Christians and Culture by Dr. Charlie W. Starr
How can we tell good art from bad art? How do we watch movies, listen to songs, and read books in order to get the most meaning and the most entertainment out of them? When should we ask, “Is it true?” This month we talk about what makes art good or bad.
A conscientious Christian’s first question is usually going to be, “Does this book, song, or movie glorify God?” But there’s a problem with this question. I have often heard Christians use 1 Corinthians 10:31 (“Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”) to argue that the only kind of art Christians should expose themselves to is Christian art. They say it is the only art that glorifies God.
Not only are they wrong, they are making Paul’s words mean the opposite of what they really mean. Paul was talking about whether it was okay for the Corinthian Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols and sold in the markets by the local pagan priests. Paul’s answer was that some activities are matters of the believer’s heart, not matters of right and wrong. Those who choose not to eat the meat should do so having their hearts in the right place, and those who choose to eat it should also have their hearts in the right place. The same goes for art: while we can eventually ask whether an artistic text glorifies God, we cannot base this answer on whether or not the text is Christian. Applying 1 Corinthians 10, we should say that the first question to ask is, “Will my viewing or listening to this art form be done in a way that glorifies God?”
Also keep in mind something I’ve said before: to judge whether art is good or bad is to apply two kinds of good and two kinds of bad. Art can be morally good or bad and it can be aesthetically good or bad. The first has more to do with truth; the second has more to do with beauty. As I’ve said in this series, the first purpose of art involves experiences of beauty, so that is the next place to look.
Do You Like It?
When you’re trying to decide if a book or movie is any good, ask yourself this: “Am I enjoying it?” Art should entertain us. It should give us pleasure. If we’re not enjoying it, there may be something wrong. Keep in mind, though, a distinction Aristotle made between what he called enjoyable beauty and admirable beauty. Art that we enjoy is appealing to our aesthetic sense—our sense of beauty in our imaginations. We like it without having to try. But Aristotle said our imaginations can be mis-trained—exposed to the wrong things—so that we end up liking things we shouldn’t. If we like popular music, it’s because we’ve been exposed to it. We enjoy it easily, without any training. In this case we’re experiencing enjoyable beauty. But if we enjoy explicitly sexual art or graphically violent movies, it is because our sense of beauty has been corrupted. In addition to this, however, our imaginations can be trained so that we can learn to like things we otherwise wouldn’t.
Many are willing to acknowledge the genius of William Shakespeare, but fewer actually enjoy reading his plays. They’re difficult and take a lot of work. But when good teachers show us how to read and appreciate Shakespeare, we begin experiencing admirable beauty. And then the more comfortable we get with great but difficult art we are admiring, the more it also becomes enjoyable. So one way to judge whether or not art is good is to ask ourselves if we’re entertained by it—if we like it. Another is to listen to and learn from trustworthy experts and teachers what is and isn’t good art so we can make more decisions about it ourselves.
Next month we’ll discuss how we can judge the goodness of art based on the kind of experience it puts us through.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.