Talk to ten people in the art world about what right and wrong look like, and you’ll get eleven different opinions. Should the characters in your script be more diverse, or is it cultural appropriation to write stories for people whose experiences you haven’t lived? Should you strip the swear words out of your work, or leave them in for authenticity? What messages do you need to include in your work, and by the way, can you do so with less subtlety so that the audience can’t possibly miss what you’re trying to say? Everyone has their own opinion, and none of the opinions agree, and there’s a whirlwind of commotion about everything these days.
I’m not going to dive into that maelstrom, in part because I try to avoid controversy unless there’s a clear purpose, but mostly because I’d rather get to the heart of the issue. I think if we as artists can come to a Godly perspective on creating art that is good from a moral perspective, then all the lesser concerns will fall into line. But before I get to that part, I want to talk about two archetypes you’ll see in the art world: the pharisee and the rebel.
The pharisee is a tough archetype to deal with as Christians, because the pharisee does a good job of pretending to be Christian. A pharisee’s dream project is a book where little Johnny goes to church and says his prayers and realizes the importance of being a good person. Which, on the surface, seems to be completely Christian. But the Bible has a lot to say about the differences between what seems Christian and what actually is. And it doesn’t care much for trying to maintain the outward appearance of Christianity (Acts 5).
Pharisees love to proclaim loudly that they’re on the right side of whatever social issue people are talking about these days. They enjoy coming up with the tiniest laws possible that they can obey while feeling superior to others who don’t follow their example. When pharisees have power over artists, they use it to insist on the removal of anything they don’t immediately recognize, anything new or different. But art thrives at the edges of our understanding. To confine it to what we clearly know and understand is to sentence it to death. The pharisee mindset is incompatible with an artist’s freedom; the two cannot coexist.
The pharisee’s mindset is the one that crucified Christ for not being who they wanted Him to be. And if you let it into you, it’ll do the same to your art.
The rebel is an easy archetype to dismiss as non-Christian because they’re always pushing boundaries of what is acceptable. An example might be someone making a short film that’s just 20 minutes of puppies being brutally tortured. The rebel lives to get a reaction from others, one of disgust, outrage, and opposition. And they see the shortest path to doing so is to cross every line of decency in order to draw as much attention to themselves as possible. The rebel recognizes that art is transgressive, that it seeks to move past conventional barriers, but they miss why it does so, and so they usually just end up crossing lines for the sake of crossing lines, without any point or purpose.
The rebellious outlook comes across as anti-God and it usually is. But the idea of saying shocking things to grab people’s attention, to craft a message so as to intentionally inflame anger or disgust, that happens in the Bible. And it happens a lot.
Take a moment to read Ezekiel 16. If you’re up for something extra spicy, read it in the Message, where I feel they did an excellent job of communicating the tone. That same style is used again in Ezekiel 23. And God even commanded Ezekiel to eat food cooked over human dung, something that the man found so offensive he begged God for a different assignment. When we picture a man of God communicating divine truths, this isn’t what we usually picture. But it’s what God had in mind.
Or consider the story in Judges 19 when a group of men surround a visiting Levite and demand him to come out so they can have sex with him, he instead sends his concubine out to be raped to death. And in the morning, he dismembers her corpse and sends it out to the twelve tribes of Israel to communicate a message. And the message is well-received. Now, I’m not making the case for concubine dismemberment as your church’s next arts project. But this story was placed in the Bible. God told someone to take a tale with elements that are horrific, disgusting, and abominable and to place it in sacred Scripture. I don’t know many Christians who would be willing to put something like that in their work; I’m certainly not one of them. But sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zones to stir a pot that’s laid still for too long.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the default approach for a Christian is to design art that hurts as many people as possible in an effort to make the biggest impact in the world. But it also means we shouldn’t dismiss as ungodly the methods that God Himself chooses to use.
So, I’ve shown that the Bible sometimes uses crass and offensive language to get the point across. But I should think that it is equally obvious that Christians aren’t called to spew forth filth and degeneracy at every opportunity. How, then, do we strike a balance?
Christian ethics have one criterion: look at the heart. If we get that right, the balance sorts itself out. And when it comes to the heart, the irony is the pharisee and the rebel are not really that different; they’re both obsessed with what other people think. The pharisee wants to be seen as morally superior, and the rebel wants to get attention by any means necessary, but they both want to draw all eyes to them. What if we forgot about what other people would think of what we say and focused on what God wants us to communicate and how he wants us to communicate it? And that often means that our art hits people from an unexpected place. When our audience is mired in filth, we refuse to defile ourselves, demonstrating the power of purity no matter how many take offense at that. And when our audience is caught up in their own self-righteousness, we might just have to shock them out of their complacency and remind them that their holy robes are mere filth-stained rags in God’s sight.
And in all things, we look to God to hear how He feels about our art, rather than to the world for how they like it.
Cameron Miller, writer