By Tom Snyder, Ph.D., Editor
There is much confusion today when it comes to religion, art and morality.
One of the biggest myths of our secular society is the idea that religious beliefs are irrational, that faith and reason are mutually exclusive categories. As a Christian, I totally reject any such notion.
Traditional Christianity isn’t opposed to logic and reason. On the contrary, it’s the only religion that gives solid, rational arguments for believing in logic and reason. In fact, some of the most logical and rational thinkers and philosophers throughout history have been orthodox Christians. Names like St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Harvard law profession Simon Greenleaf spring immediately to mind.
Thus, although Christians believe their eternal salvation depends on their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, that relationship is not purely subjective or emotional, nor is it completely divorced from logic. Christianity is a faith founded on reason and logic. It is also based on the historically confirmable fact of Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from physical death. It is an objective faith based on biblical revelation. This revelation gives us objective standards of truth and goodness.
Our God is a God of Love, but He is also a God of Truth. So says the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 65:16. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:6 writes, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”
The God of Truth does not give us false or subjective moral laws. He gives us absolute, objective standards and guidelines that should be applied to all areas of our lives.
My question to you is this:
Why should the area of art or aesthetics be excluded from these standards of God? Also, why should we separate great art from God’s moral demands? Why can’t Truth and Goodness themselves be artistic standards?
Someone may reply to this, “What about the need for fantasy in art? Doesn’t the idea of fantasy exclude the idea of Truth?”
Objectively speaking, works of art can do at least seven things: 1) They can imitate nature; 2) They can make observations about the human conditions; 3) They can contain messages and explore all kinds of issues: 4) They can indulge in fantasy and exaggeration; 5) They can give pleasure by delighting our senses, stimulating our minds, and affecting our emotions; 6) They can help us escape our daily concerns and troubles; 7) They can make us aware of the reality and truth around us. These seven purposes often work together in a single piece of art, but a work of art does not have to do these things at the expense of the absolute standards of Truth and Goodness that God has ordained in the Bible.
It seems perfectly reasonable, therefore, that Christians should expect all artists, even Non-Christian ones, to follow what St. Paul says in Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
I have only two additions to St. Paul’s worthy policy: 1) Except in extreme and obvious cases such as obscenity, pornography, and violent films with heavy doses of gore, Christians should first make an effort to fully understand the whole work of art before they begin to publicly criticize it; and, 2) Christians should realize that we are all sinners saved by grace along through faith alone and few works of art will meet all of God’s holy standards. If human beings fall short of the glory of God, as Paul says in the Book of Romans, surely all works of art also fall short because they are made by people. Most works of art have good parts and bad parts. We should learn how to praise the good parts while at the same time condemn the bad parts.
There are, however, basic moral laws and standards of truth that all Christians must accept. It is our job as Christians to figure out what they are and to apply them fairly and objectively as possible.
There are four basic questions that Christians should ask of a work of art:
1) What is the work trying to do?
2) How does it accomplish this purpose?
3) How well does it accomplish this purpose?
4) Was the work of art worth doing?
To answer these four questions properly, I propose the following additional questions. These questions start in a general fashion, then gravitate toward more overtly Christian attitudes about art.
1) Does the work of art stir our imagination, please our senses, stimulate our minds, and affect our emotions? How?
2) What are the motifs in the work of art – the recurring themes, images, sounds, Designs, patterns, techniques, symbols, objects, plot devices, character types, settings, situations, and archetypes? What is the artist’s intent in creating these particular motifs? How to they relate to each other and to the rest of the work?
3) What messages does the work send? How?
4) What issues does it bring out? How does it deal with these issues?
5) What is the work’s attitude toward life? Happy or sad? Optimistic or pessimistic? How does the work express that attitude?
6) Does the work of art speak truth about the human condition, nature, and the supernatural world, even when it operates on a symbolic or fantasy level? Most westerns, for instance (even the allegedly accurate Dances with Wolves), are historically untrue, but they can still speak truth about the human condition, about the natural and supernatural world, and about good and evil.
7) Does the work promote Christian love? St. Paul defines Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boats, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” If the work doesn’t promote Christian love, then it should be condemned as a lesser work.
8) Does the work arouse Christian compassion? Christian compassion should be defined as “a sympathetic awareness of other people’s suffering, together with a desire to relieve or lessen that suffering, in accordance with the moral and ethical principles in God’s word, the Bible.” In other words, we should not show compassion toward a person who, after committing an evil act, is punished for the act. A work of art which arouses Christian compassion should be praised for this artistic quality, even it if contains other things we don’t like.
9) What is the entertainment value of the work of art? Does the work try to be enjoyable, amusing or diverting? Does it give the audience a chance to momentarily get away or escape from their worries, troubles, cares, and woes? If so, then the work is actually being very compassionate toward the suffering of people and it deserves praise. Just because a work is entertaining or provides escapism does not mean it has nothing good or “deep” to tell us.
10) Does the work advocate any theological, philosophical, or socio-political beliefs that contradict God’s standards of truth and goodness in the Bible? If so, then the work has violated artistic standards of truth and goodness.
11) Does the work of art promote truth and goodness and attack falsehood and evil according to God’s standards in the Bible? If so, then it deserves praise from Christians.
12) Does the work’s basic worldview, or way of looking at and interpreting reality and the meaning or purpose of life, contradict the Christian worldview? If so, then we should condemn the work’s artistic quality, because it has violated God’s standards of truth and goodness.
13) Assuming the work of art doesn’t contradict the Christian worldview and doesn’t contradict biblical truth and morality, does it promote or extol, in some major way, at least one of the virtues or moral principles of Christianity and the Bible, such as Godly love, forgiveness, repentance, self-control, acts of kindness, compassion, patience, justice, discipline, prayer, humility, honesty, integrity, protecting the innocent, punishing evildoers, worship of God, holiness, etc.? If so, then it deserves at least some strong praise, not only morally and spiritually but also artistically. Of course, if the artist can effectively, deftly, and clearly mix the moral message of his work into the premise, or propositional truth, of the work, then he has gone a long way toward creating a work that will stand the test of time and honor God in a positive way, even if his work doesn’t overtly mention God or religious faith.
14) Does the work of art contradict the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed by God in the New Testament documents? If so, then we should condemn the work’s artistic quality because it has violated God’s standards of truth and goodness. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is that Jesus is incarnate God, second member of the Holy Trinity, who was made man in order to die for our sins. Thus, Jesus died and was buried, but rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father in Heaven. Anyone who believes these facts and trusts in the salvation they promise will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, third member of the Holy Trinity. They will become a member of the Kingdom of God and have everlasting physical and spiritual life with the Triune God in Heaven.
It may be impossible this side of Heaven to always be completely objective about interpreting and judging works of art, but our interpretations and judgments about art will be arbitrary and subjective unless we appeal to the reason and logic of God, especially that revealed in His Word Written, the Bible. Works of art that advocate obscenity, pornography, and immorality are not legitimate works of art, neither biblically, logically, culturally, nor politically. Contrary to popular opinion, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution doesn’t really protect the alleged artist who advocates obscenity, pornography, and immorality. All artists, even Non-Christian ones, have a responsibility to God, to their culture, and to other people, especially children and underage teenagers. Finally, although artists have a responsibility to God, their culture, and other people, Christians shouldn’t always demand that every work of art always contain at least some overt references to God, the Bible, Christian faith, church, or Jesus, or focus on such themes, but Christians should take every opportunity to praise and uphold those works that do. In fact, as Movieguide: The Family Guide to Movies and Entertainment has shown, even action movies that have overt references to God, the Bible, Christian faith, church, or Jesus are not only more inspiring, but also more financially successful.
Art is important. Art matters. Great art can make a profound difference in our lives, consoling us or empathizing with us in our despair, encouraging us in our correct endeavors, and delighting us in our souls while shaping our hearts and minds.
That’s why it is crucial that God’s people see to it that artists pursue the highest artistic, ethical, theological, and biblical standards possible. That’s why it is also important for Christians to critique works of art fairly as well as truthfully. We may see through a glass darkly, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, but we are not totally blind about what God wants for our lives. Let us pursue His path in humility, righteousness, truth, and love.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Snyder has a Ph.D. in film studies and popular culture from Northwestern University and is the author of MYTH CONCEPTIONS: JOSEPH CAMPBELL AND THE NEW AGE (Baker Books, 1995)