An excellent article by John Stonestreet at Breakpoint led me to an excellent article by Philip G. Ryken at The Gospel Coalition. Ryken asked Christian artists how the church discouraged them and they gave him some very precise and, I thought, accurate answers. Here’s Stonestreet’s summary:
First, they said, treat the arts as window dressing for the truth rather than the window into reality it’s intended to be. Second, embrace bad art just because it’s “Christian.” Third, value artists only for their artistic gifts, but not for the other contributions they can make as thinkers and servants with a unique perspective. Fourth, demand that artists only give answers in their work, but never raise questions. Fifth, never pay artists for their work—take advantage of them in ways we would never do with plumbers or accountants. And finally, only validate art that has a direct salvation application.
These complaints seemed to be highlighted and exemplified by a well-intentioned but, to my mind, utterly wrong-headed essay by David Gibson of the Religion News Service entitled, “Can A Christian Watch Game of Thrones?” (which happens to be my favorite show at the moment):
Is there anything morally redeeming about “Game of Thrones”? Does the hit HBO series even have a moral vision…? The appeal of the series seems bound up in the senseless violence and amoral machinations – not to mention the free-wheeling sex – that the writers use to dramatize this brutish world of shifting alliances and dalliances.
I call this wrong-headed not for its description of the show, but for its inherent concept of Christians as delicate flowers who have to be protected from a vision of life as it is. Gibson says GOT may be “depicting how the world would look if Christ had never been born – or what it could look like if Christianity disappeared tomorrow.” But that’s just silly. Does he mean now that Christ has shown up, people live long and prosper in honesty and evil never thrives? Is he demanding to be lied to about the nature of this world?
The very power of Game of Thrones derives from the fact that the author of the source novels, George R. R. Martin (an atheist, I believe), treats his characters as harshly and heartlessly as the real world treats the rest of us. If Christians can’t look at that without losing their faith, they better not watch the news either, or look out their windows, or leave their rooms.
An artist’s job — even if he’s a Christian artist — is not to sell Jesus, it’s to depict life truly. A Christian’s faith is that Christ lives in real life, not only in pastel greeting cards with Easter bunnies on them. Thus any honest and good work of art should be capable of strengthening a believer in his belief — even if it strengthens him by challenging him, by making him doubt and then address those doubts.
Art only goes wrong when it lies. Pornography is so deadening (and so addictive to some!) because it depicts human intercourse without humanity — something that never occurs in real life, not ever. Most bad art does something similar — and some good art includes dishonest moments that need to be confronted and rebuked.
But good art can be about absolutely anything and still lift us heavenward. My favorite example (and one of my favorite works) is Macbeth, whose slaughters, betrayals, deceptions and corruption make Game of Thrones look like Annie. At the end, Macbeth, who has committed every sin to win his kingdom, delivers perhaps the greatest nihilist speech ever written:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/creeps in this petty pace from day to day/to the last syllable of recorded time,/and all our yesterdays have lighted fools/the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/that struts and frets his hour upon the stage/and then is heard no more: it is a tale/told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/signifying nothing.
Is a Christian supposed to cover his ears and whistle Dixie while this speech is going on to keep his mind from being polluted by Macbeth’s empty vision of the world? Or should he ask himself whether Macbeth’s actions have not created this vision, whether Macbeth’s nihilism is not, in fact, a direct result of his immoral life, his violation of the rules of the moral universe?
If good art is truthful, than it can only destroy faith if faith is an error. If God is real, then even an atheist’s honest vision of the world will reveal him. Art is a risky business, like life, but both are worth it, and, when approaching either, the faithful should not let their hearts be troubled, neither should they be afraid.