Monday, October 05, 2020

Whit's End

Joel Cuthbertson, Radio Theatre and the Problem of Evangelical Art, has a very interesting discussion of Adventures in Odyssey, the foremost radio artwork of our time:

Insisting on “peak” Odyssey, however, isn’t an accident. To praise Evangelical audio drama, with however many qualifications, means praising the artists behind its narrow success. Hal Smith as Whit, Katie Leigh as Connie Kendall, Will Ryan as Eugene (as well as dozens of others), and Alan Young as Jack Allen are essential to Odyssey’s best outings. But to praise Christian audio drama, including and beyond the scope of Odyssey, is to insist on Paul McCusker as one of the most important Christian writers of the last thirty years. He’s not only penned the most Odyssey episodes to date and served as Producer and Executive Producer for its best years, but in the late 1990s he also helped create Focus on the Family’s Radio Theatre. His legacy is diffused by radio’s collaborative nature, to say nothing of the missteps all popular writers produce, but in an age of resurgent audio excellence, his status as a forerunner extraordinaire shouldn’t be ignored.

While excellent, I think the essay concedes far too much to a certain kind of noxious critic: " represents almost too well the parasitic mindset of the Evangelical marketplace: a wholesome alternative, not an original endeavor....[A]t least one reading of Whit’s End betrays Evangelical desire for retreat as too often an Evangelical desire for comfort". This is a childish worry, too often indulged in our era, and itself makes several false assumptions about the nature of art -- that originality is a primary rather than a secondary end of art, that adapting art for one's community, however badly, is "parasitic" (it is in fact just part of the ordinary process of art-making) and focused on "comfort" (it is no more so than any other form of entertainment), that failing to highlight everything is somehow a flaw in art. All of these, I think, stem from the unhealthy worry, common among religious groups these days (and especially among Evangelicals, who have a tendency to measure their devotion by their impact on the world around them), of being caught in a 'cultural ghetto'. Such things are really just community-building, which is one way you build up the practices, techniques, and expertise that is required eventually to start producing something great. The only genuinely artistic problems that arise from such things are if artists are deliberately penalized for going beyond the confines of the niche in artistic terms.