The forces that most influence culture include political, economic, and religious institutions. Are any of these the dominant cultural influence today? Religious influence on American culture is not what it used to be; in fact, we often say ours is a “secular” culture. I knew that politics had lost its major influence on culture on the night back in 1991 or so when Bill Clinton appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone. Since then I’ve been very aware that the institutions built around what we do with our leisure time now have a far greater influence on us than ever before (we’ll call these institutions the entertainment industry which includes anything we do to fill our free time with fun and enrichment). And this is why we need to talk about art.
The Big Influence
Ours is a culture of entertainment. Though other institutions influence us, entertainment takes up large amounts of our time. And though we constantly feel like we never have time to do anything, we make more time to play and have more things to do for fun than most countries in the world today and all the cultures known in history. Even busy people will spend an hour or two in front of the television at night, take time to see a movie or a ballgame, read a book, listen to music, or catch up on a game or with friends on Facebook.
Do we do it the way God wants us to? I do think He wants us to rest (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 16:30). And I think he even wants us to enjoy ourselves and play (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9). I think he wants us to use music (1 Chronicles 16:9), stories (Matthew 13:3), and other arts for worship and outreach as well (2 Chronicles 2:5-7), but my main point here is to say that God wants us to be Christians all the time—when we work, when we serve, and also when we relax and entertain ourselves. In this secular American culture, Christians have to be careful about what we watch, read, listen to and do for fun. God has to be in every part of our lives. This is another reason why we need to talk about art.
The Things We Don’t Know
We also need to talk about art because many Christians don’t know what it is or what it’s for. Now how do I know this? I know it first of all because Christians have not been able to make art powerful enough to have a major influence on our culture for about a hundred years. There have been some bright points, but they were only moments. Christianity dominated European culture for fifteen hundred years, not just through political power and the church, but also through powerful Christian art still visible today. Handel was a pop-star. Shakespeare was the Spielberg of his times. Dostoevsky wrote novels which shut the mouths of atheist philosophers. But our best music today can only be heard on Christian stations (or sometimes country stations). Our books are sold mostly in Christian bookstores or Christian sections of bookstores for no one but Christians. And our movies are seldom watched by anyone, including us.
I’m also certain Christians don’t know what art is for because the way we think about it is wrong. When we bother to think about art at all, Christians constantly approach movies, books, music and other arts asking questions about what truth they teach. This approach matters, but it’s not the most important one to take as I will try to show in future articles. For now take this simple illustration of how wrong we are to approach art by only looking for its truth value: How many of us can honestly say we’re interested in food for its nutritional benefits and nothing else? Can you imagine living a life in which you completely ignore how good or bad food tastes? Nutrition is certainly important, but all of us want our food to taste good as well. Sadly, the way Christians think about art (again, when we bother to) is too much like being the kind of person who doesn’t care if his food tastes good or bad so long as it feeds him. I will explain as this series continues.
We need to know about art because 1. it is a huge cultural influence, 2. because we participate in an entertainment culture inundated by art and need to put God first in everything in life, including our play, and 3. because art is something Christians do not know enough about. Next, we’ll start looking at what art is for and how it works.
Previously published in The Lookout magazine.