A few years ago, I went to a movie with my friends from church. The film was a beautiful and melancholy picture of the human heart and its longings. It exposed the depths of the soul and our capacity for love and loss. It went on to be nominated for almost every Academy Award it was eligible for, including Best Picture.
Christians often believe a novel or film to be bad because the story does not fully align with their own moral, spiritual, or political presumptions.I left the theater feeling that sick sweetness of a fiction truer than life. In a mere three hours it led me through the full spectrum of human emotion. I empathized—even lamented—for its fictional characters. But my sorrow was of the redemptive kind, and it convicted me to go forward and share the hope of Christ with those who search in vain.
Then I got in the car with my friends.
One of my friends thought it was too long for a movie not starring transforming robots. Another thought it was a poor film because the characters made decisions that we as Christians disagree with. He asserted it was wrong to enjoy the movie or learn from it because of these differences.
I was dumbfounded. Yet, I have since met quite a few Christians with this perspective. They believe a novel or film to be bad because the story does not fully align with their own moral, spiritual, or political presumptions. Their critique has nothing to do with the quality of the story, but with themselves.
What is at the root of this? I see three factors:
- We superimpose our fast-food culture on art.
- We have bad taste.
- We misunderstand the role secular art can play in our lives.
Good art has never been “have it your way.”These culprits surface again and again in Christian culture. You hear them in the car on the way home from the movies. You read them in passive-aggressive Facebook exchanges filled with proof-texts and posturing. They seem to tag-team flawlessly in any Christian conversation on art. And, if we employ these attitudes, we become what C.S. Lewis calls bad readers.
In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis’s scarcely read work on literary criticism, the distinguished author and Cambridge chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature says that the major difference between good reading and bad reading—or for our purposes, good and bad taste—is that good taste is a product of receiving art rather than using art.
He says that using art means “treating it as assistance for our own activities.” We see this all the time. We go to the movies and read books with a pre-approved ideology and plot already in mind. It’s like going to a get-together hoping to meet only ourselves. When the story diverges from our ready-made presumptions, we dislike it, or worse—we call it bad.
To receive art, on the other hand, is to temporarily suspend judgment. We get ourselves out of the way and let the creator have the stage, possibly enlightening us or—God forbid—challenging us. Lewis’s thesis is that using art “merely facilitates, brightens, relieves, or palliates our life,” whereas receiving art adds to it.
So, if receiving art can add to our life, we want to make sure to add the commendable rather than the degrading—or the fluff. This is why we need to develop better taste.
How do I cultivate better taste?
The good news is, if you’ve learned to receive art rather than use it, much of the battle is won. Our taste quickly improves as we learn to receive art. Beyond this, seek to learn from those who receive art. Find people who identify the truths inherent in art—both Christian and non-Christian. These are the people who allow art to grow their empathy, evangelism, heart, and worldview. Ask them to recommend a few books or plays or films.
To learn good taste, we also need to venture outside the body of Christian art. The Apostle Paul read extensively from pagan writers. So did Augustine. In fact, an astonishing majority of the most influential believers in history were well-read in secular classics and philosophy. It wasn’t their foundation, but they allowed it to inform their ministry at times. Paul even quoted secular philosophers and worshipful poems written to Zeus in the New Testament! What a nightmare for the legalist.
Paul even quoted secular philosophers and worshipful poems written to Zeus in the New Testament! What a nightmare for the legalist.The call to interact with secular art however is not a license for wanton immorality. Peter reminds us that we are to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). We must have discernment in what we take in, for we know that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33, NIV), which, incidentally, Paul quotes from Menander, a pagan Greek writer. Jesus also tells us that the eye is the lamp of the body, and when our eyes are full of darkness, so is our whole body (Matt. 6:22–23).
Therefore, let us grow by receiving good art while still being discerning and honoring to God with the faculties He has given us.
It occurred to me that at this point, the critic who sits on my shoulder while I write—or that friend from the movies—might ask, “What’s the point? Who cares if I have bad taste? What will it matter in the eternal kingdom of God?”
Perhaps they have a strong point. Nobody on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I’d had better taste in art.” No. They wish they had loved God more and their family more or lived more purposefully. And this is exactly the point. Developing good taste in good art and learning to receive it should add to our lives. It should inspire us to grow into better Christians, parents, evangelists, laborers, and listeners.
If it doesn’t accomplish these things, maybe at least we can be less priggish after the movies.
Jordan Monson is a Bible Translation Consultant in training with The Seed Company, an affiliate of Wycliffe Bible Translators. He is passionate about missions, God’s Word, and good literature. You can find him on Twitter at @jordanmonson.