Why are Christians so afraid of art and literature? I have worked in education all of my adult life, and if there is one thing I can guarantee, it is that if I prescribe a text with any hint of magic, sex, or swearing (funnily enough, violence is usually less of an issue)there will be a few Christians who will respond in outrage. I want to reflect on this habit, for a moment; not to denigrate that response, but to understand it.
I think at least part of the cause of religious unease with art lies in the fundamentally opposing functions of religion and art. Religion seeks to order society; art seeks to disrupt it. Art holds up a mirror to society that compels us to look at ourselves in uncomfortable ways, to bring us to the point where we must admit that the way things are is not the way things ought to be. Art questions the legitimacy of the ways that we go about maintaining order, it gives a voice to the marginalised, the scapegoated; it makes us look squarely at the ugly consequences of the decisions we make, and provides a glimpse of how the world might look better if configured differently. Religion, on the other hand, has evolved out of the need to maintain group cohesion, and it does so by restricting behaviours that might generate conflict (it imposes taboos around sex and food, for example, which are common triggers for conflict in ape societies) ; it does so by strengthening a sense of group identity through the creation of problematic others; and it does so through scapegoating violence (less apparent in today’s religious communities than perhaps it was in the distant past where blood sacrifice was a normal state of affairs, but it is present nevertheless in today’s more sanitised rituals).
Religious communities have always had, at best, an ambivalent relationship with their prophets, both revering and fearing them, loving and hating them. Prophets disrupt order; religion maintains order. And art is very much prophetic in its function. So I can understand that Christians would feel threatened by art. And at the end of the day, I believe it is because we feel threatened, not because the art offends our sensibilities, that we respond in outrage. After all, we have our sensibilities offended on a daily basis in a thousand different ways, but we seldom respond with the same sense of moral indignation. Why is it art, in particular, that has that effect?
I think it is because art is pointing its finger at our organising principles. While religion wants to sacralise violence (and I use the term “violence” in a very broad sense, to include things like constructing social systems that demonise and marginalise on the base of race, gender, or sexual orientation), the best art often seeks to desacralise these same forms of violence.
Christians, I think, because we have accepted (though unconsciously) the necessity of sacralised violence, understand on some level that the art object threatens our way of seeing (and therefore being), but fail to understand exactly why we feel threatened. We understand rightly that the art object poses a threat to our ways of being, but being unable to pinpoint exactly what it is that is being threatened, our brains – as they are hardwired to do – conceiving that the threat is to religious ways of seeing specifically, construct a link between the threat and our understanding of faith, to help us make sense of the threat. Because we tend to equate faithfulness with moral purity, it is only natural to interpret the art object as a threat to that purity. From there the chain of (unconscious) logic compels us to draw the conclusion that the art object is therefore a threat to our acceptability to God and, by extension, to salvation. That is why most times, the argument against the art object goes something like this: it promotes values that are not Christian, or it valorises activities that are forbidden in the Bible, and as Christians we are supposed to protect ourselves from exposure to these influences; we must think only about whatever is pure or right or noble. Because we live in a proof-texting Christian culture, we will then find a Bible verse that supports this interpretation (context is unimportant because the whole Bible is seen as the infallible word of God), and suddenly we have a doctrine.
I know that many Christians will object to this argument, insisting that they do not see the art object as a threat to their salvation. And I am sure that consciously they do not. However, the fact of their outrage tells a different story. After all, we are exposed daily to the promotion of values that are not “Christian” (I use inverted commas because the term erroneously makes the assumption that there is one common set of Christian values, to which every Christian will subscribe. The term itself is used as a cultural boundary marker to preserve in-group identity). We are a diverse population in a globalised world. The chances are that at least some of our work colleagues espouse non-Christian values. The advertisements that bombard us daily are seldom distinctly Christian in their orientation (“you cannot serve God and mammon” after all…). Our sources of entertainment seldom involve young Christians living morally pure lives. But we do not get angry about that. Truth be told, most of us are happy to watch the crime channel, even though the Bible is anti-murder. Most of us will not get all worked up if some sweaty grease-monkey exacts vigilante justice on a band of narcotics dealers in a movie we are watching. We do not find the witches in Macbeth offensive, or object to the rampant sexual innuendo in Romeo and Juliet, because we are very selective in our moral scrutiny and for some reason the classics are exempt. Characters can lie and covet and work on the Sabbath all they like in literature, despite these being forbidden in the ten commandments. They can be disrespectful to their parents, and even perpetuate quite horrific acts of violence, and we won’t say a word. The Bible itself sometimes even valorises the very actions that it condemns: zeal and violence go hand in hand in many of the Old Testament passages, for example, even though the ten commandments are pretty unambiguous that we should not kill. We are very happy to let our children be exposed to genocide and rape and incest and adultery and the use of magic in the Bible, but not in more “secular” art objects. We might even laugh maliciously and think that it serves them right when we read about Simeon and Levi, in Genesis 34, tricking an entire community into circumcising themselves and then slaughtering them when they are incapacitated by the pain, as revenge for one of them raping their sister, Dinah. Somehow we never consider that children might need protection from being exposed to that. I know many Christians who would not even have a book in their house if it described such incidents. But I have not met a Christian who would censor the Bible.
If the common Christian arguments against art are true, then the Bible is proof that apparently God cannot live up to His own moral standards (I use the masculine pronoun only when talking about problematic God concepts; I prefer the gender-neutral Hen). Clearly, then, the Christian argument against art is flawed. It is not God’s standards we are protecting when we rail against art; it is ours.
What this says to me is that the real issue is not a defense of moral purity. If it were, we would hold ourselves to more consistent standards when it comes to conveying our moral outrage. The fact that we are selective points to the fact that what we are defending is something completely different.
What we are actually defending, at the end of the day, when we object to certain art objects, is sacralised violence. If you have followed me for long enough, you will know that I am a huge admirer of the work of French sociologist René Girard. In a nutshell, his argument is that religion, with its taboos and prohibitions, its rituals and its systems of sacrifice (scapegoating violence), evolved out of the need of early human communities to contain the violence generated by mimetic rivalry. We use, in other words, the “lesser” violence of scapegoating sacrifice to contain the “greater” violence that mimetic rivalry threatens. When art questions the structures that religion has constructed to protect us from this “greater” violence, it is understandable that we would feel threatened. So long as the practices dictated to us by our cultural and religious systems (and I think they are one and the same, even when organised religion no longer wields power in a society: culture evolves out of religion) are normalised, we can continue to sacrifice scapegoats who do not quite conform, in order to strengthen social cohesion and preserve group identity. If these structures lose their sacred power over the people, the threat of escalating mimetic violence becomes imminent. What we are defending when we object to art objects that challenge the sanctity of these structures is not God’s honour. It is not Christian values, nor is it moral integrity. What we strive to protect ourselves from is our own capacity for violence.
That, I think, is why sex is the primary trigger for our outrage. Apes are driven largely by sexual desire, and it is thus sexual rivalry that holds the greatest potential for conflict within the group. Simply put, I think we do not get as outraged by depictions of other “sins” in artworks, like not keeping the Sabbath or telling lies, because they do not carry the same level of threat in initiating escalating mimetic rivalry as sex does.
And how do we go about containing the threat? As we always do: scapegoating violence. We employ a “good” violence to keep the “bad” violence at bay. And in order to protect ourselves from the cognitive dissonance that this causes (how can one form of violence be good and another bad?), we sacralise the act. We justify our scapegoating of the artist by mythologising the violence as faithfulness.
And like all scapegoating violence, it is most effective in its aims when the whole community agrees to it. Remember, the purpose of scapegoating violence is to unify the community and restore peace. This cannot happen if the sacrificial act divides the group. It only works if everyone sees the necessity for the violence and willingly participates in its execution. This, I think, is why we make use of social media platforms or protest rallies when becoming outraged. We are trying to legitimate the violence through garnering support for collective action, and claiming the divine mandate of a wrathful deity for doing so. It is why we are so hostile to those who may disagree with us, even questioning their status as group members (“you cannot endorse that artwork and still be Christian…”). Scapegoating violence is collective violence ; it requires mass participation.
I do not believe that moral outrage directed at an art object is a fundamentally Christian response. Not if we are to define “Christian” as ‘responding in the way Jesus would’. The Jesus of the gospels is opposed to violence; there is no getting around that. And the early church clearly understood that: they are a community of pacifists who oppose (non-violently) imperial claims to truth, which are based on tyranny. They defend society’s marginalised and voiceless members when empire would see them as only outsiders and exploit them. They radically challenge social boundary markers (for example, see Paul’s claim in Galatians 3 that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. Just think of what that means in the society of his time). Moral outrage is a fundamentally religious response that protects in-group identity, but it is not a fundamentally Christian one.
I remind myself of this when I am tempted to rail against fundamentalist Christianity, and form my own in-group, scapegoating those who disagree. And it would be easy to write a piece that ridicules the fundamentalist approach to art. In fact, I am not so sure I have entirely escaped giving in to that. Instead, I remind myself, the Jesus response is simply this: we are all victims of sociological and psychological forces way beyond our control, if not our comprehension. Have a little mercy (“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”). The acceptable Christian response to crisis is – has always been – love. And love says that rather than try to assimilate people into the group, we change the definition of what it means to be part of the group. We do not try to change people so that fit into the group, we change the group so that people feel they can fit.
If I have offended you, dear reader, know that it is not my intention to do so (not my conscious one anyway). This is not an attack on those who see things differently from me, it is an invitation to a dialogue that I hope, at the end of the day, will make the circle bigger.