3/16/2017: Art and Cultural Norms

“Only worship music is good music.”

I grew up with this belief, or something like it. I have trouble responding with any measure of clear-headedness when someone brings it back up, though I have been and am being convinced that valuable art is a much broader category than just worship music.

This is from a document for my novel:

This is the issue with southern moralistic Christianity that requires that all “art” be “Christian” to be good. It’s an application of a cultural norm more than a recognition that intent always qualifies morality and that the intent should be “love one another.”

Otherwise—and this is not a reason or a proof against this system but a symptom or result of it—a southern moralist cannot accept or interact with other cultures that do not censor the same taboos but that might still be loving. He cannot speak with the Irish or persons from Spain or the Nordic countries, who cuss like crazy. He cannot hang out with the English or persons from Seattle or Colorado (or pretty much anywhere) because he can’t handle being in a pub. He can’t regard art that incorporates disturbing imagery even when its message is the Gospel.

Indeed, how can southerners interact with the Gospel? Maybe by Lifeway books and movies.

Intent determines moral purity; rules do not (unless they are followed with pure intent). Christ certainly exemplifies this when combatting the religious leaders, whose rules had the appearance of purity but no heart. I think our tendency is the same—to make rules and then forget the heart. And maybe it’s a parenting failure, or maybe it comes from losing faith. Or maybe it comes from failing to understand or care where rules come from and why those origins matter. Though it’s probably at its core an issue of faith.

I think Israel is a really interesting example. They began with the heart, in Abraham and then down through the central figures. They also had God-given rules designed to cultivate and guide that heart. But they lost the heart, kept the rules, and built upon the rules. Didn’t they? (12/13/2017: A friend once told me that the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of Law was more idealistic or prescriptive than prohibitive—”Look upon this law, understand the truth and justice behind it, and apply that truth and justice in whatever way is best per context”; even so, it’s pretty clear that the Jews of Jesus’ day were of the prohibitive brand). It was culture that they built upon purity, but it was godless culture. The same is true, I think, of much of southern moralism today. And surely other brands of moralism.

The problem for Christians, and anyone else looking for goodness and beauty and truth (may they find Christ), is when we assign purity or impurity to culturally normalized morals, like “(So called) worship music is the only music worth listening to” or “No cussing,” “No drinking,” “No ‘vulgar’ media,” and even, sometimes, “No nudity.” I do not believe anything is necessarily impure. Impurity requires less-than-pure intent.

The standard is love. Not just lack of unlove, but the act of love. If it’s not in love, it’s impure.

I do not mean that we should disregard all prudence when dealing with these things. Paul talks about this. Don’t tempt the alcoholic with the real freedom to drink in appropriate contexts. Don’t tempt the porn addict with the real freedom to regard the human body in appropriate contexts. But the reason for those rules (I suppose they are rules) and therefore the only thing that makes them worth following is love. Assigning these rules without assigning love leads persons into sin and wickedness. So love requires that we encourage them away from things that tempt them, until such time that they grow in faith and not be overcome with their temptations as they love.

With this in mind, certainly all bad art, and bad thinking, takes at face value the norms of its cultural context—culture being the things that man has developed.

  1. Cultural norms, because they typically originate in fallen man, are less than good.
  2. Good things accord with God. So good art accords with God—in its truth, in its beauty, in its recognition of the world and the human condition, in its creation of cosmos from chaos.
  3. So good art, and good thinking, always calls into question (typical) cultural norms.

3/6/2018: If art accords with any particular culture (given that all our cultures, even in the church, are man-touched), my guess is it’s not good (stick this word on a scale in your mind before impaling me on my perfectionism). And if you think it’s good, maybe you’ve got some introspection and repentance to do. My only real point here–good art challenges.

Edit 3/7/2018: Apparently astrophysicists agree.

Edit 2: Also G. K. Chesterton (whom I’ve yet to read).

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