My guiding principle for engaging with the arts and culture

by Anna Blanch on September 22, 2011

It’s not just my guiding principle for engaging with the arts and culture, it is how I determine what to surround myself with.It’s not some work of philosophy or pithy 19th c saying, though i do love William Morris’ rule about everything in one’s home being beautiful and useful, this is more intrinsic.

It’s also more difficult. Because for every aspect of it, there are more things to think about, determine, and establish.

It is this exhortation, this encouragement, this challenge from Philippians 4:8 that serves as my guiding principle for engaging with the arts and with culture:

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.

This is a solid rock. This is a place on which I can stand and establish an ethic of criticism. This is a place where I can write about being charitable in reading others. This is a place I can stand and say, there are things I choose not to watch, or read or celebrate. I could support it with philosophy or literary criticism. But, today – right now – I won’t. I choose to say: that this is a principle worth reflecting on.

This is a place where I can also say, it is not the anti-religious content of art that offends me, but rather that so much of it is bad art. Good  art will challenge preconceived notions, the status quo, and reveal sacred cows of many descriptions. Bad art is clichéd (without offering additional commentary), it is technically unsophisticated, or it is without technical skill. Bad art is lazy. There is much art with the label “Christian” that is bad art. In many ways I find such art doubly offensive. I don’t mean the efforts of those seeking to create humbly. I mean that “art” which carries commercial credibility precisely because it is labelled “Christian.” I like these labels less and less. I find that they recommend whatever the label to me less and less as well; indeed, I’ve become suspicious of “Christian” fiction – I’ve reviewed many books in this genre, but i especially commend this review of a “Christian” romance novel as an example of bad theology and mediocre art.

Humanity, created in the image of God is worth celebrating.

It isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it is messy. Sometimes it is ugly.

But in nuanced writing, this messiness and ugliness can be written in such a way that the imagination of the reader works in conjunction with that of the author. And so it should be, that the act of reading is a collaborative task.

Gratuitous anything (whether it be violence, greed, sex, gluttony, pride, profanity) will not constitute good art. But let’s be clear about some of the rhetoric of a the advocates of a “christian” marketplace for art, where only those products which tick the boxes are approved. This is a rhetoric which often values adherence to a set of communications standards  which limit content and the language used to communicate that content.

It is often posed in the negative and borders on legalism. The heart of Phillipians 4:8 is the farthest away from legalism – it is saying how can we worship God in all that we do.In all things, in the whole of life, beauty and grace is important. It is good. It is a reflection of the creator-God and his goodness.

But let’s not “religify” life to the exclusion of it’s humanity.

Let’s talk about the Bible now. This is one area where we can accuse the King James Version of softening the blow of the language of violence, hardship, language, grief, and sex. Reading most modern translations, thankfully, means the intent of the author is more transparently clear.

There is violence in the accounts of Ehud (you will never think of a sword hilt the same way again), in the case of Jael righteously murdering Sisera with a tent peg (Judges 4), and there is most certainly violence in the death of Christ and the deaths of many of the apostles. My imagination has run it’s own race thinking about Stephen’s death by stoning and imagining the fate of the women caught in adultery had she not been saved by Jesus in his confrontation with the Pharisees (John 8). And, though it is obvious, do we need to go past the image-laden Song of Songs insofar as talking explicitly about sex?

Let’s talk positively about what constitutes a good book! Let’s talk about what reflects humanity in its truest sense! Let’s clarify our reading choices by thinking through the underlying theology! Let’s not assume that because a book ticks all the right “Christian book” boxes that it necessarily means 1) it has well-thought out theology which is edifying (or is in line with the standards of Phill 4:8) or 2) is actually well-written.

To writers I say this:

Please, Please, Please do not place the sacred cow of “moral message” before developing your craft. If your heart is in your craft, that heart will be apparent.

To Readers I say this:

Learn to read well. That is in terms of mechanics, but in terms of the spirit with which you approach the task and the past time. Don’t waste your time reading bad books.

Many of the books widely referred to as the great books of the 19th and 20th centuries were in fact written by Christians, if you feel that you must read a book by a Christian, then I would strongly encourage you to seek some of these great books out – I included a list in the first post about profanity – but if you would like a list let me know, there are a few good one around to get you started.

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  • Jesse

    Your message to writers is spot on.

    Your message to readers is a little more difficult. How is one to know what is a bad book before one reads it? Even recommendations from like minded people is hit and miss. The quote from Philippians which you say is the basis on which you choose what you read is kind of unworkable – it's impossible to know what is worthy of your attention until you get through it.

    Also, what constitutes gratuitousness is debatable. I seem to have a higher tolerance threshold than most Christians in that I think "American Psycho" is outstanding literature, "Jerry Springer: The Opera" is some of the most profound musical theatre, "The Wire" some of the best drama and Frank Zappa one of the top 5 composers of the 20th century.

    Jester 🙂

  • Jonathan Kearney

    Anna, some really interesting comments there. I remembered this article from 1997, the final section uses Phil. 4.8 as a tool for 'evaluating art'. I remember being pleasantly surprised by the writer's approach when I first read it back then, he did see value in Picasso's Guernica for example, but as an artist myself I can't agree with him about Francis Bacon, his work is tough but not sure about 'half-truths'. However his idea is more open than many others I have come across.

  • Jonathan Kearney

    also Anna, on your excellent bit,
    "Please, Please, Please do not place the sacred cow of “moral message” before developing your craft. If your heart is in your craft, that heart will be apparent."
    there is some good stuff in this lecture by Adrienne Chaplin (who teaches philosophical aesthetics) –
    At about 46.30 minutes she says, 'art takes time & can't be forced & from a Christian perspective, maybe even more so'

  • Pingback: Last Week’s Reading: Barth, Talker’s Block, and Christian Sub-Culture « New Ways Forward()

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