When I was younger, many in the church were fearful of a process called backmasking. There was much concern that certain (usually metal) bands were leaving subliminal Satanic messages on their albums, which you could hear if you played songs backwards. One of my favourite gospel bands at the time, Petra, decided to do some backmasking of their own. When you played a section of their song Judas Kiss (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gx9K4qdCGlY) backwards, their message was: “What are you looking for the devil for when you ought to be looking for the Lord?” It has been a philosophy that has underpinned my perspective on art ever since.
We are right to recognise the power inherent in art. Art will – when it has been properly done – always attempt to change us. But we are wrong to fear that power. Nobody is so perfect that he has no need of change. But we are always able to be active participants in that change. We are never merely passive vessels. And so we should not resist art’s attempts to change us. Rather, we should choose wisely the ways in which we allow it to do so.
In my last post I suggested that we should see literature – and indeed all art – as both a mirror and a lantern. Let us first consider art as a mirror: art affords us the opportunity to evaluate our core values. The way we respond to something tells us a lot about ourselves. Because it often offends us, art makes us critically examine who we are. Being offended is not necessarily bad. Jesus offended. It is often only when we are tempted to be impatient that we learn patience. It is only when we are confronted with a situation where lying would save us from trouble, that we are able to test our resolve to be truthful. Adversity tests faith. Art helps us, in artificial circumstances where the consequences are not as serious as they would be in life, to test our values. This is a vital practice. We only grow if we can see our faults. Art, like a mirror to the soul, helps us see.
Often what we see when we look honestly at ourselves is not pretty. To see ugliness is not the same as to condone it. Seeing a film about lust is not going to make me an adulterer any more than seeing a film about bread is going to make me a baker. Watching the crime channel is not going to make me a murderer: I become that by choice. Hearing swearing will not make me swear: if I swear it is because my core values permit me to do so. If my core principles are sound, I will be able to see that the values in the film conflict with my own and I will reject them. If, however, I have not chosen and internalised my own core values, I will be more easily swayed. A piece of art only has the power to affect my behaviour if I grant it that power. Rather, the ugliness I see helps me recognise ugliness in myself, and should sow the desire for change. As long as the values we hold are inherited – whether from our parents, our teachers, our churches, our friends, or even the media – rather than internal, we will be vulnerable. It is easier to discard somebody else’s values under pressure than to disregard values that are thoughtfully chosen and internalised. The history of the church, and even of the world, has shown time and again that men and women who have a deep belief in their values will live and die for what they believe, no matter what pressure is placed on them.
Certainly, we are called to be in the world, but not of the world. But implicit in that statement is the recognition that we are – unmistakably – in the world (John 17:15-16). To deny this is dangerous. John Milton wrote:
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”
We are in a battle, and the battle is for our hearts. And literature is an important battlefield. We are not told to hide from the devil, we are told to resist him (James 4:7). It is a war, and battlefields are always messy. It is not pretty, but God can use all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).
If the Bible is our source of right answers, why should we expect literature to be any more genteel than the Bible? The Bible is full of hatred, lies, corruption, lust, broken promises, prostitution, murder, adultery, rape, torture, pride, drunkenness, rebellion, racial hatred, revenge, the occult, incest, madness and death. And because of this it is even more powerfully about love and honesty and truth, faithfulness and trust, sacrifice and endurance, peace, miracles, healing and restoration.
Literature that deals with the truth about humanity cannot ignore the dunghill of depravity that constitutes the result of our sin. Some writers and readers focus so much on the dunghill that it is all they can see. Some float piously above it and pretend that it does not exist. Neither response is useful or godly. A godly response is to stand firmly on the dunghill and look up at the stars:
“But where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20)
It all depends where you are looking. We always find what we are searching for. If we are always looking for the devil, we will find him. If we acknowledge that he is there, but look for God, we will find Him too. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek me and you will find me when you seek with all your heart.” The question is this: when we view art, what – or more to the point, who – are we seeking?
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things.” (Philippians 4: 8). Now we know that aside from God, nothing conforms to this definition. We cannot help but notice that much of what we see in the world around us is not good or pure or noble. So instead of focusing on the dung in a book or film – and it is unavoidably there, even in “Christian” texts – we should focus on what is good. Focus on the parts that espouse godly virtues and that point us to the God of all things.
Anaïs Nin wrote that “we see the world as we are, not as it is.” Our views and opinions are not so much reflections of an objective reality as they indicators of our own fears and desires.
If we see the dunghill as threatening, it is because our picture of God is faulty. If the very idea of exposure to the darker side of humanity is a spiritual threat, it is because we do not trust ourselves to have the moral fortitude not to follow the same path, and because we fear that if we do, God is waiting to punish us. The picture of God such a fear reflects is of a punitive and cruel deity, whose demand for absolute obedience borders on the psychotic. Such fears make light of God’s love and redemption through Christ. Such a picture refuses to accept that God’s mercy covers all sins. People who have such a picture feel that they have to be good or else. For many such Christians, the Christian life is very much a gamble – one false move and they could risk losing God’s love. It is not faith, it is fear. It does not understand faith by grace alone, but seems sure that works must be involved somehow. Grace is just too good to be true.
We need to acknowledge that the virtues in humans are gifts from God, and operate despite our failings. If, for example, one simply downplays the horror of the adultery of David, the murder of Uriah and the rape of Tamar, then the implication of the story is that David’s innate goodness enabled him to rise to heroic stature. It would miss the point. If we cannot say “look at what man is doing”, if we cannot confront our own unrighteousness, then we cannot fully appreciate God’s grace. To excise what is not ‘pure or lovely or admirable’ from the Bible would be to excise vast chunks of it, and we would be the poorer for it.
If we have a right picture of God, if we understand that we are new creations in Christ, where the sinful nature has been crucified with him and we do not fear condemnation, then fear of disappointing God and of His punishment has no place in our lives:
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”(1 John 4: 18)
Nothing that we read or view can possibly allow the devil to take control of our souls:
“For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4)
“For I am convinced that neither life nor death, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39)
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand”
We should not steer clear of texts that contain sin simply because they contain sin. Indeed, there is no truly sinless human literature. That said, we do not call bad things good, or condone evil behaviour, but we know that they no longer have any power over us. We study literature not because it is good in itself. Like all things in this fallen world, it is flawed, but like all things it is His:
“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16)
Because God holds all things together, we trust that even these things can be used to understand ourselves better, and better learn how to serve the One by whose grace alone we are saved. Our Christian mission is not simply to create converts. Our calling is not to hide from the world, it is to transform the world. We cannot do that if we neither understand nor even see the world. We must learn how to choose and internalise Godly values, and be prepared to defend those choices no matter the opposition. Literature affords that opportunity. We are foolish if we are too fearful to take it.