My initial intention in this article was to offer a response to several of the comments written in response to my article “The Bible, the Americana Omnibus, and the brilliantly subtle classic“.
Unfortunately, time simply precludes me from doing this. Instead, I’m going to offer a brief response to a couple comments before focusing on one comment from Jason Thibodeau which will help us dig down to some of the deeper issues.
Jeff opines: “In essence, Randal is going the route of skeptical theism, saying that, possibly, God has good reasons for including such barbaric content in his word.” No, I’m not going “the route of skeptical theism”. Indeed, what I’ve written explicitly contradicts that. The skeptical theist says we don’t know why God allows evil. But I’ve already referred to many biblical interpreters who offer many analyses as to why God “allows” the problematic moral content within the Bible. It is a bit disheartening to find folks getting the argument completely backwards!
I’d also like to acknowledge Brad Lencioni’s admirable attempt to summarize “Randal’s argument” into seven steps. Unfortunately, that isn’t my argument. My argument is simply that the critic who claims that the perceived objectionable moral content within the Bible provides a rational defeater for believing the Bible is in some sense revelation has a burden of proof to defend that claim.
And that brings me back to Jason Thibodeau who objects to the comparison between the Bible and the Americana Omnibus on the following ground:
“If I was an editor of the American Omnibus and I came across passages in which I (and/or other editors) were depicted as commanding/approving of/bringing about moral atrocities I would redact those passages or disassociate myself from the text.”
Based on what he says elsewhere, Jason views this position in moral and (or?) prudential terms. He seems to believe that any morally upright and capable editor is obliged to distance themselves explicitly from “moral atrocities” contained within their work. More broadly, I take it the claim is something like this:
Moral Artist Principle: an artist is morally obliged to ensure that their own moral assessment of any objectionable moral content within their work (e.g. the depiction of a moral atrocity) is clear to those who will come into contact with the work. Failure to do this should result in a moral indictment of the artist and moral censure of the work in question.
Let’s try this principle out on film director Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film “Elephant”. The film was inspired (if that’s the right word) by the horrific school shooting at Columbine, and it portrays an average day at a high school that culminates in a student shooting. What was distressing to many viewers is that the film seems to take no moral stand on the shooting. Roger Ebert notes in his review that this led to some critics condemning the film on moral grounds:
“Van Sant seems to believe there are no reasons for Columbine and no remedies to prevent senseless violence from happening again. Many viewers will leave this film as unsatisfied and angry as Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who wrote after it won the Golden Palm at Cannes 2003 that it was “pointless at best and irresponsible at worst.”
I am guessing that critic Todd McCarthy’s moral response to the film is reflective of something like the Moral Artist Principle. Interestingly, Ebert then offers the following response to McCarthy and likeminded critics:
“I think its responsibility comes precisely in its refusal to provide a point.” (emphasis added)
We get a fuller sense of what Ebert means in his opening paragraph:
“Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” is a record of a day at a high school like Columbine, on the day of a massacre much like the one that left 13 dead. It offers no explanation for the tragedy, no insights into the psyches of the killers, no theories about teenagers or society or guns or psychopathic behavior. It simply looks at the day as it unfolds, and that is a brave and radical act; it refuses to supply reasons and assign cures, so that we can close the case and move on.” (Emphasis added. For Ebert’s full review click here.)
Devotees of the Moral Artist Principle presumably want something like “Bowling for Columbine,” a preachy, entertaining, shrill piece of analysis that offers no ambiguity and abundant diagnoses and solutions. And there is a place for such films. But Ebert is surely correct: there is also a place for the artist who refuses to supply reasons and assign cures so that we can close the case and move on. There is a place for the artist simply to depict life in all its beauty, glory, depravity and ugliness, without being morally obliged to add moralizing voice-over commentary.
And then there is that one troubling adjective in the Moral Artist Principle: the artist’s own moral assessment must be clear. This begs the question: clear to whom? To every visitor to the gallery, or reader of the book, or viewer in the theater? Surely not. Last year I tried watching “Inception” with my daughter (then 11). It didn’t go well. In the first ten minutes she kept asking questions for clarification as she struggled to track with the story. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Christopher Nolan had produced a work that is broadly inaccessible to the average 11 year old. But surely that’s no indictment on the director! Not everything has to be clear to everybody.
Critics of “Elephant” worried that impressionable youths watching the film and unable to process the filmmaker’s relatively disengaged treatment of the subject matter might be inspired to commit their own school shootings. It’s a legitimate concern (or, rather, it’s not an illegitimate concern, which isn’t quite the same thing). But surely this concern isn’t sufficient to warrant restricting the production of such works or censuring a director like Van Sant. And if it is, then where do you stop?
So Jason thinks that any morally upright editor of a volume like the Americana Omnibus must make her moral perspective on all the content in her edited volume clear to all (or most?) readers. And presumably the filmmaker is obliged by the same principle to ensure that there is no ambiguity with respect to his own assessment of objectionable moral content contained within his film.
Both God and Gus Van Sant are held guilty for failing to supply reasons and assign cures so that we can close the case and move on.