Christians and Cultures by Dr. Charlie Starr
Religious influence on American culture is not what it used to be; in fact, we often say ours is a “secular” culture. I knew politics had lost its major influence on culture when Bill Clinton appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1991 wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone. Since then I’ve observed that the institutions built around what we do with our leisure time now have a far greater influence on us than ever before (we’ll call these institutions the entertainment industry—anything we do to fill our free time with fun and enrichment). This is why we need to talk about art.
The Big Influence
Ours is a culture of entertainment. Though other institutions influence us, entertainment takes up large amounts of our time. And though we constantly feel like we never have time to do anything, we make more time to play and have more things to do for fun than most countries in the world today and all the cultures known in history. Even busy people will spend an hour or two in front of the television at night, take time to see a movie or a ballgame, read a book, listen to music, or catch up on a game or with friends on Facebook.
Do we do it the way God wants us to? I believe he wants us to rest (Genesis 2:2, 3; Exodus 16:30). And I believe he wants us to enjoy ourselves and play (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9). I believe he wants us to use music (1 Chronicles 16:9), stories (Matthew 13:3), and other art forms for worship and outreach as well (2 Chronicles 2:5-7). But my main point here is to say that God wants us to be Christians all the time—when we work, when we serve, and also when we relax and entertain ourselves. In this secular American culture, Christians must be careful about what we watch, read, listen to, and do for fun. God has to be in every part of our lives. This is another reason why we need to talk about art.
The Things We Don’t Know
We need to talk about art because many Christians don’t know what it is or what it’s for. Christians have not been able to make art powerful enough to have a major influence on our culture for about 100 years. There have been some bright points, but they were only moments. Christianity dominated European culture for 1,500 years—not just through political power and the church, but also through powerful Christian art still visible today. Handel was a pop-star. Shakespeare was the Spielberg of his times. Dostoevsky wrote novels that shut the mouths of atheist philosophers. But our best music today can only be heard on Christian stations (or sometimes country stations). Our books are sold mostly in Christian bookstores or Christian sections of bookstores for no one but Christians. And our movies are seldom watched by anyone, including us.
I’m also certain Christians don’t know what art is for because the way we think about it is wrong. When we bother to think about art at all, Christians often approach movies, books, music, and other art forms asking questions about what truth they teach. Consider this simple illustration of how wrong we are to approach art by looking only for its truth value: How many of us can honestly say we’re interested in food for its nutritional benefits and nothing else? Can you imagine living a life where you completely ignore how good or bad food tastes? Nutrition is important, but we want our food to taste good as well. Sadly, the way Christians think about art (again, when we bother to) is much like being the kind of person who doesn’t care if his food tastes good or bad so long as it nourishes him.
We need to know about art because it is a major cultural influence, because we participate in an entertainment culture inundated by art and need to put God first in everything in life (including our play), and because art is something Christians do not know enough about. Next month we’ll start looking at what art is for and how it works.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.
Think About This
• When you think about art, what comes to your mind?
A memory from childhood?
A specific piece of art, music, or other entertainment?
• Does art matter to you?
Why, or why not?