stabbing the world with insight and truth.

Now I would like to say here that I believe in evil. I believe in sin and that Jesus did descend into hell between his death and resurrection. I don’t pretend to understand what all of that hell is. I will leave that for other theologians to debate. But I want to make it clear that my search for the dark side of beauty is not about denying evil or glorifying evil. As part of the fabric of the universe, the dark side of God’s beauty reaches everywhere.

The Sublime

A word used in poetry and philosophy that hints at the feeling of overpowering awe and terror in the same moment is the word “sublime.” The sublime moment refers to the moment in which the feeling we experience has no words, is beyond thought and language, the disquieting terror of knowing a tornado is upon us by the strange green light that, like 3-D, heightens our vision; the unexpected looming of a craggy, dangerous mountain that blocks the light. In literature and philosophy the sublime has been juxtaposed with or even divorced from beauty since Kant, the Romantic period, and on through the Postmodern. Yet the sublime stands at the gateway of the indescribable, the wordless and invisible. 2 Harking back to Augustine and Dante and forward to theologian John Milbank, I believe the sublime is best understood as a mode of beauty, an aspect of the beautiful. I want to resurrect the word “sublime” to name the dark side of beauty—that combination of beauty, terror and grandeur.

The Scriptural Basis for Exploring the Dark Side of the Holy

The Scriptures are filled with stories of God’s actions, sublime, dark, and holy. Some of them are familiar, some are tucked away in the hidden corners of our Bibles, perhaps with a few cobwebs. Who has not pondered the inscrutability of God in his demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac? In the book of Judges, Jeptha declares he will sacrifice the first thing he sees upon his return from leading in battle in gratitude to God. His only daughter runs out to greet him in joy, and her fate is sealed. She becomes a devoted one. Her only request before death is to dance in the hills with her maidens so she may bewail her virginity. (Judges 11)

An unnamed Levite takes his son and concubine to the home of a stranger for the night when the men of the town almost break the door, calling out to his son to come out so that they can have sex with him. Instead, he finally sends out his concubine. In the morning he opens the door and finds her dead at his feet. God tells him to cut her into twelve pieces, representing the twelve tribes of Israel and send out her body parts to the tribes, illustrating God’s wrath and grief over what his beloved children have become. (Judges 19)

Consider the prophets. Elijah who, depressed after killing the prophets at Baal, trudges forty days and nights to Mt. Horeb, where he finds a small cave in which to hide. Is he comforted? No, in a display of terror and grandeur, he is whipped by a wind so great it breaks rocks and opens the mountain. Then comes a shattering earthquake, then the fierce heat of fire. But God is not there. Finally comes the still, small voice. (1 Kings 19)

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Remember Isaiah’s call?
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:1–8)

The prophet Jeremiah is not asked but told by God that he is appointed to be a prophet among the nations. He protests, saying, “But Lord, I am but a youth and do not know how to speak.” Jeremiah remembers the moment, saying, “Then the LORD stretched out His hand and touched my mouth, and the LORD said to me, ‘Behold, I have put My words in your mouth’. And so, being appointed, we see him later in the laughing stock or sinking deep into a muddy cistern, abandoned and alone. In the end he simply disappears from history. Yet in the heights of beauty and the depths of horror he proclaims, “But your word burns within me like fire shut up in my bones, and I cannot keep silent.” (Jeremiah 20:9 paraphrase)

At the height of the Scriptures stands the supreme moment of darkness in Christ’s death on the cross when he bears the burden of all burdens, the weight of the sin of the world so that he, the crucified God, is utterly abandoned into the terror of the darkest of nights and the heart of evil. Yet without this night there could be no resurrection. One of the most piercing and darkest beauties of life with God is the extended time that his followers experience God’s deep absence, the sense of abandonment, even though God is very present. Few journey far enough into the heart of God to be granted this profound absence. The value of the dark night—for the crucified God forsaken, for the prophets, for us, God’s holy and chosen ones—cannot be underestimated. Yet most of us, certainly youth, are never told about this side of Christianity. In my many years of mentoring artists, I have noticed that the artists, for whatever reasons of temperament or call, face that silent night, that impenetrable wall, with more frequency and even perhaps earlier than most believers. What would happen if we let them know in advance that the wall of God’s silence they may reach is not abandonment but a profound gift? If we are willing to “faith” through the dark night, we find on the other side resurrection, a sweetness and presence we could not otherwise have known, as well as a deeper reverence, knowing that we can never manipulate God’s presence by our actions. Few journey far enough into the heart of God to be granted this profound absence.

Most Protestants want to go straight to the resurrection and ignore the space between the crucifixion and resurrection, but we cheat if we do. Lent is okay for forty days because it is about suffering, but we don’t know what to do with the absence, ugliness, and silence of the grave. We want to ignore the same thing with our art, whether used in worship, within the church, or offered to the world. We especially want to put our best face forward to the world. We want to minimize the dark places, ignore the ugly things that populate our bent and broken hearts, offer answers, comfort, and be inspired to remind us of our hope. We want an easy redemption as defined by our Christian culture.

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Artists as Prophets

Prophets and artists have deep rivers that connect them. Artists tend to live on the margins of culture, disturbed by the conventional habits of their culture. My fascination with this connection came about through poet and writer Steve Turner who ponders prophets and artists in his book, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. This little book remains our favorite book at L.A. Film Studies Center to use with filmmakers in transitioning from Christian culture to real world art. Turner notes that artists tend to “prick the pretensions of those in power, call attention to injustice and attack untested assumptions about behavior.” 3 They have long been the avant garde, literally the vanguard, the scouts checking out the new territory. Their art pushes us to uncomfortable and edgy places. When it first comes to light, it often feels dark.

The identification of artist as prophet became popular, according to Turner, in the Romantic period when Robert Loweth, in 1753, wrote a book that influenced such notables as poet and artist William Blake, entitled Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. He reasoned that the Hebrew word nabi, which was translated prophet in the old King James Version of the Bible, could just as well mean poet or musician, that is, artist:
It is sufficiently evident that the prophetic office had a most strict connection with…poetic art….They had one common name, one common origin, one common author, the Holy Spirit. Those in particular were called to the exercise of the prophetic office, who were previously conversant with the sacred poetry. It was equally part of their duty to compose verses for the service of the [temple], and to declare the oracles of God. 4

The great writer and thinker R.G. Collingwood writes, “The artist must prophecy not in the sense that he foretells things to come but in the sense that he tells his audience, at the risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts.”

My question is: As Christian communities, what kind of artists do we want to offer the world? Do we want to foster artists who are prophets? They do not always say comforting things and are not easily tamed. Do we want them to say what we think the world needs to hear or what they believe they are to say? Do we even truly know what we need or what our culture longs for? What will help them hear?

A pressure exists among Christians who are filmmakers, whether they are making specifically Christian films or not, to create their story within a moral framework, a story that offers moral guidance or tells us how we shall then live. Since the filmmaker/artist is a Christian, it is believed it should be uplifting, carry echoes of the Christian message or at the least be redemptive. My students come from many Christian colleges and universities with increasingly good film programs, and this pressure exists for most of them. Those who have a darker eye hover about the edges, aren’t honest about the stories they bear within them, the visions they long to create. They often think their only alternative is to become atheists or agnostics when the truth is that they have been silenced by a cultural Christianity which parades as the sole perspective of biblical Christianity. These are often our finest filmmakers. It has been said that art that is sanitized comes stillborn into the world. 5

What we often assume are Christian values or biblical beliefs instead have roots in history and philosophy that are neither biblical nor Christian. But we build a Christian culture around these beliefs and they become a core set of values and expectations. Director/writer Ron Austin best addresses this issue in Christian culture page 6 in the context of movies. Stories, films or theater that presents a model for behavior or are driven by a message have their roots in Plato’s philosophy of idealism. The conflict within the drama is mythic and ideal. There is a clear protagonist that represents good and an antagonist that is mostly evil. Many of the most famous Hollywood films fit into this tendency. The clearest example in Hollywood films is the Western genre where “Ford and Capra…often presented idealized heroes who struggled against corrupt villains.” 6 Similar films include the Star Wars series, Superman, the X-Men series, and Lord of the Rings.

A very different tendency in drama, story, or film comes from Aristotle. Its purpose is catharsis, a purgation of emotions. Although moral guidance may be present, the story leads into the more subjective realm of inner conflict where we explore to face our fears and desires. By identifying with the characters, our deep feelings and struggles rise to the surface and are purged, or at least confronted. Austin says, “At best, this purgation leads to insight, but it does not necessarily offer a clear moral message.” 7

The Platonic tendency is more attractive to Christians who are upset by bad language or viewing the ugliness of the soul. Although it is understandable that they want youth to watch movies that model good behavior, they don’t understand the importance of being confronted with the ugly secrets of their own hearts. Only then can they enter those dark places that need purging.

One way of labeling these differences is “prescriptive,” a moral guide or message-based film, as compared to “descriptive,” a film that describes the way we really are. 8 When Christians are pressured into making these types of films, rarely do they end up with Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Well-intentioned though they are, most feel manipulative and ring untrue. Generally, only the Christian audiences attend. A broad range of other films have echoes of the Christian message, are moral stories or redemptive, but they are designed around the story, not the message. They inspire and comfort. But there is a profound difference between these films and ones that drag out what is inside us and make us face the truth of who we are. And that is at the core of the Christian message.

Being “Peeled” (the Holy in Cinema)

Kartina Richardson, not at all Christian, writes about the deadly and the holy in cinema in her blog, Mirror: Motion Picture Commentary. The deadly is conventional cinema that reassures us, makes us comfortable, allows our self-protective covering to remain intact, revealing no truth. The holy is cinema that seeks to make visible the invisible and desires to understand the spiritual and philosophical. It “peels” us, disturbs us, will not leave us alone but instead requires that we pick up the DVD once again, shove it into the player and search for those buried coherences that take us deeper within and beyond. While she cites films like Nottinghill as the comfort food to which she returns again and again, her primary example of the deadly cinema is, surprisingly, The King’s Speech. But we counter, “Isn’t the cinematography beautiful? The acting superb? Doesn’t it inspire us to push beyond our own disabilities to become something more?” But if we are honest, how many of us did this film transform? Did it “peel” us? Such cinema parades as holy only to mask what is truly holy. The truly holy requires us to pay attention, to struggle to grasp hold of it. It is difficult. It may be disturbing. It requires, oh dear…suffering?

The holiest filmmaker of all, writes Richardson, is the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986). Tarkovsky altered the landscape of filmmaking through his complex films and is considered the greatest artist of film by most accounts. His method of sculpting time and space created a new form of cinematic poetry, making his work pivotal in the film world. As a film painter, he presses into the liminal regions of page 7 worlds seen and unseen, using everyday, ordinary images: a woman washing her hair, coins spilling in mud, a meadow of grass bending with the invisible breath of wind, lovers who levitate. The seeker is caught by the hints and guesses of the bright shining world beyond while filled with inward longing for that which is buried deep within. 9

Tarkovsky grew up in Stalinist Russia, yet on his own became fascinated with Russian icons and Russian Orthodoxy. During a forbidden time he made films for the state that were all about the spiritual world, helping Soviet-era Russians remember their soul. Enduring increasing state criticism and limits in his filmmaking, he left and made his final films in Sweden and Italy. Ingmar Bergman, the famous Swedish director said of him, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” 10 An increasing openness about spirituality is evident throughout Tarkovsky’s work. He is not didactic nor dogmatic but he is relentless in his spiritual message, whether in his films, his writing, or speaking. Near the end of his life he writes in his diary:
Lord, I feel You drawing near, I can feel Your hand on the back of my Head….I want to see Your world as You made it, and Your people as You would have them be. I love You, Lord, and want nothing else from You. I accept all that is Yours, and only the weight of my malice and my sins, the darkness of my base soul, prevent me from being Your worthy slave, O Lord! 11

I mention Andrei Tarkovsky in detail not only because secular writer Kartina Richardson calls him the most holy of all filmmakers but because he is also the inspiration for the two top competing filmmakers this year at Cannes Film Festival: Terence Malik, Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier, Melancholia. These are the films that are impacting the gatekeepers of culture. This impact is significant because these are the people at the top in the film world who make a difference.

The recent book To Change the World by James Davidson Hunter, a distinguished professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, finds that the idea of transforming culture by changing hearts and minds at the grassroots level to be deeply flawed. He quotes mission statements of Christian universities, major organizations and churches who base their philosophy on the bottom up approach to change. Instead, he says, culture has always been changed from the top down by the cultural elites: the gatekeepers, institutions, and networks. This reorientation of how culture changes is disturbing and provoking. In the case of this year’s films it is fascinating because the two films of highest honor in world film are most influenced by the “holiest filmmaker” are dark and holy films. Both Malik and Lars Von Trier are profoundly theological filmmakers. They have forced their viewers to reflect on the secrets of their own hearts, and the gatekeepers cannot forget them or let them go.

Flannery O’Connor, writer and grand dame of the dark side of beauty, says:
Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, for the unacceptable…The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is seeing them as natural. 12

Unlike Flannery O’Connor’s belief that Christian writers (or filmmakers) will have the sharpest eyes for the grotesque and unacceptable, the writing and filmmaking of most Christians push no envelopes.

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Mentoring our Artists

Given the church's emphasis on praise, worship and beauty, it is difficult for leaders to discuss the darker side of beauty in that vortex where immaterial and material worlds meet. Because of this omission or lack of conversation about the dark side of the holy, many of the intuitive, darker seeing artists usually remain on the edge of youth groups and churches. Their hearts, their inmost ways of seeing are not identified or touched; they are misunderstood. They are invited in but not pursued or sought out. This is often from awkwardness on the leader's part in broaching dark places that may not be about solvable problems or understanding art that does not appear to be redemptive or healing, no matter how much the church is trying to support the arts. Eager, less rebellious artists who need less nurturing are the ones enfolded and encouraged. Often, however, they are lesser artists. The others usually leave the church. These are the ones I meet at the highest places and the humble places in the music world, in film, at gallery exhibits or at Burning Man. Their churches reject much of their art out of hand because it does not appear redemptive. This is an important issue because we live in a culture where shock and darkness are valued, and it certainly is not missing in God’s interaction with the world. It is difficult to engage our culture when we believe that God is full of light, therefore all darkness is wrong, or if dark questions are answerless. Too often, the ones who seem the most rebellious or the ones who ask the most difficult questions are viewed as losing their faith. It is easier for all of us, dare it be said, when the provocateurs are not around. It may indeed be those very artists who left the church who are the ones who rise and are listened to by the gatekeepers of our culture and who in fact have much theologically to say. By that time, however, it may not be the theology we would like the world to hear.

And so we also cheat our congregations, our youth, and the world if we don’t listen for beauty in our artists’ dark visions, or if we do not attempt to understand what is illumined by their rebellion or provocations. And perhaps more seriously, we cheat the artists in our congregations who have the capacity to be, and sometimes the call to be, our prophets.

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Works Referenced

  • Ron Austin, In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts (New York: New City Press, 2007).
  • James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Rosemary M. Magee, Conversations with Flannery O’Connor (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987).
  • Tarkovsky, Andrei, Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970–1986, trans. by Kitty Hunter-Blair, Film-North, 2003. Web. 12 Sept. 2011.
  • Rebecca VerStraten-McSparran 2011. “Andrei Tarkovsky: The Holy in Cinema,” SEEN Journal 11.1
1. Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” University of Pennsylvania, 9 Dec. 2011.
2. Philip Shaw, The Sublime (London: Routledge, 2008).
3. Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians In the Arts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 76.
4. Cited in Imagine: A Vision for Christians In the Arts, 76.
5. Robert K. Johnston, private correspondence
6. Ron Austin, “The Hollywood Divide” in Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture, edited by Barbara Nicolosi and Spencer Lewerenz (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 43.
7. Austin, 43.
8. Detweiler, Craig. Into the Dark (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 41.
9. Kartina Richardson, “The Cinema: Deadly and Holy,” Mirror: Motion Picture Commentary,, accessed 12 Sept. 2011.
10. Ingmar Bergman on Andrei Tarkovsky, n.d., accessed Sept. 17, 2011.
11. Chiaramonte, Giovanni and Tarkovsky, Andrey A., ed. Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2004), 30.
12. O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1962) 33.