[Originally posted on September 18, 2013]
I was in a Christian Art Gallery. The place was packed wall to wall with people. There was nowhere to walk never mind sit. The panel consisted of a theatre prof, a literary prof, and an art critic. The topic was “Does Art Matter?” and from the full attendance Christians are wondering that exact question.
After the main series of questions it was opened up to the floor. I asked the question I have been struggling with for over a year:
As a Christian who is an artist, are there (or should there be) limits to my artistic expression?
What I mean is: is there subject matter that is off limits, or expression of subject matter that is off limits because I have a Lord and I am not my own.
Based on the people approaching me afterwards, I am not alone in asking this question.
I am a Christian and I love video games. I love all kinds of games (well, maybe not sports unless they are electronic). I love them so much I make video games. So this question is not theoretical for me, it impacts virtually every decision I make at my job. You may not be on the creation side of video games, but that doesn’t mean this topic is theoretical for you. Many Christians are asking what types of video games are OK to enjoy and what should we steer clear from. If God outlined boundaries to sex, worship, and speaking in tongues, maybe he has something to say on video games too.
Now here is a secret: I think it’s the wrong question to ask what video games we should consume. I think the answer lies in a better question:
What video games can or should we create?
I believe there is a logical inconsistency in consuming something I wouldn’t proudly put my name on making. To separate consumption from the creation question is to create a fabricated middle ground of “Well, I think as a Christian it is wrong to make <thing>, but I sure do like it!”. Let’s try it out:
“I would never make the movie SAW, but I sure do like it!”
“I would never make the tv show Game of Thrones, but I sure do like it!”
“I would never make the game Duke Nukem Forever, but I sure do like it!”
How far is too far?
As an artist, I am trying to create an emotional reaction within the viewer/player. Perhaps my story is one of heroism against great odds, or the tragedy of loss in this broken, broken world. As I walk through this world, I see a place that cares little about means and much about ends. For instance, Steve Jobs was a mean spirited tyrant who treated his employees and children like crap, yet is celebrated as a great American hero. As I read the scriptures I see a God who is much less concerned about ends and very concerned about means. Meaning, God doesn’t care how much money you make or how many employees you have, but he is very concerned with how you treat people (neighbors, employees, family members) along the way. In fact, if you lose your shirt and love people well along the way, you could well be in God’s hall of fame. I do not want to be accused of overstating this. God does care about ends: it doesn’t matter how nice Jonah was to the sailors when he left Tarsis, God still wanted him in Nineveh! I’m simply trying to purposefully raise means from our cultural standard of being unimportant to God’s standard of very important.
So in my game I may want the player to feel happiness, power, shock, excitement, or even repulsion. The means by which I do this is where Christ’s headship becomes important. Now at this point, the reader who is looking for a hard and fast rule about how much skin or what kind of language is appropriate is going to be very disappointed. I don’t have one. That’s because I don’t believe there is one. I believe God purposefully left things out of the bible (at roughly 2,000 pages you wouldn’t think that at first blush). This is only because we do not follow a religion of rules where everything is nicely laid out for us. If you really want that, go be a Muslim. God told us everything we needed to know up front, and left the rest up to relationship. The bible is not a replacement for God, it points to him. Shocking as it is, we have to actually go and ask the King, not just read his edicts. God delights in conversation with us and so I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.
For those who think the above conclusion is still a little too theoretical, here is the most helpful principle I can provide for both the creator and consumer of media. In seeking God’s will we can use how he conveyed his message in the bible as a guide. I’m talking about his means of communicating with us. As disappointing as this is to hear, I am not a greek or Hebrew scholar. But I am told by scholars that God uses some fairly rough language and scatological humor in parts of the old testament. I find this surprising and intriguing. On the other end, notice how God describes the seduction of David by Bathsheba (or if you prefer, Bathsheba by David). Bathsheba is bathing naked on a rooftop where David can see her. I find this scene erotic. David in passionate lust calls her over to his house and they get it on. Notice how God outlines an erotic scene, but doesn’t zoom into gory details of what positions they used, how many orgasms there were and by whom, or the things they said to each other during. God shows a restraint I just violated. As artists we have a responsibility to means.
As an artist I explore subjects through my art. Just as an academic performs meticulous research reading on a topic, the artist explores an idea through the art. This is confusing to non-artists, as their assumption is once a person understands a topic well then they produce the art. I think good art questions. I know this to be true of my favorite songs.
So if art is questions (which may or may not contain answers), I do not see limits in subjects I can explore through and with my art.
Now my first inclination was this cannot be true. With a fallen nature that cannot be trusted, I may think there are no limits, but if only I was more divinely led I would find them. Well, I tried very hard to think of a question God considers off limits. David was so angry he wanted his enemies slaughtered in Psalm . The captive jews nursed their pain by imagining their captor’s children being dashed against sharp jagged rocks. Song of Solomon contains some fantastic metaphorical erotica. These are just some examples where I thought “A ha! I’ve got it!” only to realize God beat me to the subject first.
I think how the question is asked is important (see means above) but where it ends is also important. I’m not suggesting every artist must have an answer, but asking a question and implying there IS no answer (generally a secular approach) to there is no answer we can understand now (a Christian conclusion on many fronts) are subtly but significantly different. Because the world has so few answers, they glorify the question. It is all they have. A song about injustice railing against the world simply ends, no indication anyone even cares about the cry of the heart.
So let’s take a sample subject of the life of a child prostitute. Whether it is a novel, movie, or interactive video game, I do not see a reason I cannot explore through art the day to day reality of this most unjust and destitute life. The disconcerting aspect of art is that it puts flesh on ideas and make them a reality for us. It’s one thing to talk about child sex trafficking, it’s another to play a game where in the first level your parents take you on an exciting journey to the big city only to find out they just sold you. In the second level in first person perspective you are beaten, screamed at, and injected with drugs. Then to graduate to level three where you are forced into sexual encounters with depraved grinning men. Imagine your “boss” in the game says if you earn $1,000 US you’ll be freed. And you play and get close, hopeful you can save this character from these terrible circumstances, only to find out you’ve been sold to someone else and you start back at 0.
Let’s assume, for this example, that this game is very graphic as well. I’m fairly certain if I actually made this game my wife, my friends, my church, and the world would be in shock further punctuated that it was made by a Christian! And this is where we get to what I have found to be the most helpful principle: the artist has no limit in what he explores, but there is definitely limits in terms of audience. Not all art is for all people. I take this to the logical conclusion that there is some Christian made art so honest and visceral that it is only for an audience of one: God.
And this makes sense to me in my experiences of life. There are movies I enjoy that are wholly inappropriate for my young daughter. There are movies I think may be appropriate for criminologists, but are wholly inappropriate for a broad audience. In a counselling session the door is closed. This is not just for the protection of the speaker, but the protection of the listener. There are some things I simply can’t handle hearing.
And this is where I think the Christian artist differs greatly from the world’s artist. The world takes any shocking piece of art, and throws it on a world stage for all to see. Voyeurism predominates our media consumption. I argued this point recently with a young singer/songwriter about Eminem’s music. In Eminem’s lyrics he vents terrible anger towards his mother and fantasizes about killing her in many horrific ways. The musician told me that is his art and he is free to do as he pleases. I have to concede, if Eminem is exploring his feelings and experiences from a terrible childhood, he can do so. But the second part of releasing it to the general public is where I say he shouldn’t have done so.
Is it good?
I believe we are called to quality and excellence in all we do, artists and non-artists alike. But that is not what I mean by our terrible English word good. I mean good in the sense of honoring, pleasing, accurate to God and his character. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder excellence is in the eye of the critic.
I like mafia movies. From Godfather, to Goodfellas, Blow, Heat, to Casino, I just can’t get enough. What do I like about them? I find it fascinating to explore what it is like to live in utter disregard for God, his laws, and guidance. To take everything God has given and completely reject it. Mafioso are the real atheists of our time, Dawkins is just pretending at it. Yet these mobsters are living in God’s universe with immutable moral laws, one of them reaping and sowing.
So while at the beginning the mobsters have all the money, and the best suits, and best food, and pretty ladies, and cheat on those ladies with other pretty ladies, basically just pursue pleasure to the hilt, there comes a point where the reaping begins. The heat of the cops comes closing in, rival families take revenge, relationships built on lies, crumble. In the end, in the movies I mentioned, the house built on sand collapses and the criminals are either dead, or alone and miserable (and maybe even repentant).
The mob movies I mentioned I consider good. I cannot think of a better way to demonstrate, in only 2 hours, the wide road Jesus said ends in destruction. Mob films hold up a mirror to the prevailing logic of our time that the pursuit of pleasure is the best way to live. My King says it isn’t! So I think we should be showing mob films in our churches, having discussion groups with the youth, and embrace and utilize this art!
Now there are mob/gangster films I have seen that are not good. They show the mobsters getting away with it all (at least in this life), no scars, and enjoying where they end up. This is a lie straight from the pit of hell! It is no different than the lies about God in The Davinci code.
As I write this, Grand Theft Auto V is weeks away from release. Everywhere in the video gaming world is plastered with V’s. I purposefully chose a crime “simulator” as my movie example. I want to show art about crime can be God honouring or it cannot. I believe a Christian can make an excellent crime game, as long as they are answer the question: is it good? I therefore believe a Christian can play a crime game if it passes the question: is it good?
I hope I have been honest I do not have this all nicely wrapped up in my mind. This article represents my thoughts thus far on where the Christian has responsibility as a creator, and therefore a consumer, of artistic expression.
The idea of responsibility is an entirely Christian one. We are no longer our own master’s, we do not get to call all the shots. We have a King we swore allegiance too and he gets to decide. So, we are accountable to him. This couldn’t be more different than the spirit of our age which is accountable to no one (except maybe the dollar).
I think God, as the first artist, has given us free reign on the questions of life that can be explored. How those questions are explored is between me and God. Growing up in North America, the level of violence I can experience without phasing me is unfortunately high. A European Christian would be in shock as they are far more sensitive to it. A hard and fast rule in Toronto may not be true in Warsaw. A rule in 2013 may not still hold true in 2063. I think we are wasting time and asking the wrong question in looking for rules. We should be humbly led by the Lord on acceptable means. I struggle with different temptations and sins than someone else. Maybe a movie/game that is perfectly ok for them is not for me. I’m sorry if I’m the first person to point out there is a certain level of relativism in relational Christianity. Creating white lists of “these are the only kinds of games Christians can make or play” or black lists of “these are the kinds of games Christians cannot play” is to do something I don’t see God doing.
When we create our art, we have a responsibility to our audience. The more visceral, raw, untamed the exploration is, the smaller the appropriate audience is. I find it sadly ironic how movie directors, actors, and video game makers don’t want their children to consume their art but it’s apparently ok for my kids!
And finally, as Christians, I believe we have a responsibility to make good art. Not just excellent but honoring to God. Pointing to him and his character in some way, either overtly or subtlety. It need not be any more complicated than a story where the bad guy gets his just end. This honors God and his law of reaping and sowing.