Limitations of Worldview

FilmFisher writers will, from time to time, use the expression “a Christian worldview,” although we caution assuming the expression means what it has often come to connote in classical Christian circles.

This remarkable article by Peter Leithart is a fine reflection on the limitations of “worldview” within a Christian discussion of art, although I think it applies particularly well to film.

“Worldview” is a word with a host of definitions and descriptions, although I don’t think there is a need to choose one over the other. A worldview is a lens through which the world is seen and interpreted. A worldview is a set of presuppositions, those ultimate and unprovable beliefs to which no other belief can come prior, but from which all other belief is derived.

While most Christian educators are in agreement that worldview must be taught, how and why Christians uphold the supremacy of the Christian worldview is an entirely different matter. Further, how Christians speak to one another about the use of “worldview” is a matter to chew on.

I would submit to you that it is possible to talk about and commend a Christian worldview without actually helping anyone understand Jesus Christ, or learning how to live out a Christian worldview. It is possible to teach worldview the same way Professor Gradgrind teaches his students what a horse is in Dickens’ Hard Times. “What I want is the facts,” says Gradgrind, and while Sissy, the daughter of a local horse trainer begins to wax poetic about horses, Gradgrind cuts her off, preferring the boy Bitzer who defines a horse as “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders…” and so forth.

In his excellent treatise on classical education Poetic Knowledge: The Recover of Education, James S Taylor begins with this account from Dickens to describe the difference between scientific knowledge and poetic knowledge. Without denigrating science, Taylor suggests that scientific knowledge is knowledge from the outside in; the student comes to know the studied object as other, different, alien, factual. Poetic knowledge, on the other hand, is personal; it is knowledge from the inside out. Poetic knowledge aims to know a person or a thing by seeing the world as that person or thing sees it; poetic knowledge seeks out union with a person, sympathy for that person, the kind of knowledge shared by close friends who know one another’s sins and moral triumphs down to the minutiae.
Since the Enlightenment, education has come, more and more, to favor scientific knowledge. Neither scientific nor poetic knowledge is dispensable, yet both must be taught, and for reasons which I’ll explore later, poetic knowledge must come first. Poetic knowledge often deals in abstract and vaporous theological concepts like being and telos; Modern education tends to eschew any method of knowing which cannot boast quantifiable certainty or mathematical clarity— the perfect removal of the experimenter from the experiment, the teacher from the text. Poetic knowledge is concerned with the emotions and with the spirit, with a sense of wonder and mystery, intrigue, humanity, personality. Poetic knowledge is more like the knowledge of the naturalist, the bird watcher; or the man who wanders around a zoo for hours, gazing at the animals, delighted to see their strangeness. Scientific knowledge dissects, catalogues, quantifies and looks for similarities, deducing a family, a genius, a species. Poetic knowledge is interested in all the ways this particular bird is not like other birds, in all the ways this writer is not like others; scientific knowledge is interested in categorizing, and poetic knowledge is interested in all the ways a thing cannot be categorized, because of its uniqueness.

No small part of the draw of Modern education, or worldview-reductionism, is its’ promise to be done with messiness, debatability and interpretation which arises from poetic knowledge; the perfect Enlightened, Modern law is that law which is mathematically precise, sub-intellectual, without any need for nuance or exception, context or situation. “X is not allowed ever; Y is always allowed, without exception.” A law which even a machine could adjudicate.

From a certain angle, the appeal of such a thing is obvious. To put it bluntly, scientific knowledge gets stuff done. Dante’s geocentric cosmology might be beautiful in theory, but heliocentrism put a man on the moon. Within the paradigm of modern education, the work of the teacher is regular, verifiable. We know the student put the right thoughts in the student’s heads, and that he did not affect the right thoughts with his flawed personality, because the students were able to reproduce the facts when tested; knowledge is a kind of iTunes playlist, the mind is a blank CD, and we will know the CD has been burned properly when the music it yields is indistinguishable from iTunes.

Too often, worldview is spoken of in the exact same manner. The critic prepares to criticize a book, let us say The Communist Manifesto. The critic introduces the book by defining “materialism” as a series of abstract propositions which any materialist would uphold. A few objectionable passages are discussed, the critic directs the reader to statements made by Marx which are consistent with the propositions previously identified as materialism. Those statements are then briefly compared with a few passages of Scripture, dismissed as unscriptural, and the book has been “taught.” The materialist worldview has been described, revealed and dismissed. The same process might be repeated with any other work; the tenets of Romanticism are abstractly described, the plot of Frankenstein is summarized, passages of the text which neatly correspond to the tenets of Romanticism are highlighted, briefly compared with decontextualized quotes from St Paul, and the book is laid to rest. The same kind of reductionist method is often applied to films; this or that character remarks that “The body is a cage,” the hero gloriously commits suicide in the next act, and “I think we can safely dismiss this film as a work of gnosticism. Next.” Soundtrack, lighting… all that business can be dismissed or read purely through the gnostic lens.

Why read books, at all, then, or watch films, if we are only to cursorily dismiss them as false? Often enough, the answer is, “We are plundering the Egyptians.” While a book or a film is portrayed as philosophically worthless, Christians can borrow a neat turn of phrase here, a one-off apt observation of human nature there. We can admire the “character development” or “the structure.” There are times when “plundering the Egyptians” threatens to become the sole metaphor we have to understand why we read old books. It is may even hard for us to describe why we read old Christian authors apart from this metaphor, given that we do not agree entirely with anybody but ourselves. The only difference between the critic’s approach to Anselm and Whitman is the quantity of stuff to steal.

FilmFisher aims to give a full-blooded, deep, embodied, aesthetic account of film. We want to defy a reductionist, truncated account of film which dismisses this or that film as “gnostic” or “nihilist,” but rather enjoy film, speak with film, understand a film on its own terms.