The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Arts are a Perilous Land

The Arts are a Perilous Land

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

In the past three days I’ve binged all the episodes of Reacher on Amazon Prime.

Days before I came across this article commenting on Reacher star Alan Ritchson’s response to a group of Christians calling him out for his willingness to portray a morally corrupt, in their estimation, character. I don’t normally comment on particular situations – I prefer digging into frameworks – but this one struck a chord.

Let’s Unpack.

Alan Ritchson plays ex-military turned vigilante Jack Reacher in the show of the same name. Ritchson also is outspoken about his Catholic faith and manages a YouTube channel solely dedicated to matters of faith. Some Christians have found fault with Ritchson, claiming he can’t be a Christian and play a character like Reacher at the same time. Ritchson responded, essentially saying that he can. The Acton Institute, a organization that according to the website promotes a free and virtuous society, published an article commenting on Ritchson’s response. I’m not hear to judge Ritchson’s faith, approach to craft, or the state of the commercial arts world. I’m here to comment on the Acton Institute’s article.

Who am I to Talk?

I grew up in a family that believes that God is real. I also began tap dancing at the age of 3 ½ and have never taken a break. I have lived a life attempting to navigate the performing arts – becoming a tap dancer, performing in, directing, and producing shows. I did this with a vision of the world that includes a loving God, a Lord and Savior who really did appear in the flesh, and an active Holy Spirit. I make choices within that context and live through the consequences of those choices. Taking account, my choices at times have been directed both towards and away from the mark of Love that view of the world I hold envisions.

I have also spent the past 20 years studying how oral traditions function. Oral traditions are activities that over time, and within bounded communities, were found to help engender and inform (literally to put into form) the individual identity of every community member. Oral traditions are the activities that carry communal stories and values and provide opportunity for embodiment of the communal character in the individual.

More recently, I have found application of both my dance practice and study of oral traditions in the area of spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is the area of knowledge and study that addresses how we become who we are becoming. It addresses how the inner parts of the person – the unseen world – function, develop, and form over time. While spiritual formation is something that happens for everyone and that many people speak to, I take the propositions of Jesus Christ – even his person – as the way, truth, and life.

Back to Reacher

The conversation about the arts in Christian communities is not new. There are entire organizations dedicated to defending the role of the artist, promoting excellence in the arts, and teaching folks how to care for artists within Christian communities and organizations. These conversations can fundamentally distort, however – moving to center justification and achievement – because they are set in a larger world that has forgotten a key truth about the arts. It is all over oral traditions. The arts tell us about who we are.

Arts are heightened expressions – speaking becomes storytelling and poetry; vision becomes painting and drawing and sculpture; movement becomes dancing; and hearing becomes music; for example. As with any expression – pragmatic or otherwise – what the arts are is defined by their expression. The arts’ expression has always been personal. They have always communicated something about ourselves in powerful, even moving ways. Whether this happened in a cave, a small band of nomads, larger communities that had no need to wander, or even through trade in the local, national, or international market, the purpose of the arts has always been the same.

Everyone agrees that the arts have power. That is why authoritarian regimes go for the arts early in their rule so as to propagandize them – to harness their power for their own aims. The arts are found in acts of worship across faith traditions with ecstatic dancing, stained glass windows and architecture, ornate calligraphy, and chants and hymns. Oral traditions harness the power in the arts to transfer communal values from one generation to another through shared activity in the context of apprenticeship. This is the power of the arts in the formation of people. It is this power that governments, communities, free-speech enthusiasts, and artists themselves wrestle with and battle over.


Just as with communities expressing their identity and governments propagandizing their citizenry, the market has its own rules for what has value, the purpose of what is traded within it, and ideas of success. Training systems that teach artists towards a successful career (hitting the mark of success the market has established) – with disregard for the artists’ own well-being or the moral consequences of their choices do a disservice to the artists they are training and the societies in which those artists will work.

A more disingenuous shift occurs in artists as they are called to excellence in their craft based primarily on market examples. They are left to themselves to contend with the cognitive dissonance when the pursuit of excellence comes with temptations to do evil. Then again, in a world of moral ambiguity, what is evil? Or said another way, what does it mean to be a good artist?

The confusion of all this is evident in the first sentence of the Acton Institute article’s closing paragraph.

In the final analysis, Reacher falls somewhere in between an ennoblement and depravity: it’s a perfectly fine show. Ritchson should leave it there: his faith on one hand, the show that pays the rent on the other.

Saying that Reacher is a perfectly fine show undermines whatever moral framework the author had attempted to establish in the first place. If the show is a depravity, is it perfectly fine? On the personal level, separating Ritchson’s faith from his job allows for the option of disintegration – the separating of one’s actions from one’s spirit. One’s faith, that which should be forming their spirit, is that which one believes about the world and guides their moral judgement. One’s job is that which they do to earn provision (primarily in the market), and should by default not be set in opposition to their faith. Faith and work, spirit and action, have to interact.

In the process of spiritual formation, we battle between the things we say we believe, and habits of thought and action that have been formed against them. We say we love people, yet are willing to cause them harm simply because they didn’t do what we wanted, for example. In every situation, either the person we are aiming to become (based on our faith) or the person we are trying to leave behind (based on our habits) wins out.

A Deeper Interaction

The truth is that what we believe, what we do, and who we become are deeply intertwined. The concise, intentional, and often immersive practice artists engage in heightens their sensitivities and shapes their view of the world. Ideas of excellence and success combined with pressures to survival can deeply shape the desires of artists.

The interaction is true on a communal level, too. The stories we share, whether in-person, in books, theatre, or film, shape our imaginations. They give us insight into what life has been or might be – beyond personal experience. It is what they are meant to do. This simple truth is why there are battles of representation in media, battles of what content is appropriate for what age, and battles over what content people representing a particular world view should or should not be engaged in. The battles aren’t over economics, or artistic integrity, they are for our persons.

To say that Ritchson can’t play Reacher and call himself a Christian is a reductionist argument. To have concern for Ritchson being formed in the manner of Reacher (as he embodies the character to represent him in the show) is to honor the challenge actors have faced throughout the ages and express care for Ritchson’s well-being. Consider Heath Ledger’s personal sacrifice for embodying the complete evil of the Joker. Similarly, to have concern for the effect a show like Reacher has on its viewers is to honor the power of story and modeling on the formation of people and express care for society at large. The correction in both cases is not to condemn Ritchson, nor the show.

Rather, listening to the resonance that Reacher has with viewers, and the popularity that Ritchson’s YouTube channel seems to have garnered can tell us something about ourselves and the world we are in.

There is something about a leader like Reacher that rises above the “rules of society” to punish the evil in the world that society seems to have come to accept. Our hunger and thirst for righteousness is so strong that we might even give that kind of leader a pass for their own “moral ambiguity,” as Ritchson describes it in his response video.

Similarly, there is a desire for explorations of faith that are applicable to everyday life. It is perfectly fine to propose a personal and loving God, but how does that help me navigate the frustrations I have with my classmates, challenges at work, or cultivating a sense of peace in my life in a world that is mostly at war?

If Reacher, or any show for that matter, is seen as part of feedback loop of society, Ritchson’s contribution of bringing this character to life is a gift. It is not an escape, but rather a mirror. And the idea that Reacher is somehow an expression of the way life and people are hoped to be – perfected, if you will – is off the table. Then we can have a fruitful even edifying conversation about the kind of society that would be organized to form, even require, a person like Reacher to exist in the first place. Only then can we begin the conversation about different visions and ways of change.

For our own journey, we can opt into and out of many artistic experiences. Our individual journeys are easily disassociated from the larger distributions of media. We can personally curate our artistic intake from any one of the larger or smaller suppliers – even individual artists. But that’s one of the problems. We have become so disconnected in some real ways, that the consequences of our actions on the hearts of others is a lesser consideration. We can do whatever we want, and others can either opt in or opt out. This is the way of the market, not the way of life.

To realize that the arts – from expression to interaction – is somehow not what they could be is simply to acknowledge the reality of each of our own hearts and the world in its entirety. We are not what we could be. A transformation of the arts, our hearts, or the world in its entirety, then, is one that considers what they might be like if they were infused with love – at every scale, in every direction, and through every act. What kind of art would come out of that world? What kind of artists? What kind of interactions? And what kind of world might that expression of life, wherever it sprouts up, inspire?

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The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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