Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Art Is Not Evil

"Art is much less important than life,
but what a poor life without it." ~ Robert Motherwell

I dislike rants. I dislike reading blogs that frequently post rants. But I understand the occasional overwhelming desire to vent, to open your personal door into the blogosphere and scream at the top of your lungs, "This is driving me nuts and I'm not going to take it anymore!"  This would be one of those times. This topic has been simmering in my brain for a while now, and the more I read and encountered online the more it began to churn until it has boiled over.  So... commence rant in three, two, one...

Art is Not Evil
Art, in and of itself, is not evil, but it is powerful.  By "art" I mean all creative expressions: visual arts like painting and sculpture, as well as theater, television, movies, literature, poetry, music, dance, etc.  I really think that Christians, and Americans in general, need to become better educated about the arts and the various languages these mediums use to communicate, such as the splice cuts, extreme close-ups and moving images of a film, or the musical chords and tonality in a score. We need to become media savvy. I also think, as Christians, we need to study both the Bible and history, and learn that artistic ability is a gift from God. We need to recognize how the arts can be used to reflect His truths. In fact, throughout much of history, Christianity was the driving force behind the arts and culture. The church was at the forefront of creative expression and innovation. How did we get it all turned around, and the church is now the last one to the party when it comes to cultural influences and has been relegated to simply reacting to all the evil that is in the arts and touting that it should be avoided at all costs? 
Learn the Language 
The arts are a powerful tool for communication.  They can communicate an idea, a feeling, an emotion, a message. Each artistic branch has its own set of tools to communicate with.  For example, literature is built up with symbolism, allegories, metaphors, foreshadowing, overarching themes, etc. One of the biggest rules in writing is to "show, don't tell" your audience what you want them to know. How do you do that? By the use of these many tools. If you don't understand the devices and how they are used, you won't understand what is being communicated.  The same thing goes for major and minor notes or rhythm in music, or the composition and use of colors in a painting or printed image.  When we don't understand the language of a given artistic medium, then we are more prone to making erroneous assumptions and split-second judgments about the content or message of the piece, which leads to my next point.

Dull Salt and Dim Light
Here's an example of someone making an erroneous assumption about a piece of art. As most of you already know, I am an avid fan of the TV show LOST. The LOST writers used a lot of Biblical references and symbolism, as well as Biblical themes such as redemption, sacrificing self to serve others, etc. in the telling of their story and, for the most part, they presented these Christian messages in a positive light. However, I recently saw an online discussion where a commenter said, in regards to the Christian themes in LOST, "The Bible plus anything equals heresy." Umm...okay. As a statement that's true, but as a Christian, that's really the choice you want to make? That's going to be your reaction to a hit show that is watched by millions of people across the country and overseas? You are going to isolate yourself completely from the culture and miss out on an opportunity to share about your faith? LOST is not a replacement for the Bible by any means, and I don't think any of the writers implied or intended it to be. But rather, what a wonderful opportunity to start a discussion about morality with fellow LOST fans, who wouldn't be open to talking about the Bible or spiritual topics otherwise
There's nothing that annoys me more than the automatic fearful reaction some Christians have towards books, films, music, etc. They instantly condemn it without truly taking the time to investigate the medium and educate themselves about the material. We are to be in the world, but not of the world, but so many of us have trouble finding that balance, and I think it comes from a place of fear and lack of confidence in our faith. How are we to be salt and light to the world, when we are so far removed from it, or afraid to engage it?  We have crippled ourselves and made us and our message irrelevant. If people, and Christians specifically, had a better understanding of things such as symbolism, and understood the artistic tools used to convey an idea, and were taught how to read properly with deductive reasoning skills then they wouldn't have a knee-jerk reaction to every little thing that appears to threaten their faith. 

My favorite book contains murder, witches, burning children alive, adultery, lying, incest and war. What is your initial reaction to that? As a Christian, would you tell me not to read it?  What if I told you it's the Bible?  Yes, the Bible actually has all those horrible things in it, and more. However, it doesn't glorify those things, but shows good and evil in its proper light.We can't judge a book by it's cover. It isn't simply about content but about the application and the deeper message. When the apostle Paul was in Athens, he was educated about the mythical stories, art and culture of the people there, and used quotes from their own poets to reason with them. A modern literary work of tragedy, full of murder and lies, even if it is not overtly "Christian" in nature, can still be used to teach things such as ideas have consequences, and all sin leads to death. We can and should engage our gray matter and actually reason through things, including the arts.  The bottom line is, it's all about education and discernment, so that we can be more effective messengers.
Our Creative Creator
God is creative. It is part of the nature of God. The Bible starts out with telling us that He created and it was good. Look at the amazing and beautiful assortment of flowers, of creatures, etc. that he created. Being creative is a reflection of our Creator. We are made in His image, and our creativity and ability to create is a reflection of that image. There is no such thing as secular art and sacred art. All beauty is God's beauty. All truth is God's Truth. Now whether the author or artist wants to acknowledge or celebrate that is another matter entirely. Many Christians complain about the current state of movies or literature or what is being offered on television, but few offer an alternative, especially an alternative that is relevant to the culture we live in (instead of works that just preach to the choir, without reaching a new audience). We need to encourage and support Christians that choose to enter an artistic field. Instead of shunning Hollywood, we need to support those Christians willing to go into that environment and create a piece of quality art that reflects and celebrates God's Truth.  Let's take back the arts! Even if we're not the artists, we need to do our part too. Let's not be afraid to use the brains God gave us and educate ourselves, reason through the things that the arts and current culture present to us, and with discernment, engage our culture!


chandy said...

This is a great post Davina! Of course you know I agree with you wholeheartedly. Even though I am hardly an art expert (not even close, unfortunately) it is important to me that I at least expose my kids to different art forms and teach them to appreciate it.

Do you feel, though, that there is a 'dumbing down' of society (not just Christians, but everyone)? I mean, look at the crap that's popular right now. There are still so many high quality pieces out there, but people are tripping over themselves to buy junk that they don't have to think about. Sad.

(My word verification is "unthout". How do you like that? ;)

Elizabeth Carman said...

Amen and amen!! We were just talking about this at church recently. As Christians, shouldn't we be trying to redeem the arts instead of giving them over to the evil one?
You are so intelligent and articulate, Davina. I enjoy your writing very much. Keep it up, my friend!

D.L. White said...

Thanks, Chandra! No worries about whether or not you're an art expert. I don't think an art degree is necessary. ;-) It's more about critical thinking and actually stopping to think about and analyze the things you are looking at/watching/reading. Like asking your kids, "What do you think this picture means? What is it telling us?" etc. You mentioned this a little in your recent blog post about children's books. I LOVE it that you read what your kids are reading, and that you discuss the characters and the choices they make, etc.

And YES - you hit the nail on the head. There is a general lowering of the bar by everyone, not just Christians. It's a sad state of affairs. People don't want to work at anything and that includes understanding the arts. They just want something easy and approachable that appeals to their base instincts, and they have no desire to be challenged beyond that.

Elizabeth - it makes my heart happy to know you were having a dialog about this at your church. Over the last several years, there seems to have been a growing movement or revelation in "Christian" music that I'm excited about. I hope that energy and motivation spills over into the other art disciplines. Btw - thanks for your kind words about my article. It was a nice encouragement. :)

Laurie B said...

I was looking at a photo of a butterfly today and commented on how creative God is. His imagination is beyond all human imagination.

I believe God gives us talents to use to His glory. Whether it be music, art or writing. I apreciate all forms of art. I always try to support movies with a positive message and recommend them to others.

As far as appreciating art, it takes time and most people are just hurrying through life without taking the time to understand what they are seeing and analyzing how it makes them feel.

Love your blog today. Keep it up Sweetheart!

D.L. White said...

"Busy-ness" certainly is one of the greater problems of our cultur today. We're too busy to take time out to help someone, to take time to really talk to and listen to our spouse/kids, too busy to stop and read the Bible or pray, or examine our lives and the things we choose to watch/read/listen to. I know it's a constant battle for me, to continue to be mindful and present, in a world that is constantly pushing you to be in a hurry.