How should Christians view or consume art?
Art can be a touchy subject. Whatever the format – sculpture, paintings, music, cinema, literature – Christians hold a variety of opinions on how we should view and consume artistic expressions. Most conservative Christians would agree that books like The Chronicles of Narnia or movies like “Facing the Giants” are appropriate, even “holy,” subjects of entertainment. These are written or produced by Christians, so it would seem they are appropriate.
But what about anything not produced by Christians? What about paintings whose sole purpose is to negate God’s existence? What about movies filled with grotesque violence and sexuality? What about books that highlight immoral and idolatrous acts? Do we act as ostriches that shove our heads in the sand, ignoring the secular art around us, or do we find a way to engage with it while pursuing holiness and righteousness? I tend toward the latter. At the same time I also believe we need to set some parameters when evaluating whether a piece of art is acceptable or not.
Let’s take with Philippians 4:8. This verse provides a list of eight criteria on which I think we can base our artistic evaluation as believers. Before we touch on each one, note that the end of the verse says, “dwell on these things” (NASB). While our consumption of art is often temporary, such as a five-minute song or a two-hour movie, anything we see or hear remains with us. It becomes part of us, even for a short amount of time. We think about and remember things we have read or heard or seen and if it’s something we like, it will stick with us for an extended period. That is why this eight-point list applies to the arts and helps us determine what art is worth considering as believers.
1. Whatever is true…
Is what I am consuming a reflection of truth? Does it accurately depict life, even if it’s a sad or horrific aspect of life? Does it reveal the truth of God’s gospel in some small way?
Let me use the example of the movie “The Book of Eli.” This movie is not for the faint of heart. It is filled with explicit language, cannibalism, and a lot of grit. Despite these shocking aspects, its message resonates with Scripture. The point of the movie is that the Bible is powerful and what it says is life-giving. In a world full of death, injustice and chaos it speaks life, truth and order. Though the gospel is not overtly presented, the movie makes it very clear that the Bible is something set apart and worth our time, appreciation, and respect.
2. Whatever is honorable…
Honor means “high respect” or “great esteem.” This may be the best point to support watching or reading quality war literature. Whether it’s an autobiography or a novel, we can learn from noble warriors throughout history – and from the failures of those who were not honorable. Whatever the means, we should celebrate art that points us to honorable men, women, actions, or events.
3. Whatever is right…
Similarly, we can also use the words “just” and “righteous.” How do we think of a piece of art as just or righteous? I believe the question is whether it’s encouraging things that are against God’s law and order or in line with it.
Let’s take the concept of the anti-hero, which has become a hugely popular character archetype in recent years, with iconic “heroes” such as Deadpool. The comic book character of Deadpool is a mercenary that often teams up with our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man or the X-Men, but he certainly does not pursue the same moral justice. He prefers cutting bad guys in half to throwing them in prison. Whether you think we should avoid Deadpool or not, we can certainly can’t raise him up as a model to emulate, especially for our children.
4. Whatever is pure…
Here’s where we get a lot stickier. To be pure involves being free from moral fault or guilt. We would be hard-pressed to find much art that displays this attribute.
But let me throw a wrench in the mix. Is the story of Lot’s daughters finding a way to inebriate their father and sleep with him pure, at least in terms of content? How about the story of David and Bathsheba? Or even virtually the entirety of the Corinthians? Countless testimonies within Scripture discuss situations that were not pure. Even so, the way the Bible recounts them and the purpose behind them are pure – by virtue of God writing them, but also because they are not intended to entice or draw into sin. In fact, they are intended for the opposite. Genesis 19 urges us to not be like Lot or his daughters. Additionally, the Bible reports the situation without being lewd or inappropriate. Even Song of Solomon is tasteful and beautiful in its description of sex and intimacy.
A book series/show like “Game of Thrones” does not encourage the same moral purity of sexuality. With its frequent nudity, often repulsive sexual interactions, and complete disregard for healthy relationships it absolutely disqualifies itself as a form of art that Christians should consume. (Granted, I would also throw many Nicholas Sparks books in there too, but that’s a different blog post.)
5. Whatever is lovely…
This criteria is much more straight-forward. Is it beautiful? Does it encourage a sense of transcendence? For some, classical music is the epitome of beauty. For others, it’s rock and roll. For me, it’s many movie scores. Art is often most appreciated when it draws you to have that sense of peace in the face of beauty. The only real caution here is to consider if it is also in line with the other seven points.
6. Whatever is of good repute…
A good reputation. That’s something to which everyone aspires in some way. Art is similar. Most artists want to be known, and respected, for what they have created. There are only a handful of people who have never heard of Leonardo da Vinci because he was an artist of good repute. Likewise, I would say the author Jane Austin is of good repute for her novels. The quality of art recognized by other artists or experts in their field has a lot of weight.
7. If there is any excellence…
This aspect bleeds out of point 6. God gifts some people with special skills that can be used to pursue excellence. It reminds me of Exodus 31 when God tells Moses He has gifted two men to do the precise work of building the Tabernacle: Bezalel and Aholiab. They were set apart because they excelled at their craft. They were especially skilled, through talent and experience, so that they could execute God’s directions for the Tabernacle to precision. Not only was the Tabernacle the holy place of God, it was also beautiful and artistic.
In a similar way there are artists in every genre of art who excell at their craft. Mozart is a name that cannot be overlooked when evaluating excellent music. Steven Spielberg excels with cinema. Edgar Allen Poe was a master of short stories. All of these artists are excellent at their art, and we should be attune to their excellence.
8. If anything worthy of praise…
Though I don’t like his art, Picasso is worthy of praise as a painter. It’s not because his works are necessarily beautiful or even truthful in their depiction of the world, but he created something that is unique and extraordinary in his time. His work has influenced many artists and even redefined, to some degree, what can be counted as something artistically excellent. His accomplishments are worthy of praise. I may not want his art in my home, but I also can’t reject it altogether on the grounds that it’s not “truthful” or “lovely” or “excellent.”
This last point is imperative, I think, when it comes to art because there’s a sense in which Christians can praise a work of art even if it doesn’t “check all the boxes.” Now, that doesn’t mean we can let one of the criteria slide just because it accomplishes something else. A critically acclaimed, artistically appealing, and true depiction of an explicit sexual act still can’t be justified by Christians. Why? Because it’s not worthy of praise. Even if the world would say it is, Christians have to set themselves apart. We can agree that certain art is worthy of praise, such as many of Picasso’s paintings, but reject others that fly in the face of God’s holiness, righteousness, and purity.
By now I’m sure your head is spinning as much as mine is. To use this verse to evaluate every single piece of art can seem like a very daunting task. I think that’s half the point. Too often we Christians become lazy with what we consume in culture. Too often we justify a show because it’s a “good story” or a painting because of “the precise brushstrokes” when it’s blatantly displeasing to God. Art becomes part of who we are, in small or large ways. We think on art long after we have actually looked upon it, so to honor this verse, we must take seriously this call to only think on things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, or worthy of praise.
No doubt there is some freedom here in terms of what someone may accept and another reject. I love the series “The Lord of the Rings” while others may find it too violent. But we must have honest and godly evaluations of what we consume and why. We can’t be lazy about art because it is, more often than not, a spiritual experience. We are called to “[w]atch over our heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23, NASB). Let’s obey God and seek holy art with diligence.
Hannah Dawson is a part of the Center for Faith and Culture’s mentorship program. This year’s theme is faith and the arts.