This post is not a defense of Christians cursing in their everyday lives (I wrote that post a few years ago, though I think at some point I may need to revisit some of what I said there).
This post, rather, is about the merits of Christians creating (or doing) art in which there are profanities (this also has implications on other “worldly” things in art like sex and violence, but they won’t be my main focus today). I’m writing this to prepare some people for the stories I plan on writing for this blog. I talked yesterday about how I’m participating in StoryADay September (Update: I’m done), and hope to post an original, completed fiction story every weekday in September. Concerning that, I wrote:
I will not be doing “Christian art” or “prophetic art” or “evangelistic art” as I write and post here. I will simply be trying to create Beauty in words and character and story in a way that is original, interesting, and stirring. My stories tend to be rooted in reality as much as possible, and so they will probably include “real” things like sadness, violence, sexuality, cursing, or other things that challenge many Christians’ sensibilities. Know this ahead of time.
And I meant every word of that. Full disclosure: knowing how crazy things can get in a given month, I’ve already started writing these stories in order to give myself a few days’ break when I need it. But, having already started writing, I can tell you, nearly every one of the stories I’ve written so far has at least one f-bomb, and some have some pretty intense language. One even has a couple of sensual moments (though not at all sexual, really). I don’t plan on it or shoot for putting that stuff in there. This is not my youthful attempt at being “cool” or “edgy”. The story itself simply demands it (any writer will know what I mean by that).
Is that okay?
I really think it is. I think one of the purposes of art is to bring beauty out of the world as it actually is. Not how we wish it would be, or even necessarily how it will be in the world to come. And, sorry, but this is a cussing, violent, sexual world. I don’t know that we do anything to deal with those things by avoiding them altogether.
This is why so many of Thomas Kinkade‘s paintings are so cheesy, kitschy, and ugly to me. Sure, they’re “pretty”, but not “beautiful”. There’s nothing “real” about them. They are Edenic escapism to the vomit-inducing core. They’re what one might call “boob-job art”: technically, it’s supposed to look real, but it’s such an unrealistic representation of reality that it just looks fake and not appealing at all. I think he was trying to be like an exhibit I saw earlier this month on the idyllic myth of Arcadia (it was the most terrifying exhibit I’ve ever seen), but it doesn’t work.
Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh on him in particular. Like I said, his paintings are genuinely pretty. He had skill and craft and he knew how to appeal to people’s common sensibilities. But the Story of Christianity is not one in which we return to Eden. The Story is one in which the “stuff” of this world, in all its sin and brokenness, is taken in and taken on the people of God in such a way that it is used to bring the Kingdom of God on earth. The Kingdom of God is the darkest parts of the human world re-purposed for Beauty.
And art has an essential missionary purpose in this. And no, I’m not saying that Christians need to do (as I referenced above) “evangelistic” or “missionary” art. What I’m saying is that all art–done by Christians and non-Christians–glorifies God when it is good more so than when it is overtly “godly“. This is because art is a function of Beauty, and Beauty exists outside of the individual artist. Therefore, Beauty of any kind pleases God.
as Christians, if we are to do this, we need to define Beauty “Christianly”. And when you try to do this, you start seeing that God defines things a little differently than we sometimes do. Who is God’s Beautiful Bride made up of? You and me. What’s God’s chosen, most beautiful book? The Bible. What is the most beautiful event in history? The Cross.
In short, the most beautiful things in God’s eyes are those things that revolve around extreme messiness, darkness, sin, violence, and injustice.
And so the job of the artist is neither to protect people from the ugliness of the world, nor revel in it; it is to use it for Beauty. And it is my contention that you can’t have genuinely beautiful art that is separate from the world or our hearts–both of which are very, very messy.
As an example, watch these two husband/wife argument scenes. One is from the “Christian movie” Fireproof, the second is from the amazing film Revolutionary Road. Here’s an additional Revolutionary Road clip for another example. (WARNING: there’s profanity in both Revolutionary Road clips).
Which clip do you think is more “beautiful”, or which do you think could be classified as “art” (or, the way I like to put it, which one would you call a “film” and the other simply a “movie”)? Would there be an added level of depth if the Fireproof clip had some profanities? Would there be something taken away from the power of the Revolutionary Road clips if the language was taken away? Which has a greater level of transcendence to it? Which is a greater representation and contemplation of the common human condition such that the scene is transformed and transcends into a display of humanity itself rather than simply a set piece to move the plot along?
I think you get where I’m going.
I think Christians, if they are to call themselves artists, have a responsibility to deal with the world as it is and make beautiful things from that. To refuse to do so is a rejection of our calling. And so that’s what I’ll try and do with my writing. Sometimes, the character will not tell me to write him or her saying a bad word. Other times, they will. It is my responsibility, as a writer, to not let my own pre-conceived ideas, values, or narcissism get in the way of the story that’s trying to be told. This is what’s referred to as “artistic integrity”. Christians need more of it, in my opinion. We’ll see what happens.
In conclusion, as I finished this post, I went back and read Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, and was shocked to see how many of these same things he mentions there. They must have buried themselves deep in my psyche when I enjoyed this book so many years ago. I’ll leave you with similar bits of his thought on this subject:
The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim…
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all….
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved….
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
A Little Post-Script: some responses to anticipated objections
Isn’t pure obedience beautiful to God? Yes, but mainly because it is obedience coming from people like us: broken, messy, and sinful. Obedience borne from a sinful soul is beautiful. There is more rejoicing in heaven over ten sinners saved than ten that need no repentance.
Aren’t redemptive, joyful, and happy endings and moments of salvation beautiful to God? Yes, but God often takes the long route to those things, and art often depicts mere glimpses and snapshots along that way. Read Psalm 88. There is darkness, loneliness, and pain–and there’s also no happy ending or “but I trust in God” moment. It ends with “darkness is my only friend”. And it’s done. And it’s in the Bible. And God’s okay with that.
Isn’t overt reference to God beautiful? Yes, but read Esther. God’s not mentioned once there. And in fact, Esther herself, though extolled in the story as a saving grace to the Jewish people, is such a bad Jew. She breaks many dietary laws throughout the story. She never once prays, worships, goes to synagogue, or spends any time with other Jews. She’s also deceptive, selfish, and is chosen to be the queen mainly because she’s so good in bed (before they’re married, I might add). Seriously. Read the story. And she’s never condemned for these things in the story. And it’s in our Bible. And God finds it beautiful. (By the way, that doesn’t mean that those things are suddenly okay, just that God’s not afraid to use sinful things in his art. A lack of condemnation in artistic expression does not equal license to do it.)
Are you saying that all Christian art is bad? Honestly, I don’t know how you would define art as “Christian” in any meaningful way in the first place. As Wilde says above, there’s no such thing as moral or immoral art (and I would go on to add “Christian” or “Un-Christian”), there’s just good art and bad art. We’ve already talked about how it’s not a matter of that which “glorifies God”, because all Beauty does that regardless of source or explicit-ness. If you paint a picture of a puppy in a field, I don’t know why you should have to draw a Bible verse on it to feel like it’s honoring to God or appealing to Christians. Art should be able to stand on its own. To imbue that in our creations is part of what gives us dignity as humans made in God’s image. He’s given us the right to make things that stand on their own merit without tethering them to some verse or moment in redemptive history. So, yes, if you unnecessarily import religious content or themes into your work just to make it “Christian”, then you have defamed your piece to the point of making it “bad” art. In my opinion.
Isn’t this just grounds for a self-justifying free-for-all when it comes to language? Yes and no. First, the words need to be appropriate to context. The word “profane” comes from the greek meaning “outside the temple”, and “obscenity” comes from words meaning “off stage”. And so these words already have certain contexts built within them, and are meant for private use in our general lives. The problem comes when there is art trying to depict or speak to our private lives. It should use the real words and actions of real private life to form that art with integrity. To use too much profanity is not “real”. It’s over-the-top and distracting, and so leads to bad art just as much as syntactical sanitation. It is a sin of art to either neglect or revel in the darkness of this world. The Cross is a wonderful model for this.
But doesn’t the Bible say we shouldn’t say bad words? No. I go into this a little in the original cursing article linked to above, but actually, the Bible doesn’t talk about “bad words”. “Cursing” is actually a very poor word to be using in this post, because the Bible’s references to “cursing” have nothing to do with cultural “bad words”. “Cursing” is, literally, laying curses upon people. And, interestingly enough, the Bible’s prohibitions against this are not because the words themselves are bad or it’s mean or it’s inappropriate; it’s simply because our God doesn’t work that way and so to curse is to portray incorrectly who God is and how he works. Further, words that are culturally considered “bad words” are used in the Bible by biblical authors in the Old and New Testaments, albeit infrequently, and in moments of intense emotion requiring the added emphasis that “bad words” supply. Lastly, the other references to foul talk and coarse language are all references to language that divides rather than unites. It’s about the type of speech one uses, not the particular words. There is much freedom to use whatever language is appropriate for the moment, as long as it is in love, and unites and builds up.