Tim Keller and Christian Realism

As Christians are we supposed to be optimists or pessimists? Obviously, we’d all want to be realists, but unless we assume complete omniscience, we’re probably not the best judge of whether that title is suited to us!

My church background (charismatic evangelicalism) is largely quite optimistic in tone, although precise theological stances on what we can expect in the future do differ. It’s funny because i get the impression that my more conservative evangelical friends seem to be more pessimistic in general outlook, although again there may be significant overlap on ‘end times’ expectations.

So which is the right way? Or is it purely a matter of personality?

As artists, this question becomes more pronounced. Many of us balk at the tendency in much Christian bookshop art that would appear to shut its eyes to reality, cross fingers and imagine that it will all be okay. On the other side, I’ve certainly been called out before on promoting art that seems to have been infected with the hopelessness and nihilism of the world, even though it is made by Christians.

The answer for us is surely that we must aim to tread carefully on a middle path, both as Christians and as artists. We have an eternal hope and I personally want this to breathe through my life and my work, but I know also that sin is real, judgement is real and suffering is real, and if I refuse to hit those things head on, then I am unlikely to engage with anyone who is reflecting honestly on life in the real world.

Therefore, I always like to bring it to people’s attention when I find someone who can articulate this sort of balance well. Francis Schaeffer does it. Flannery O’Connor does too. Adrian Hurst also does this well. As does David Blower So, it seems does Tim Keller.

I’ve really enjoyed reading his book on the topic of work ‘Every Good Endeavour’ and having just about got part the excellent opening quote, I found that the book continued in a similar vein. What’s more, it has a lot more to say about art than I’d expected, which is always an added bonus.

In a section, entitled ‘The gospel and the arts’, this is what Dr Keller says

How does Christianity affect an artist’s work? This has been and will continue to be a worthy topic for entire books. But in short, the gospel worldview equips the artist, as it does the journalist, for a unique combination of optimism and realism about life. The gospel is more globally pessimistic about human nature than virtually any other view of things. There is no one class or group of people responsible for the world’s situation; we are all responsible. Each of us is capable of the worst kind of evil, and there is nothing we can do to change ourselves, or even see ourselves in our true light, without God’s help. And yet, on the basis of God’s salvation in Christ, the gospel allows us to be at the same time deeply optimistic, envisioning not simply heaven but a perfectly renewed material creation. So artists shaped by the gospel cannot be characterised either by sentimentality or bitter hopelessness.

For example, the movie ‘Lost In Translation’ assumes that life is ultimately meaningless but affords some small comfort in friendship; the movie ‘Babe’ inspires us that even a pig can be a sheepdog if he defies tradition and tries hard enough. I believe that Christians can appreciate either kind of story, if it is well told, because from a gospel perspective, both naïve and cynical stories are partly true. Life in this fallen world is to a great degree meaningless, our aspirations are constantly being frustrated, and sometimes the respectable people are oppressive and bigoted. And yet there is a Good that will triumph over Evil in the end. (p174, Every Good Endeavour, Hodder & Stoughton)

The book is available anywhere that sells books, and I’d recommend it thoroughly. Whether you buy it or not though, here’s to a whole load more hope-filled, fact facing, beautiful, arrestingly grotesque, worshipful, sin-exposing, joyful, authentic, suffering enduring art that resonates with people’s humanity and subtly points them towards Jesus!

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