The Disruptive Witness of Art

For most of us, Charles Taylor’s story of secularism, cross-pressures, and the immanent frame will be most helpful in interpreting cultural works. But for a few, there is a more pressing and, I think, exciting application of Taylor’s ideas. Near the end of A Secular Age, he suggests that literature (and I would argue the other arts as well) may offer one of the most poignant, disruptive voices for our times (732). 

Taylor’s account of unbelief in the 21st century suggests that it is not typically intellectualobjections that keep people from faith, but the visceral pull of the immanent frame in the background. So we need to offer an alternative “social imaginary,” one that conceives of human fullness in Christ. It may require the creation of a “new language or literary style,” but the Christian artist may depict transcendence from within immanence in a way that speaks to the lived experience of modern people (A Secular Age, 732).

For his model, Taylor cites Flannery O’Connor. Evangelicals’ general admiration for O’Connor may blind us to Taylor’s point here, so I think it’s instructive to look at the particular ways O’Connor works from within the immanent frame to push against closed immanence. Taylor notes how she told stories grounded in the everyday, worldly experience of the immanent frame while providing “a point not visible to the naked eye,” a point that forces a paradigm shift (O’Connor quoted in Taylor, A Secular Age, 732).

One thinks of the grandmother’s epiphany at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as an example. She embodies the petty evil of selfishness, perfectly absorbed in her own world and desires. Yet her epiphany at the end of the Misfit’s gun points to a force of transformation from outside herself, a force of grace. 

Taylor doesn’t want us to see O’Connor’s use of violence and the grotesque as the only or primary way writers can offer signs of transcendence in an immanently framed world, but she does offer a model. Good contemporary art and literature will convey these cross-pressures. But the Christian artist may tilt toward the plausibility of true transcendence, demonstrating how this “take” on existence deeply satisfies since it doesn’t result in an impoverished vision. 

Read more at The Gospel Coalition.

Alan Noble