Whatever is Lovely
Art is a beautiful thing, and the ability to produce it is a wonderful gift from God. Whether it takes the form of music, the written word, hand crafted images, or even a film, a well-crafted piece of art can serve as an excellent manifestation of God’s good creation and the potential beauty of our world. However, the sinful nature of mankind frequently distorts and abuses the gift of art, as it has done with all of God’s creation. While a beautiful icon depicting the resurrection serves to glorify the goodness of God’s loving grace, brutally graphic movies, pornography, and other foul “art forms” wallow in the depth of human depravity and everything ungodly. As my business law professor said, “The human capacity to take a good idea and ruin it beyond recognition is unlimited.”
We are exposed to a wide variety of art forms on a daily basis, and unfortunately in today’s world, many of them tend to gravitate more and more toward the ungodly and depraved. I don’t typically spend a great deal of time in stores, but on the rare occasions when I find myself wondering the highways and byways of a mall, it is not at all uncommon for me to find myself accosted by larger than life sized posters of scantily clad men and women plastered in the windows of clothing stores. A goodly portion of the music that I hear classmates listening to, or even just hear coming out of the speakers in my Student Activities Center, is filled with lyrics encouraging adultery, idolatry, and even physical violence, and it is becoming increasingly difficult even to find movies made for children that do not contain foul language and lewd jokes.
Thankfully, there is still a lot of beautiful artwork out there, and a great deal of art from ages gone by has been preserved and carried to the present day. I work as a performance usher for my school and that means I frequently attend piano, string, vocal, and orchestra concerts filled from beginning to end with beautiful music. The walls of my home are covered in crucifixes, icons, family pictures, and other pieces of art that clearly depict good and beauteous things. The shelves in my family’s home are also covered in everything from C. S. Lewis’s works to Dr. Seuss’s immortal tale, Go Dogs, Go!
Art takes a great many different forms, good and bad, but my goal here is not to prove that there are evil works of art at large in our society, or to assert that good art is still alive and well today. Rather, as films like Noah and Fifty Shades of Grey hit our theaters, and I hear more and more of my friends discussing the latest season of Game of Thrones, I am more concerned about asking the question: As Christians, what forms of art should we expose ourselves to, and what should we avoid?
The term “adult material” has rubbed me the wrong way for some years now, as I have tried to determine why on earth becoming an adult would suddenly make watching or reading about graphic dismemberments, sexual activity, and depraved language a legitimate thing to do. What we read, what we see, and what we hear becomes lodged in our memories, and often the most graphic, disturbing, and explicit pictures and scenes bury themselves the deepest and take the firmest hold. Even if we don’t condone something as right, if we see it performed or read about it in great detail, it will still be found floating about through our head. The devil, the world, and our sinful nature are wickedly clever and incredibly effective at playing with our sense of right and wrong. By exposing ourselves to art forms that embrace our inherent sinfulness, we are handing the ungodly forces that seek to destroy us armloads of ammunition.
I have not personally seen any episodes from the Game of Thrones series, nor have I read any of the books upon which the series is based, but I am discovering that more and more of my Christian friends have done one or the other or both. The predominant opinion I hear coming from them is that the series in both literary and cinematic form is a remarkable example of compelling character development and storytelling tag teamed with some of the most over-the-top graphic violence, nudity, and sexual activity they’ve seen on screen or read on paper. A not uncommon comment from some of them has been, “It is so good, but I feel so bad watching it….” I would be lying if I said that there isn’t a part of me that is really curious about this universe crafted by George R. R. Martin and I would like to look into one or the other of its incarnations. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel like that “I feel so bad watching it” sense that my friends are getting is a tell-tale sign it is something I probably don’t actually want to expose myself to.
Far from venturing into this topic as an opportunity to toot my moral horn and brag about my ability to dodge the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire bullet, I find the questions and conundrums that arise out of topics like this particularly compelling, especially because one of my favorite literary series is also one that I could never in good conscience recommend to most of my friends. Robbin Hobb’s interrelated Farseer, Liveship, and Tawny Man trilogies together represent some of the most interesting and compelling fantasy novels I have ever read. Hobb’s writing is superb in my opinion, and the world that she has created over the years is so well crafted and naturally expressed that I almost have a hard time believing she made it all up. Not only that, but there are some incredibly thought provoking themes relating to loyalty, family, duty, love, and companionship running through all three of the aforementioned series that I find truly remarkable.
However, these very themes that I admire so much are directly intertwined with characters who perform some pretty horrendous acts, and there is quite a lot of adultery present throughout the whole storyline. While I don’t think you could honestly say that Hobb revels in scenes about breaking the sixth commandment, she certainly doesn’t shy away from including them in her works either, and I think that in some ways the depth and impact of the virtuous qualities I associate with the book are actually more substantial because she doesn’t shy away from exposing the weaknesses and failings of her characters.
I think there are many cases when it is very easy for us to say that a book, a movie, a song, or a picture is so despicable and ungodly that we should avoid it to the greatest extent possible; but what is our measuring stick when faced with art forms that seem so beautiful and well-crafted on one hand and entirely messed up on the other? Another book I haven’t read is Fifty Shades of Grey, but assuming the reviews and synopses I read for the sake of being informed are an accurate representation of what the book is about, Fifty Shades is an example of a story everyone should avoid.
Books like those written by Robin Hobb don’t seem quite so clear cut to me though. There seems to be so many good lessons to take away from them, and so many tidbits of brilliant wisdom within her pages. Just a few of my favorite would be: “When you cut pieces out of the truth to avoid looking like a fool you end up looking like a moron instead”; “Don’t do what you can’t undo, until you’ve considered what you can’t do once you’ve done it”; and “When considering a man’s motives, remember you must not measure his wheat with your bushel. He may not be using the same standard at all,” all of which come from Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in her Farseer Trilogy. Hobb’s books are filled with quotes like these, and significant insights into people and the way we think. I’m sure that the same could be of George R. R. Martin’s books, but I cannot deny that there are also a lot of things within the pages of her books that we would all probably be better off not reading.
The truth is that today there is more “art” out there today that spits in the face of God’s good gifts and loving sacrifice than we could probably even get through in a single lifetime, and a lot of it isn’t going to be obviously evil or destructive enough to send up those oh-so-important red flags in our head which we call a conscience. In many cases, the lines are going to be blurred, and we will be faced with the genuinely difficult question about whether or not the good outweighs the bad because there are plenty of cases where you can find good, worthwhile, and important messages running right alongside sin in all its wickedness.
Huh… sounds kind of like life actually…
Ultimately, I don’t have an answer. This is a topic that I’ve toyed with for years now, and one that I doubt I will come to satisfying answer to until I am raised up alongside all believers on the last day. However, I don’t think we are completely left in the dark either. The Bible is always a great place to go when faced with the trials and tribulations of our fallen world, and there is one passage in particular that I find incredibly helpful in thinking about what kind of art I really want filling my head:
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Philippians 4:8 (NASB)
These are the words that I cling to when faced when trying to decide whether or not to read A Song of Ice and Fire, and while I am not sure that I have always made the right decisions, I couldn’t be more confident in the foundation I draw from. Do the things we watch speak to the goodness of God and his creation, or do the appeal to a darker and more sinister part of our hearts and minds? Is what we are watching true and honorable? Is it pure and worthy of praise? As I said above, the lines will often be blurred, and the answer may not be clear, but at least we have a place to start and something to build upon.
Photo courtesy of Dumaker.