See No Evil?

Three questions to ask of the art we consume and create

Hear-No-Evil-See-No-Evil-Speak-No-EvilMany of us who peruse this blog love stories (whether those stories be told in novels, playhouses or movie theatres.) Many of us here also seek to follow the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to train our minds on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, [and] whatever is admirable (Phil 4:8, NIV).” Often, we face a quandary. What if, to tell a story honestly, unsavoury or downright evil behaviours must be portrayed? Are we constrained—either as consumers or creators of art—to keep certain topics or words off limits?

This spring, I found myself struggling through this question with a group of college students in a class I was teaching on faith and the arts. We could all agree upon extreme cases of exploitative and gratuitous sex, violence and abusive language that are clearly outside the bounds of the Philippians 4:8 mandate. But we were less sure what to do with greyer areas. What if the questionable elements in a story are not there to titillate, but rather because they are an important part of telling the truth about the human condition? The Bible itself contains many frank and unflinching depictions of human depravity; if we were to legalistically and thoughtlessly apply the Philippians 4:8 mandate to Scripture, we’d have to censor a good deal of what is there.

Despite several lively debates, we never did arrive at a clear consensus on this issue. But we did settle on a framework that helped us at least begin to more thoughtfully and prayerfully engage with stories of all kinds. When tasked with evaluating a piece of art in any genre, we asked ourselves three questions, inspired by the Church’s long history of appropriating (quite appropriately, I think) Plato’s three Transcendentals.

Is it good?

Is it true?

Is it beautiful?

The first question – Is it good? – involves ethics and morals. It requires us to consider not only whether a story contains offensive words or scenes, but also whether the worldview it tacitly conveys is an ethical one. It might be possible for a film to be rated “G,” but embody an insidious worldview in which material success is considered the ultimate meaning in life, or people are merely means to ends. Conversely, it might be possible for a movie to contain violence, sex or language, but provide a perspective on the human condition that moves the viewer towards a more ethical or moral stance.

The second question – Is it true? – is an even more theological one. Does the story—whether it is fact or fantasy or something in between—say something honest about the world and the people who inhabit it? Does it hint at anything true about God? Even if the worldview in a story is in conflict with the Gospel, can it teach us something true about the perspectives and needs of the people who hold it?

The third question – Is it beautiful? – has to do with aesthetics. It asks whether the art in question is well-crafted and successfully formed. A depraved story may be breathtakingly depicted. (In such instances we should proceed with caution.) Or, as is sometimes the case in explicitly “Christian” storytelling, a good and true story may be shabbily crafted. (Caution is required here, too! Please!)

With these three questions, my students and I were able to begin a process of discernment that each of us will be working through for the rest of our lives. We might decide that a story lacking in one of the Transcendentals can still be worthy of our attention due to its strengths in another. Most essentially, we felt challenged to try to create work ourselves that was deeply good, unflinchingly true, and as beautiful as we could possibly make it.

I pray you will go and do likewise!

PS – My own adventure in art-making this spring involves recording an album of Christmas originals, which will be released October 15, 2014. This project will be my 11th CD; it’s the first one we’re crowdfunding. We’re asking people to consider pre-ordering the album (with great discounts and perks) in order to help us make it. We made you a video – please check it out, and then head on over to the Kickstarter Project. Thanks!


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