When I was a new believer I was taught to only enjoy art that is made by fellow believers. By implication: any song, motion picture, painting, theatrical production or book that is not written by a believer was kinda out of bounce. For a long time, this is what I also taught as a passionate teenage preacher in high schools around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. I did not know any better. But the Scriptures do not say any such thing. In fact, what we see is that art is an extension of God's common grace which reflects the Greater Artist who put the world together, and created all things visible and invisible. We, therefore, can enjoy all forms of good art, despite who made them, the same way we can enjoy any food in a restaurant despite who prepared it.
* I use the word art in this post to mean any works produced by human creative skill and imagination.
I am an avid follower of Christian thought-leaders like Francis Schaeffer, Steve Turner, and Nancy Pearcey and while my thoughts are mine, I have learned most of what I will share here as context through reading and listening to their extensive work over the past couple of years. My work as an Arts Correspondent for the Sunday News in Zimbabwe also influenced the practical aspects of what has developed as my understanding of the intersection of theology and art.
Let's jump into a little history o this intersection and give some context.
Steve Turner, who is an English music journalist, biographer, and poet notes how Christians in the first couple of centuries had a very different approach and thinking when it came to art. What we call Christian art today was not present at all. Christians were not very influential in the public realm of culture and art.
In fact, in these early centuries, Steven Turner says, pagans ridiculed Christians for their lack of pieces of artwork that were a physical representation of their faith — a common practice among pagans at that time. Christians were scared of "creating idols" as the Old Testament prohibited them.
All this changed when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as it's state-wide religion. Rome's power and majesty were reinforced with images and architecture and so Constantine wanted Christians to follow suit. This obviously caused problems down the line as they couldn't draw the line between aids of worship, and objects of worship. A whole story for another day.
But the point is that as the church grew, new art forms began to be created and a so-called "Christian art" form began to grow. Some of these included:
Bells to summon people for worship.
Stained-glass windows were known as the "gospel for those who cannot read".
Manuscripts were made.
Hymns were written down, together with new forms of music for that time.
The list goes on.
Men like Michelangelo's best-known work was commissioned by various popes. He was actually made Chief Architect of St. Peter's in Rome. Raphael created art for churches and cathedrals. Bosch's art was funded and supported by the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a Christian fraternity that he was a part of.
The basic point is this: the church commissioned art to be used in all aspects of life that were overtly religious. Artists were focused on making art that captured stories of the Bible, and in some instances, emotions of those who witnessed various stories first hand like the death of Christ or his resurrection.
It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that this established way of doing things was challenged. The Reformation weakened the authority of the Catholic Church and reduced their influence. When the commissioners of art changed, the subject matter changed with it.
Landscapes, family portraits, animals and foreign cities became the new thing in town, art-wise. The Reformation was also opposed to the decoration of church buildings and this saw the destruction of that form of "Christian art" then. But more importantly, scholars note that while the art of the previous centuries did not capture the daily lives of people, only overtly religious aspects of it, the Reformation bought about a claim for the non-religious aspects of life.
If Christ is Lord, which He is, then He is Lord over all things - not just worship or prayer times, they argued. The religious people had cut themselves off from daily living in those ancient cities - they only did work that was "devotional". The Reformers challenged this and argued that the humblest street sweeper could work to God's glory.
Similarly, today, it is not surprising to meet Christians who have separated themselves from normative, daily, human livelihood in the guise of "being pure" from a corrupt world, and this is true even in their consumption of and also their creation of art.
As art grew in its forms and influences over the centuries, it became very dark and vile in so many ways, and it was always a reflection of the darkness of the times. Nudity in music videos only started trickling in around the late 70s, and with the advent of hip-hop music around that same time, the songs grew more profane especially as they got mainstream notoriety and acceptance. Obviously, looking at art today we can see how far gone we have as a society just with the content of our music, movies, and artistic expressions. This is probably the reason why Christian leaders when I was a teen encouraged us not to partake of anything that is not "Christian". Or better known as "secular".
There is a definitely great motive behind the encouragement for total abstinence from "secular art" but there are a few blindspots with that notion - some reasons are just clearly theological, and others merely anthropological. The former influences the latter. Because they were made in God's image, people can make great art, but because of sin, great art can be filled with "un-Christian" themes. We live in this world that is beautiful, yet is broken — and art simply reflects this dichotomy of beauty and death.
I want to quickly say that I am by no means condoning the consumption of art or content that is blatantly anti-Christian and promotes sin as virtue. My only hope here is that you can be free to enjoy art without a sense of guilt that is not wrought from the Scriptures or your own conscience. If art portrays reality, I want you to consider how nuanced it can be and wrestle with the tensions it poses, the worlds it portrays, and the struggles it relates - rather than shut it off outrightly simply because you disagree with a content creator.
The Complexity of Art
Art is very complex — and so is this subject we are trying to tackle here. And I think we believers need to engage with it and come up with conclusions less quickly and really dig into its crevices.
Art is basically story-telling.
So when it is navigated through simply binary ways or bad or good, I guess we reduce it to a very simplistic thing and thereby steal from its actual worth — just like any other story. For example, adultery, violence, murder, deceit, fornication, betrayal and pride are clearly an important part of storytelling for adults. Think about you conversing with your friend about a certain story in the paper or your own story of some conflict of sorts. Using true, human and relevant categories for these things only comes naturally and make your story more vivid and realistic.
Art depends on conflict. A protagonist must face tests and trials and through overcoming them, reveals his or her true character. As seen on TV shows or movies, violence, and sexual betrayal, for example, are some of the extreme tests they have to overcome in some stories.
Turner has some helpful thoughts on this: Think about David in the Bible. The writers show him coming very close to King Saul with a sharpened sword in his hand. He could have killed Saul because of all that Saul had said and done, but he didn't. We also see David when he spies a naked Bathsheba on the rooftop. He gets her husband killed so he can get her for himself. These are both extreme tests that make drama (or art in general) more compelling.
If an artist makes art whose obstacles do not seem challenging enough or are out of touch with reality, we typically do not enjoy that art form. A good example is seen in some Christian movies. The conflict in the movies is just not real most of the time and an audience cannot relate it to the normal world where they live. Art by purpose should be a window through a society's heart, soul and daily living.
The flip side of this is that as artists make art that is compelling and true to reality, a Christian audience will very likely be put off by the very essence of that reality — a reality which they acknowledge but would rather not watch on the TV screen, see on the big screen or hear on a song. And I understand that.
Here is an example: if you take a walk through some of the ghettos of Harare in Zimbabwe, you will invariably see a lifestyle, hear a lingo, and witness a pace that is heavily reflected in a popular genre of music from there called "Zimdancehall". While the themes vary, a lot of the music is social commentary with witty and hilarious rhyme schemes. From Souljah Love singing about how he came from the gutter and finds himself among the "greats" in Pamanonya Ipapo to Bazooker singing about seeming nothingness in Umdala Wethu — the music is catchy, creative and highly entertaining.
The same is true for hip hop music from inner cities in the United States. One of the heaviest hitting, yet hardly palatable albums from a city called Compton in California is the 1988 Straight Outta Compton album by N.W.A. The album paints a dark picture of life, violence, crime and their troubles with police brutality in South Central Los Angeles and in Compton. It is surrounded by controversy because of its gangster themes, and a particular track which is a diss to the police.
Or better yet, Kendrick Lamar's 2015 offering To Pimp A Butterfly which is a complete genius piece of art which incorporates elements of jazz, funk, soul, spoken word, and avant-garde music and explores a variety of political and personal themes concerning African-American culture, racial inequality, depression, and institutional discrimination (Wikipedia).
Now, how should Christians interact with pieces of art like the ones mentioned above? The former is just jumpy, fun and witty - full of light themes - nothing deep most times. The other - heavily themed with political and social commentary, yet it uses profane language. What do we do with this?
I find it a little complex because, on one end, I think through art we can grapple with other realities that we would otherwise never been exposed to, yet at the same time, what we allow ourselves to be exposed to will either be helpful or not helpful in our sanctification. (Pornography or nudity, therefore, as a form of art, will be a no-go because it will lead to sins of the mind.)
This is exactly what the point of the "no secular music" exposure was all about when I was younger. But I think there is nuance to all this. It is helpful to consider if a piece of art is helpful, hurtful or neutral in how it impacts you. Of course, if it leads you to sins of the minds, it's an obvious no go for you. There are other nuances to consider.
There is nuance in age, for example — younger people should probably be more careful in what they expose themselves to because of the sheer wreckage that can come from exposure to certain themes. I would listen to and recommend my friend Billman checking out Nipsey Hustle's Victory Lap, for example, but wouldn't recommend it to a 15-year-old. Billman and I will likely argue about and critique the artistic prowess, the rhyme schemes, and the general delivery because we appreciate and love hip-hop as an art. There are true effects of certain themes on younger minds that the older you grow, I think we can agree, the more you can grapple with them.
But there is also the aspect of how we all use art. For example, some believers consume art primarily for worship and praise to the Lord, others consume pieces of art primarily for entertainment purposes, some to just pass time while they read a book, and the highest form of art consumers (which is the minority) is consumption of art for art's sake — to appreciate its form, its themes and critique it. And what you use it for, is likely going to determine what you prefer and what you can bear with. And all that is okay.
My Personal Thoughts
Personally, I probably fall under the list of those who appreciate art in its rawest artistic forms. I love art. I love theatre. I love literary works. I love music. I love to appreciate good visual pieces of art. My camera roll is filled with pictures of buildings and random things I see and capture and appreciate. I love the beauty of our cultures, textures, lines, colours, shades, and shapes.
I usually can bear with some bad language, if the piece of art is well done and will educate me. However, music with bad language is not my regular art content diet - but I have grown to appreciate the value of art that is made by people who do not think or see things the same ways I do. Here is the thing: I do not expect non-Christians to do or say as if they were saved. But I do appreciate the artistic prowess they bring into the world. I love Queen, Chimamanda, Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, Samthing Soweto, The Inkspots, Raisedon Baya, Agatha Christie, Spike Lee, Lupita, and Frida Kahlo — and I do not have to agree with them on every issue because they are merely story-tellers. I enjoy their art simply because it is good art.
I have no idea where you go from here, but my point is this: enjoy art. If you put limits to yourself, fine, but do not put limits on people that God never put on them. Some art is helpful (educative, insightful, provocative); some is neutral (just for our appreciation) and some is hurtful (leads to sins of the mind, is untrue or blatantly evil). It is your call.