Christians and Culture by Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Last month I began a series on the purpose of art that began with a look at why art matters and why we need to know about it. One of my primary claims is that most Christians in America no longer know what art is for and need to learn its purposes again.
Purpose Number One
The first mistake Christians make about art is thinking that its purpose is truth. It sounds like the right thing to say, and it almost is, but experience tells us something different. The disciplines of history, philosophy, theology, and science pursue truth (or should). On the other hand movies, songs, and novels are either boring or entertaining. They may be true or they may contain some truth, but that is not why we watch, listen to, or read them—at least not at first.
Think about the reasons you like a fiction book—the reasons you give when someone asks you about it: “It was gripping.” “It was suspenseful.” “It kept me guessing till the very end.” “It was funny.” “I enjoyed every page.” These qualities aren’t about the book’s truth. They’re about its ability to entertain you, to give you a certain kind of pleasure. Who among us spends 20 or more dollars at a movie theater in order to be truthed? We go to be entertained.
Thinking About Beauty
The next question Christians might ask is, “How can we possibly be more concerned with entertainment than truth?” My first answer is that God says it’s okay for us to enjoy ourselves (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9). Second, this isn’t an essay on priorities; it’s on art. And my point is that we should use things according to their purpose. A butter knife can cut steak, but that’s not its purpose. Similarly, art has a relationship to truth, but that’s not its first purpose. Third, if we spend time thinking about the pleasure we get from art, we soon start asking the right questions about it. What is the pleasure art gives? What makes it entertaining to us? Why do we enjoy it? And at the center of these questions is the real first purpose of art. It is there to be beautiful.
Part of beauty’s appeal is to the senses. Pictures and songs delight us by sight or sound, and we get a similar delight from things that taste, smell, or feel good even if we don’t use the word beauty to describe them. If beauty appeals to our senses, it must also appeal to our imaginations. Beauty also draws from us an emotional response. The delight we feel on hearing a beautiful song may calm, excite, or sadden us. None of this defines beauty completely, but it gives us something to start with regarding art.
Why It Matters
When you watched The Passion of the Christ, you saw a story you already knew—you’d read it in the Gospels many times. But something was different, wasn’t it? The story was made beautiful. Job experienced something similar when God described himself to Job through a series of beautiful images. Job answered, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5), and seeing that beauty was all Job needed. Beauty matters because it’s powerful. It certainly can be used to communicate truth: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isaiah 52:7). It can also be used to hide lies: Satan “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). But you can see in this example how beauty is not the same thing as truth. In Philippians 4:8, Paul tells us to dwell on things that are “true,” but also on things that are “lovely.” In Jeremiah 10 the prophet praises the craftsmanship of idol makers while judging them for their idolatry (vv. 8-10). There is more to beauty than just its truth value; we’ve got to figure out what.
We shouldn’t judge T-shirts for failing to keep us warm in winter. A shovel used as a pogo stick will ruin a lawn, chip concrete, or twist ankles. Knowing what a thing is for is the key to understanding it. Next time we will look more at what beauty is in order to understand art’s purpose. Then, once we know the primary purpose of art, we can look at its other purposes also. But we have only scratched the surface.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.