Do Art and Religion belong together? Or are Art and Religion doomed to war with each other?
That question has fascinated me for years, and is at the core of every blog post I write.
Because I believe that Art matters; that our ideas of what Art should be heavily impact our ideas of who we are.
Consequently, I believe that we, as Artists, have a moral duty to make good Art.
This may or may not be obvious, but humanity’s opinions about Art have constantly shifted throughout history. A quick look at the last ten decades shows that each were marked by distinctly different viewpoints on Art. (It’s all a bit more fluid than we like to admit, but in general each decade was distinct.)
These days, our ideas of Art are still evolving. On one extreme, we have the nearly puritanical Artists who rigidly adhere to a set of structural rules and content restrictions. On the other, you have the post-modernist-type Artists who think Art is inherently meant to break boundaries, and so it should be free, formless, ambiguous.
These two camps, and everyone in between, seem to argue constantly for their vision of what Art should be.
Now, I have my ideas, and they’ll show through fairly clearly in the next 1,500 words, but the point of this post is not to persuade you of my viewpoint of what Art should be, but rather to persuade you that what we think about Art matters.
I find the nearly religious reverence that we hold for Artists absolutely fascinating. We listen to our favorite albums with a burgeoning sense of ecstasy, and talk of Artists as if they were demi-gods. We shake and scream when we meet our “idols.” We want to be like them. We want to be them.
But let’s take a moment to analyze our own emotions over our favorite works of Art. If you’re like me, when you think of your favorite cd, movie, book, painting, etc., you feel that the work matters.
And yet you cannot quite put your finger on why. You know that it’s important, influential, perhaps even awe-inspiring, but to closely define why you feel this way is like trying to take hold of wisp of wind.
In the end, Art seems to be worthwhile simply because it exists. It is like a living thing. An immortal creature crafted by the hands of the mortal.
But that doesn’t quite satisfy our minds because it doesn’t allow for one work of Art to be better or more worthwhile than another, except as judged by an individual’s personal preferences.
And yet we are so convinced that our favorite work of Art is objectively more important than the “hack job” of so-and-so, or the “novice expression” of what’s-her-name, that we would fight someone tooth and nail to prove it.
This is the space my mind has been caught in: how do we know what makes one work of Art better than another? Because if one work of Art is truly be better than another, there must be some identifiable and measurable difference between the two.
Is it possible to isolate and examine the individual pieces of a work of Art without destroying the work’s value as a whole? Is Art, in fact, like a living thing, the dissection of which destroys its goodness, its life?
No. I don’t believe so. In fact, I don’t think that Art is a living thing at all.
I think Art is a mirror.
Think of the Hubble telescope. Through a complex set of mirrors, it collects and reflects light to expand an image of something the naked eye could never decipher. The telescope itself is beautiful, but it only matters in so much as it shows us truths about our universe. Yes, the machine is an immense work of engineering, but to gaze at its innards is to miss the point of why it was created.
In the same way, Art is not the purpose of life. Art is simply a lens we use to examine and enhance our enjoyment and understanding of life. It’s not the mirror that matters. It’s the life reflected that matters. It’s the truth that Art communicates which matters.
Smoke and Mirrors
The problem is that Art can be used to either reveal truth, or to obfuscate it. There are many works of entertainment out there that are created with absolutely staggering skill, but that offer little more than confusion. These works are no more than an elaborate set of smoke and mirrors. Astounding in their ingenuity? Absolutely. Moving in their meaningfulness? Not so much.
There’s nothing wrong with making good entertainment devoid of any meaningful center. But it’s infinitely important that before you consume any form of entertainment, you ask yourself the following question:
Am I looking at my reflection in a dressing room, or in a funhouse?
If you can hear carnival sounds, smell second-hand smoke, and taste funnel-cake on the wind, you’re probably not in the department store.
If you saw someone checking their reflection in a distorted funhouse mirror, and then watched as they proceeded to curl into a corner and weep, what would you do? Would you go over and tell them that what they saw in the mirror was not really them? That it was all just “for fun”?
A funhouse can be completely innocent. But if it confuses real people into seeing only a distorted view of themselves, that same funhouse is no longer fun. Now it’s dangerous.
It’s the same way with entertainment. Why?
Because we’re obsessed with worship.
The only problem is the average Western mind doesn’t realize this. We think that when we obsess over movies or video games, that we’re merely consumers. The thought that we could be idolaters strikes us as ludicrous.
But we’re every bit the same as the Jews who crafted an image of a golden calf at the foot of the mountain while Moses retrieved the 10 Commandments. There’s a reason the first commandment is, “You shall have no other god’s before me.”
Because finding meaning in the beauty we bow to is the most inherently human trait.
Worship is what separates us from animals. Not language, not intelligence, not any other trait. Only worship is distinctly human.
We were made to find ourselves in the ultimate beauty of God. We ourselves are God’s Art—little mirrors of the Almighty, created to reflect and magnify his beauty.
The persuasive power of Art goes undebated. Art is powerful, and we know it. Hitler knew it. That’s why he burned the books that disagreed with his propaganda.
Throughout the years, Religion and Art have had an interesting relationship, sometimes harmonious, sometimes violent. But I firmly believe the reason why many religious people have been afraid of Art is because they knew, intrinsically, that Art is worship, and that what we worship defines us and our views of the world.
Art and Hedonism
The reason why entertainment so frequently devolves into hedonism is because many times it is nothing more than self-worship.
What happens when we worship ourselves? We become selfish and indulgent, our self-worth becomes capped by the height we stand from the ground, and our purpose becomes grounded in personal enjoyment.
What do you get when you place two mirrors opposite each other and aim them directly at each other? Nothing more than an empty hall of mirrors receding infinitely.
What do we see in America, arguably the most media-saturated country in the world? Extremely high depression and suicide rates, and extremely high levels of substance abuse.
Substance abuse, depression, and suicide are all symptoms of emptiness. Jesus said he came that we might have life, and that we might live it abundantly. If you believe him and his claim that mankind’s purpose is to worship our Creator, then you should take Art and its implications extremely seriously.
Jesus said that if your right eye offends you, you should stab it out. What he was saying was that what we consume matters deeply, because what we view impacts what we believe, and what we believe defines who we are.
Yes, I believe Art and Religion belong together. In fact, I don’t believe you can separate them at all.
Art may, at times, be at odds with Religion, but if both your Religion and your Art are founded in Truth, they should be as in sync as a perfect married couple.
Christians should not fear Art. Instead, they should respect and use Art for what it is, an expression of worship. If we don’t? Others will use Art to worship something else, and to powerfully influence others to do the same.
The principal reason real Artists get mad when bad Art gets praised is not jealousy. Instead, it is that real Artists see that Art matters, and that the perversion of Art is dangerous.
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