When Art Disrupts Religion

Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Philip S. Francis
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Philip Salim Francis’s wonderful When Art Disrupts Religion relies upon eighty personal memoirs supplied readily at his request when he sought out graduates of two evangelical arts institutions: the Oregon Extension, a semester study-way program that brings in a few dozen students from conservative evangelical Christian colleges, and the Bob Jones University of Fine Art. The Oregon Extension receives much more attention in the text, and the program seems to have a complicated relationship with a number of colleges from which it draws its students. Many professors and students are aware and wary of its tendency to transform students who attend, and it has had to seek accreditation from a number of different colleges after losing it following controversies. However, it still continues to recruit on a number of Christian college campuses, and certainly not all students who attend ultimately depart their faith. Francis briefly acknowledges at the beginning of the text that he, too, attended the Oregon Extension. In contrast to another fantastic use of memoir to explore a crisis of Evangelical faith—Macy Halford’s My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir—however, readers must wait until the afterword for Francis to address more explicitly the question of whether these eighty memoirs were an expansive way of writing his own experience of departing the evangelical Christianity of his childhood.

In his introduction, Francis makes reference to ethnographic fieldwork he conducted at these sites, but this kind of data never actually enters into his provocative and thoughtful explorations of the memoirs provided to him. Even if critics within anthropology, such as James Clifford, have eloquently explored the “fiction” of ethnographic research and writing, the ethnographic method cannot be equated with memoir. It would have been productive, perhaps, to see Francis use ethnographic observations to offer counter-narratives to the accounts he received. While the memoirs emphasize the personal, intimate, and particular nature of the journey of religious transformation, more of an emphasis on the contours of the institutional setting in which these transformations occurred could have highlighted structural boundaries and limits placed on these moments of religious crisis. Francis nuances these memoirs with his adept use of theories of aesthetic experience (Schiller, Schleiermacher, Kant, Rancière, Adorno, Eagleton, and Jay), of the conservatism of the mind (Dewey, James, Peirce, and Freud), and of performativity (Butler and Hollywood). The use of ethnography to complement this theory would perhaps have allowed for more observations of precisely how these settings invoke the process of questioning that so many of his memoir writers underwent.

While the book begins with a powerful account of viewing the paintings of Mark Rothko—and the literature of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the songs of Bob Dylan, and the films of Ingmar Bergman make fleeting appearances throughout—Francis’s task is not to analyze these objects, films, and songs. Part of Francis’s complex and layered argument is that these art forms, rather than inducing a crisis of faith ex nihilo provide a set of signs and practices around which fledging identities can congeal. In describing how his subjects are able to move from identities based on certainty to those that revel in the experience of doubt, Francis turns to Butler’s theorizations of the gaps that always haunt the repetition of norms. “Given the instability of all signification and the untrackable number of variables that shift from one moment to the next, from one body to another, no matter how carefully the script is crafted, consulted, or practiced, there will be missteps and variations in the performance. Certain things about the subject will be signified and revealed which do not fit the shape of the character as scripted” (50). Francis’s deft use of theories of performativity helps to reduce the power of rupture that so many of his subjects would prefer to emphasize between their former and current selves. Both selves require the repetitive performance of scripts, though one script expresses certainty and the other idealizes doubt. Butler’s theories allow readers to imagine that the respondents’ new de-evangelized identities are, like their former selves, equally open to unraveling. And so the substance and form of the art that exploded these fissures may not themselves matter. Certainly, reactions to the art that the young evangelicals are introduced at the Oregon Extension are far from surprising. These are not the first twenty-year-olds to look at the world anew after spending an extended weekend with Bob Dylan. It seems as though no matter the year the students attended the Oregon extension, the curriculum changed little. Despite ongoing transformations in literature, poetry, and painting, it is the early- to mid-twentieth century art forms that continue to define the transformative experiences of these young evangelicals. Francis skillfully acknowledges the parallels between how we approach, perceive, and imagine religion and art, and in particular the “secular religion” of art of this period, without reducing the transformations he describes as mere substitutions. According to the memoirists, they responded intuitively and individually—or, even more problematically, “authentically”—to these works, which then induced a total transformation of self. Francis, however, gives us the tools to question the uniqueness of these experiences, while also allowing us to enjoy the evocative and visceral descriptions of the change they provide.

Francis argues that these institutionalized encounters with aesthetic forms provoke a number of young evangelicals to overcome the need for absolute certainty, the divide between insiders and outsiders, the demand for an all-or-nothing commitment, and an over-evaluation of the past. The subtitle of the text, “Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind,” alludes to the “problem” at the center of the text: the evangelical mind itself. Beginning with the premise that evangelicalism is—in part—a problem to be overcome, is a surprising and provocative premise for a scholarly text. Given the increasing number of op-ed pieces by evangelicals considering abandoning that title in the age of Roy Moore and Donald Trump, however, Francis’s text provides a timely and rigorous exploration of the benefits of escaping absolute certainty, a clear divide between those who have welcomed Jesus into their lives and those that haven’t, an all-or-nothing commitment to evangelical Christian ontology, and an over-evaluation of a mythical past of truer faith. This text would work well in an advanced undergraduate seminar, offering students insightful and approachable accounts of an enormous body of social theory, while also encouraging them to think about their own various crises of faith, or moments of questioning perhaps inspired by the college experience itself. Similar to My Utmost, When Art Disrupts Religion offers new ways of thinking about conversion beyond common narratives of “rupture” offered by converts—to or from Christianity—themselves.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elayne Oliphant is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip S. Francis is currently assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and Melon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania Humanities Forum. His research explores the shifting interrelationship of religion, art, and sexuality in the modern West.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.