Christians and Culture by Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Art is meant to entertain, give pleasure, and offer fun. It also shows beauty (that’s part of the pleasure it gives) and sometimes that beauty points to the glory of God. Art reaches us through imagination, showing us things rather than telling us—putting us through experiences that allow us to learn more deeply than we can from abstract explanations. This is only possible because there are different kinds of meanings.
What Does It Mean?
After hearing the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus’ disciples asked him why he spoke in parables. His answer included an explanation of the parable’s meaning because they didn’t understand it. When we ask what something means, we usually want an explanation in words. But to understand what art is and how imagination works with it, we have to understand that not all meanings are statements of explanation.
Have you ever heard a song that “blew you away” the first time you heard it? You thought it was wonderful. You had a strong emotional response to it. And if someone asked you why you liked it, you couldn’t really answer in words. The song meant a lot to you, even if you could not explain the meaning.
Not all meanings can be explained, and not all meanings need words. In the 2002 movie Signs, aliens are attacking, and a family has boarded themselves up in their house only to realize they left their dog outside. The camera doesn’t show us what happens next. From inside the house we hear the dog barking louder and louder. Suddenly the dog makes a biting growl, followed by a whimpering squeal, followed by silence. We know what has happened outside without seeing it or having it explained. Meanings are not word statements only. In short, they are connections. In learning that the letters C-O-W represent a certain kind of animal, I learn a connection: that the word “cow” means the animal we get steak from. Because imagination can make all kinds of meaningful connections, there are many more kinds of meanings than just the kinds that come with words.
Kinds of Meanings
Meanings may be true or false, logical or illogical, literal or symbolic. They may come in the form of language, pictures, sounds, smells, or tastes. A meaning may even be singular or multiple. I remember watching a movie with my daughter when she was very young, and she told me she was getting scared. I had to stop and ask myself why this was so. It was because the movie’s soundtrack was playing the kind of suspenseful music we are accustomed to hearing just before something scary happens. My daughter had learned the meaning of that kind of music without consciously knowing it. The smell of apple pie has a very specific meaning: apple pie. But the smell may also mean memories of Mom cooking, of Christmas baking marathons, or your favorite dessert at Denny’s.
What do pastel colors mean to you? My guess is they make you think of baby clothes or Easter. A scene in the 1990 movie Edward Scissorhands features a suburban street where all the houses and cars are pastel pink, blue, yellow, and green. Men walk out of their houses at the same time, get into their cars at the same time, and drive away at the same time. What does this scene mean? In the scene, pastel doesn’t refer to babies or Easter but “façade,” and the meaning is something like, “Suburban life is an artificial world of conformity and fake happiness.” The movie scene communicates this meaning to our imaginations without words.
One of the implications of this understanding of meaning is that not all meanings will be truths. Some will be false and some will be neither true or false. Good art will always carry more meaning than the truth statements we get out of it. At the same time, when art is true, it will be because its meanings show us things about reality, whether earthly or heavenly.
We can add one more element to the purpose of art. It’s there to communicate many meanings to us at once.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.
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