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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12/10/2016: Free To Act (cf. Phil. 2:12-13)

You are free to act.

God doesn’t tell us to wait on him to give us pure motivations or authentic motivations (pure motivations would be authentic…), he just tells us to do because it’s him in us working to will and to work his will. And he corrects us when we do wrong. And that’s it.

Something tells me he doesn’t want me to not do just because I might do wrong. Something tells me he will take care of me when I do wrong. That I have the freedom to act, knowing that I’m safe, that he loves me, that he works on me when I do wrong. And though those things may hurt, it’s good. So there’s a safety net, of sorts, in doing wrong. I am free to act because I could do right and because doing wrong is not the end.

To be continued.

(8/14/2017: I have since written a more nuanced explanation of what I’m talking about here, to be published later on. This is much too short to be of use to anyone. But this LBK was the first big movement on this topic that I had had in years.)

11/25/2016: On Authenticity

You are choosing based on what you interpret that you want. Therefore the thing you want to do the most is to do what you want to do the most. And I imagine that’s because you want to do what’s “right” or “perfect” the most, and you’re leaning toward the idea that what you want—what’s “authentic” for you—is the best. Interesting.

I guess the issue is beliefs and values. What drives me? To be perfect. By what means? By being authentic. What should drive me?

I wonder what’s behind my wanting to be perfect. Is it a lack of faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ? Is it pride according to Satanic philosophy? The attitude of the Babel Tower builders? Both? Perhaps a lack of faith and a lack of valuing of the imputed righteousness of Christ?

A person of right character wants to do what’s good and does what’s good. They do so because they believe what’s good and value what’s good. I have a fallen character with the imputed, good character of Christ. At least with the righteousness of Christ. Thus I will not want what’s good—at least not purely. Not until glorification.

But I think this idea led to me valuing what I want as the best criteria for action. I elevated this form of “authenticity” because only an authentic person can exhibit good actions with good motives. But something tells me that a person with right character is authentic as a result. That is to say, if I put on authenticity, I am doing so out of a wrong character. If it’s by grace through faith that I am authentic, it’s good.

Ha ha. Now that I know I have this issue, what I want to do the most is change what I want to do the most.

More to come.

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/