How Should Christians Receive Art? (Part 1)
Laying a foundation for artistic judgment
Biblical Christians are an odd group, culturally speaking. We think about a lot of things very differently compared to those who fit into the larger society. For example, we hold that there is only one God, God exists in three Persons, there are no other gods before Him, and there is no other way to Him except through Jesus. We believe there is objective good and evil that is determined by God and not by us. We believe God created humanity with two complementary equals, crafting us male and female in His image. We believe that humans, no matter their age, development level, melanin percentage, gender, location, size, or degree of dependency are all equal because of this image bearing. We believe God’s creation - all of it - should be respected and cared for. Already, there’s a lot here that could (and would) get a Christian into a heated debate with a skeptic or non-believer. But our oddness shouldn’t be surprising. By definition, we’re actually supposed to be odd, if Jesus’ words are to be trusted. In John 17, Jesus prays to the Father:
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
— John 17: 14-19 (ESV)
Christians, like Christ, are not of the world, though we are most certainly in it. Christians are not of the world because God has sanctified us in truth. This truth is not a relativistic, “your truth vs my truth” approach, but instead a “true Truth” that’s simply described as what conforms to reality. Jesus, who describes himself as this truth, is the door we open to discover reality. Keeping this in mind, when the Christian creates or observes others’ creations, he or she is taking all of reality into account. All truth is God’s truth, and we should not be afraid to see what God can and may reveal to us through the artistic endeavors of our neighbors.
However, the Christian is bound to run into conundrums sooner rather than later. What if we don’t like the art we see? This can be phrased in many different ways. For example, if I don’t like the artist’s style, does that mean his or her art is bad? What if the art promotes a worldview that runs contrary to the truth? Can art that promotes a false worldview be good art? Is art still good if I don’t understand what the artist is trying to convey? How can one judge a work of art to be better than the next, even when both artists put so much time and effort into their work? Worse yet, who are we to say that a work of art that a Christian created to honor God isn’t as good as another Christian’s artwork? If we believe there’s objective right and wrong, and if we believe good and bad exists, where does this truth connect with how we experience humans’ artistic creations?
Not long ago in my life, I was wrestling hard with questions like these. I was consuming so much of the Bible at a rate I had never experienced before, and learning so much from good, biblical Christian thinkers in the areas of theology and apologetics. But I also had a relativistic understanding of art and how humans should appreciate and critique it, mostly thanks to my liberal arts education I received in my college years. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I discovered biblical Christian thinkers who spoke and wrote about the intersection of Christianity and the arts. These thinkers showed me that not only was it natural to merge objective Truth with subjective art, but these Christians loved the arts. They didn’t set out to criticize all of it, and they didn’t paint with broad brushes of negativity across entire canvases of artistic mediums. People like Francis Schaeffer, Paul Gould, Holly Ordway, Jerram Barrs, and more showed me that I didn’t have to succumb to a relativistic or progressive Christian faith to enjoy or contemplate art. In doing so, they helped lift a huge burden off of me, and I’ll forever be thankful to them.
I previously found it quite difficult to speak about my favored artistic medium (film) with groups of self-professed Christian movie lovers because of how I was attempting to wed a biblical Christian faith (true Truth) with the modern movies we were all viewing. Yes, social media combined with our fallen nature doesn’t lend itself to good, respectful conversations on a regular basis, but I couldn’t understand why my perceived Christian brethren were defensive or angry when I called out, for example, a film that explicitly embraced a racist conclusion in its final scene, or a film that deconstructs its entire mythical structure to pacify a postmodern audience. It wasn’t until later that I understood that the Truth wasn’t what was missing - it was that others had welcomed the world’s progressivism as their foundation for understanding the film, and thus interpreting the moral of the story behind that lens. We were working from two completely different toolboxes.
Art criticism is driven like anything else in our lives - by our worldview. We will ultimately like or dislike a piece of art based on how we observe and understand the world. However, this doesn’t mean that audiences are ultimately and hopelessly divided. There are many times where Christians will find common cause with atheists regarding a story’s moral center, and there are many times where a person who denies objective good and evil will rally behind a hero’s purpose, or find that a song’s lyrics are inspiring. Sometimes, a character is so well-written that both believers and nonbelievers will see themselves in that character. Holding a worldview doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to be at odds with people who don’t believe the same things we do. If anything, it just means we have more opportunity for conversation when we speak about art that affects our lives.
But how should Christians rate, rank, or appreciate art? If we give a movie five stars, does that mean the movie checks off all of our worldview boxes and that’s all that matters? If we buy a painting, does that mean we endorse everything the painter stands for, even though the painter may not believe what we believe? Should we rate or purchase art at all? The Christian worldview does hold to objective standards, and yes, those standards do apply to art. But the way they apply isn’t necessarily how we understand it to be. This is especially important today, as our cultures are very good at “canceling” people with whom they don’t see eye-to-eye.
The famous Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato help us to rethink how Christians should not just critique art, but most importantly, to receive art. Both of these philosophers believed that our world is not purposeless or meaningless, and they recognized three universal - or cosmic - values which are objective in nature and can be known. These values are truth, goodness, and beauty, and they transcend beyond our everyday, neurological experiences. Truth is that which corresponds to reality, goodness is that which fulfills a purpose, and beauty is that which is lovely. These are all values that we cannot quantify or measure, and are concepts that describe the reality that we experience.
Christians in the fifth century AD began to recognize these values as what we would call “general revelation,” which is a way that God has revealed Himself to humanity. This specific method refers to truths that we can learn about God through His creation, or nature. The Psalmist confirms this, telling us:
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”
— Psalm 19:1–4 (ESV)
The New Testament backs this up, as Paul tells us this in his letter to the Romans:
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
— Romans 1:20 (ESV)
If God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly visible and understood from what He has made, then the values we mentioned earlier - truth, goodness, and beauty - can only be from Him. If truth, goodness, and beauty began to exist, there demands a cause for their existence, and that cause existed long before any of us ever did, as these values are indeed timeless in their nature.
When we receive art, we’re instinctively looking for at least one (but usually all) of these three values. We’re constantly longing for examples of truth, goodness, and beauty, as these values are reflecting a perfected source - the triune God. With this foundation laid, it seems that in order for the Christian to receive art properly, they need to think of art as more than just an expression of the self, no matter how convincing the culture’s case is to the contrary. If art is an embodiment of truth, goodness, and beauty, we can’t understand any art unless we ground these terms with an objective, untainted example. Humans are imperfect, and our creations likewise, so using our own imperfect works to judge other imperfect works seems nonsensical. Not only that, but without a perfect example to mirror, how can artists even improve their craft?
Now that we have recognized the main aspects of art that prompt us to respond, how does the Christian receive art that God’s imagers create? What does judging the latest blockbuster, a talked-about TV episode, a famous painting, a top 40 song, or a popular video game look like for the Christian, and what makes it different than how secular people judge the same pieces? Is the Christian really that different than the moody, inconsistent critics of Rotten Tomatoes fame? The quick answer is, yes, we are different. How we receive art will be perceived as odd with many because, again, we’re not of the world. We may not look like Crow or Tom Servo of Mystery Science Theater 3000, launching criticisms and jokes at every single movie we watch, and we may not gain a fanbase or friend circle as those beloved robots have. But we’ll have access to something deeper.
Join us next week for the second part of this essay, as we describe how the Christian should receive - and judge - the arts.