How Should Christians Receive Art? (Part 2)
What does truth, beauty, and goodness look like in our art?
Truth, goodness, and beauty. These are the three values that we look for when we receive art. Sometimes it may not be all three we’re looking for at once, but these values are all closely related to each other. They’re intertwined because the source of truth, goodness, and beauty is God, and just as God cannot be separated into three separate parts, truth cannot exist without goodness; goodness, without beauty; beauty without truth, and so on. As we now understand that art has objective values attached to it, we now need to learn how to objectively receive art.
As I mentioned in Part 1, when it comes to the subject of Christianity and the arts, I’ve been heavily influenced as of late by the writings of Jerram Barrs. Barrs is the founder and resident scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he is a professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture. Unfortunately I have never taken a class under his tutelage, but I have certainly had my views on this subject changed after I read his book, Echoes of Eden. It’s a book I highly recommend to any Christian, as a Christian is a part of this world, and art is something we all witness and experience in this world every day.
In Chapter 4 of Echoes of Eden, Barrs crafts a blueprint of how a Christian can properly “judge” the arts. In today’s culture, the act of “judging” is thought of as something we shouldn’t do (“Judge not!”) - a negative act that has repercussions on not just the self but the artist and the audience as well. However, no one who holds to the “Judge not!” standard is completely consistent. They will judge the food displayed in front of them when they visit the market or grocery store so they can have the healthiest, freshest option. They will judge different phone models for purchasing when their older phone doesn’t work anymore. They will judge what clothes they should wear for the day depending on the current weather outlook. Everybody makes judgments because we recognize objective standards in the options we’re considering.
Unfortunately, recognition of the objective standards does not come naturally. While it’s true that we do have moral law written on our hearts, there are other objective standards that we learn as our years progress. For example, I was recently diagnosed with celiac disease after my symptoms of gluten intolerance skyrocketed in severity. Relearning what is safe to eat or dangerous to my health has been a challenge, and it has been sad to realize that a lot of my favorite foods I’ll never be able to eat again (unless I want to put my body through severe pain) but it’s for my own betterment. Yes, I do want to go order a burger from my favorite local eatery, but even though the food itself tastes sublime, I know my allergic reaction will be horrible. My eating standards have changed and I’ve had to learn a lot about food ingredients and preparation in order to discern what foods to put in my body.
In Echoes of Eden, Barrs explains that how we make judgments and discern the arts is no different than anything else in life. He writes,
“[T]he arts are like any other field of human endeavor. Some matters are very simple for us all. Those who flock to Naples’s beach each day to watch the sun go down over the Gulf and who marvel at it and often applaud as the magnificent globe retires from sight have not needed art lessons to appreciate the beauty and glory on display! Enjoying such a marvel comes with our humanity as God’s image bearers and with the gift of sight. Yet we all know that our appreciation of the arts needs direction, encouragement, training, and practice. We will gain more from a concert or from watching a movie when we know a little about how the music or the film has been crafted and performed.”
(Barrs, 2013, p. 54)
After summarizing Barrs’ standards for how we should judge the arts, I spoke with my Cross Processing colleague Danielle Pajak and asked her what her thoughts were regarding his blueprint. We discussed Barrs’ points in detail and were mostly in agreement with him, with few exceptions. While discussing this chapter of Barrs’ book is more than likely best suited to a podcast episode than a blog post (which we may do someday), I will do my best to summarize what Danielle and I thought were the best points that Barrs made, and I encourage you, the reader, to pick up Echoes of Eden to see how Barrs explain and refine these points. I believe these points are crucial in how we, as Christians, understand and receive art.
The Presence of Truth
Is the work of art in accordance with reality? If so, the art will be universally appealing, as we all live in the world that God has created. Art that is not in accordance with reality but instead consistent with a system of fanatical unbelief in our reality isn’t art, but instead propaganda for a false universe of the artist’s making. Whether we acknowledge God or not, we’re bound by His reality, and attempts to create something true, good, and beautiful contradictory to that reality will by definition fall short. If an artist creates work that reflects reality, not only is the artist fulfilled, but in turn actually serves others as well, as the artist didn’t package a lie to another fellow human being. For the Christian artist, this is of the utmost importance, as the most significant other that he or she will serve will be the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Existence of Moral Goodness
If the work of art contains immoral or evil components, such as characters’ questionable actions in a story, vulgar lyrical content, or bloody images in paintings, what is the context of the work? Is it promoting immorality or evil, or instead showing the content as it truly is - despicable, poor, or just plain wrong? What’s the moral impact of receiving art that has immoral or evil components? Just as artists influence the genres they work in, art influences audiences as well, for better or worse. Will the main characters in a story influence someone to devote their lives to saving people from danger, such as those from Joseph Kosinski’s 2017 film Only the Brave? Or will the main character influence someone to emulate the immoral and horrific acts of the antihero or glorified villain? Yes, we are all in charge of our own actions, but it would be naïve to think that art only influences us for the better and not for worse.
Recognition of good craftsmanship with art is generally innate. We are able to trust our functioning senses and make good judgments about the quality of the artists’ work before we purchase it. Whether it’s a commissioned ink drawing, a movie, or a musical album, God has given us the ability to know what good art is compared to bad art. A hand-crafted piece of pottery may look gorgeous, but if there’s a crack on the side, chances are it won’t do well to hold substances or stand up over time. A movie may have an entertaining premise, but if the actors are stiff or the direction incomprehensible, we won’t walk out of the theater totally satisfied and want to purchase a Blu-ray copy for a film collection. Good work faithfully completed honors God, and will serve others as well, pleasing Him even more.
Art is created by human individuals, and each individual is uniquely created by God. As each piece of art should reflect truth, the artist’s nature must be accurately reflected too. What does the artist care about? What do they love, and what do they hate? Why do they use a certain style to create their work? When looking at art, we always need to take into account the artist behind the work. Is the work true to who the artist is, and what they believe? Or is the work solely of a fashionable state, commercialized and trite? Worse yet, does the art support a worldview that goes against the artist’s own convictions? Is the artist “selling out” to the masses, giving them what they want, or is the artist preaching their own ideas or beliefs?
Just like the artist, the art itself needs to have integrity too. The art can’t manipulate its audience into feeling certain emotions by using cheap tricks or blatant commands. For example, at the end of Harold Cronk’s 2014 film God’s Not Dead, not only does every storyline get wrapped up in a nice, unrealistic bow, but a character from Duck Dynasty makes a guest appearance to tell the audience in the film - and the real audience in the theater - to get out their cell phones and text “God’s Not Dead” to all of their contacts, as that’s how “we can tell Jesus that we love him.” The credits begin with the message, “Join the movement. Text everyone you know. God’s Not Dead.” None of this is subtle, and none of this is natural. If an audience was truly inspired after seeing a work of art, they wouldn’t need to be told to go tell others about what they saw or experienced - they’d do it willfully. There’s a big difference between genuine sentiment versus sentimentality, and good art will always provide authenticity. The artist - and the art itself - should honor audiences in whatever form that may look like in their respective contexts.
The following may sound odd, as this is a blog that aims to capture deeper meaning in the art we consume, but contrary to popular belief, art doesn’t always need to have justification beyond pure entertainment. Simple enjoyment of a piece of art is not anything to be embarrassed about. We have go-to “comfort” movies or TV shows where we can hit play and almost instantly feel better. We have favorite albums or playlists that we return to over and over again because they transport us to a different place or lift our mood. What matters is if the art succeeds, for the receiver, at what it sets out to do. To provide a couple of my own “comfort” movies as examples, Brett Ratner’s 1998 film Rush Hour never fails to provide laughs, even after ten viewings. Stephen Sommers’ 1998 work The Mummy not only gets me laughing as well, but even 22 years later provides adventure action that is hard to beat. As every audience member has their own preferences when it comes to what art they enjoy, entertainment value will fluctuate from person to person. Embracing our preferences will allow us to curate an art collection that will always provide us what we need, and we should feel no obligation to defend it from an angle that’s strictly personal “enjoyment.”
There are other aspects that Jerram Barrs speaks about in his book that can help us think deeper about this topic. However, the points listed above are the ones most recognized when thinking about good art, even when we don’t realize we’re acknowledging them. If the artist creates a work that meets the criteria above, it’s fair to say that not only is the art true, good, and beautiful, but that the artist has a gift granted from God that allows them to flourish and serve others. As the famous painter Bob Ross is known for saying, talent is pursued interest. If an artist is talented enough with the gift that God has given them, that means they’ve pursued the development of their gift, even if they don’t recognize where the gift came from in the first place. There are countless examples of how God has used art to draw people to him, and this doesn’t mean that just audiences put the pieces together. If an agnostic artist continues to pursue their craft in a manner that honors truth, goodness, and beauty, a meetup on this side of life with the Creator of all things is inevitable. As an audience member, and especially as Christians, if we receive art by focusing on truth, goodness, and beauty - keeping in mind the criteria Barrs describes - we will also get to know the Lord and our fellow image bearers even more than we thought possible.