In 1994 I wrote the following article for McKenzie Study Center, an institution and a group of people that have been very influential in my life. It is hard to believe that was seventeen years ago. I am curious if what I wrote is still relevant. You can tell me if it is. At the time I was very influenced by several books, not least of which were Addicted to Mediocrity by Frank Schaeffer, and Art Needs No Justification by H. R. Rookmaaker, plus the other books I reference below. I was also very influenced by my friend and mentor Wes Hurd. I wrote the article, in part, because I felt a kind of barrier put up between the church (for me mainstream evangelical protestant Christianity) and thoughtful contemplation of art, artmaking, and the life of artists. My faith was being formed and shaped through my dialogues on art and its relationship to faith and church. I think some of the issues have shifted since then (but you can tell me if they haven’t) and I hope they have. But I still feel that artists are largely viewed askance by Christianity in America. My desire, and what inspired me seventeen years ago to write this article, is that we will claim art as evidence of our like-God imageness and begin to proclaim the greatness of creation and creating, even if only just for the beauty of it.
Thoughts on Art, Popular Culture, and the Gospel
To say that the couch in your living room or the pictures on your walls have a profound effect upon your life may sound strange. But they do. The things we surround ourselves with, from the films we watch to the color and texture of our bathroom tile, influence the way we think and feel. The nature of this influence may be enigmatic, but we know it is there. We know that the aesthetics of MTV, its look and feel, influence the youth of our world. We know that the aesthetics of an art gallery encourage quiet contemplation, whereas the aesthetics of a video arcade do not. And we know that living in an apartment with dark brown walls has a decidedly different feel than living in an apartment with white walls. The look, texture, and sound of our surroundings influences us because of our aesthetic sense.
People may say, “I’m not artistically inclined,” or, “I don’t really know anything about art,” or even, “I never think about art.” But God gave each of us the ability to respond in some way to aesthetic expression. Being aesthetically sensitive is part of being human; it is one of the basic emotional and intellectual components with which God made us; it is a talent we all have, though it may be more developed in some than in others.
All objects, even the bathroom tile, have aesthetic properties, good or bad, exquisite or mundane. In this paper, I will focus on objects made primarily for aesthetic reasons, those objects we typically refer to as “art” and “popular culture.” Although the term “art” can be elusive—one man’s art may be another man’s junk—we usually mean certain categories of communication, certain media: music, poetry, drama, literary fiction, visual depiction, ballet and modern dance, cinema, and sculpture. “Popular culture,” while more familiar to most of us, is more difficult to define, in part because of the familiarity, in part because the word “culture” can embrace almost everything associated with human beings. Generally, however, “popular culture” consists of media like television, radio, movies, and rock music.
The difference between an object of art and an object of popular culture is not merely the medium which conveys it—novel versus movie, for example. The difference between art and popular culture involves intent. Popular culture is intended to reach the widest possible audience by appealing to the lowest common denominators of taste and understanding. Art, on the other hand, often appeals to a very narrow audience and often is intended to challenge the audience’s or the viewer’s understanding and taste. Any of the media I have mentioned can be art or popular culture—depending on its intent.
We are living in an increasingly visual age. More and more, we rely on the conveyance of information and the substantiation of world views through visual media (painting, film, and television, for example) rather than the printed or spoken word. Our generation, both Christian and non-Christian, is adrift on a sea of images which not only express the world views of multiple realities and the ineffability of truth, but which also take the great works of human expression and make them mundane through mass reproduction. In his book, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth, Frank Gaebelein points out that “No other generation in history has been more besieged by the arts in their big-money, people-manipulating use than ours.” This is the world we live in. We may try to be “not of this world,” but we will always be “in the world.” We cannot escape the world any more than we can escape ourselves, but we can understand the world.
As Christians, we must develop a tough critical-mindedness in relation to this growing visual culture. As creatures, we are accountable to the sovereign God who built into us an aesthetic sense that responds to art and popular culture. But as Christians, we have a responsibility, not only to our God-given aesthetic sense, but to be salt of the earth. T. S. Elliot wrote:
What is incumbent on all Christians is the duty of maintaining consciously certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world. We must remember that the greater part of our reading matter [and other media of art and popular culture] is written…by people who have no real belief in a supreme order.
Unfortunately, all too often we don’t apply a tough critical-mindedness to understanding the arts. For one reason or another, our culture is generally critically indifferent to the arts and popular culture, except for the occasional whines about violence on television. This is dangerous. Violence on television is a true problem, but the sensibilities of television may have greater, and worse, implications for our culture than just its content. Jaques Barzun has said, “Art is power; it can weaken or destroy the civilization that created it. It can enlarge or trivialize the imagination.” The powers of our most treasured media are not forced upon us, however; we accept them willingly and uncritically. In other words, we may be facing into a “Huxlian” world where people love the very technologies that undo their capacity to think and to discourse effectively. If we believe in a God who demands that we effectively communicate the truth of the Gospel to a dying world, then we must be diligent in defending our minds as well as our faith. We must consciously choose to be aware of our surroundings, of the world we live in, of the power of our culture and its forms of communication.
Most of our experiences of art and popular culture come to us during our leisure hours, which we have more of than any previous generation. But leisure is not inherently good; it is potential waiting to be put to good use. Unfortunately, our culture’s use of leisure has become an attempt to feed an ever-increasing craving for new and more exciting ways of being entertained. We could point to bungee jumpers who seek a moment of terror to produce an extra ounce of adrenaline. But we could also point to those of us on the ground waiting for the new fall season of television, the latest film, or the “hottest” pop-rock-rehash. We accept the bombardment of our senses as standard fair without realizing that our imaginations are being pulverized.
Entertainment has become the standard manner by which our culture, both non-Christian and Christian, typically communicates. Our educational system, our political system, and even the Church (through television and youth ministries) all rely upon entertainment media to convey their message. The ramifications of this “policy” are frightening. In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” We must ask ourselves whether or not the message of the Gospel is “translatable” into every “language” or method of communication without the message becoming tainted by the method. It is quite appropriate that the Bible is a book and not a comic strip or game show. If, as Marshall McLuhan posited, “the medium is the message,” then we should ask whether or not a medium like television (with Oprah Winfrey, “Leave it to Beaver,” and advertisements for Preparation H) provides an adequate means for expressing the truth and nature of the Gospel—or even the news of the world. We need a tough critical-mindedness in order to provide an answer.
The way we Christians express our faith to the world is obviously important. But the way our Christian subculture expresses itself to itself is also important. Art and popular culture are key elements of that “expressing.” Although art is not the only litmus test of true spirituality, if it is true that Christian art, and the Church’s attitude toward art, reflect Christian theology, then it would appear that the Church is in a questionable state. Christianity, which once led the western world in the production of art, is rarely, if ever, heard from now. This is a symptom of our age, but it is also a symptom of what we have accepted as “okay.” Franky Schaeffer has adroitly pointed out that a quick perusal of our local Christian bookstore or television programming reveals an outstanding feature of the modern Christian world: an addiction to mediocrity. Far too much of what we accept as significant elements of our leisure, of what we call art, isn’t even good.
Christians are to be witnesses for the truth of the Gospel. We must not completely turn our backs on our culture. We must not live in a social vacuum. But we must be careful in what we accept as good and worthy from our culture. And we must know what we will not accept.
In part, this paper is my testimony. Although I don’t have specific answers to our cultural crisis, I know that my interest in the arts spurred my own journey in my faith. As I became more sensitive to what the arts can offer—when excellence is the standard—I began to realize that the church in which I grew up did not have adequate answers to my questions about the purposes of art. Consequently, it did not offer solid answers about human creativity. This ineptitude, I felt, came not merely from ignorance, but from bad theology about creativity and about what it means to be human. Through the arts I saw the glory of God and the glory of His wonderful creation, man. This is why the arts are important to me. This is why understanding the arts is a valuable and noble pursuit—not for its own sake, but for my sake and the sake of the world in which I live.
Copyright September 1994 by McKenzie Study Center.