In just a moment, I’m going to reveal my one simple trick for choking good art and starving good artists, but first, I just wanted to say… Congratulations. We’re already doing it!
How? By declaring with our dollars that entertainment is the main purpose of art. In the course of this article, I will unfold why this is not a biblical idea, how it suppresses good art and harms good artists, and what we can do to undo the damage we’ve done with our “entertainment” budgets. Unless you were really here to learn how to destroy good art. In which case, good news—all you need to do is carry on as usual.
Whatever is Honorable
The second “whatever” in Philippians 4:8 is “whatever is honorable.” The meaning of the word translated “honorable” (σεμνός semnos) is not exhausted and is barely approximated in the phrase “worthy of honor.” In every other place in the Bible where it occurs, translators have used some derivative of “dignified.” Semnos is used in the description of elders, deacons, and their wives, and can mean “venerable” or even “serious-minded.” Bottom line: we should not be spending a lot of our time focusing on what God has deemed trivial.[1. You guessed it. This is the second in my biblical aesthetics series. I changed the title of this one because I added a good portion to this article that is not in my book. And because “Biblical Principles of Aesthetics, Part X: Whatever is (…)” was turning out to be a very un-catchy title framework. My first post in this series (on “Whatever is True”) can be found here.]
This means that art should not merely serve as entertainment or amusement. Don’t get me wrong. The Bible does not unilaterally invalidate entertainment and pleasure as righteous objects of pursuit. But the injunction to meditate on whatever is honorable indicates that mere entertainment should not be even close to a priority in our thought lives, and that our art needs to be edifying—needs even to be serious!
The Bible makes it clear that wisdom itself holds entertainment value (among its other values) for the man of understanding.
The Bible also makes it clear that wisdom itself holds entertainment value (among its other values) for the man of understanding. Solomon tells us that “doing wickedness is like sport to a fool, and so is wisdom to a man of understanding” (Prov. 10:23). In other words, the wise man finds great sport pursuing God by thinking God’s thoughts after Him.
This does not characterize the world, which finds folly entertaining and serious pursuits boring. Unfortunately, the church has also become subject to this aesthetic and epistemological immaturity. Is that because we as Christians have lost touch with the righteous attitude of Solomon?
What Happens to the Arts (and Artists) When Entertainment is King?
It seems harmless, but when you make entertainment the main purpose of the arts, you actually suppress good art. And you harm the lives of good artists. The contemporary market for the arts has become firmly overtaken by art that aspires to nothing more than entertainment. For better or worse, our culture calls on art when we want to kick back, vegetate, see pretty pictures, and feel good.
In fact, audiences want so badly to be entertained by art that they have largely jettisoned the many other purposes of art (a viewing of pretty much any Michael Bay film should suffice to establish my point). Neil Postman wasn’t exaggerating (much) when he said we were amusing ourselves to death. We’re definitely amusing ourselves to the death of good art and good artists.
The market is inundated with the most inane, frivolous, insipid, and shallow pieces of “art” to have ever been foisted on humanity. And why are the arts in this predicament? Because what we buy is what they make. And most of us are buying art for the sole purpose of being entertained. We don’t want to think. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t want to be convicted. We go to art for an escape.
What we buy is what they make, and most of us are buying art for the sole purpose of being entertained.
So what does that do to the artists in our communities that have great convictions? How do they make a living pursuing art if they’re not called to make feel-good art? What if they are like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, (all the other prophets), Jesus, and countless other faithful artists who were and are persecuted, rejected, and even killed by their target audiences for being too deep, too convicting, too depressing, or “just not my taste”? Sorry, but if you’re an artist like that, you’re never getting any support in the mainstream contemporary church. You’re actually better off trying to make it in the world (which is sad in itself), but I wouldn’t count on that either.
I’m about to get really personal. I know many good artist Christians who struggle to make a living. Many of them are my friends. They work at grocery stores and retail shops. They do manual labor. They serve you at restaurants. These are men and women who, if they had the time and emotional energy, could be creating huge amounts of wonderful art that would beautify the church and challenge the world.
But instead, this is what these very talented artists generally hear in their churches: “You’ve got to understand that this music (or photography/poetry/painting/movie) thing is just a hobby. You need to get a real job to support your family.” Or at other more “arts-friendly” churches, they hear this: “Some people make a living doing art. Have you tried to send some songs in to the Christian radio station or work as a wedding photographer or shoot commercials until someone notices you? And if you can’t make it in the world, maybe this just isn’t your calling. Why don’t you sound more like U2? Now there’s a band. Or paint like Kinkade? Now there’s a painter. Etc. Etc.” If you’re an artist in the church, you hear these kinds of things all the time. And it’s not merely discouraging. It actually hurts your life.
Most of these same church members spend at least a hundred dollars a month on art for entertainment. … But they won’t give a dollar to support artists in their own churches.
Most of the church members who say these things mean well. But here’s the thing: Most of these same church members spend at least a hundred dollars a month on art for entertainment. They go to the movies. They have cable service and Netflix. They have iPods and the like. They buy prints to decorate their homes. But they won’t give a dollar to support artists in their own churches. That doesn’t really make sense, does it?
Most Christians will go to see the newest mediocre “Christian” film to “show support,” but they don’t even think about the fantastic musician in their church who is working at Publix and struggling to feed his children (true story). And I can only assume that most church members just don’t think there’s anything askew with that. “The starving artists will always be among you.” Or something.
Entertainment is just a side effect of good art for the discerning. Most good artists don’t consider entertainment to be the main goal of their art. In a sense, that’s one of the things that makes them good artists. They understand that art has many purposes, but its main purpose is communication.
If the best way to communicate God’s message was always propositional, don’t you think God would have chosen only that method for communicating throughout the whole Bible?
Many truths cannot be expressed in mere propositions. Want proof? The Bible. If the best way to communicate God’s message was always propositional, don’t you think God would have chosen only that method for communicating throughout the whole Bible? But He didn’t. God also used poetry, parable, fantasy, music, sculpture, and performance art (to name a few) to deliver His message to us. So it follows that a church with an anemic or irrelevant understanding of art is probably missing a large portion of God’s whole message.
What happens when mere entertainment becomes the central goal of art? Exactly what has happened. Bad art flourishes, and good art disappears. Good artists are told that since their work won’t sell, they need to find “real” jobs. So they do. And the arts in the church suffer even more from their absence. It becomes a vicious cycle. And then the same church members who won’t support their local artist Christian neighbors lament the state of the arts (on the way back from the movies).
The fix is as simple as the problem. I didn’t say it was easy, but it is simple. Demand much more than entertainment from art, and support local artists in your church community with the money you once gave to unbelievers for entertainment. Or at least give as much to local Christian artists as you do to famous unbelieving artists.
Doesn’t that just make sense? Yes. But do you think most Christians will do this? No. That’s why you need to.
The situation in the church today is similar to the situation in Haggai’s day. Our temple is in ruins aesthetically speaking, and the people don’t yet think it’s time to rebuild it. God says to them and to us:
Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins? (Haggai 1:4)
We all invest in the beauty of our own houses. It’s time we invested in the beauty of the church. I’m not just talking about trading out our strip mall warehouses for cathedrals. I don’t care all that much about buildings unless they are helping people. There are Christians out there in the household of faith that aren’t able to fulfill their callings because we refuse to give them the resources they need. They are the potential beauty of the church to the world. And they are desolate.
I want the world to look at the representative cultural output of the church, and say, “Wow. That’s beautiful. Imagine the God they serve.” Don’t you want to see that? It can happen in this generation if every one of us will do our part.