Monday, May 19, 2014

See No Evil? (Discernment in the Arts) - Carolyn Arends

Many of us who peruse this blog love stories (whether those stories be told in novels, playhouses or movie theatres.) Many of us here also seek to follow the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to train our minds on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, [and] whatever is admirable (Phil 4:8, NIV).” Often, we face a quandary. What if, to tell a story honestly, unsavoury or downright evil behaviours must be portrayed?  Are we constrained—either as consumers or creators of art—to keep certain topics or words off limits?

This spring, I found myself struggling through this question with a group of college students in a class I was teaching on faith and the arts. We could all agree upon extreme cases of exploitative and gratuitous sex, violence and abusive language that are clearly outside the bounds of the Philippians 4:8 mandate. But we were less sure what to do with greyer areas. What if the questionable elements in a story are not there to titillate, but rather because they are an important part of telling the truth about the human condition?  The Bible itself contains many frank and unflinching depictions of human depravity; if we were to legalistically and thoughtlessly apply the Philippians 4:8 mandate to Scripture, we’d have to censor a good deal of what is there.

Despite several lively debates, we never did arrive at a clear consensus on this issue. But we did settle on a framework that helped us at least begin to more thoughtfully and prayerfully engage with stories of all kinds. When tasked with evaluating a piece of art in any genre, we asked ourselves three questions, inspired by the Church’s long history of appropriating (quite appropriately, I think) Plato’s three Transcendentals.

Is it good?

Is it true?

Is it beautiful?

The first question – Is it good? – involves ethics and morals. It requires us to consider not only whether a story contains offensive words or scenes, but also whether the worldview it tacitly conveys is an ethical one. It might be possible for a film to be rated “G,” but embody an insidious worldview in which material success is considered the ultimate meaning in life, or people are merely means to ends. Conversely, it might be possible for a movie to contain violence, sex or language, but provide a perspective on the human condition that moves the viewer towards a more ethical or moral stance.

The second question – Is it true? – is an even more theological one. Does the story—whether it is fact or fantasy or something in between—say something honest about the world and the people who inhabit it? Does it hint at anything true about God? Even if the worldview in a story is in conflict with the Gospel, can it teach us something true about the perspectives and needs of the people who hold it?

The third question – Is it beautiful? – has to do with aesthetics. It asks whether the art in question is well-crafted and successfully formed. A depraved story may be breathtakingly depicted. (In such instances we should proceed with caution.) Or, as is sometimes the case in explicitly “Christian” storytelling, a good and true story may be shabbily crafted. (Caution is required here, too! Please!)

With these three questions, my students and I were able to begin a process of discernment that each of us will be working through for the rest of our lives. We might decide that a story lacking in one of the Transcendentals can still be worthy of our attention due to its strengths in another.  Most essentially, we felt challenged to try to create work ourselves that was deeply good, unflinchingly true, and as beautiful as we could possibly make it.

I pray you will go and do likewise!

PS – My own adventure in art-making this spring involves recording an album of Christmas originals, which will be released October 15, 2014.  This project will be my 11th CD; it’s the first one we’re crowdfunding. We’re asking people to consider pre-ordering the album (with great discounts and perks) in order to help us make it. Please check out our Kickstarter project. Thanks!


Justine said...

This is something I think about a lot. I love Story, too; I love this "great scheme and experiment of being" that reveals what is true and noble and pure and lovely, yes -- but also can use what is false and debased and adulterated and ugly to draw out and delineate the former virtues. Chiaroscuro paints depth when the medium is words as well as oils. I think, too, that art and its value depend so much upon the give and take between artist and consumer. Art reveals the heart of both sides and has its own life separate from either. Manet could, say, paint a picture with one intention; I receive it in another; both readings could be quite apart from the life inherent to it that affects a million different viewers a million ways.

I think about eternity, which I suppose and dream to be a realm of never-ending creative output in the presence of the King. To me, the idea of being made in God's image has to do with our capacity for creative expression. I wonder, though, that when sin is taken out of the equation, what form this eternal art will take. All light and no darkness ... from where will the contrast and tension that are so imperative for moving the soul to transcendence come? I guess we'll already be transcended, but that hardly sounds interesting. Or, will we write and sing and paint of sin like visitors to a foreign land -- remembering the customs and examining them without being affected by their taint?

And, what will it be like to create in Glory, I wonder. Will the never-endingness of the never-ending put a damper on us? Ars longa, vita brevis puts a sense of urgency to creative work that forces us into honesty -- it is harder to prevaricate and conceal in haste; truth tumbles out whether we will it or no. The best thing to happen to art is the deadline (or the grouchy, impatient patron). How will it be when ars longa, vita aeterna?

Sorry, I went a bit off topic at the end there. These are the questions folks. One last thought: When you give your heart to Jesus, He tells you what you should and should not do; that's a specialty of the indwelling of the Spirit. You will be repulsed by the things that possess no edifying or redemptive value; but, conversely, if there is any small part that God can use to speak the truth to you, He surely will.

Carolyn Arends said...

Thanks for engaging so deeply with this Justine - a very thought-provoking response! With respect to the technique of Chiaroscuro, my theatre director friend Ron Reed (who is always having to explain why they include plays with difficult/potentially offensive content in his theatre company's season) claims that the light shines the brightest in the darkness.

So your question about an eternity without darkness if fascinating. It seems like there was work before the Fall - but it was productive and fruitful - and there was an emptiness and a void before the fall too, I don't know what that means ... except that I suspect we'll have plenty of material to work with even (especially?) when all has been restored. :)

Thanks again,

Kathleen Gibson said...

Carolyn, the texture of your life inspires me to not be afraid of the many strands of my own inspiration and creativity. Thank you. Love the promo video, btw. Made me smile.

Peter Black said...

Thanks Carolyn. Not only does this challenging post provoke thought, it also provides fodder to nourish the process of thought and working through the kinds of choices we must make in pursuing and presenting our creativity in a way that recognizes the realities of a spoiled world, yet holds out the hope of redemption, and our doing it in a way that pleases God.
Hmm, makes me wish I'd been in your class and privy to the discussions. :)
You and your fellow musician seem to be thoroughly enjoying yourselves -- it shows in the music as well as on your faces! (Nostalgically-speaking, the video and the various instruments take me back half a century and more to when I dabbled in some of those.) ~~+~~

Carolyn Arends said...

Kathleen and Peter - Thanks so much for engaging with the post - and for checking out the Kickstarter project! :)

Tracy Krauss said...

This is a very timely post and one that is near to my own heart and calling. I help moderate a site called 'Edgy Christina Fiction Lovers' and this is the kind of debate that goes on there all the time. (Rarely is there a pat answer either...) I love how you spelled out how you decide whether something is worth writing/reading...

Carolyn Arends said...

Hi Tracy - Thanks for commenting - I can certainly see how this topic would resonate with the site you moderate (although it took me a bit to realized it was "Edgy Christian" and not "Edgy Christina." :) I'm glad you are out there asking folks to engage more deeply with what they read and write!

Rose Scott said...

Love your writing as always Carolyn! This is something I too have thought about. When I grew up, a lot of entertainment was just plain "verboten" for Christians, but with the pervasive nature of media today, that is a difficult if not impossible posture to take. As believers we have to come up with ways to creatively engage in culture without being tainted by it. I articulated some similar thoughts on my blog in October.

Marcia Laycock said...

Great post. Thanks, Carolyn.

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