Liberty or License: Reflections on a Theology of Art

I’ve been staring at my computer screen for 15 minutes now with no clue what to say. All I keep thinking about are scenes from The Hunger Games. My wife and I just walked in the door about an hour ago from seeing the film. It was a special date night for us, thanks in-large-part to the volunteer babysitting of one of our favorite young ladies from church. I walked in the door, saw the babysitter off, put the kids to bed, changed my clothes and sat down at my computer. And I am still sitting here starring…no make that glaring now, at this screen. Why can’t I focus? Why am I reliving every moment of a movie that, until this evening, I had no real interest in seeing. My wife read the books, I didn’t (I know, go ahead and hate me true HG fans). I just wanted to take my wife out, she wanted to see this movie. But here I am mesmerized, immobilized, by it. That’s the power of good art. It captures us, draws us into its world. The Hunger Games film did that for me, but it has happened often over the course of my life.

I was so captivated by the world that Rudyard Kipling created in The Jungle Book that at age twelve I read the entirety of it in a single day. I was so engrossed in the final Harry Potter book that I stayed up way too late into the early morning finishing it. And I am such a devotee to Jurassic Park that I saw it ten times in theatres and own it both on DVD and Blu Ray special edition. Art is powerful. Art is important. Leland Ryken says it can save us from the brink of insanity and despair. He writes:

We sometimes think of them as an extraneous luxury, but they have a strange way of asserting themselves in the most threatening of circumstances. When our humanity is in danger, the artistic spirit suddenly lives. The arts give us something indispensable to life. (The Liberated Imagination, 9)

Ryken points to prisoners composing hymns and writing poems. Think Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prison poems, or John Bunyan’s allegories. Art is powerful and that is partly because of the nature of its function. Art helps us to deal with life, in all its gruesomeness and all its beauty. Art helps us to deal with life when it is read-toothed, and when it is blossoming afresh in pinks and oranges. As John Dixon Jr. wrote, “Art [is] the embodiment of man’s response to reality and his attempt to order his experience of reality” (Nature and Grace in Art).

Let us then briefly reflect on some of the ways that Art functions, and from this we may better piece together a theology of art.

1) Art asks questions about what matters. Good art doesn’t just describe reality it asks us to consider that reality. It probes that reality, pushes back on it. It forces us to think more critically about our lives, about the meaning beyond reality. Alexander Pope wasn’t just writing a poem about a stolen lock of hair in  Rape of the Lock. He was comparing it to an epic battle of the deities, and he was doing it to show the absurdity of a public quarrel in his day. He was challenging an assumption about the importance of this fight. Likewise, The Dark Knight isn’t just a comic book film. It poses questions to us about the nature of evil and of salvation. That’s what good art does. In There Will Be Blood we are startlingly confronted with this question: what matters? We see what matters to Daniel Plainview. We must wonder: what matters to us?

2) Art permits us fresh perspective. By defamiliarizing an experience for us art can cause us to view it with more thought. After I saw Ratatouille I was so moved by the discussions of taste that I don’t think I will ever be the same. Does that seem strange to you? A Disney movie changed the way I think about food! Now that I see it written out I admit it does seem strange, but that’s the power of art. Andrew Peterson’s song “Dancing in the Minefields” made me fall in love with marriage all-over again. Looking at a subject from a different angle gives it fresh meaning.

3) Art helps us work through pain at a safe distance. Nobody likes to think about death, suffering, apocalypse, or IRS audit. We distance our thoughts from the threat of pain, but art has a way of helping us to work through our fears, our sufferings, our losses from a safe distance. The fifteen-year-old girl locked in her room listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is not just moping over her lost boyfriend and broken heart. She is trying to work through her emotions via soundtrack-for-life. You might quibble with her selection, but she is utilizing art in a way that all of us do. For example, The Savages asks us to consider what we will do with our aging parents. Hardly a pleasant thought. Up confronts us with the reality of miscarriage and loss of a spouse. And it is no less powerful because it is in animated form (in fact it might be more powerful). I sat in a restaurant with my friend a few months ago and an episode of How I Met Your Mother brought up memories of my now deceased father. I cried at the bar while he sipped his beer. Art helps us to grieve, reminds us to grieve, drives us to places we don’t want to go but sometimes need to.

4) Art warns us of danger ahead. Sometimes sin on display in a film isn’t meant to glamorize evil, but to warn us of danger. American Gangster is hardly glamorous. The film sets us up often. At one moment we are thinking that the main character, villan Frank Lucas, is a good guy. He loves his family, is coaching his brothers, and is caring for his community. But in a split second he is putting a bullet in someone’s face in broad daylight. It’s so unnerving that it jars us awake: this is a bad dude! But it doesn’t stop there. It warns us too that the good cop, isn’t nearly as good as we are led to believe. We are all wicked, the films states, and we must come to grips with that. Good art can display sin, sometimes in all its grim detail, to warn us of the danger we can face too. Sweeney Todd functions like this, as does Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as does HBO’s The Tudors. sometimes we need the detailed reminder.

5) Art reminds us to enjoy life. Life without art is grey. It’s not black or white. It’s not good or bad. It’s just grey. Life without art is oatmeal (and not the flavored kind either). Art reminds us to laugh, to smile, to sing. How can you not play air guitar to the intro of “Don’t Stop Believing.” And how can you not stand in awe at Michelangelo’s David. How can you not dream while you read Whitman. Art moves us and draws us into enjoyment. I am still thinking about The Hunger Games, my pulse races when I think about specific scenes. Maybe not all art is so deep and powerful as Babette’s Feast. But there is still pleasure to be had. Any theology of art that ignores this simple fact is doing a disservice to art and its purveyors.

6) Finally, art connects us to each other. After my father died I sat and listened to Thelonious Monk, my dad loved his sound. My kids love Phineas and Ferb, and so do their mother and I. It’s a family treat to sit and watch a new episode. Laughing together brings us closer together. There is a social function to the arts. They don’t merely exist for individuals, they exist for societies. In fact the arts often reflect societal values, they connect us to peoples present, past, and future. We still read Shakespeare and still talk about Da Vinci. Years from now people will still be talking about Chris Nolan and Banksy.

I believe in the power and importance of art, and I think it’s important to keep these functions in mind. If we’re going to evaluate art we can’t simply give it some cursory glance, judge it, and deem it good or bad. We must consider its function. Some books do glamorize sin and evil. Some television shows do call us to buy into worldviews and systems of thought deeply at conflict with Scripture. Some songs do lead us into aberrant theology. But sometimes the bad movie is “Christian” and sometimes the good movie has nudity (seen Schindler’s List). Sometimes the important movie is tragic, and sometimes the shallow film has a happy ending. Don’t be misled by your subculture’s bias. Don’t throw out the important lessons because they’re wrapped in what looks like a trash bag. Give careful consideration to artistic function. That trash bag may be more important than you thought.

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