Featured Image by Evert F. Baumgardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s a great pleasure to have Rich Pitt, from Churchcentral, Birmingham, putting up a guest post today. Alongside the other leaders at Churchcentral (including Sputnik’s Jonny Mellor), Rich will be helping the church get to grips with the book of Judges in the Autumn term preaching series, and this has sparked some interesting thoughts that are well worth lobbing into our ongoing discussion. Mr Pitt, the floor is yours…
What makes a piece of art Christian? On one level, it’s a stupid question. Art can’t be Christian. Neither can trees. Or gear sticks. Or lunch boxes. Or cultures, for that matter. Only people can be Christians.
But on another level, perhaps slightly reworded, it’s important. What art should Christians produce? What art should Christians celebrate? What art should Christians choose to engage with? What art is sinful? What art is godly?
The same questions are behind recent debates about Game of Thrones (try here for a start). Thoughtful Christians of various opinions have commented on whether a godly Christian can watch it, considering all the sexual immorality it contains. Some say yes we watch- we engage the culture, of course! Some say no – it’s full of sin. It causes me to sin. It might cause me to sin. For what it’s worth, I’ve not seen it, but not for godliness reasons. I just sit nicely 10 years behind most trends. What about that Lost finale though…
So how do we decide what art is ‘good’, what art is ‘bad’? How do we decide which art is ‘biblical’ and which is ‘sinful’?
I was in a training session once on engaging with the arts (not with the esteemed and well-rounded minds of Sputnik, fear not) that sought to answer such questions. I’m not saying this for an easy illustration, the following really happened. The trainer pointed us to a painting of a cottage, surrounded by flowers and said “as Christians, this is the sort of art we should be making”.
This art was beautiful, I was assured, and shared something of the beauty of God’s creation with us. The painter had captured something peaceful and calm and pretty. It’s great, right? Wholesome? Lovely? The room nodded, but something felt a bit odd.
On the specific issue of Game of Thrones, I have good, godly friends who watch it, often with the finger poised near the fast-forward button. They recommend it as a technique for quicker box-set binging. Personally, I happen to think there are persuasively valid reasons for abstaining from Games of Thrones. But what I’m totally persuaded by is the need to be clear on why we’d abstain, why we’d accept some art and reject other art. We need a sharper litmus test than “Is it lovely?” or “Does it contain a lot of sin?”.
Because if that was the test, our trainer’s pretty painting would be in, but your Bible would be out.
We’re preparing at Churchcentral for a preaching series in the book of Judges. Trust me, there’s not a cottage in sight. It’s murder, betrayal, fornication, cowardice, disobedience, brutality. No flowers. If our litmus test for art is that it’s peaceful and calm and pretty, then Judges fails. It’s out.
So how do we decide? I think a better, sharper question when assessing our consumption choices is not “does this contain a lot of sin?” but “does this tell the truth about God’s world?”.
If this is our question, not only is Judges reinstated into the canon, but we assess Game of Thrones, or any art, not by the amount of sin, but for its truthfulness about sin. So, it’s not so much the amount of sex outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage in GoT that is the key question, but by the truthfulness of what it says about sex outside of heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Does it show such sex as problematic to human flourishing? Or does it show such sex to be consequence-free? In my opinion, if it’s on the screen and isn’t leaving much to the imagination, fast-forward is the least you should do, but a show simply containing sexual immorality shouldn’t immediately strike it from our list. We need art that tells us the truth about sin and life without God, not squeaky-clean escapist niceness.
Take the BBC’s Doctor Foster as a great example of this. By the “peaceful, calm and pretty” test, it fails totally. It is, after all, a drama about an extra-marital affair. About lying to cover it up. About hiding it from your wife. About persisting in it despite knowing it’s wrong. About choosing a younger model over your holy vows. About living for self, not for the good of, say, your child who you have abandoned. Let alone the victim’s revenge, which is reckless, unhinged, cold-blooded, retaliatory. It is a total horror show, in what feels like every single scene, commandment after commandment is broken. It’s lawlessness with bells on. Rebellion on its Christmas do, giving it a right good go. It’s carnage.
But I think this sin-soaked show is infinitely more biblical than sun-soaked cottages and flowers. Because though Doctor Foster contains sin, its message about that sin is accurate and, actually, totally counter-cultural. We should thank God for a sin-soaked show like this.
Because yes, it’s a narrative that shows adultery. But it’s a narrative that boldly shows adultery as being evil. And that’s biblical. That’s true. That’s Christian.
Yes, it’s a narrative that shows revenge. But it shows revenge as making things worse, as damaging to all involved not least the original victim. And that’s biblical. That’s true. That’s Christian.
Yes, it’s a narrative that shows sin. But it shows sin as spiralling life out of control until sin has obliterated everything you’d ever longed for. And that’s biblical. That’s true. That’s Christian.
The world, at this point in God’s big story, is much more Doctor Foster than it is cottages and flowers. Sin is devastating and in a liberal, pluralistic society that’s screaming at me “Do what you want”, I don’t so much need sin-free telly as I need truthful telly. From my angle, we and our world are therefore far better served by us engaging in – and creating – art that bravely tells even dark truths, than by pretty things that lie but look nice. Here’s to honest, biblical, sin-soaked telly.