Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Are cartoon characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Buster the Rabbit (that, some critics say, promote homosexuality) threats to the “traditional family”?

It is distressing to have great intellectual and moral concerns reduced to the cartoonish, both in the form of animated film and the posturing of some who wish to fight the culture wars at this level.

Most who accept the label “conservative Christian,” or its synonyms, spend too much time throwing stones at the cultural citadels and too little acquiring and developing the skills and knowledge to compete in the ideological and cultural arena.

It has not always been so. Historically, Christians dominated the professions, not solely by force of law, but by the power of their ideas and example. William Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England” became a classic legal work, though most modern law schools rarely study it. Christian writers once occupied much of literature. Recall some: John Milton, George Herbert, Flannery O’Connor, John Donne, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and T.S. Eliot.

From the fifth century until the near-modern era, Christian thinkers dominated philosophy: They included Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Anselm of Canterbury and William of Ockham.

Politics was once populated with Christians whose lives and intellectual prowess influenced culture from the inside-out. In other eras, President Bush’s faith was unremarkable. Today, many in the academic-cultural-political elites consider it odd, even dangerous.

For centuries, the arts virtually belonged to those of Christian faith. Their names are legion, including Rembrandt van Rijn and Albrecht Durer, not to mention scores of earlier artists, many under the direct patronage of the church.

Music? Handel, Brahms and Bach once defined the word.

Science? Again, the list is long, including Isaac Newton, Johann Kepler, Robert Boyle, Louis Pasteur, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.

What happened to rob music, philosophy, law and science of such great thoughts and expressions? In part it was preaching that asserted engagement with “the world” would taint the believer and that it was therefore best to separate one’s self from its “corrupting” influence. The result has been similar to what happens when a feeding tube is removed from a comatose person. The patient starves to death.

Culture is starving because too many with a worldview that differs from the prevailing one have withdrawn their nurturing influence. It doesn’t help when such people are persuaded it is better to criticize institutions and their products rather than go them one better.

How are academia, law, filmmaking or journalism improved when not enough believers in God become professors, lawyers, filmmakers or journalists? “Hollywood” does not suddenly begin making better movies when it is criticized for making bad ones.

There are a few trying to integrate faith with their creative gifts, but not nearly enough. Dr. Armand Nicholi of Harvard is one. Dr. Michael Guillen, a theoretical physicist and former ABC News science correspondent, is trying to make his mark in a new book, “Can a Smart Person Believe in God?” One of my favorite contemporary artists, Ross Wilson of Northern Ireland, is another (go to www.rosswilsonartist.com for examples of his paintings and sculptures).

Another who has moved beyond cursing darkness to lighting candles is Micheal Flaherty, who heads Walden Media. Mr. Flaherty’s company is releasing a delightful new movie, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” next week.

Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, the film tells the story of a lonely girl who teams up with a dog to make friends among and between other lonely people in a small Florida town.

Just about every “value” you could want is in this film without being preachy (though the girl’s father is a nonstereotypical preacher). The film stars two famous actresses, Eva Marie Saint and Cicely Tyson, and introduces the exquisitely cute AnnaSophia Robb as “Opal.” The film’s quality is first-class.

This is where the efforts of conservative Christians and those with traditional values should be directed. Light dispels darkness and good can overcome evil. But a light won’t shine if it isn’t lit and cursing the darkness illuminates nothing.

Might we please see less energy (and money) spent on criticizing what others produce and more channeled into developing better lawyers, professors, philosophers, artists, journalists and filmmakers? This way produces results. Criticizing cartoon characters doesn’t.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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