Christians and Culture by Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Art can have many meanings at once; some true, some false, some neither, and those meanings that show us reality, whether earthly or heavenly, are the most true. But art’s relationship with truth is less about being true and more about helping us experience something real. Let’s consider the difference.
Three Kinds of Knowing
In past articles, we’ve looked at the differences between two kinds of thinking: reason and imagination. Now I want to talk about three kinds of knowing. Reason and imagination are the first two. With them we think, learn, and know. The third is experience. While imagination can mimic the senses, experience is what happens with the actual senses. Through them we experience the world outside ourselves. They take in information that may be used by our imaginations or our reasoning for new knowledge. Or experience may teach us directly: When you were three and didn’t listen to Mom when she told you not to touch the stove, you learned the meaning of “hot” as soon as you disobeyed her. You learned by experience.
The connection to art is this: art reaches us by putting us through experiences. Since the imagination mimics the senses, it can mimic experiences too. Art is an experience when we watch a movie or listen to a song. Art puts us through an experience by imaginative meanings that movies, books, or songs reveal to us. Art shows us realities or visions of reality. Think of it like this: when words weren’t enough for God to reach us, he became a man—”the word became flesh” (John 1:14)—so that people could experience him, either in ancient Israel or in his story recorded in the Gospels.
Showing Reality, Telling Truth
We have talked about the relationship between art and truth throughout this series. The first thing I’ve said is that truth telling is a secondary purpose in art. Art does not tell us truth; it puts us through experiences. These experiences can show us truth, but they might not—and they may even show us lies. Things get complicated when we consider how so called “realistic” stories can lie, while fantasy stories can show truth.
If I watch a movie like The Princess Bride, I will, in one sense, be presented with many falsehoods: R.O.U.S.s (Rodents of Unusual Size) don’t exist and Miracle Max can’t make a chocolate covered pill to raise the “mostly dead.” On the other hand the movie teaches me that love is important, as are courage, friendship, and loyalty. Now here’s where it gets complicated: (1) Even factual falsehoods can teach us truth metaphorically: In the movie, Wesley is resurrected by a miracle, and God will raise each of us miraculously as well. And the fictional “Fire Swamp” shows us that courage and intelligence can overcome difficult situations. When Jesus told parables he “made up” stories that weren’t, historically speaking, true—they didn’t happen—but they were very true because they taught deeper spiritual truths. (2) On the other hand, the more realistic parts of a story can sometimes teach us lies. Modern day romantic comedies set in Los Angeles or New York may be very realistic, but they usually lie to us about the nature of true love.
The thing to remember is that stories (and other art forms) aren’t primarily meant to teach truth. They’re meant to put us through experiences. They’re meant to show us a reality. Whether a fantasy world, a sci-fi planet, an Old West boomtown, or a modern day city, if that reality shows us things that correspond with the reality we live in (or the heavenly reality we long for), it also shows us truth. But our first job with any work of art is to experience it, enjoy it (or dislike it), and delight in its beauty. Only then can we ask if it’s something we can learn from.
This is not the last article in this series, but it is the last article on the purpose of art. Next we will start asking some practical questions: 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?” We’ll start answering these questions next month.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.