We’re in the last two weeks of the semester at St. John’s University, where I teach theatre and public speaking classes part-time. My Contemporary Drama class just finished watching a twenty-year-old recording of the musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim (book by James Lapine). I was struck again by the depth of thought, passion, and artistry Sondheim invested in that show. Basically, it’s about everything it means to be a grown-up, told through fairy tales – not the Disney versions, mind you, but the originals, with all the blood and violence and pain that the originals contained (I’m bettin’ the Prince in Tangled doesn’t fall from the tower to be blinded on the thorns below). In the original Grimm Brothers versions, it’s only after having gone “into the woods” to confront real evil, death, and their darkest fears that the characters get to become happier ever after (usually), but also wiser, and maybe a little bit more scared about what’s really out there, too.
One of the climactic songs of the musical is “Children Will Listen.” The cast sings:
Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the things you do, children will see.
Children may not obey, but children will listen.
Children will look to you for which way to turn,
To learn what to be. …
Careful the spell you cast, not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see
And turn against you.
Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell.
Children will listen. …
This wonderful show is about many things, and of course my 19-year-old college students saw very different things than I did. I felt so tenderly toward them in those hours we were watching and discussing it, because I know from experience just how many more times they’ll head “into the woods,” how hard it will be, and how much they’ll suffer – and change and grow.
But because the thing I think about most is art and its power and its relationship to Christian faith, I heard something else from Sondheim, too: a strong warning to artists about responsibility. “Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell.” Not to suggest that there’s anything magical about art – or that audiences are children. But when someone gives two hours (or even just a moment) to metaphorically sit down with us and say “show me how you see the world” we have to see that time as precious, and also fraught with danger. “Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see.”
Sometimes we artists have a tendency to only look to the end of our noses in thinking about the work we’re creating and putting out there into the world. Maybe right now it seems like being in this show, or writing that story, or taking those photos is “what I need to say right now” or “no worse than what you’d see on primetime TV” or “good for my career and I don’t have a platform from which to talk about Jesus if I don’t have a credible career.” And maybe that’s all true. But maybe it’s just not what we should be putting out there for the long run – for everyone else.
I don’t say that to deter artists from creating using nudity and four-letter words, which is sometimes necessary, and seems to be where this conversation always ends up (and rarely gets beyond). I’m equally concerned about what the artist’s creation is saying about the nature of this already-but-not-yet world we live in, its beauty or its horror, and whether it tracks on any level whatsoever with a Christian worldview, even if it is squeaky G-rated.
And I’m even more concerned about what happens when we leave out the part about the thorns at the bottom of the tower in the woods. What happens when the 19-year-old woman finds out that real life is more Grimm than Tangled, and she has no emotional or spiritual tools to deal with that truth? Have we served her well? Can the tendency I see in my generation and younger to think that we have the right for life to be easy and for all our dreams to come true be traced directly back to the Disneyfication of much darker and scarier and sadder stories?
There are no easy answers in this conversation. And I’ve heard much frustration from Christians, both artists and audiences, when I say that, as though I’m copping out somehow. But there are no easy answers in this conversation. No matter how badly we want them.
We see in the Gospels how Jesus felt about rules made by the well-intentioned faithful who were trying to avoid mistakes and, in the process, lost the spirit of the law. We need to:
- be transparent, exposing the discussion to examination within loving community among people who will have different opinions (including “uninformed” ones),
- seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance (not just confirmation for what we’ve already decided to do), and
- humbly submit to what we believe we’re hearing. Whether that answer is “no – and trust Me that there is a future without it” or “yes – and some people whose opinions you care about aren’t going to like it.”
Sometimes responsibility means pulling back, sometimes it means taking risks. But it always means caring – being care-full – and considering the impact of our decisions past what we can see. Or they may turn against us.
Blessings in your work,
Note: Luann’s opinions are not the official stance of Church and Art Network, nor does she speak for all of its members. The “content issue” is an area in which there are many differing perspectives. In an area this important to our work, it is important that we have thoughtful and respectful conversations, and love those who differ from us.