11/14/2017: On Good Art

Some of my impetus for how I’ve been developing my world depends upon my inability to create without placing the gospel in whatever world I create. I feel like this is a shortcoming in me. I love a lot of worlds that don’t seem to incorporate the Gospel, like Harry Potter and Star Wars. They typically still have good versus evil, but there doesn’t seem to be any presence of God in them (and so no grounding for their good and evil—making them some kind of floating, rootless things, or making them dependent upon the audience’s assumptions about good and evil).

In the real world, good does not exist apart from God. If I am to write about good and evil, how can I not at least underpin it with God, if my world will be a secondary world? I’d have to be contextualizing my stories differently with the assumption that they aren’t like our world—at least not in all ways but only those ways that deal with whatever I would be trying to say. I don’t know if I am a free enough artist to work like that. I don’t know.

So if the central message of Harry Potter is that love wins and ambition loses and yet it doesn’t underpin love as proceeding from God, is it wrong? It’s true that love wins. But is it true “enough?” Is it not just another moral story, feeding moralism, unless a person has all the necessary underpinnings already? But that’s like saying any work of art has to require all prolegomena for their messages. A painting of two lovers on a picnic would have to somehow show their love starting with God to be “true enough.” Or paintings like “Icebergs” would have to show him as the creator to be “true enough.” That’s just silliness.

I wonder if this is some vestige of my legalism, attaching itself to my limited understanding of art. Can we not appreciate the beauty of aspects of life without incorporating all the elements that make those aspects inherently “Christian?” Is love not beautiful even if it’s not visibly connected with God at all times? Is it not beautiful even to unbelievers, and does it not draw unbelievers to God  because it’s first beautiful without reference to God?

That’s an interesting idea. It’s beautiful without reference to God.

The reason it’s beautiful is because God is beautiful and because it is like God, so (5/30/2017 given the absence of sin and its perversive effects) the further into the search for beauty a person goes, the closer he comes to God. It’s the foothills, the distant view through a fog, of God’s character when it’s not visibly connected with him, and it becomes more beautiful as a person comes to see the two in conjunction with each other.

And I think I nailed my problem. I feel the need to make these things “Christian.” Whatever that means. I lack the freedom to appreciate them in and of themselves. Perhaps.

I have found my ability to appreciate art that does not speak of God more and more as I have grown in my belief of Christ and of grace and of the freedom we have from being sinless, from acting sinless, from making ourselves sinless. I have also learned more about what art is—what artists try to do with their art—which is not always representation of the way the world is—at least not in its entirety.

Art that is good, beautiful, and true doesn’t require those things that make it “Christian.” And if it is good, beautiful, and true, if it is subcreation, the creation of cosmos from chaos, it accords with the character of God, even if it doesn’t contain Christianity (or the Gospel, or the Scriptures, or history/future according to the Scriptures) or if it has things that, in and of themselves, do not exhibit Christianity or Christ.

What does “Christian art” even mean? L’Engle says there’s no such thing. There’s just good art. There’s cosmos out of chaos. And if it’s cosmos out of chaos, if it’s true and good and beautiful, it’s closer to God than art that’s “Christian” but that’s not true (or good or beautiful).

So what makes “Christian” art “Christian” to those who feel the need to make it, like I have tended to be? I used to not want to sing non-worship music. I also have not wanted to create worlds that ignore Christ or Christianity without reason that makes sense within our own world. I have not wanted to write about “good” characters who weren’t believers—characters who exist at the same time as us or after us. I think the feelings there had to do with not believing a person could be good without being a Christian and so feeling dishonest in making a story about them. It’s like writing a story about a dog that purs (when the whole world thinks it’s normal for dogs to pur) without explaining why he purs and that dogs should really bark. I haven’t wanted to write stories that ignore Scriptural prophecy about the future or history about the past, creating stories that contradict what really happened.

Perhaps it’s a fear connected with our (mainstream American Christianity’s) defensiveness against those who purport that we are wrong. Any breath that what we believe is wrong, and we become militant—even if people aren’t necessarily attacking us. Even if it doesn’t matter whether they attack or not.

Here’s a thought—people readily acknowledge that sci-fi, that fantasy, that even simple drama is fiction. They don’t take it as real—as depicting real life, reality, what’s real. Why can’t we write fiction that doesn’t include Christianity and be okay with it?

Can a sunset be beautiful even if it’s not overtly connected to the Creator? Can a dollar given to the poor be kind even if the Gospel isn’t spoken? Can an orphan whose parents were killed by AIDs be tragic even if sin’s precedence is never mentioned? Can a story depict good actions without mentioning Christ-like character and those actions still be good? Can a story praise love without naming the one from whom love comes and still be right to do so? Is love not praiseworthy in and of itself, even if it’s God who sits on the throne of praiseworthiness? Who sits on the throne of beauty? Who sits on the throne of goodness? And from whom all these things flow and on whom all of them depend?

Why do I sometimes, or in some of these things, feel the need to qualify them all with “only because of God!” without being able to appreciate them as they are? It’s not like me saying that makes me appreciate God more or appreciate those things more. At least I don’t think it does. It’s like a Christianity censor or something. If it doesn’t explicate Christianity (in all of its parts?), it’s wrong, or bad, or something.

Sidebar: If I’m wrong, and if I’ll change, it’ll be by grace through faith. Just saying.

You can write a story that includes God and Christianity and still be wholly untrue. You can write a story that doesn’t and is wholly true.

Fiction uses untruths to tell the truth. It could be fake people, fake conversations, fake fights, fake worlds, fake races, fake laws of nature, fake histories, fake futures, fake WHATEVERS. It’s fiction. It’s just that whatever you are saying should be true, if it’s to be good art. Cosmos from chaos.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have these “Christian” things. But why the compulsion to have them? Is it just a poor understanding of art? It’s not like I want to say things that have as their meaning (never finished this thought, apparently) …

Esther says nothing really about God or the covenant or anything really. It talks about the Jews, about circumstance (providence—Mordecai’s “for such a time as this” explanation), about the good choice of a woman and how she saved her people by her courage. It doesn’t really talk about her godly character, her faith. AND IT’S IN THE BIBLE. Why was it included? Because its message is true. Because it praises Esther’s courage. Because it’s part of Israel’s history (though not all of their history is included!). Because it hints at God’s sovereignty and his salvation of his people.

(1/19/2017—I marked out the above because the message of Esther is still overtly Jewish—it concerns God’s sovereignty and Esther’s character; I had that feeling as I wrote the paragraph, but I never fleshed it out; instead, I added the following paragraph.)

Perhaps a better example is a story like Samson’s. The contents include a godless man’s success over the Philistines. 5/30/2017 The message concerns God’s goodness to his people even in spite of their wickedness and his sovereignty even over wicked men. If translated into today’s context, it’d be like a story about Mel Gibson winning lost souls through The Passion of The Christ (hey, there you go).  The contents are not Christian. The message is. The message just requires understanding what the author is trying to say, which includes understanding context where necessary.

So I don’t have to write stories that complement historical and organizational Christianity, they don’t have to complement the Scriptures (to the extent that they are orthodox). They aren’t (or don’t have to be) the Gospel, just like not every conversation has to be the Gospel, not every anything has to be the Gospel. In fact, making everything the Gospel strikes me as symptomatic of legalism.

I could write a story that depicts that Christ never existed or was a sham that would still be a true and beautiful and good piece of art. It’s all about what it would be saying by depicting him that way. For instance, “The world would be like this if Christ wasn’t true.” Or whatever.

The issue is, then, what is your message? Is it true? Is it good? Is it beautiful?

I think, ultimately, this is an issue of not understanding art and perhaps defensiveness/sensitivity about my belief system.

Contents and message are different.

With all that said, I am creating a world. I am within my bounds, within the bounds of good art, to create a world that complements the world I live in and has as its underpinnings content that is entirely Christian. It doesn’t necessarily make it bad art.

The question to ask, though, is does the Christian content help it become better or worse art? Does it enhance my message or detract from it? Does it improve the world or not? What’s the message of the world and of creating it as it is (see the document “Thoughts on the Message of My World”)?

1/19/2017 Furthermore, the true message doesn’t have to include all truth to remain true. If art is conversation, and I believe it is, the question should probably just be “What truth do you care to say?”

5/30/2017 Also see “Where the Song is Singing Me” and the rest of the videos on https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/bono-and-david-taylor-beyond-the-psalms/

His Side

He rebelled. “I am not your son. Just look at me. I’m 2 feet shorter than you.”

“I have the records to prove it.”

“Hand them to me.”

Swipe. “There’s your records. Insolent boy.”

“No! My records!”

Blood sizzled at his wrist where I excised his presumption.

Wind from the chasm below, and shock, shook him, and he grabbed the railing with his remaining hand. “Maybe your passion as indicated by your violence proves how much you love me.”

“Indeed.”

And he slipped, as if on his own whiny tears, into the garbage chute below, screaming as he fell. “I totally thought it’d be Obi-Wan.”

Frackalurch

Gallumpher peaves upon his perch

He breathes harumphs with eyes alight

With haunches coiled to frackalurch

In holes of rabbits white

.

And once unleashed he prangs a-fro

Upon scents of his tarrid prey

Who’s fickened to its hides below

From my Gallumpher’s bray

.

A first door, third door, fifth door, tenth

His bearage folls on flanks of wrath

Into the welks, the Labyrinth

To flesh its bony path

.

Trophizing with his cartographs

He whimsies me under the world

Thence through the Fae with ember laughs

Ho! Nightwing! Be defurled!

Fettered Fett

Boba Fett

was chompchompchomped

he thundered

over ship and sky

by jetpack

he caught Chewy and Han and Lando and Luke and Leia

in chains and cables and carbonite

in silence

still

untethered by gadgets

kerfuffled by

a giant groundbound mouth

how does it taste

you thousand year old belch

you gastric juice of

sarlacc’s

sand-trap

gut

you unflappable merc you

//

Fett ends up escaping the sarlacc in the wider Star Wars lore. I intended this poem to be read from an Episode V-VI perspective.

Traps

A rubber-clad fisherman stared into the ridges of a corrugated sea. A filament line speared the water below. He glanced into the sky, squinting against rain droplets, the wrinkles at the edge of his eyes groping toward his gramophone ears like fingers. The clouds had darkened to charcoal. Pulling his raincoat tight, he picked up a Styrofoam cup half filled with cocoa-colored soil. He stood, gathered his line, and turned from the ocean. Drizzle wet his cheeks, and he pulled his coat tighter. A few gulls accompanied him, cawing like lunatics and interrupting the waves’ rhythmic weep. One of them lit at his heels but soon rejoined the rabble, having found nothing but footprinted gull droppings. The man’s eyes passed over splinters and paint peels, and the plunk of his footfalls echoed as he stepped, stepped, stepped the forty feet from the edge of the dock to the threshold of his front door. He leaned his bamboo rod against the hovel, set his cup on the planks below, and disrobed, hooking his coat next to the door under a bit of roof. When he entered the one-room home, his daughter sprang with a shout from the three-chaired kitchen table, tackling his waist with a hug. The musk of wild mushroom soup followed her. The man’s wife, her back turned as she tended to their wood-burning stove, quicked a peripheral glance at his empty hands. He sat at the table, near the stove’s warmth, where he found a crust of this morning’s toast, leathery from the humidity, and chewed on it. His gaze ambled to the peg legs of another chair, where he noticed a jiggling black dot. A spider was thatching a tear in its invisible net. Behind it, a June bug hung, like a Summer Flounder, waiting to be filleted. After mending its net, the spider shouldered its meal and stole away, under the seat and out of sight. It returned unburdened and crept to a corner of the web, where it stilled, waiting.

Warmed Inside

Two statues, male and female, sat back to back on a dais, staring at the ground. Stone filled the figures’ ears, and grit their eyes. Baby birds chirped in nests on their shoulders. Children skipped around them, crouched upon them, imagined they were rock monsters. A girl with braids in her hair danced nearby, but they caught her attention, and she stilled. She moved closer, circling them, like Sherlock Holmes in a summer dress, peering into their eyes, tracing the rough curvature of their hands. She brushed away a bird’s nest from the male’s shoulders and with a spit-wet finger rubbed droppings from the other’s hair. Then she turned, hopped off the dais, and ran out of sight. After a few minutes, she returned  with a smile and an apple, a Gala, which she placed in the male statue’s palm. She kissed its cheek and stepped back, watching. Minutes passed, but the girl only blinked. But then the stony form stirred. Like waking up on Saturday morning, it blinked, blinked, blinked and bowed its gaze toward its open hand, then to the girl, who was still smiling. And after a few gravelly breaths, it brought the apple to its mouth and crunched a stony bite. And as the apple’s flesh moistened the dust on his lips and as its nectar warmed his insides, he cracked. Like earthquakes, his husk broke apart in shards, revealing human skin underneath. And looking around, the man saw a promenade, abuzz with persons. A grain-field cascaded in waves to his left, an apple-orchard filled the horizon on his right, and workers tended a vineyard before him. He inhaled, drawing in the scent of crushed grapes and manure. He tilted his ear to birds singing and children laughing. And closing his eyes, he felt a breeze, which blew dust and fragments from his shoulders. Opening them, he caught sight of the female form behind him, its eyes fixed on a rocky past. And with apple in hand, he turned to face it, his pink lips moving toward her stone cheek.

On Impropriety in Fiction and Other Works

What determines the acceptability of moral impropriety in fiction? In my youth (has that passed already?), females showing too much skin, cussing, drug use, so called anti-Christian sentiment, and a thousand other criteria would earn any movie or TV show (book, commercial, magazine article, or person, for that matter) a quick rejection. I was a member of a punk band called Poindexter, and I remember refusing to cover “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind because it talks about drugs. Is that an appropriate response?

I don’t intend to discuss standards of morality but rather how to handle when an artist/writer produces content that conflicts with a person’s accepted standard. Thus “impropriety” for the duration of this discussion refers to any moral impropriety from the perspective of any offended audience member.

I can think of two reasons why moral impropriety would typically render a piece of fiction unacceptable. First, the piece promotes an improper view of some impropriety. Second, a reader or viewer wants to avoid the influence of an impropriety (i.e., an alcoholic avoiding movies with neutral or positive views toward drinking).

If a piece promotes the approval of something morally unacceptable, then rejection can be appropriate. However, it is not uncommon to misinterpret the use of improprieties in fiction. Indeed, writers almost always disapprove of parts of what they create. Antagonists—persons or things who contend with stories’ protagonists, or heroes (who typically represent authors’ proposed ideals)—are a good example. The antagonist lies, manipulates, seduces, or kills in order to contrast, to challenge, and in the end to prove the protagonist’s philosophy or agenda. This requirement for nuance also applies elsewhere. A hero’s lie might be intended to demonstrate that even heroes are flawed. Or, perhaps the hero must redeem his lie in order to fulfill his moniker. Thus we must identify for what intent the author includes moral impropriety. Its mere existence in a piece should not render the entire piece unacceptable.

If what an author intends for approval conflicts with a person’s morals, then we have an issue of disparate worldviews, which is another topic much too large for this post. But in short, should we not expect to conflict with everyone at times? And does this conflict necessitate audiences condemning authors? I propose that it does not. We can disagree with others without enforcing judgment—such is not our responsibility, nor is it in our authority. Our responsibility is to love, to relate, to connect. I do not propose that we tolerate everything but that we disagree with grace and humility rather than judgment.

For further nuance, an author might use something inappropriate to build something good. That is, the ultimate intent is good, and the author uses some less-than-good item (though good or neutral in his own worldview) to further his intent. For instance, an author may view sex as an act of intimacy and love (it is), and she may use it to demonstrate such in a new couple’s budding relationship. While a person who believes sex outside of marriage to be immoral may disagree with this use, that same person can appreciate the author’s intent to demonstrate intimacy and openness in a relationship.

Humor is its own animal and one through which I have yet to think thoroughly. Comedies are all about making new connections and challenging sensibilities, and it is because of the latter that comedies, such as satire or irony, offend morals. For whatever reason, there are some moral standards that we allow to be teased and ones that we don’t. Perhaps the difference involves latent sensitivity from perceived ill intent or from past offense. But the thoughtful viewer would do well to determine the author’s intent before rejecting a piece altogether. It seems reasonable that if some comedy challenges sensibility, it likely does so in full acceptance of the standard that it challenges. I may joke with my wife that I’m going to slap her silly, but this can only make sense if we both recognize that really doing so would not end well.

The second reason concerns a desire to avoid temptation, so to speak. This is a pretty common sentiment and one with which I agree. If a guy wants to kick his porn addiction, watching Baywatch reruns is a bad idea. Even well-meaning but tempting content is dangerous. This sentiment is even more common for pieces directed toward kids. I won’t let my daughter watch The Dark Knight, my favorite movie, because I don’t want her to think violence is acceptable in and of itself (and I don’t want to freak her out). It’s not a case of what the author intends so much as that violence is there, and she’s not mature enough to work through the nuances. When she has learned what is acceptable and can make her own judgments, I will let her decide what to watch.

In short, we should seek to understand authors’ intended use of improprieties before rejecting their work. And even if we disagree with their sensibilities, we can respond with love and humility. However, if an artist’s work is apt to lead a person into some unwanted place, rejection can be appropriate. Thus determining acceptability seems more appropriately based on a person’s self-assessment rather than his assessment of someone’s work.

In the next post, I plan on evaluating Chuck, one of my favorite shows, based upon these observations.