Archives For The Arts & Culture

The Apologetic Value of Beauty

Mark Beuving —  February 11, 2014

Whenever I teach on the relationship between Christianity and art, there are always questions about how evangelistic our art should be. Christians are commanded to communicate the gospel. And art is a means of communication. So shouldn’t we be putting crosses in our paintings and verses in our poetry? Shouldn’t our literary characters be converting and our film characters be preaching?

One factor that often gets overlooked in these discussions is the nature of beauty as God himself formed it. When God created the word, he made it beautiful. Overwhelmingly so. There is beauty at every turn. There is beauty that literally brings us to tears. There is beauty that makes us stop and contemplate. Beauty is everywhere in the world that God made.

But why did God make his world beautiful? For example, why should lilies be beautiful as opposed to merely functional? The answer seems to be that God is a lover of beauty. As many have said throughout the years, beauty needs no justification. We don’t need to explain why the world should be beautiful. Why shouldn’t it be so?

But there is also an apologetic function to the beauty that God made. In other words, beauty is a tool for evangelism, for pointing people to God.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

The artistry in the created world reflects the God who crafted it, and it does so to such a great extent that David can say that it declares and proclaims God. Paul says something similar, and even goes a bit further:

“What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19–20)

Paul is saying that everyone knows the truth about God. Sure, they’ll deny him. But deep down, they know God. How do they know this? Because God has shown himself to them in the things that he made. When people look at the beauty and grandeur of the created world, they are actually witnessing revelation about God. So evident is God in the beauty of this world, in fact, that Paul says that everyone who sees the created world has no excuse for their disbelief (sorry agnostics).

Christian LilySo here’s my point. God didn’t print Bible verses on flower petals. The beauty of those petals points to God without an explicit declaration of the plan of salvation. So it is with the art that Christians make. The beauty their art embodies points to God, even if John 3:16 isn’t written on the canvas. Beautiful, creative, well-crafted art is evangelistic—even when there is no verbalized gospel presentation.

This is because beauty inherently points beyond itself. Beauty, says N. T. Wright, “slips through our fingers.” We try to photograph it, to paint it, to record it. And we genuinely cherish and enjoy these beautiful expressions. But even so, the beauty embodied in our art does not fully satisfy our itch. And for Wright, this reveals something about beauty itself:

“The beauty sometimes seems to be in the itching itself, the sense of longing, the kind of pleasure which is exquisite and yet leaves us unsatisfied.”

Exquisite—not banal—pleasure that leaves us unsatisfied. As Ann Voskamp says, “See beauty and we know it in the marrow, even if we have no words for it: Someone is behind it, in it.”

Many Christians choose to talk about the gospel explicitly in their art, and many do this very well. But we sometimes impose upon our artists a Christianese quota that must be fulfilled in every song, film, or painting. And when we do this, we are (inadvertently) demeaning the apologetic value of the beauty that God infused into the most mundane facets of creation. And John Calvin goes so far as to call this sort of undervaluing of God’s diverse work “demeaning” and “reproachful” towards the Holy Spirit.

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The Devil’s Greatest Trick

Mark Beuving —  February 3, 2014

Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That’s not from the Bible, but it is good theology. It’s actually from the 1994 film The Usual Suspects, and it’s a line that has stuck with me.

I say it’s good theology because the biblical authors had to remind us that Satan is real. Paul warned:

“…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11:14–15)

Peter had to remind us that the devil is actively prowling around like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8), waiting to pick off those who are not on their guard.

I like writing about culture. I like seeing the ways that God is working in the “secular” world, the ways his glories are being proclaimed by even the most unlikely suspects. But I have to remind myself, as a coworker reminded me last week, that Satan is in the business of deception, and he’s active in our naïveté and ignorance.

I still believe that “secular” music, for example, often glorifies God. But I also need to heed the biblical warnings that those things that seem innocent, even those things that look like “light,” could be placed there for malevolent purposes. Mercifully, Satan’s worst tactics still end up accomplishing God’s greater purposes—like when Joseph was sold into slavery (see Gen. 50:20) or when Satan killed Jesus (see Acts 4:27–28). Even so, we need to keep Paul’s warning always in mind:

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

Making Sense of the Grammys

Mark Beuving —  January 28, 2014

This year’s Grammy Awards (the 56th) has caused quite a stir. On some level, the Grammys are always a big deal. It’s got to be one of the most viewed, most diverse, most star-studded concerts every year. The event inherently celebrates God’s gift of music, and that aspect of the event glorifies God. Then there’s the quantity of famous people attending, performing, and award-receiving, so the event is bound to be big every year.

But this year was more stirring than most. Here are a few of the crazier highlights.

Katy Perry performed her song “Dark Horse” in a particularly satanic manner. She emerged from a crystal ball to dance on stage wearing a red cross in front of demons and other black-clad dancers imitating a human sacrifice. It was dark. The thing is, the song itself isn’t this crazy. It references magic in the chorus, but it’s referenced metaphorically. So in her choice to make her performance focus on witchcraft, I think Katy Perry was simply playing with that metaphor:

“So you wanna play with magic
Boy you should know what you’re fallin’ for
Baby do you dare to do this
‘Cause I’m comin’ at you like a dark horse”

She’s using the concept of “magic” as a metaphor to say, “don’t get in over your head by getting involved with me.” I really think it’s that simple. Unfortunately, she illustrated that metaphor so vividly that even the non-conservative media outlet E! Online tweeted: “Um, did we just witness actual witchcraft during Katy Perry’s #Grammys performance?” That definitely made for some dark viewing.

Then there was Beyonce, joined by Jay-Z, performing “Drunk In Love”—a pretty filthy song—in the most trashily scandalous way imaginable (in my opinion). It was crazy, and played its part in turning a potentially classy event into something awkward at best and sleazy at worst.

But probably the most talked about aspect was Macklemore’s song “Same Love.” The song bashes the church for being hateful and intolerant, bashes hip-hop for the same reason, and proclaims that:

“Whatever god you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love”

Then Queen Latifah walked out, pointed out the 33 couples lining the aisles—many of them homosexual couples—and performed a 40 second marriage ceremony in which no vows were exchanged, no names were mentioned, and rings were hastily shoved onto fingers.

Now, here’s the thing. I love music. I love “Christian” music. I love “secular” music. I love the celebration of music that the Grammy Awards represents. But does all of this make me love the music world less?

No. I think there are reasons for the craziness of the Grammys. One primary factor is that while the Grammys intend to honor genuine musical excellence, the actual award ceremony is about entertainment. All of that stuff is great for ratings for the Grammys and the TV network, and the media buzz is great for record sales for the artists involved. Even after such a controversial performance at the VMAs, Miley Cyrus explained at New Year’s that it’s been a great year for her. She got a lot of heat, but celebrity is celebrity, record sales are record sales.

So even if the show itself got out of hand, I don’t think that devalues the music that ties all of these diverse people together.

And while some music and musicians are inherently dark or sexual or propagandistic, the Grammys still represent many thoughtful, earnest, and creative musicians. I’m not surprised by the sexual content in some of the songs, like Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love.” One reason I’m not a huge fan of rap/R&B is the persistent focus on licentious sex, fame, and wealth (though I’ll be quick to point out that not all of it is that way). But Taylor Swift was also there as a more wholesome alternative, and Lorde won Song of the Year for a song denouncing licentious sex, fame, and wealth.

I don’t endorse gay marriage (for a balanced and helpful discussion of this issue, click here), but I do think people like Macklemore should be free to explore that concept and sing about it. What I disliked about that song and the surrounding performance is the propagandistic nature of it. There’s no subtlety. It’s not pushing the listener to reflect. The message is just there in your face, which I think devalues it as art. And by the way, this is a problem that I have with most Christian music. So many Christian songs are not contemplating life, they’re not encouraging reflection. They’re just stating their message sermonically. This makes these songs great as sermons and weak as art (in my opinion).

So I’m not turned off to music because of Macklemore’s performance. He’s not the first to give a sermon set to music, nor will he be the last. The world eats this stuff up. We eat it up. It’s great to have something to be angry about. What saddens me is that the focus is taken off of the music, which the Grammys are meant to celebrate. It takes the focus off of the thoughtful musicians who are consciously or unconsciously glorifying God by using the gifts he has given them and reflecting the creativity God implanted within them. Music is still a precious gift from God, even if its award shows get out of hand.

Thank God for J. K. Rowling

Mark Beuving —  January 27, 2014

“Christians should thank God for J. K. Rowling and for her clear presentation of the central values that are at the core of Christian faith and practice.”

That’s not my statement, though as I’ll explain I agree with it enthusiastically. That statement comes from Jerram Barrs, in his excellent book Echoes of Eden. Barrs is not an immature culture junkie. He’s not a hipster twenty-something trying to convince teens that Jesus is cool and so is he. No, Jerram Barrs is an older gentlemen. A scholar. He’s the Resident Scholar at the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he teaches apologetics and outreach. So one might ask how a serious scholar can honestly thank God for books that many Christians have denounced as satanic.

I’ll address the concerns about occultism in a moment. First let me explain why I love these books so much, and why a scholar like Jerram Barrs is equally enthusiastic. I read the whole Harry Potter series twice in 2013. They were good for my soul. They were entertaining, yes, and millions of children and adults lugging these lengthy volumes around and becoming passionate about reading for the first time proves this fact. But these books are deeply touching and inspiring.

I have been asked if I can honestly say that I love Jesus more after having read these books, and I don’t hesitate to answer: absolutely! The books don’t use Jesus’ name, but by living within these stories I am a better person and a greater lover of Jesus Christ.

Jerram Barrs read the last book six times in the six months following its release and says:

“I found myself weeping with joy many, many times as I read and reread this wonderful reflection on the work of Christ.”

Here’s a brief rundown of the storyline that will show why this book is more overtly Christian, in my opinion, than The Lord of the Rings series and more powerfully Christian, in my opinion, than the Narnia series. [And by the way, serious spoiler alert!]

The Dark Lord, Voldemort, rises to power, himself consumed with evil and spreading evil throughout the world, turning the wizarding world from the good use of magic to the evil abuse of it. Intriguingly, Voldemort is connected with the image of a serpent. Then a prophecy is made, declaring that a child would be born who would be Voldemort’s demise. Voldemort tries to kill this child, Harry Potter, in infancy, and in trying to destroy the child he loses his own powers.

Voldemort eventually regains his power and tries repeatedly to kill Harry, only to find that Harry is powerfully protected by the self-sacrificing love of his parents, his friends, and even the lowly and marginalized toward whom Harry directs his own self-sacrifical love.

Harry eventually discovers that the only way to destroy the Dark Lord is to willingly offer himself as a sacrifice for the sake of his friends. When Voldemort kills Harry, Harry finds (in a chapter that is entitled, remarkably, “King’s Cross”) that he can now return to put the nail in Voldemort’s coffin. He returns and defeats Voldemort—not by issuing the deadly killing curse, but with the use of a disarming spell that causes Voldemort’s own killing curse to rebound upon himself and thereby rid the world of his evil presence.

The Christian parallels are unmistakable. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that she is a Christian, and she worships at the Church of Scotland. If Christians could only come to terms with their suspicions regarding the fictional presence of magic, they could find themselves greatly enriched by these wonderful stories.

I am sympathetic towards those who choose not to allow their children to read these books out of concern over the use of magic. But J. K. Rowling insists that she is not interested in the occult and had no intention of promoting it through Harry Potter. I think we should take her seriously, and I do not think these books promote the use of magic in the real world. I encourage you to take a look at my thoughts on the matter.

But here’s the point. Fiction is powerful stuff. Everyone is eating up these powerful stories. Seriously. The last of the Harry Potter books sold 11 million copies within 24 hours of its release, making it the fastest selling book of all time. The books have reportedly sold over 400 million copies. The last of the Harry Potter films also became one of the highest grossing films in box office history.

People can’t get enough of these stories. They may not know why they find Harry Potter so compelling, but we as Christians know a powerful part of the answer: at their core these stories relate integrally to the greatest story ever told. Do not violate your conscience, but if you find yourself compelled, I encourage you warmly to pick up book 1, read it eagerly and with discernment, and see if you find the Christian nature of these books as compelling as Jerram Barrs and I do.

My girls loved Frozen. I loved Frozen. It was a great story that carried great lessons. It was also funny and entertaining. Ultimately, I loved it because it conveys a powerful message about personal growth and fighting for love. And perhaps the best part is that the type of love most exalted in the movie was that between two sisters, rather than romantic love, which triumphs in most Disney movies but actually gets ridiculed a bit in this film.

But Frozen also carries a warning about the importance of stories. Of whole stories. Of individual pieces of stories being set in their proper context.

My daughters love the song “Let It Go,” which is the most compelling song in the film. So we downloaded the song and have been listening to it. On repeat.

Here’s the trouble. The song features these words:

“It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrongNo rules for me
I’m free!”

Before you stress out too much, let me assure you that Disney is not denying absolute truth here. Nor are they trying to teach our kids to disregard rules. But this song illustrates the need for stories and context.

In the context of the overall story, this song fits in perfectly. The character (Elsa) has been repressed, she’s had to live a lie, and at this point in the film, she “lets go” and finally owns up to who she is. It’s actually a freeing point in the story, and in some ways a truly healthy development. But as the phrase “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” illustrates, she carries her authenticity too far and her desire to stop restraining herself ends up hurting herself and many others.

So in the movie, the naïve folly in these lyrics gets exposed, and she learns to be herself within the context of right and wrong. The film sorts all of this out in a powerful way.

The problem is created by the fact that this song is too good. It’s the standout single. So people (like my family) are going to buy this one song and listen to it apart from its story, apart from its context. And as a stand alone single, it’s implying that freedom comes from shirking rules and denying the distinction between right and wrong.

To be clear, Disney isn’t implying this, because they created that song for its context in the story. But listeners will infer it because they’ll be listening to the song without regard to its context.

There’s no villain here. It doesn’t upset me at all. But it struck me as a good reminder. Now, my oldest daughter is 4 years old, so we’ve haven’t been able to have a deep talk about relativism and how one might mistakenly infer this worldview from the song she loves. If you have older kids, you may want to have a conversation like that. But for me, it stood as a reminder of how important stories are.

It’s not the individual elements that make a story good or bad, it’s the relation of the characters and events to the overall plot. This is as true of stories in the Bible (like David and Bathsheba) as it is of Disney films. So go ahead and enjoy your favorite scenes and singles, but make sure you pay attention to the whole story.

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