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11 Criteria for Judging the Arts

Echoes of Eden Slide

Adapted from Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature and the Arts by Jerram Barrs

Often in magazine articles, on the radio and television, and in the pulpit we find preachers and commentators condemning all sorts of literature, music, visual art, theater, and films. “No Christian should watch this movie . . . listen to this music . . . read this book.” Certainly we should acknowledge that it is appropriate for us to test everything, to hold fast to that which is good, and to abstain from every form of evil, for Scripture commands us to do this. (In the context in 1 Thess 5:20–22, these words of Paul are written about the discernment of prophecy, bu we may quite appropriately apply them to the way we think about the arts as well.)

So, then, discernment is necessary. The question is, how are we to set about the task of testing everything and holding fast to that which is good?

The following are the beginnings of a suggested list of appropriate criteria.

  1. The Presence of a Gift

    Is giftedness from God evident in the work of a particular composer or performer of music, poet or novelist, painter, sculptor, or filmmaker? We should ask this question about the presence of giftedness for all artists, whether Christian or not.

  2. Development of the God-Granted Gift

    We should look for the dedicated development of the artists gift through humble learning from others, through practice, and through faithful application—in other words, through hard work as the artist lives as a good steward of the gift God has given.

  3. Service of Others in Addition to Self-Expression

    Is the artist using his or her gifts for others as well as for his or her own fulfillment? If either the creation of art or its performance is purely self-centered, even a great artist will not reach full potential, for God has made us to be other-centered. This will be true both for believing and for non-believing artists.

  4. Respect for the Traditions of One’s Discipline

    Is there a humble submission to the rules of one’s discipline, respect for its traditions, and a readiness to find freedom of expression within these forms and within the forms of God’s created order? As in every other area of human activity, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and are supported by those who stand alongside us.

  5. The Presence of Truth

    Is this work of art true? In other words, is this work of art in accord with reality? Even when a person refuses to bow before the Lord, he or she must live in the Lord’s world, and so, such a person’s art will have to be in touch with reality at some level, no matter what he or she may claim to believe. In this way, all genuinely great art will appeal universally because of this element of truthfulness to the world as God made it and to the world of our human existence.

  6. Is There Moral Goodness?

    We need to bring any work of art before the bar of moral criteria. I am not suggesting that we can readily judge and dismiss works because they have nudity, violence, explicit sex, blasphemy, or cursing. Our judgments must learn to be wiser than those simple tests. Basically, we must be prepared to ask questions about the moral intention of the artist. Is the purpose of a work to deprave or corrupt? If a work contains immoral behavior or evil, what is the context? It should be evident to us that the Bible contains many accounts of wicked behavior, sometimes very graphically portrayed. Works of art must not necessarily be condemned because they contain such sin and violence; rather, context and intention always have to be considered.

  7. Continuity of Form and Content

    We must ask questions about appropriate continuity between the form and the content of a given work of art. Is the form the artist has chosen one that works with or against the message of the piece the artist is creating?

  8. Technical Excellence

    In art as in any other area of human endeavor, we need to look for technical excellence. For the Christian especially, good work faithfully done is honoring to God. We look for work that is well done, and we find pleasure whenever we come across what is genuinely excellent.

  9. Integrity of the Artist

    How well does the work of art reflect the integrity of the artist? Is the work true to who the artist is? Or is it merely fashionable or commercial, or even false to the artist’s own convictions and understanding? Is there integrity in the heart as one does his or her work?

  10. Integrity of the Work

    Is there integrity in the work itself? For example, we all know that there is a difference between genuine sentiment and sentimentality. This is true in painting, in writing, in music, and in all other artistic disciplines. Does the artist seek to manipulate our emotional response by cheap tricks, or does the artist seek to generate genuine emotional response by the power of the work?

  11. Simply Entertainment!

    Lastly, we should be aware that simple entertainment is fine in almost all the art forms, for God has indeed created us to enjoy his gifts and to enjoy one another’s gifts. Human art, just like God’s art, need not always have a “higher” purpose than enjoyment—ours and God’s. Very often we will watch a movie, listen to music, read a book, or hang a painting simply because we like to do so. What matters here is the purpose or kind of art in question. Does this piece of art succeed, for me, at what it sets out to do?

For a more in-depth look at these criteria and other reflections on Christianity and the arts, learn more, preview an excerpt, or buy now.

 

 

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4 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this article. I like what is said, but I find it a bit frustrating that terms like “must” and “should” are used, but without any context for _why_ the must and should. Why were these 11 chosen, and how do they apply Scripture in a concrete, replicable way. (i.e., how can I show others why, and expect them to understand). Without that, it seems that you are doing the same thing you are criticizing others for (don’t watch this, shouldn’t listen to that, or must not go there…) Again, it’s not that I disagree with the points you make, but it sure would be helpful in teaching to know where you got them. (And yes, I do intend to do some digging myself, and already have my own criteria that I tend to use when discussing these things with others, or for my own and my family’s life). I’d just love to compare and cross-reference. :-)

    Comment by Jon — May 31, 2013 @ 9:39 am

  2. Jon,

    Thanks for your interaction, and I totally agree with your questions about the post.

    The 11 criteria were pulled from a chapter in Jerram Barrs’s Echoes of Eden. To keep the post from getting too long, I had to cut some of the explanations short. In the complete chapter, Barrs offers a more in-depth look at each of the criteria, including the why behind each one and a distinction between healthy critique and a “don’t watch this, don’t listen to that” type mindset.

    Hope this helps!

    -Ted

    Comment by Ted Cockle — May 31, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  3. Thanks for posting this, it’s a book I really need to sit down and read. It really is a blessing of God’s common grace that even those who don’t acknowledge Him can, in some small way, reflect the beauty of their creator. Hell is hell because it is a place cut off from the presence of God, including any vestiges of common grace present here on the earth. There is no beauty, no skill, no evidence of kindness in that place. .oh that more artists would see the logical end to their gifts!

    Comment by ben — June 2, 2013 @ 5:58 am

  4. Thanks for the followup @Ted. It looks like I need to buy the book, and shall be. :-)

    Comment by Jon — June 2, 2013 @ 8:49 am

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