As a painter and photographer interested in film-making I have been thinking and studying seriously to understand the proper role of art in life. I’ve been interested in this question for many years, but since my conversion to Christianity 5 years ago, my views have developed dramatically. Scripture has given me startling solutions to many of the questions that have puzzled me. I’d like to share my understanding of what Bible has to say about art and storytelling.
If you do not consider yourself to be an artist, I hope you will not switch off here – we are all wired to love and need art and stories. Understanding the art and myths of a given culture takes you a long way toward understanding how the people in said culture think about the world and being able to communicate with them effectively. Much mainstream Christian teaching on the subject has failed to prepare Christians to navigate secular pop-culture and the various sub-cultures in America.
Many Christians are proud to be called conservative or traditional. If only those words just referred to the stance that we ought hold on to and pass down eternal truths or even that we should be historically literate and not lose sight of the great achievements of thought and art from past generations! These terms could include the idea of rejecting whatever developments in contemporary society are harmful; I would be completely on board. I think this is how most conservatives would define their position. Unfortunately conservatives have, by and large, done a very poor job of sorting out what is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18) from what is simply useful or valuable (though temporal) in culture from what is actually sinful/harmful.
Conservatives have a history of resisting new technology, art and academic movements, new genres of music, etc, often going so far as to say they come from Satan, only to warm up to them years later. Sadly, what ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ often amount to to is a kind of cultural snobbery that romanticizes the past and demonizes whatever is happening in the arts and sciences of current society, and is alarmist to the point of snuffing out creativity among Christians. I think I understand something about how it happens, because it’s still happening now and has been affecting me personally.
Please don’t think I am condoning “conforming to the pattern of the world” in the way we are prohibited from doing by Romans 12:2 or being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” as we are warned against in Ephesians 4:14. It would be foolish to gullibly buy into every claim made by atheist and agnostic voices of a generation, be they in the arts, sciences or any other field. What I am talking about is being able identify the good gifts of God in the creativity and even genius He gives by common grace to unbelievers in their labors (Psalm 68:18). We have been given the tools to extract what is good from what is sin (as defined by Scripture), rejecting the latter without losing the former, but instead we have thrown so many good babies out with the bathwater we have hardly anything good left. With Christian culture in such a condition it’s no wonder the secular world seems so dangerously tempting that we feel the only way to keep our minds pure is to retreat to the cloister.
Here’s one way this situation has affected me. Like many artists that I know, the suffering and corruption I see in the world weighs heavily on me. During the many years I had severe, constant, near-debilitating depression it was impossible for me to look away from the darkness in the world. I lived in it daily, felt it all the way down to my bones. Throughout my depression often the only messages that could get through to me came in the form of art that resonated with my experience of severe, protracted suffering. If someone had something good to say, some bit of beauty or hope, first they had to show me they understood how bad things could really get.
Through those dark years of my life, God used the books, movies and music that connected with me to bring me to a place where I could understand Scripture. He spoke to me in my pain in the language of the narratives I could understand, while the Christians I knew kept their distance and scolded me from afar for my sinful tastes without taking the time to understand the deep emotional meaning my “entertainment choices” had for me. The art coming out of the Christian community that was supposed to be the correct alternative never appealed to me because it refused to address the horrendous nature of the evils of a fallen world except in the most superficial, unrealistic and biased ways. It refused to face reality. (It also lacked a lot of the piquant beauty, wonder, joy and humor I saw in life and other art, but that’s another subject.)
Art that gives the impression that complicated problems are usually neatly and quickly resolved with simple solutions was unbearable to me when I was suffering and it is unbearable to me now. What I didn’t realize is that it is also unbiblical anti-gospel.
Promises of emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing and straightforward success stories are used to sell anything and everything and have been used in propaganda for all kinds of causes that time has revealed were corrupt. Pristine surfaces and moralistic language is regularly used as a cover for selfish and malevolent motives. It’s not unreasonable that people come to distrust the faces of family values and traditional morality with the vision of life they propose; when people have turned to them in trust for mercy, healing, guidance and had the rug pulled out from under them time and again.
Rather than scolding me for having this reaction, Scripture confirmed these observations and showed me that religious hypocrisy with its elitist stance, elevation of human traditions to the importance of religion, and emphasis on external appearance is commonplace but also one of the things that grieves and angers Jesus the most. Most of the words of the prophets are devoted to calling God’s people out on such behavior with pleading and threats. Jesus devoted a majority of his time and teaching to the issue in the Gospels.
Why do many Christians prefer easy lies to hard truths? Why do they think this is the way to holiness? From discussing and observing I have come to the conclusion that it is a symptom of misunderstanding and misapplying Scripture. I hear people applying passages like the following in almost the complete opposite way they are intended:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. –Romans 12:2
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. –Philippians 4:8
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Ephesians 5:3-5
I have actually heard Christians use verses like these to defend only thinking about pleasant subjects that don’t cause them any emotional unrest. Many people I have talked to use these verses to excuse themselves from processing through difficult subjects.
I have observed at least some correlation between a Christian’s willingness to watch movies or read books that deal with difficult, heavy subject matter and their comfort level and interest in getting to know people who are dealing with difficult struggles in real life. It’s not hard to understand why – Christians are being taught that the meaning of the passages cited above is that it is unhealthy for their mental and spiritual state to expose themselves to things that disturb them.
But if you look at the way the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture to tell stories – take the entire Old Testament for example – how could you not come to the very opposite conclusion?
God chose to teach us how to understand the situations we find ourselves in by telling us stories that have levels of lessons that build in unified complexity as we continue to study them throughout our lives. The Old Testament is full of stories about really awful, dark sins and their consequences, not watered down or softened to accommodate our delicate, sentimental sensibilities. (Such sentimental sensibilities are often thought to be admirable in Christians rather than being correctly identified as sinful.)
For example, there’s that famous time Lot offered his virgin daughters to be gang-raped when every man in Sodom both young and old down to the last man rushed his door demanding to be allowed to rape the angelic visitors. Even after the angels blinded the men of the city, they were so mad with lust they continued to try to knock down the door. This was the level of wickedness people had allowed themselves embrace before God judged them with fire from heaven. As in the story of Noah and the great flood, it seems every thought and intention of their hearts had become only evil continually before God saw fit to destroy them.
There’s that similar story in Judges about the men of a city who rape a man’s concubine to death. When the man finds her dead, he cuts her up into 12 pieces to send to the areas of Israel (Judges 19:29). In Jeremiah mothers are eating the flesh of their own babies. Tamar seduces Judah, her father-in-law. Two sisters, Rachael and Leah, made to marry the same man, have a life-long struggle over the affections of their husband. King David’s son Absalom has 3 javelins stuck in his heart when his beautiful hair gets caught in a tree branch as he flees on mule-back from pursuers. Another of his sons, Amnon rapes David’s daughter. Jael pounds a stake through the skull of Sisera, delivering Israel from their enemies. There are betrayals, kidnapping, genocide. On and on…
Are these stories family-friendly? Is what goes by the name of Christianity offended by the content of the inspired word of God? Or just confused? Would Christians prefer not think about it too often in the name of thinking on “pure, lovely and admirable” things instead? So, how does the bible define lovely anyway?
You know something is amiss when Christians are regularly confused and embarrassed by stories in the Bible and have no idea how they tie into the Gospel or what they have to do with our lives. I think the words of Jesus, “if you can’t understand this parable how then will you understand all parables?” apply to this very problem. The Old Testament was written for our sakes as acted out parables of spiritual truths that apply to the events and circumstances we face (1 Corinthians 10:11).
If Christians understood and could explain why God thought it necessary to include all these stories and the many other graphic depictions of sin and its consequences in Holy Writ, Christians wouldn’t be so prone to straining out gnats and swallowing camels when it comes to the art and stories they prefer. They would also be equipped to understand the art of the culture they live in and have meaningful conversations about it with the people who appreciate it, instead of being offended so often by the very same content that is covered at length in their own Bibles.
Now there are certainly some caveats to this worth considering, such as what kind of content is appropriate or beneficial to show in the visual/sensory format of movies and TV versus what is appropriate to write about in books. A few other things come to mind, but those concerns deserve their own blog posts.
God puts us in an uncensored world where we are exposed to all sorts of evil and temptation, yet James 1:13-14 tells us that God does not tempt anyone with evil, but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Jesus did not pray to the Father that we would be taken out of the world, but that we would be kept from the evil one John 17:1. The connection between these thoughts is explained by passages such as:
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matthew 15:19)
Because we succumb to sin due to the corruption of our own hearts, attempting to defeat temptation or retain Christian joy by avoiding difficult subject matter or “disturbing” narrative content is not effective.
If we have learned our Bible stories well, we can start to recognize that just as all the faith-heroes of Scripture are imperfect Christ “types” that foreshadow the coming messiah (Luke 24:25-27), Jesus is the archetype and fulfillment of many of the heroes and admirable characters that appear in other stories.
All narrative points to Jesus. That’s how God designed it to to work. We are not even capable of thinking up a story that doesn’t confirm the truth of His word (though we are very capable of interpretating stories in the wrong way). And we are not capable of writing stories with darker or more challenging content than He already dealt with in His stories. We can find the connections between the stories of any people group we encounter and the Gospel if we know how to look. This applies just as much to the people of our own time and place as any foreign country. Narrative is one of the ways “God’s eternal power and divine nature is understood in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20). Even further, learning to understand stories through a Biblical lens is great practice for interpreting the events and situations of life in the right way (Hebrews 5:14)
If the way to holiness was to cloister ourselves, Jesus would have just told us to be monks rather than telling us to go into all the world. All that closing our eyes, plugging our ears and and refusing to understand what questions secular society is exploring in its art accomplishes is rendering us unprepared and ineffective at communicating with the people held captive in sin — you know, the ones Jesus came and died and rose from the grave to save.
That’s precisely the position the American church is in right now. We are irrelevant, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Many times we flatter ourselves that we are being rejected for the “offense of the Cross” when really our opinions are dismissed because we are uniformed, anti-intellectual, anti-creativity, bad listeners, who are too frightened of external displays of sin to love people by letting them explain anything about their individual experiences, hurts, disappointments, motivations, hopes – all the things the Gospel gives us the resources to understand and use to guide them toward truth.
Human reason is not able to find answers to the conundrums presented by life. To man in his natural strength and wisdom, “What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) But as the Spirit of God renews our minds by teaching us how the inspired and eternal Word of God applies to our individual lives and specific times, and to the lives of those around us that we are here to love and sacrifice ourselves for, the once impossible knots begin to loosen of their own accord:
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16)
I believe that thinking on what is true, noble etc. has more to do with being able to recognize what is noble and redeemable in the things and people around us that have been distorted and marred by sin whether these distortions are the direct result of personal sin or just general effects of the fall. It is a practical application of love to see the good in what the people around us value, to take time to listen and care about what it means to them just as we would like people to do for us, and if they ask, to help them make sense of it from a Christian perspective. If we learn to display real friendship, people might even care what we have to say.
Just imagine what would have happened if Jesus had chosen to avoid thinking about things that caused Him discomfort in favor of dwelling on the “lovely” time he was having in perfect unity with the Trinity in eternity? We wouldn’t have any any hope. Or what if he preached at us from an aloof position without being willing to immerse himself in our pain? Instead he came down and experienced the full extent and range of temptation and suffering, because the joy set before Him – the redemption of His Bride – was lovelier than comfort to him.