I sometimes see theological watchdogs nitpick artistic types, and I wonder if they have misunderstood the artistic gift and bent.
One such case is with Donald Miller. I have seen Matthew Lee Anderson pick apart Donald Miller (here). I have seen Kevin DeYoung do the same (Why We’re Not Emergent).
I will be the first to say I enjoy and appreciate the theological contributions Anderson, DeYoung and other Christian thinkers have made to the church through their critiques. And I would be quick to clarify I don’t agree with everything Miller writes, and I have no interest in defending his beliefs, politics, etc. My concern is simply with misreading one genre by reading it through the lens of another.
It seems the theologian’s scalpel damages the artist’s canvas.
Has no one read poetry before? Has no one visited an art gallery? Points are made in sharp vagueness. Yes, sharp vagueness. Audacious art speaks no words. Poets write perfected lines with untold allusions few will ever understand. And yet, somehow, at a certain level, it is still true. Is cubism less true than realism? I think not.
You could argue such airy art is not clear, sure. You could pick it apart (“You know, technically, that’s not what a guitar looks like”). You could argue such art is not as helpful as a clearly spoken, didactic word. In fact, Paul makes such a case to the Corinthians when he argues for plain speech over mysterious tongues. But we can never be rid of artistic license and hyperbole and flourish. And you certainly cannot claim all exaggerative, vague, impressionistic art, be it writing or painting, is wrong.
The apostle John wrote with such aesthetic flair. To this day, we wrestle with his artistic, impressionistic portrayal of the end times. The Psalmists employ similar language at times. Compare also the poetic account of the battle of Barak and Deborah with the historic account (Judges 4 vs Judges 5). Or consider the Genesis account of creation.
These literary genres allow wiggle room and mystery and in the process they capture different sides of the truth. We could easily nitpick these. We could point out the imprecision and technicalities. But such critiques miss the point. To slice Blue Like Jazz apart theologically, I think, is to misread the book. It reads like a memoir. In what sense can a memoir be wrong?
(Side note: Reading the unpublished writings of people like C.S. Lewis and Bonhoeffer have led to all kinds of inaccurate speculations about their theology. Why? Because scholars are reading personal notes through the wrong lens.)
I have written poetry and philosophy papers, and I can tell you each requires a very different kind of precision. Could we better recognize those differences and perhaps show more charity to our artistic brothers and sisters in Christ?