Like most hyperbole, “All modern stories are awful” uses the exaggeration to make a point. Of course, not all modern stories are awful. Many, in fact, are quite good, whether these stories be in written or audiovisual form, and you can throw music and the visual arts into our “stories” category for completeness’s sake. However, and this is the point this hyperbolic statement is trying to make, is that it feels like all modern stories are awful.
It’s time to get lawyerly here: what do we mean by “awful”?
I can only speak for myself and what I see reflected in the artistic circles I travel in, but I’ve come to a somewhat workable definition over the years. The feeling, the perception, is that, at their root, modern storytellers and the tales the put forth lack soul.
Yes, soul, that ineffable, undetectable, invisible thing that we all somehow kind of sort of know what it is but cannot quite put into words. The soul is both the inexplicable thing that animates our physical bodies and makes us us, as well as a quality, a characteristic bespeaking a deep understanding of the human condition and, as commonly used in various forms of music, of being human.
Empathy. Compassion. Mercy. Selflessness. Justice. Doing the right thing because it’s right, not for glory or for gain.
All of these things could be further defined and elaborated on, but given that this is a blog post and not a legal treatise, let’s put that off for another day.
The next question is, are modern works really completely devoid of soul? I answer this with another matter: first, we have to decide who is making art. The various schools of thought, which have roughly coalesced into two broad sides, have completely different definitions of “soul.”
One side likely does not even believe in the existence of the human soul, nor of its disposition beyond the confines of this mortal life, yet this side still possesses its own definitions of truth, justice, right and wrong, good and evil. Everything is relative amongst themselves, and evil may be good depending on whom is doing what to whom, but their opponents are pure, irredeemably evil, not worthy of any empathy, compassion, or mercy.
The other side, has a more objective view of right and wrong, and this is fixed mostly due to belief in a supernatural creator deity, or deities, as the case may be, who sets the rules, imbued humanity with soul and the ability to discern right from wrong, good for evil, and will judge what we do in this life accordingly in the next one. This side also, by and large, believes in forgiveness and redemption, even for its enemies, although its practitioners are not always perfect in practicing empathy, compassion, and mercy to those who wish it dead.
The first school of thought is over-represented in the arts, among other institutions, which is why the perception that all books, movies, comics, TV shows, plays, and so on are terrible, soulless dumpster-fires of gray-goo ambivalence. And some are! However, even though works of art produced by this faction may be soulless, a whole heck of a lot are quite good. These are talented people, and sometimes one must take the bad with the good.
The second school of thought exists, and every time one of their works pokes through the cracks. However, in order to gain anything approaching mainstream acceptance and credibility, it has to be really good, and really coy in how it presents its mortality which runs counter to the ways of our historical epoch.
All of this is a lead-in to answer yet another question: what good is faith for art?
First, I am a writer, so this is the art I’ll be talking about. As a quick aside, I challenge you to look at Renaissance European art and listen to music from the classical age, or read a Dostoevsky novel, and tell me that the religious can only produce bland and boring works.
I am also a reader, and these deficiencies are present in a lot of so-called modern works, which I will classify as stuff made since 1945, the relatively commonly accepted start of the American Age. Some writers, like Kurt Vonnegut, are wildly talented and spin great, thought-provoking yarns that do have a measure of soul, albeit tempered with a sense that all existence is absurd, leaving this reader confused on how I am supposed to approach existence. Others, like Stephen King, purport to be Christian and possess an understanding of the capital-T Truth, and then spend thousands of pages pissing all over the Word of God and its believers. Still others like Bret Easton Ellis wallow in nihilism and the grotesque to highlight the dark and sinister aspects of American society, only to conclude that there is no exit. On the modern science-fiction front, John Scalzi pens sweeping interstellar epics, yet cannot escape late 20th and early 21st-century morality, aesthetics, and a general sense that consumer pop culture is the touchstone providing morals and a guide for what is good and true, while in fantasy, George R.R. Martin’s desire to write the anti-The Lord of the Rings presents a bleak world where bad stuff happening to good people is a natural law since the good are too stupid, weak, and naïve to survive.
J.R.R. Tolkien, meanwhile, sneaked so many Christian elements into The Lord of the Rings that even the outright anti-religious deeply enjoy the stories and, despite Tolkien’s explicit words, deny that they are there. This latter point is important since, here in what we now call “The West” but used to be called “Christendom,” Christian morality is imbued into all of our historical institutions and our very culture that, despite a few centuries of trying to excise it, it still persists.
As a writer, though, in a practical sense, I can tell you at least three things faith provides me with, and what I see writers who have, or at least understand faith, put into their writing:
Objective standards of good and evil, and right and wrong. We used to call this “morality.” The idea is that a wrong or evil thing done for a good purpose—or a purpose, as is commonly the case, a person thinks or feels is good—doesn’t magically transform the act. It may somewhat justify it, but it doesn’t convert it into an objective good. You may have to kill someone, but it doesn’t make killing a wonderful act that should be celebrated. One may really want to sleep with that attractive person, even though doing so would mean being unfaithful to one’s spouse, and the fact that the sexual act felt really, really good doesn’t make breaking one’s marital vows okay. You can throw ideas like chivalry and virtue into the mix here. The point is, the lament that many works appear to be soulless stems from the fact that many of their protagonists act like horrible, awful people that it is hard to root for.
Motivation. The faithful very often do things that are not in their own selfish interests, and may indeed lead to their own ruin or death. Think about the Christian prisoners of ISIS who chose a gruesome, humiliating death on camera instead of renouncing their faith in Jesus Christ. That seems crazy, right? Only to a certain subset of people who can’t understand that there are more important things than being alive in this world. Further, a fear of being judged tempers people’s worst instincts. I fully anticipate the “Not everyone needs a Sky Daddy threatening punishment to keep them from being horrible people,” to which I ask, “Okay, then what’s stopping you?” The answer is usually some combination of “I don’t want to go to jail” and “Because I do what’s right just because it’s the right thing to do,” to which I answer, “Says who?” This usually leads to some form of the “Evolutionary survival mechanism” answer, which doesn’t satisfy me in the least bit, but you do you. That is, after all, still a form of being judged by an outside force, in this case, one’s community. But back to the point: sometimes people risk their lives to do good just because it is the good thing to do and not because they’re a reluctant hero who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting their duty and doing it.
Hope. There are two aspects to this. There is hope for eternal life once this world, and our time in it, has passed, but there is also an overall broad hope in our fellow humans. Everyone deserves a measure of compassion, forgiveness, and mercy, in the hopes that they, too, will see the proverbial light. Forgiveness and redemption are huge parts of the faith, and these twin aspects temper our own inclinations towards hypocrisy. And yet, it also informs an understanding that we are all hypocrites to a degree, and that nobody can live a perfect life 100 percent in accordance with one’s ideals and beliefs. Because of this, we all deserve forgiveness and a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. And seventy times seven. The important thing is that we keep trying.