The Jesus follower vs. the arts.
February 8, 2013 § 13 Comments
One topic that’s continued to surface for the past decade or so among Showbread fans is how the Jesus-follower appropriately deals with the “secular” arts, particularly the entertainment industry and content some might deem offensive. That the questions surrounding the topic are so often raised by Jesus-followers makes perfect sense, as does the fact that Showbread has so regularly been involved in the conversation. Since the band’s formation, non-Christian artists have been oft-cited as major influences, and the 2004 track “Welcome to Plainfield Tobe Hooper” deals (albeit ambiguously) with the Jesus-follower’s relationship to secular media.
The threshold of conviction
Among evangelical Christians, there are a wealth of cultural taboos, some of which remain consistent among Westerners: Alcohol, profanity, R-rated movies, etc. Some evangelicals consider the casual consumption of alcohol inoffensive and even advantageous for purposes of evangelism. Others, like myself, acknowledge that there is nothing inherently sinful about alcohol, but decide—based on personal conviction—to take a different position on drinking and abstain from alcohol altogether. Neither approach is more noble or less sinful, they are based on the individual’s personal discernment via partnership with the Holy Spirit. As it was in 1st century Corinth, some believers find that their conscious yields convictions unique to them as individuals. And yet all believers are called to act on said convictions with discernment, humility, and love for their brothers and sisters.
Interestingly, many Jesus-followers find it easy to embrace the spectrum of conviction in some areas but not in others. When I first began meeting social-drinking Christians, I struggled deeply with acknowledging the uniqueness of my own strongly-held convictions. It took me years to uncover the sinister root of pride and arrogance in my quest to impose my own convictions on all believers. But is selfishness lurking behind every Christian who paints the nuanced in black and white? Probably not.
Some Jesus-followers take no issue at all with the occasional beer but balk at the notion that another believer might consider The Exorcist a work of art. Some Christians freely enjoy a Coldplay album, but raise a judgmental eyebrow to the brother or sister they catch in line at the record store with the latest from Nine Inch Nails.
So… who draws the line?
The logic of sinful depiction
Is it inherently sinful to see or hear something sinful (fictitious or otherwise), e.g. profanity in lyrics, violence in film, etc.?
Let’s begin with the extent to which the biblical authors censor themselves. In the pages of a text that Jesus-followers hold to be God-breathed, we find graphic language, violence, sex, adultery, betrayal, deception, genocide, war, murder… and the list goes on. In 2 Kings a couple of bears maul 42 young people. In Judges 19 a concubine is gang-raped for hours before undergoing a knife dismemberment. Song of Solomon celebrates explicit sex poetry, including verses about tasting the sweet fruit of one’s spouse. This is only a sampling of the intensity of certain passages in God’s inspired word.
Some folks joke that the Bible is “R-rated.” I disagree. I think that if a sincere, unflinching film-adaptation of the Bible were to be presented to the MPAA, they’d stamp a big fat NC-17 on the movie long before they reached the third act. The notes might read something like: “Short of removing numerous hour-plus segments in their entirety from your film, no amount of fancy editing will earn this work even a hard R.”
When presented with this point, many Christians I’ve spoken to mention, “Well, yeah, but that’s God’s inspired word.” To which I enthusiastically reply: “Exactly!”
The Biblical authors, whilst inspired by the Holy Spirit, saw no need to censor the knives buried handle-deep in stomachs or tent pegs driven through heads. No one told the Biblical authors to remove the offending material lest the book be banned from Christian bookstores or frowned on by church-goers. The inspired word of God considers these scenes important enough to include. Some of these passages describe events that actually took place. Other times, the extreme stuff is metaphorical, as with Jesus warning his followers (hyperbolically) that if your eyeball causes you to sin, gouge that sucker out. Surely God takes issue with someone literally gouging their own eye (or anyone else’s) out of the socket, but what if someone painted a picture of it? Or used special effects to render it on celluloid?
Are reading these lengthy stories and metaphors using sinful behavior, in and of itself, sinful? What about reading about the very words and deeds of the devil himself? Inherently sinful?
All this to say, arguing that the mere depiction of sin is in and of itself sinful is a bit tricky.
Porn and Slasher Flicks
So what? Can we all just go watch porn? After all, exposing oneself to stories of adultery and fornication in the holy scriptures isn’t sinful. Shall we just call anything we want art and soak it up?
And what about sex scenes in those flicks hollywood cranks out? Where’s the line? What of the entertainment industry is black and white?
For instance, is it ever okay to for a man to watch a woman other than his wife take her clothes off? Unless you’re a doctor, probably not. So then, is any and every film with female nudity completely off limits for male Christians and vice versa for the ladies?
Different believers arrive at different conclusions. Jesus says looking at someone lustfully causes a person to commit adultery in their heart, and that goes for everyone. For someone recovering from pornography addiction, staring right into a hollywood sex scene is particularly dangerous. Of course, not every film that contains nudity does so for the purpose of titillation. In fact, some of the world’s greatest, most influential and inspiring movies have naked people in them. Some movies contain objectionable content in order to provoke and titillate, white others do so for story-telling and/or dramatic purposes. Must the baby go with the bath water?
Conviction and discernment. It’s never good for a Jesus-follower to look at someone of the opposite sex (who is not their spouse) in an erotic way. If the art you consume puts you at risk of doing so, abstain. Err on the side of holiness.
Either way, sexuality in film is tricky. Porno movies exist, by definition, to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional reactions in their audiences. While the same can be said of some scenes in some movies, it cannot be imposed on any and every film that includes sexual content. The notorious “squeal like a pig” scene in the oscar-nominated film Deliverance is sexually explicit but not erotic by any stretch of the imagination. The scene depicts (fictitiously) something terribly sinful, but is it sinful to watch?
Taylor Swift and Marilyn Manson
Maybe the “line,” and what lies on either side of it isn’t as black and white as we might like. Who is more dangerous, Taylor Swift of Marilyn Manson?
Marilyn Manson’s lyrics are riddled with obscenity and blasphemy. He openly antagonizes the church, not to mention God himself. He bolsters agnosticism as a virtue and laces his artistic output with the ideas of Aleister Crowley and Friedrich Nietzsche. Manson spent half of the 90′s as a pop-culture boogeyman and remains to this day a sort of poster-boy for evil in mainstream rock music.
Taylor Swift, on the other hand, is praised as a role-model for young women over and against her professional peers. Her lyrics are almost entirely swear-free, she presents herself, by and large, with a humble and sweet disposition, and she has so far managed to avoid the immodest, hyper-sexuality of other young, female pop stars. Pre-teens and Soccer mom’s love Taylor Swift. She even seems to vaguely affirm Jesus in an original Christmas song.
Fans and detractors of Marilyn Manson acknowledge that Manson is offensive and decidedly controversial. It is no secret that Manson’s message and ideals are at odds with a Christian worldview. But is hearing what Manson has to say sinful in and of itself? If so, what else is? Would having a conversation with him personally be equally sinful? What about talking to any non-Christian and learning about their worldview? What about a book about Mormonism or a documentary on the occult?
And what about Taylor Swift? Outside of radical fundamentalist groups, how often does one hear that Taylor Swift’s lyrics are dangerous, contrary to the way of Jesus and could present a detrimental influence to her audience?
After all, Taylor Swift sings about sneaking out of the house to visit her boyfriend’s bedroom against her parent’s wishes and of nights when her boyfriend “made her his own.” She sings about romantic relationships with an almost religious reverence and seems to have bought into what Greg Boyd calls “the myth of romantic completion” as the ultimate ends to her existence. She openly burns through boyfriends in rapid succession—almost all of which she claims to be “in love” with—and then presents each failed relationship as something of a beautiful tragedy to be celebrated. Long story short, Taylor Swift’s artistic output deals almost exclusively with romance, finding a “soulmate,” and the inevitable demise of each short-lived relationship. When viewed through the lens of a Jesus worldview, Taylor Swift’s romantic ideology is badly misplaced at best, and disastrously deceptive to millions of listeners at worst.
And yet, very few normal people, Christian or otherwise, think of Taylor Swift’s influence as potentially dangerous. Even the above paragraph is sure to evoke a fair share of rolled eyes. So, when a young female listener who admires Swift takes Swift’s message to heart—knowing the world considers her so positive and inoffensive—she may develop a bizarre idea of how romance looks. She may come to believe that each and every new relationship is to be immediately and deeply invested in as true love, embrace the moments when her boyfriend “makes her his own,” to anticipate the romance’s inevitable failure, and to look back on said failure as beautiful.
In a way, Taylor Swift could be more dangerous than Marilyn Manson precisely because Manson’s audience presupposes a dark agenda and Swift’s audience does not.
Now, to clarify. Taylor Swift doesn’t bother me in the least. I’m not a fundamentalist or a moralist. As a music fan, I’m not offended by her or Manson.
When it comes to the secular arts, by definition, the artist does not present his or her ideas through the filter of a Jesus-follower’s worldview. Taylor Swift, Marilyn Manson, Coldplay, Cannibal Corpse… None of them make art as Christians. Chris Martin says of God:
“I’m always trying to work out what ‘He’ or ‘She’ is. I don’t know if it’s Allah or Jesus or Mohammed or Zeus. But I’d go for Zeus.“
And he sings from that worldview. Depending on each believer’s unique struggles, discernment and perspectives, they will arrive at different convictions. For some people, Coldplay could be more offensive and detrimental than the a satanic death metal band, because one wears their non-Christian worldview as casual and inoffensive rather than loudly on their sleeve. If you decide that listening to one secular artist is across-the-board sinful for all Christians, it logically follows that all secular art is across-the-board sinful for all Christians. A notion, I believe, is misplaced.
One believer struggles with doubt and despair and so they abstain from Marilyn Manson records lest they be negatively impacted. One believer struggles with a warped view of romance and so they abstain from Taylor Swift records while they work to restructure their idea of romantic love. Another believer with none of these particular struggles listens to both artists, draws inspiration from their God-given gifts and abilities, and with careful discernment, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, dismisses the content at odds with their own worldview. Testing everything and holding on to what is good.
What is meat to everyone?
And so, while there seems to be a standard of decency no Jesus-follower can deny, the way we relate to the secular arts is often less straightforward. Most believers would agree having a conversation with an atheist is not a bad thing—indeed, it’s actually a good thing—but once that atheist turns that conversation into a rock song many of the same believers seem to think it suddenly becomes sinful to engage in. All believers agree that reading, studying, even memorizing the Bible is crucial for a Jesus-follower, but if some of the scenes in the Bible were adapted to film many of the same believers seem to think it would be sinful to watch. Where is the meat sacrificed to idols? What does it look like? Is it the same for everyone?
Perhaps some of us, myself certainly included, need to exercise serious discernment before we speak for all Jesus-followers when it comes to the entertainment industry and the secular arts. So many of us have come to imagine Hollywood and Nashville as inhuman machines that crank out a terrifying product that the Christian is called to flee from. And yet, at the back of big budget blockbusters and top 40 singles are real people with real abilities and, believe it or not, sometimes even artistic intentions. Many of these artists are actually followers of Jesus whose work we’ve dismissed. Sometimes that dismissal might be warranted, but perhaps not always.
For some believers, the arts aren’t all that important. To others they are crucial. Perhaps I would not have started a band of my own as a means of spreading the gospel had my dad not played Queen’s A Night at the Opera for me when I was six years old. Maybe if Christians continue to flee in the face of art and culture they will continue to run the risk of creating tired, dishonest and irrelevant art and culture of their own. This is a risk our King calls us away from as he engages the criminals, the crooks, the hookers and the sinners like you and me. For those called to be creative, as their heavenly Father is creative, there is no private Christian culture, no umbrella for believers to hide beneath. The gospel is a powerful and dangerous thing, a lamp that cannot be covered by a shade.
It’s often hard to label the meat sacrificed to idols, at least with a label that clearly applies to everyone.