Christians and Culture by Dr. Charlie W. Starr
In my previous 12 columns I’ve taken us through a solid primer on how Christians should approach the arts. If you missed an issue, you can find it at lookoutmag.com, or on my website (www.charliewstarr.com). I’m concluding the series with a review of some of the important points made throughout the year:
A Culture of Entertainment
Art matters because ours is a culture of entertainment. Whoever controls the arts, especially in mass media, influences our culture most.
God should be at the center of our play and entertainment, including any involvement we have in the arts.
The first purpose of art is entertainment, not truth. It’s meant to create a certain pleasure in us—one that comes when we perceive something beautiful.
Art is meant to be beautiful so its beauty can reach our imaginations. As our imaginations appeal to our senses and emotions, we learn what only art and beauty can teach us.
We think by reason and imagination. Art is meant to appeal to imagination, which helps us process information intuitively, metaphorically, and experientially.
What truth is to reason, beauty is to imagination. From this we learn that art communicates beauty to our imaginations in order to connect us to reality (and ultimately truths about reality).
Beauty appeals to the imagination and our senses (like sight and sound). One of the qualities of good art is that it shows rather than tells. For example, art doesn’t tell us to be brave. It shows us courage so profound that it’s beautiful. In the beauty of a story, we experience in imagination what might otherwise be spoken to our reason in the phrase, “Be courageous.”
Art also appeals to our sensibilities, especially the aesthetic sense that allows us to recognize and appreciate beauty. This inborn attraction to beauty in the world is put there by God to draw us to himself (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Beauty shows us God’s glory; through it we realize that beauty is about more than just our senses. It’s about internal things, even spiritual things (1 Peter 3:4; Philippians 4:8). This is one reason beauty can draw us to God.
Art reaches us by putting us through experiences that allow us to learn more deeply than we can from abstract explanations or simple statements. This is possible because there are different kinds of meanings. We often think of meanings as explanations in words, but not all meanings can be explained, and not all meanings need words.
A meaning may be true or false, logical or illogical, literal or symbolic. It may use language or it may appear as picture or sound. A meaning may even be singular or multiple. Not all meanings will be truths. Good art will always contain more meaning than the truth statements we can get out of it. When art is true, it’s because its meanings show us things about reality, whether earthly or heavenly.
Art’s relationship with truth is more about helping us experience something real. We learn by reason, imagination, and exper-ience. Experience happens with our senses. Through them we experience the world outside ourselves. Imagination mimics the senses and so mimics experience. Art is an experience when we watch a movie or listen to a song. Art puts us through an experience using the imaginative meanings that movies, books, and songs reveal to us. Art shows us realities or visions of reality. In this way it teaches our reason truths about reality.
We judge art in several ways, starting with ourselves: “Will my exposure to this art form be done in a way that glorifies God?”
Then we judge art remembering that it can be morally good or bad, and aesthetically good or bad.
Judge art by whether or not you like it. Are you enjoying it? Are you experiencing its beauty? Remember, though, that there is enjoyable and admirable beauty. Some enjoyable beauties are ones we really shouldn’t enjoy (our imaginations have been improperly trained to like them), and we should learn to admire better beauties.
Good art doesn’t preach at us; it puts us through an experience. Ask if the experience is honest. Is the art form trying to appeal to our juvenile tastes and appease our simplest desires, or does it show us something of the nature of reality? Art doesn’t have to be “realistic” in order to be honest, nor does it have to be pretty.
Finally, judge individual art forms, (paintings, sculpture, movies, books, and music) by learning something about them so you can judge them with your whole mind.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.