11 Criteria for Judging the Arts
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, but 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Echoes of Eden
Art is all around us, but few people truly understand it. Barrs helps readers evaluate and define great art through an investigation of the work of Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, Shakespeare, and Austen.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
Adapted from Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature and the Arts by Jerram Barrs.
For a more in-depth look at these criteria and other reflections on Christianity and the arts, learn more or preview an excerpt.