Being Human; Black Panther and the Relationship between Politics, Art, and Theology.

This past weekend, my wife and I went to see the new Marvel movie, Black Panther, as I was incredibly hyped for all that I had heard about the movie. It lived up to many of my expectations, as it presented the social tension within African-American culture and addressed many other socio-political issues which are impacting our world today. I found the movie to be a powerful representation of these issues and I’m glad that it did not try to answer the questions it tackled; it allowed the viewer to absorb these questions and wrestle with the reality of our current time.

Yesterday, I was harmlessly wandering about the internet when I came across a review of the movie by Ben Shapiro, who is one of the main contributors to the politically conservative website, the Daily Wire. After spending a paragraph talking about the film, and another few talking about the media hype, he remarks:

In reviewing the film, therefore, I’ve separated out the movie itself from the hype. That’s what my first paragraph was about: the movie. I’ve reviewed it just as I would a Thor film, where Asgard and Wakanda are both just fictional universes… But now let’s talk about the politics.”

He then spends the rest of the review critiquing the politics of the movie. I will not engage in the details of his critique, since that is not my purpose. If you want to read the rest of the article, you can find it here: https://www.dailywire.com/news/27287/review-black-panther-very-good-movie-its-also-ben-shapiro.

What stirred me is his blatant separation between politics and the film, as though the two could and should be separate. He speaks well of the visuals and the characters, but regards the message of the movie as “radical politics.” He indicates that one can appreciate a movie as a movie without having a regard for the social and political messages therein.

My question is: can we truly separate the two?

Both film, which is an expression of art, and politics, are created and preserved by human beings for the purpose of furthering human flourishing. While politics works on a structural level, creating laws designed to better the human experience, art is an expression of the human experience. The art that you see around you, from ads on billboards to cheesy rom-coms, reflect the politics and the structure of the given culture. When watching a film, one can notice certain things about the time and culture in which it was produced, and knowing these elements in advance can further the experience and the understanding of the film.

Songs can teach us the same things. Music from the early 2000’s features many hits about youthful rebellion, from artists such as Green Day, Good Charlotte, and Fall Out Boy, to name a few. Noticing this trend in music from that time can tell you a bit about the socio-political situation, including which demographic had the most influence in society. It is not surprising to watch movies from the same era and see parents portrayed as imbeciles and kids who choose their own path as heroes.

Living in the moment, it is easy to miss these factors, as we can believe that “this is just the way things are.” I contend, however, that the art which we take in and the things which we create are always a reflection of the socio-political world in which we live. While it is easy to separate the political as that which institutes change and preserves society, it is art which directs that change and comments on what needs to be preserved or be removed. At its core, art is an outward reflection of the human experience and therefore should not be dismissed: it is the means through which we are allowed to express ourselves and give an image to what we perceive inwardly.

Politics is also a reflection of the human experience, in that it is the means through which we structure society in a way that we believe is best for human flourishing. When we argue for a certain policy or believe in a certain system, it is because our experience tells us that different viewpoints are insufficient. For example, if we believe that more guns is the only way to maintain a safe society, it is because we believe that A) there are dangers that only a gun can defend against, and B) these dangers are inevitable given the culture. It also is a reflection on what we perceive as human flourishing (safety from harm), and a reflection on how we understand those around us (mainly, as “threats”).

When making a claim for or against a certain political stance, we necessarily bring our own thoughts into it because of one simple fact: we cannot be anyone else. We cannot see the world from an objective point of view, as much as we try to, because of the nature of how, where, when, and by whom we were raised. These factors create a structure of our own. From the womb, we are taught certain things about society by looking at our “home:” the people in it, the language that we use, the color of our skin, our biological sex, and so on. We are born into a society which has views which we automatically adopt without even knowing it. Our biology and our psychology, coupled with these outside factors, create a perspective which is uniquely our own. We are not machines with thousands of duplicates: each and every one of us has a perspective which belongs to no other.

As we go through life, our bodies and our thoughts develop as we continue to be changed by the entire society around us. Through this process, we contribute to this construction in our politics, our art, our theology, and so on. Our unique views help to shape the society in the way we believe is best for human flourishing. Sometimes that view is selfish; sometimes it is dangerous to the well-being of others; sometimes we develop views which are toxic to the rest of society. These views must constantly be considered and reevaluated, by ourselves and by others, in the hopes of creating a society which is better off because of it.

It is for these reasons that I believe that politics and art cannot be separated. When one tries to make politics “objective,” it is made into an inhuman pursuit which refuses to take humanity into consideration when it makes decisions. It poses ideas which do not value human thoughts, emotions, and pain, and by doing so, it ignores the very thing which it was created to preserve and help. In the same vein, when one tries to make art which is explicitly not political, it becomes only empty entertainment. It is social “candy” which has no real value for humanity. While a cheesy Lifetime movie is good fun every now and then, if that is all that art can be, we will lose all drive for meaningful discussion and growth while we pursue vain fantasies and fruitless enjoyment.

When art is removed from politics, politics loses its humanity. When politics is removed from art, art loses its meaning.

This has implications for how we do our theology as well. I have noticed the same desire for separation when it comes to the way we view theology: we try to make theology a merely intellectual pursuit with no attachment to human experience. However, since theology is literally the “study of God,” it is necessarily a human enterprise. Only humans can partake in theology and it is humans who create theology based on what they have observed, read, and experienced. When we think about God, it must be from a human point of view because we are all humans.

This is not a bad thing.

While our instincts are to divide the secular from the sacred – the holy from the unclean – the God-human in a feeding trough in Bethlehem breaks these down for us. When we try to remove our theological views from the world around us, we end up taking Jesus out of his own kingdom: all things are Christ’s and all things are in Christ. Because our theology is indeed a human experience, it must also affect our human experience of politics and art. If we try to separate theology from either of these things, theology itself becomes an inhuman practice which is no longer useful for humanity, for it becomes the pursuit of an incorporeal God who is impossible to find.

When we engage in the world, we engage in theology. When we talk about theology, we must consider art and politics, and the same is true when talking about each of the other two. If we try to remove ourselves from the discussion, we lose ourselves.

I started this by talking about Black Panther, so I will conclude with a quote from T’Challa:

“[We] will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”