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:

  1. We superimpose our fast-food culture on art.
  2. We have bad taste.
  3. 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.


19 Comments

  1. Good article, though it depends on how and who defines “taste” or “standards”… CSL did not like movies at all, and he live during the so-called “Golden Age.”

    Plus anyone can have “bad taste,” not just Christians. No doubt it is good to enjoy “good things” in life, but these same things can become dangerous if we assume that God is as interested in TV, literature, music, whatever, as we may be…

    Indeed, in history, the majority of Christians, even ancient Israelites, managed to live godly lives without having any “taste”…

    1. Did you even read the article? Or did you just make your mind up to disagree a few paragraphs in and skip down to the comment section? 1) you mention CSL not watching movies…but there were quotes from CSL about art and culture. He was very well versed in all sorts of literature and art outside the Christian sphere (taught philosophy and history at Oxford) and what about the writer’s comments regarding the Apostle Paul and Augustine quoting from very non-Christian sources. 2) The writer clearly states that we need to be careful to not watch “fluff” and in the last couple of paragraphs that he realizes having taste isn’t necessarily of “eternal” importance but can definitely add to our growth. 3) I see no point in what you said about the majority of Christians having no taste but being godly and disagree that God isn’t as interested in TV, literature, music etc like we are. Of COURSE God is interested in the arts – he created these gifts and blessed certain people with them. I believe God is glorified in a beautiful painting, a well done movie that illuminates a human struggle, a beautiful musical composition. Sorry to be rude but your comment and another here is so typical of what I find on Christian boards – just missing the point and trapped in a bubble. (and yes I am a Christian.)

  2. Wow, awesome article! This sums up everything I feel about art. Some people think that we should ONLY listen to Christian music or ONLY watch Christian movies, but if there’s no picture of human depravity or character growth, where would we be?

    Thanks!

  3. Great article! The first I’ve read on this site. Thanks Jordan for sharing your well reasoned thoughts with us.

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  5. Consider the artistry of the ancient churches, iconography, and liturgies.

    Consider the modern worship experience and its 7-11 songs of seven words, repeated eleven times in big box store layout churches with self-helps and/or guilt preached for 45 minutes.

    “Christians” don’t have poor cultural taste. Some have pretty good taste. The ones that have good taste seem to have sophisticated artistry in their acts of worship. The one that have bad taste seem to have simple understandings of the Bible, anthropomorphic conceptions of God, escapism from P&W to eschatology, and often a whole lot of fear at their foundations.

    One can’t expect too much artistry when one is afraid of God, afraid of the Devil, afraid of the world, and even afraid of art.

  6. I enjoy classical music. I am extremely well read and enjoy many of the classics. I am also very well read on the latest fiction. Still I guard what I read and I don’t waste my time on stupidity. I know almost nothing about art.

    What I do know is my Bible.

    Whether a Christian is or is not cultural or cultured is of absolutely zero importance. It is utterly and totally and completely meaningless. there have been mass murderers who were very cultured

    I don’t think I could stress strongly enough just how unimportant being cultural really is in the scheme of things. It does not matter.

    Is there anything wrong with being cultural? Yes, if it makes you think you’re better than others. Otherwise probably not. There’s nothing wrong with good classical music. There’s nothing wrong with good art. I think classical literature is necessary. I don’t think that someone who doesn’t like classical literature is a lesser person than me.

    and let’s get very plain. Christian follow Christ. Christian are to live holy lives. Christians are required to live holy. Those who spend more time on their Bible then they do with culture know that.

    Because we as Christians are to be holy, there are certain books and movies and plays with which we are to have no part. There’s nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t make us lesser people. It just makes us Christians.

    1. When Christians tout (and flock to) the “Left Behind” series with Kirk Cameron and then love that series so much they even re-make it (but this time with Nicolas Cage – horror beyond horror) then yes there is something wrong with our “culture.” (that is, of course, just my opinion). We are a part of “culture” and I’m sorry that you think being cultured is of “absolutely zero importance” and “meaningless”. If we are to share the Gospel with people we need to be able to love them and meet them in a way they understand. I don’t think being cultured is the most important thing but I definitely don’t think it is of zero importance and meaningless. We are here walking on the ground. Too many Christians keep their head in the clouds (always only thinking of heaven) only hanging out at church and with other Christians – this is imbalanced. We need to look around and connect with other people as Jesus’ hands and feet …rather than burying our faces in the safety of the Bible and Bible studies. It is impractical to be totally removed from culture and feel like culture is worthless and meaningless – and still expect to have a voice for Jesus. Balance in all things is practical.

    2. “Whether a Christian is or is not cultural or cultured is of absolutely zero importance. It is utterly and totally and completely meaningless. there have been mass murderers who were very cultured.”

      This is not true, because I can tell you right now that embracing culture and quality art has made a huge difference in my life, particularly in terms of increasing empathy and compassion. While obviously it’s possible to be cultured without allowing it to change your life, that doesn’t make the culture meaningless (people read the Bible and don’t allow it to change their lives either).

      Engaging with culture isn’t just about encountering inanimate pieces of art. It’s a chance to engage with the mind of the artist, with the characters, with someone whose point of view might be startlingly different from your own. As a fairly sheltered homeschooler growing up whose primary interaction was with non-Christians, it was *movies* that taught me to be truly empathetic and understanding of other people. Watching movies with people who believed differently than I am and acted differently than I should, I was able to learn to love them even if they were trapped in addiction or making bad decisions or couldn’t control their anger.

      I cannot stress how important that has been in shaping my character. Movies helped me practice compassion, love, and kindness for people who it would have been very easy for me to judge. This has greatly impacted how I treat people around me in real life.

      So… there’s at least one use for being cultured.

  7. There are many different cultures and sub-cultures in this world and people have different interests. I may not like one thing that others in my culture like, but I would not go as far to say they have bad tastes. A person’s tastes is depended on their individual make-up, it is a part of who they are and it should be respected. So I respectfully, disagree with the bad taste comment because someone dislikes something you deem as good.

    However, I do agree with the article with experiencing art rather than using art. Is art meant to influence you, yes; however, we should not be so mindless to follow things without thought. There are people that lack critical thinking skills and are not able to formulate an independent opinion. So in other words they just follow what is cool and when that thing is not so cool anymore they drop that belief and follow another. A shifting foundation due to a lack of a well developed foundation. This happens in both the Christian and secular world. There are some Christians that follow whatever that is said without thought, not being good Bereans, and that is a problem all in itself. It happens in the secular world when they just go with the flow with the media.

    Anywho, for me if a Christian’s foundation is only Christ and they do not like a certain thing within our culture because it goes against their beliefs I have not problem with that. Mostly because, their foundation is Christ and they do not want to waiver from that and if their particular tastes is to avoid those things to protect themselves then leave them be and enjoy what they want to enjoy. You have to also remember that a lot of things in our culture and things presented as art, are things that can make folks stumble. We forget that what you take in, or just view, effects you and if you struggle with a certain sin then you need to stay away. However, that weakness should not be pressured onto anyone else and also, we who are stronger in our faith should not oppose our viewpoint on them either.

    Just know what you like, stay away from things that make you stumble and respect other people’s tastes. No one on this earth is on a higher moral ground because they do not like every movie that was nominated for an award.

  8. Although it was almost 50 years ago, I vividly remember going to see “Waiting for Godot.” It broke my heart to see the hopelessness and nihilism portrayed there. About the same time I also saw some classical Greek tragedy–times of catharsis–and some classical Chinese “kung-fu” movies–times Between Tears and Laughter..

    Let me also put in a good word for Northrop Frye, the Canadian literary critic who chastised educators for not including biblical narrative in English lit classes. He taught that without knowledge of the biblical narrative, most of English literature is meaningless.

  9. All are required by God to act justly, to love mercy,and to walk humbly with him. Of course I can learn what not to do or be from films that teach the opposite. But I am much more encouraged by films that teach acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with God, such as Chariots of Fire, which was not made by Christians.

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