#ThinkerThursdays: Alissa Wilkinson

#ThinkerThursdays is a new series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. We hope to illuminate what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of their writing and thinking (I'll conduct interviews with Michael's help). This is the second of the series; the first one was with Laura Turner. 

The next one up is Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie).

She is an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City, and the chief film critic at Christianity Today. Her essays and criticism appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Movie Mezzanine, Bright Wall / Dark Room, The Marginalia Review of Books, Litro NY, Art House America, Christ & Pop CulturePaste, and others. She is co-author with Robert Joustra of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, May 2016), and is at work on Orphaned Believers: Reframing Religion in the Age of Faith-Based Film (The Critical Press). 

Q. When you are talking with other film critics, and you say you write for Christianity Today, for instance, how do people react?

Nobody looks at me askance at film festivals when I say that I work for a religious press. They are like, “Oh, that’s an interesting perspective.” The only people who are really self-conscious about this are Christians. 

I should say that what we do at Christianity Today is pretty unique. We write about films from the perspective of Christian anthropology more than anything else—we think about what people are like, what art is for, etc. We have become known for doing that in mainstream film critic world. It’s to the point where people will contact me specifically and say, “I want a religious perspective on this.” 

Many people whom I talk to are not religious at all, but they know that religion is important in contemporary life and they know it’s an underdeveloped area of inquiry, especially in pop culture. The next book I am working on is about religious film – film that asks religious questions – and it is under contract at a mainstream press. They are excited. Everyone wants to talk about this but nobody knows how. And few Christians talk to mainstream audiences about it.

Q.   One of the best examples I can think of where you unpack how a non-religious person can ask religious questions, such as, “Who I am? How do I connect with others? Where are we headed?” is your tribute to David Foster Wallace, “Everybody Worships,” in Books & Culture. Why do you think people like Wallace sometimes are even better than religious people at asking religious questions? 

Because doubt hasn’t always been welcomed in organized religion, and yet doubt and faith are totally compatible. A guy like Wallace never managed to join a church because he asked too many questions. For me, growing up so much of my life and identity was “I feel confident about this.” But if we actually believe that God saves people, then God saves me—

 Q. Thus your faith is based more on God’s salvation of you, and less on you bolstering your faith with iron-clad proof.

 Yes. So if I also sometimes I wonder if everything I think is correct—this shouldn’t scare me. It should be like, “Yeah, we’re humans, this is what we’re supposed to do.” But that sort of questioning is more accepted in pop culture discussions, when you are not always trying to toe the party line because of eternal significance.

 Q.   What I sometimes see is Christians trying to fit human experience into given answers, creating a kind of contorted way of being.

Yeah, and art is great for this because it lets us explore other lives, ideas, and contexts.

Q. But how does the climate of polarization – across political and cultural lines – affect the ability of art to “let us explore other lives”? There was a recent Stanford study that came out that said the polarization of the American electorate has measurably increased.

The more polarized we are, the more niche-marketed we are. So you make a movie for less money, but you target it harder to a particular niche-market that is going to love whatever it is you are going to say. 

Q. So we start consuming within our specific niche-market.

That’s not true of everybody, but it’s true of most people. And it’s really, really hard to convince people to see a movie that they don’t think they are going to agree with – it doesn’t matter who they are. There are way more movies than there ever have been. Our echo-chambers are becoming stronger and stronger—this has been much more clear in the past ten years. And now with VOD and Netflix, the options are just endless. I don’t think this is a bad thing necessarily, but it strongly contributes to polarization and it has to be consciously counteracted.

Last year in The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote an article, “Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?” I do think that’s something we are definitely losing – the ability for art to say meaningful things about a big cultural problem that most people will see. I saw Selma, and at first I thought, “This is the best - this is the one that is going to give us something to talk about.”

A lot of people saw it and talked about it, but it’s not like talking about Star Wars is going to be. That’s just harder to find today. Which means people have more options—those conversations become more regional and contextual, which is not a bad thing, but we have to be intentional about making those conversations happen.

At present, churches in particular are not intentional about that often. We don’t talk about it as important—“Let’s seriously consider the entertainment that we see, not just what is it doing to our individual souls, but what does it mean for our community?” Of course, studying the Bible is very important, but it is potentially not the only thing we can do with small groups or Sunday school classes. Why do we rarely have friends over to watch a movie and discuss it?

Part of the reason evangelicals in particular have been really bad at talking about art and making art is because we have a dearth of good criticism by Christians for the past fifty years. Or, we turned criticism into “being critical,” instead of thoughtful critique.

Q. Evangelicals tend to place a lot of emphasis on “making and producing culture.” I’m thinking of Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making. Given that, what is the role of criticism?

 When Andy talks about cultivation – that is what criticism is. If cultivation is taking chaos and making order out of it, that’s what critics do. They take something that seems confusing or strange, or an emotional reaction you had, and they try to lay out an analysis of that in hopefully a playful and interesting way.

Q. Let’s apply this to something concrete—you have just finished a book with Robert Joustra on apocalyptic literature and movies. How do you approach apocalyptic literature as a “critic”?

The function of apocalyptic literature is not just to tell the story of the end of the world, but to tell us something about ourselves in the story of the end of the world. The most interesting thing we noted is that throughout most of all of human history, apocalypse has been visited from on high, from god or gods. In the 20th century, we bring the apocalypse on ourselves, almost invariably. The “zombies” are because of a virus we invented. Or we had a “war,” and it resulted in the Hunger Games.

Q. Why do we end up self-destructing? 

In the book, we track pretty tightly with the eighth chapter of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, where he talks about an ethic of authenticity that marks our age. We live in an age of authenticity, in which we need to find our authentic self and live our own path. Instead of being born into a class or gender, now we find those things for ourselves. That has serious implications for politics.  

How do you do politics in a world where everyone is an individual? I think it’s Weber that talks about the iron cage and the tyranny that can result from that, which can include everyone being so occupied with their interests that they are not occupied with the interests of the entire society, or everyone is so occupied with their own interests that they are not paying attention when a tyrant appears who exercises a will to power.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.