Ashcan Christianity

Ashcan authenticity:  “The most ugly version of anything is the most authentic one.”

The term “Ashcan”  comes from the school of painters, I think.  These painters felt they should show the seamy and ugly side of the subject.

But it is not just painting; many disciplines or communities have an ashcan stage.   As a corrective, a stage on the way,  it is not always stupid.  It can be healthy IF the good, true, the beautiful are not drowned out in the process.  Because, after all,  any worthwhile discipline was born to love the good, true, and the beautiful, and it still exists solely for that first love .    When the work of such love becomes lazy and focused on a superficial prettiness it can be good to expose the bone beneath the skin, to infuse new vigor into the school of dilettantes.   But the mistake is to extract this one occasional, purgative stage from a larger dialectic and transfix it on the blackboard as a static and unbalanced definition of reality.

One of the cliched emotions of adoloscence is a rejection of the values of your elders in a defiant embrace of what they consider degenerate.   The bitter teenager denies the truth of the elder, and proclaims that the foul is really the  truth.   This proclamation has all the volume and cleverness of every 16 year old who is discovering his own fascinating yet angry mind.   It’s the Satan-complex, projecting onto the screen of the universe your own bitter vision.   Intelligent people should be tired of this by now.

But the avant-garde in every discipline is largely comprised of this tired, bourgeois sentimentality, which nurtures a cult of “authenticity”,  obsessed with the ugly as the sum of the truth.   Goodness is no longer believed, and indeed the very possibility is mocked.  It is most obvious in secular art.  Hollywood, for example, hates virtue.  They want “complex” characters, which means they want to see a corrupt thread in the heart to balance out every twinge of goodness, because when they look out onto the universe, no-one looks good.   Entire movies are dedicated to defending the viewpoint of Milton’s Satan, that goodness is unfair and cruel and fake, except for the good of self-actualization, which trumps all.  Think Pleasantville;  Eden is sepia, we all need to Fall, into technicolor.

What are the roots of Ashcan Authenticity?


  • The disenchantment of the West, as the Enlightenment killed all hierarchies both material and immaterial and so drained the world of gods and goddesses, fairies and angels, myths and legends, heroes and dragons, lords and ladies.   You cope with disenchantment by defining normalcy down, to get yourself off the hook of moral responsibility for your despair.

Reductionism, which is the victory of the analytical function over the synthetic one

  • The inductive method, in the form of science,  enjoys a legitimate pride in revolutionizing knowledge and making us all live longer and with less pain.  Most of this material improvement comes from medicine and engineering, both quite practical endeavors.   But somehow the inductive method got stupidly elevated to being a template for all knowledge.  It is not; not the source of all knowledge, nor does the analytical act, in breaking down wholes into their constituent parts, somehow produce knowledge that is somehow more true.  I guess we should state in short words this rather obvious rule:  the part of a thing is neither more nor less true than the thing of which it is a part.  The diagram  of my genome is not more authentically me than me.
  • Well, that is easy enough in abstract philosophical terms, but the common man on the street has imbibed this reductionism so much that it is in his moral and aesthetic substrata.   He thinks that the backstage is more true than the play.  He thinks that the naked man is more honest than the costume.  He thinks that the weak moment is the “true person” and all goodness is a trick — instead of the virtuous act representing the true man and the failure being the aberration.  We are not talking here about an optimistic view of human nature, as opposed to a pessimistic view.  No, that is another issue entirely; we are talking about letting each thread in the nature be whatever it is, either good or bad.

Adolescent individuation

  • Adolescents often go through a stage where they need to transgress the boundaries of their elders in order to feel real. We in the West, in our typical cultural solipsism,  have actually elevated this stage to dogma.  We now require everyone to believe it is hard-wired into the human gene.  Our experience, we think,  has exposed the lie behind all other eras and all other cultures.  The bitter iconoclasm of the American teenager is the latest revelation in the evolution of doctrine via popular culture.

Well, none of this new, and we expect it all from the secular mind.  But the christian mind is also going over to the satanic side.

Many Christian bloggers believe in a doctrine they label “justification by faith”, but which actually means in practice that any apparent sanctity must be hypocrisy, not yet exposed.

The general cosmic disenchantment of our modern world can be resisted if you have a countervailing world-view with some charm in it.  But add to it a personal disenchantment and the darkness is thick indeed.  Many professional Christians suffer chronic…”burn-out” in our modern parlance.  We think we’re just being finally honest about something earlier generations didn’t have the honesty to admit — aren’t we so courageous — but we’re just actually just illiterate.  Please read the desert monks on accidie and get back to me.

Christian clergy, when they get burned out, become not only tiresome but positively destructive, as they project skepticism about the possibility of any sanctification at all.

We are also baptizing the adolescent experience into doctrine in the church.  There is now growing in the evangelical church a contest to say the most outrageous thing.  This has the flavor of a truth-or-dare game at a slumber-party.  It has the thrill of transgression.  It feels real, like crossing over your dad’s boundaries always feels real to a teenager, and it trumps whatever the Bible might actually say on any subject, since feeling “real” is the evangelical magisterium.  ( I realize there is a lot more to say about this teenager phenomenon…it should be said that when you are not connected to the preceding generation in a healthy way you have no choice but to individuate by transgressing.)

This is all aided and abetted in the church by the doctrine of original sin.  We are all hopelessly corrupt, and any pretense to moral goodness stands in the way of the Grace.   This doctrine is our favorite one, and we’ve decided to promote it to the top, so that we can be corrupt forever, even after the coming of Grace.  There is no feeling more free from pressure than the feeling of total depravity. It is pathetic when the church becomes reductionist and cynical in order to fend off perceived threats to its full-time work of leveling of all people down to size.

So, let somebody say “I suck at reading the Bible” and we gasp at the authenticity.  What courage.  Finally, we are getting the true truth about the speaker.  We murmer in approval.  It’s a 12 step meeting, and all the steps are on the down escalator.

Let Frank Scheaffer depict his father as a hypocrite and he gets the benefit of the doubt.  Is it because we’ve heard from everyone who knew his father and decided he is the most objective witness?  No, it’s because every portrait is more true the more flaws we can see.  This is not Christian thought; this is just ashcan aesthetics.   It’s lazy.

Now, there is no denying there is a need for space in the church to be more honest.  The excitement in some circles over the small-group experience is nothing more than a great gasp of relief to finally sit with other believers and talk normal.

But just because we need to be more honest does not mean that your ashcan side is the true you.  You confess sin in order to move past it.

Well, let me do a little more than just rant and complain.  Where do I find an antidote?  Where, in art, is there a non-sentimental depiction of characters that are good and virtuous and far from boring, and fully glorifying of grace at the same time?

The fiction of George MacDonald.

4 thoughts on “Ashcan Christianity

  1. WOW Tim! This is a substantial essay. I can testify to the efficacy of your antidote. The characters of Robert Falconer, Malcolm, Sir Gibbie, Polwarth and Thomas Wingfold, among others, have shown light where darkness reigned previously.

    A more recent help has come from an introduction to two towering figures in “Les Miserables”, Jean Valjean and the Bishop of Digne.


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