Christians and Culture by Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Good art shows rather than says. It’s not preachy or teachy. It doesn’t have a moment when it says, “And the lesson I’m trying to teach you is . . . .” A great biblical example of this approach appears in the last few chapters of the book of Job. When God finally appeared to reply to Job’s demand for an audience with him, God never once told him about the cosmic conflict between God and Satan recorded in Job chapter one. He never explained where Job’s suffering came from. God just recited poetry about himself. He painted a picture of his glory in relation to the creation of the earth and all things in it. And the longer he spoke, the more Job understood and concluded,
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes
(Job 42:5, 6).
As God spoke to Job, he did more than tell Job the truth; using poetic images, he showed it to him.
Good art puts us through an experience. It doesn’t teach at us; it presents images, sounds, or other sensory material to us so that we encounter its content in ways that mimic how we encounter life. If the art engages us like life does, it is probably good art. I say “probably” because once we’ve decided that a book or song is engaging, the next thing we should ask is whether or not the experience was honest.
Though I have said good art should entertain us, I don’t want to end there. Art that entertains isn’t necessarily also good. Let’s take an action film with a revenge plot as an example. There’s something very satisfying in a movie where an outnumbered, out-gunned hero whose life has been destroyed by his enemies takes revenge on and defeats every one of them. But from such films we get little more than the emotional satisfaction of our simplest sense of justice. Our school yard cries of “That’s not fair!” are placated, but any understanding of justice tempered by mercy, or of our need to forgive our enemies and surrender our desire for vengeance to God, is not to be found.
The experience is a bit dishonest. We might even say it’s there to feed a lust rather than a desire. This doesn’t mean the movie is automatically immoral. If it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an afternoon “escape to the movies,” a blockbuster intended for the sole purpose of entertaining our simplest tastes, then so be it. Eat some popcorn, have fun, and be aware of the artistic limits of the film. Die Hard gives us a rollick, but Gladiator, which certainly includes a revenge theme, both entertains and gives us an honest experience by raising questions that aren’t easy to answer, by treating characters as human beings and not caricatures (which often happens with villains in a story), and by presenting a picture of noble heroism.
Do I Mean Realism?
I’ve used the phrase “honest experience” because I don’t want to confuse the idea with what is called “realism.” Those who say good art should be realistic tend to dismiss any supernatural or fantasy elements in a story. They also tend to dismiss happy endings, something God promises to us—and that’s very real. The Lord of the Rings puts us through an honest experience by giving us glimpses of the heavenly reality through the glory of a magical, fantastic world. Conversely, art that is honest in its portrayal of evil and ugliness, so long as it doesn’t end in saying these are all there is to life—movies like Schindler’s List or The Passion of the Christ, for example—are also good, even if they’re hard to watch. The torture of the cross was not visibly beautiful, but there is a glory to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (read Isaiah 53 and 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 together) that we should neither ignore nor fear.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.