Liu Yifei has done it. She’s stood on the wrong side of a hot button cultural issue and now the Chinese-American star of the upcoming Mulan remake has risked the ire of Twitter and its oft-fabled, never-forming boycott. The specific issue has to do with support for the Hong Kong police in the midst of “sometimes violent” ongoing pro-democracy protests–to the great satisfaction and delight, I’m sure, of the never-hypocritical ‘blue lives matter’ folks. The specific issue also doesn’t really matter. It’s the confusion of artist with art, producer with product that concerns me here. My political inclinations being well established, it’s safe to say that I stand neither with the protesters nor the police (though, if possible, I stand considerably less with the police), but I also am equally appalled by those who would consider–as one user put it–an entertainment product “destroyed” because a participant did or said something objectionable.
From a Christian perspective–not to mention the perspective of common sense–the most basic stupidity involved in this should be obvious: everyone involved in every piece of art or entertainment has done, said, or believed something which is now (or will be in the future) objectionable. What has changed in the last 24 hours is not the quality of Liu, as either an actress or a person, but our knowledge about her. It is the tearing back of the veil that revises our perceptions and supposedly demands new judgments; after all, nothing changed about Paddington between 2015 and 2017 except the unsettling knowledge that it was produced by Harvey Weinstein’s company.
The problem, of course, is that our ignorance is unfounded. We know and delude ourselves about human nature rather than deal with the fact that our ability to do good–in the greater world or in the arts–cannot be wholly undone by our sinful nature. Christians know that “none is righteous, no not one,” but we set that aside and presume innocence (in deference to the American way) in spite of a universal knowledge of guilt. If your affection for Mulan cannot survive the crumbling of your feigned ignorance–the revelation of the specific manifestation of what you already know incontestably by biblical axiom or the laws of statistical probability to be true–then the problem lies with you and not with Mulan.
(The most ridiculous manifestation of this comes not with new knowledge but with anachronism and hindsight, when we don’t learn something new but become ashamed of not caring about something old. The Confederate statues and flags were not hidden away from public view; the “sins” of Woody Allen were adjudicated–in his favor–by law enforcement. Only standards about acceptable causes and levels of outrage have changed with time.)
The greater issue, however, that Christians seem to overlook when debating whether or not you can still listen to “Thriller” without being a rape apologist–or, put more benignly, if you can separate the art from the artist–is that great Christian theologians of days past have already arbitrated this question and offered us a resoundingly clear conclusion. In the middle of the fourth century, Donatus Magnus took to his cultural equivalent of Twitter with his cultural equivalent of a hashtag activism, calling on Christians to #boycottbadpriests. The Donatist heretics believed that the character of sinful priests had a negative effect on the sacraments they administered, so much so that people baptized by corrupt priests (particularly those who had renounced the faith to save their lives during the Roman persecutions) should not be admitted to the church. The character of the individual, they argued, corrupted the character of the act.
The Church Fathers–perhaps realizing that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God–swooped in to set the record straight. Augustine, a North African like Donatus, made a particularly strong case when commenting on the Gospel of John and reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
For what does Paul say? “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. Neither is he that plants anything, nor he that waters; but God who gives the increase.” [1 Corinthians 3:6-7] But he who is a proud minister is reckoned with the devil; but the gift of Christ is not contaminated, which flows through him pure, which passes through him liquid, and comes to the fertile earth. Suppose that he is stony, that he cannot from water rear fruit; even through the stony channel the water passes, the water passes to the garden beds; in the stony channel it causes nothing to grow, but nevertheless it brings much fruit to the gardens. For the spiritual virtue of the sacrament is like the light: both by those who are to be enlightened is it received pure, and if it passes through the impure it is not stained.
In other words, the goodness of God is such that it cannot be destroyed even if it passes through or is administered by an impure vessel. (Which is good, since that’s the only kind available at present.) The principle extends far beyond the sacraments. Since God is the only one Who is, absolutely, good, all goodness must be by definition derivative from that goodness and good by virtue of its origin in the divine and not because the doer is somehow good. What is good cannot be made evil by the agent that accomplishes it.
My point here is not that movies are like sacraments or even like works of righteousness. Obviously they aren’t. The principle, however, remains the same. In confusing act and actor we accept a humanist fallacy that locates value of any particular thing in a person rather than in some transcendent notion of good or evil.* The Church Fathers, in contrast, echo the Scriptures in which God acts not occasionally or exceptionally but routinely through downright evil vessels, hardening their hearts or rousing them to bloody and devastating wars to accomplish righteous purposes. It is the product and not the tool that is just.
In other words, if viewing a film needs to be evaluated as a moral act, if we must take principled stands about what we see based on appeals to higher virtues, then the criteria by which we judge should always only be limited to the content of the creation and not the character of the creators. Is the film pornographic matters; does the camera man watch pornography does not. Seeing Mulan is not tantamount to supporting the Hong Kong police, and to think otherwise is to accept a particularly silly old North African heresy.