A few months ago, I wrote a post on consuming books and entertainment, and then another on how I think through desensitization. I’ve been compiling a stack of responses from dozens of you who offered to share your Myers-Briggs personality type and entertainment preferences with me, and I’ll be working through those for a while. In the meantime, though, I want to continue offering the occasional post on Christian interaction with books, television, and movies.
Today, my friend Sarah Elizabeth Finch is offering her perspective on consuming art. I’ve known Sarah Elizabeth since we were little girls, and I can honestly say that her wisdom and depth of thought have been a part of her soul and speech from the beginning. One of the things I enjoy the most about Sarah Elizabeth is that she loves to have fun in meaningful ways. I think that will become clear to you as you read her thoughts on interacting with art as followers of Jesus.
On Whether or Not Consuming Art is an Endorsement of It:
Finding the Sacred in the Secular
I have fond memories growing up of spending Friday nights with my Dad and my brother. We had a tradition where as soon as “Daddy” got home we would pile in the car and drive to Cici’s Pizza, eat our fill of the mediocre buffet, then spend up to an hour perusing the aisles of Blockbuster. Once we had made our selection, we would head home to pop popcorn, drink milkshakes, and revel in a few hours of cheap entertainment.
A couple things to note here:
- My mom never joined us, instead choosing to soak in a bubble bath and turn in early for the evening. Now that I’m a mother, I know exactly how she feels and would gladly forgo an evening of entertainment for that privilege.
- Blockbuster? It’s been ages since I’ve visited this establishment (does it even exist anymore?) but thinking on this memory made me realize how streamlined and accessible entertainment is now. Today’s version of this would be Netflix.
Looking back, not only did these evenings foster in me a love of quality time with my family, but they also cultivated in me a love of movies, and not just because they were entertaining. I remember a conversation with my mom one day, discussing an interracial couple at church. She mentioned challenges that they had overcome and I asked her what she meant. She said, “Have you seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? No? Well you need to rent that one next.”
Movies, as an art form, teach us. There were many titles that we “had to see” thanks to my parents’ desire to expose us to history and culture. I remember walking the “Classics” aisle after several years of this weekly ritual unable to find a new film; I had seen them all. Some might call that overkill, but just like literature, movies are an avenue for an artist to broadcast a message and a space for the viewer to see, think, and be inspired to change.
As Christians, we are called to be sojourners with a celestial citizenship – in the world, but not of the world. Movies are both in the world and of the world, portraying secular themes, romanticizing reality, and often celebrating sin. Is consuming this entertainment, then, an endorsement of the content?
“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” (All About Eve, 1950)
The learner’s definition of art in Merriam-Webster is, “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” When I think about art I typically include at least these two components: content and delivery. Was the content good? Did I connect with the message? Was the delivery meaningful? Did it make me stop in my tracks?
These are questions that we consciously or subconsciously ask when consuming art, whether it be the latest novel, an oil-painting at the museum, a comic-strip in the NY Times, or a movie. The answers to these questions matter, becoming a filter for future art consumption. We learn more about ourselves in the process as we peruse the “Blockbuster aisles” of art and make our selections week-to-week.
As believers, are there movies (or books, paintings, songs, etc.) that we should pass on by and never pick up? Is there such a thing as art without any redeemable content or delivery?
“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” (Back to the Future, 1985)
Whenever I’m asked a question about the behavior of believers in general, I cringe. Not because these aren’t important questions, but because they are so important, and so delicate.
The life of a believer should look like Christ. Christ is perfect and He is multi-faceted. We are imperfect and reflect only a few facets of His character, the other facets being represented by the rest of the body of believers around us. Each of our paths to and pursuits of Christ will look different. Different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, though, as what is beneficial for one may be harmful to another, excluding the definite avoidance of sin.
It’s in this grey area that division arises and conflict erupts. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (ESV). So what is good and perfect? That which glorifies God? I would say, yes.
In 1 Corinthians 8 we get a seemingly hazy picture of that which glorifies God. Food sacrificed to idols is a non-issue due to the intrinsic worthless nature of idols. And yet consuming this food is an issue if fellow believers who are weaker in their faith might stumble, mistaking your consumption as paying homage to these inanimate and powerless deities. You know that your consumption is justified because the deities are meaningless, but your neighbor who struggles with faith in one God may misunderstand your confidence.
The freedom we express is evidence that the heart behind our actions is what matters. But care must be taken when we live in the freedom for which He has set us free lest our freedom appear reckless to naive onlookers.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” (Jaws, 1975)
So what does this mean as it pertains to consuming art and entertainment? I would argue that just like the believers who bought and ate food sacrificed to idols, it means you’re paying for a commodity, not necessarily endorsing the entity behind it.
I say necessarily because of course there are exceptions. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, ESV). If something is advertised as directly supporting abortion or white supremacy, just don’t. But support and depiction are two different things.
Just like care must be taken when we live out freedom in our decisions, care must be taken when we look at our hearts. If the sin is so vile and the art so abominable that our hearts struggle to see the grace and truth hidden alongside, then perhaps we should pass in favor of a more gracious representation of the world. Let us not excuse debauchery in our efforts to learn the culture we live in.
Art is made to express ideas and feelings, and is often a creative interpretation of the culture we live in. If the art we consume is depicting sin, shame and hopelessness, is it wrong for us to lean in and learn from this perspective? How will we know what our neighbors are struggling with if we don’t allow ourselves first to be confronted with the issues portrayed in various forms of secular media? And can we learn anything from flawed content with excellent delivery?
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” (The Usual Suspects, 1995)
I know that there are many non-Christians who would stand in front of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci, and marvel at the masterpiece in front of them. The content and the message may hold no higher meaning for them, but the delivery – the brushstrokes, the emotions captured, the composition – is breathtaking. Does this not hold true for us, too?
We value marriage to be sacred, and yet literature beautifully and tragically depicts extra-marital affairs as glamorous, heart-breaking and common. We hold life to be of utmost value, and yet films tell the other side of the story, with hopeless hearts taking life into their own hands. We believe that unnecessary violence is appalling, and yet the action-flicks we watch boast of violence for sport.
Many in our society think and feel the very emotions these art forms are revealing, and we are getting a front-row seat. Will we appreciate the lyrical window into the mind and heart of humanity? Or will we discard the poetry because we disagree with certain themes in the message?
“I’ll have what she’s having.” (When Harry Met Sally, 1989)
James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Just because we have an eye for art doesn’t mean we get a free pass. The question that we should always ask ourselves when making any decision is this: “Does this glorify God?”
I believe that art has the potential to exemplify many redemptive qualities, but this redemption may not occur with all consumers. And that’s okay.
Some art may not be redeemable as believers under any circumstance due to the explicit nature of the content. And that’s okay, too.
Our freedom enables us to reject and accept many things under the sun. We may enjoy the things we accept and share those acceptable things with others around us, engaging believers and non-believers alike in conversation about our culture and our God who is not bound to a certain genre. We can also appreciate the things we must reject, knowing that our hearts and eyes have been shielded from atrocities that do not honor our God.
This is the grey area that requires grace and community. Grace to preface our words toward one another, and community to help us make wise decisions when it comes to what is “good” and glorifying to God. And should we come to a conclusion that some form of art is unacceptable, I believe that we should reject it with grace, knowing that there may be believers around us that have wider boundaries of freedom to enjoy it.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Gone With The Wind, 1939)
The lessons I learned by watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner could not have been replaced by simple conversation. I saw the tension that Sidney Poitier expressed through his character as he introduced himself as a black man to his white in-laws. In 1967, this was unheard of, but the characters graciously and painstakingly trudged through the difficult conversations needed to make it work. By the end of the movie, I was in love with this interracial couple and had so much respect for the bridges they had just built and the gap that they stood in for future couples entering this hardship.
In 1967 this was controversial, but it was so important. In 2003, when I watched it, it changed my whole perspective. I’m not saying that every controversial movie will end up becoming a social norm, or that every message represents truth. What I am saying is that it could.
I don’t want to be the person loudly boycotting a progressive movie. I want to be someone who carefully consumes the art in front of me, measures it to scripture, discusses it with community, shares my revelations with my neighbors, and then engages a lost culture with the light that I found.
That light might just be a flicker right now, but what if you find it? What if you are patient enough to look for the sacred amidst the secular, and you glean a new perspective on truth that will spark a flame and turn into a wildfire? There’s a lot of time and space between 1967 and 2003, but the message has stood the test of time and is still relevant now.
“Nobody’s perfect.” (Some Like It Hot, 1959)
I’ve included some well-known movie quotes not only because I love movies and clever transitions, but also to make a point. Wisdom, pith and puns can be gleaned side-by-side in movies that are completely secular in nature. When looking at villains, we like to say, “There’s an ounce of good somewhere in him.” So why not with art?
Why not read and listen and watch with wonder and a critical eye? With wonder to see what beauty has been created by God’s image-bearers – sacred and secular alike. With criticism to see what is redemptive, to see what Truth can be gleaned. Diamonds shine brighter in the rough. Light penetrates further in the darkest of night. Christians make a greater impact when they are immersed in the culture around them, engaging the broken, seeking the lost, all the while holding onto our Savior.
The beautiful Truth to be found in all of this is that our Savior not only comes with us into these secular spaces, He leads the way.