Sunday, January 15, 2006

Offensive Art

Over at Mark Bertrand’s and at there has been some discussion over Michael Snyder’s short story, “All Healed Up.” The question has been raised over the use of material in the story that could offend people. Having just written a of my own with graphic violence and language, I felt compelled to join the fray.

As , I feel that it is our job to love God and our neighbor with our creation. Often this has been interpreted to mean that we must shield both parties from the evil that exists in this life. But I do not believe that this is true love. An illustration will help me make my point here. Let us say that I am dying of lung cancer. I have spent the last thirty years of my life smoking despite the fact that I knew that it would kill me and hurt others. You are my best friend and will be hurt the most by my death. Considering that I selfishly brought this death upon myself, and deep sorrow upon you, how do you react lovingly to me? If you ignore what I have done and my suffering, you do not love me at all. No matter how wrong I was, no matter how selfish I was, if you ignore my suffering then you are doing a great evil yourself. As Christian artists, if we ignore the realities of this world then we only are suggesting that humanity and its suffering (with or without Christ, for both suffer in this world) is trivial. But nothing could be further from the truth. Separation from God, from peace, from Shalom is a tremendously painful existence. If you add to that the other sorrows of this life (pain, death, finiteness, limited time…etc…) that everyone experiences then you must admit that it is no light thing to exist in suffering.

So, to love someone you must not ignore the sin and sorrow of this life, but if you do not ignore them then you will offend someone with these horrors. If I relate the wretched and tortured existence of a serial killer, I will be treating that person as a person, as valuable. But that story might also be a great offense to others. The key here is balance. We must strive to make art that acknowledges man and his suffering and his fallenness. But not in a way that minimizes the great need for Christ’s intervention. Often when does speak to the human condition, it does so in a didactic manner. Returning to our illustration, this would be the same as coming to me as I am slowly dying and telling me how smoking kills me and suggesting that I should stop. It is not that these things do not need to be said, but that they need to be said with a tremendous love and empathy for the individual. This requires a love that comes from Christ alone. We do not have the selflessness to empathize with others sincerely. We never have and never will without Christ. We must acknowledge and offer hope without trivializing anything. What a challenge. The first step to avoiding offending people with a portrayal of the world, which includes sin and evil, is to be honest. If we are honest about sin, then we will not be glorifying it or cheapening its awfulness. The second step is to judge your audience. Not everyone should take part in viewing/taking-in all . There are some works of art that are too graphic for me. Their presentation of the human body is too vivid. I know that if I watch certain movies I will no longer stay faithful to my wife in my heart. That doesn’t mean that those movies are not great works of art, or that they glorify sin, it simply means that they are too much for me. It is easier for me to say that all art is sin and reject it than it is to be on my knees in prayer for wisdom and discernment. It is easier to love shallow works that do not offend me than those that offend but speak to the human condition. This is because critical thinking is not valued and discernment is often exchanged for legalism. As artist, it is our responsibility to be sensitive, in prayer for discernment, and aware of who will be engaging our art.

In conclusion, I believe that Christian artists have both the freedom and responsibility to make art that does “expose the deeds of darkness” at times, with an honest love for both those in sin and those who will be reading the stories. This balance only comes through prayer and exercise of discernment, and most of all, a true desire to love our God and our neighbor through art.

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