the dangers of art and a Christian hermeneutic

By September 6, 2008

Thank you for your kind intro, Chris. What follows is a general response, or superstructure, to eight points Matt B. wrote for his discussion group, which he will be posting soon:

Art is dangerous. The person who fully engages with any piece of art runs the risk of being changed/transformed in fundamental ways. And many times we don?t control the ways in which we are transformed (both good and bad). I am a passionate proponent of art, not opponent as these statements might make me sound. We should be wary of those who uncritically guard against such transformation through blind prohibition of certain kinds of art. Such prohibitions can arise out of fear. But we should also be wary of artworks that offer transformation carte blanche, without discrimination, to people who may be more or less prepared to undergo or capable of undergoing these transformations.

Matt?s right. I don?t think what art we choose should be a matter of taste or a mere deferral to a certain kind of morality. It should be a careful decision, one that weighs the danger of transformation on the one hand, and the danger of non-transformation on the other. Now, the danger of transformation may be actual danger, a change that will mar the soul. But often I believe what we perceive as danger is really the prospect of the transformation itself, fear of the unknown, fear of receiving God?s grace, which often comes in untimely ways and unbecoming guises. Transformation is terrifying, especially when it requires that we surrender a well-loved part of ourselves, a treasured preconception, an illusion of ipseity (selfhood) to the advancing alterity (otherness).

We are afraid of the Other and believe we can keep him at bay. In our flight from violent transformation through exposure to the Other (often violently enacted in movies, books, artworks) we do ourselves great harm. In art as in life, God often comes to us in the form of a stranger (a shocking scenario, extreme poverty, a prostitute, etc.; Christ himself), and our failure to welcome him essentially becomes a refusal of his grace: ?Divine freedom is such that God may choose a stranger to us to serve as a messenger for us. So to practice hermeneutical foreclosure on the word of the foreigner may well mean turning a deaf ear toward God? (Huelin 228). The line of my argument follows that of Scott Huelin in ?Peregrination, Hermeneutics, Hospitality: On the Way to a Theologically Informed Hermeneutics,? which you can read here.

What do we do, then? We cannot welcome all strangers that come to our door. It is neither practical nor advisable. Some really do mean us harm. How do we discern that which is intended to harm us and that which is not? It is rarely possible to settle the question by an appeal to authorial (used broadly) intent. Since I am speaking from a faith-based perspective here, my answer is the Holy Spirit. Matt already pointed to the fact that human judgment is imperfect and that only God can judge perfectly. But one way to know the judgments of God is through his Spirit. That means there is the possibility of a wide spectrum of judgments. One person might be moved not to read a certain book while another may not feel moved in that way. But the Spirit is not the sole substitute for good judgments of art based on reason, nor for considering the artwork in the context of the demands of its discipline.

Flannery O?Connor was a skilled writer of southern gothic fiction. She was also an ardent Catholic, and devoted her story-writing to exploring violent expressions of grace in the lives of her characters. Because she was a believing artist and wrote a great deal on that subject, O?Connor is a favorite author cited by Mormon literary critics. She had this to say about readers of fiction:

?It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don?t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.<

It is when the individual?s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalized the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost. Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The Catholic fiction writer, as fiction writer, will look for the will of God first in the laws and limitations of his art and will hope that if he obeys these, other blessings will be added to his work. The happiest of these, and the one he may at present least expect, will be the satisfied Catholic reader? (Mystery and Manners 151-52).

So, in addition to practicing what has been called a ?hospitable hermeneutics? (Huelin 234) with the aid of the Spirit, we must be serious students of art. We must hone our judgments to be able to discern when a piece of art is successful according to the demands of its own discipline and when it is not.

Now, this does not completely answer the question of how we choose art when it might offend a certain moral sensibility people might have. On that score, I don?t think we can dictate a certain way of selecting art that will ever satisfy everyone. Metaphorically speaking, there will always be teetotalers, those who avoid even the appearance of evil. But I think what Matt has alerted us to in his theology of art is extremely important. We must be constantly on our guard against slipping into judgments that are mere deferrals to a certain standard of morality, rather than a deeper examination of the divine relationship at stake.

Perhaps a Christian hermeneutical ethic similar to the one I fleetingly mentioned above would both allow for an inclusion of moral considerations but would require a more careful examination of the morals at stake in any given artwork. Such a hermeneutic is one way to evaluate art, and next time, I will look at an important Mormon text: Levi Peterson?s The Backslider.


  1. Thank you whoever formatted this! Just to be clear, the first part is not a quote. It’s still mine. I’m sorry to start en medias res.

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 6, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  2. “It is when the individual?s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life”.

    Does this mean some ‘R rated’ movies can be of value?
    Or, that ‘R rated’, is not a good reason to reject a movie?

    Comment by Bob — September 6, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  3. Whoops – sorry. I’m had a headachy couple of days. What follows are some Barth/Edwards influenced speculations.


    1) It is a feeble view of art that isolates it as a sphere of its own for those who find it amusing. The word and command of God demand art, since it is art that sets us under the word of the new heaven and the new earth.
    -Karl Barth, Ethics (1981) 510.

    2) ‘Word’ is the key, um, word here. The concept is dripping with meaning, but first of all its mere presence indicates to us that art is communication. God’s Word is the way in which he interacts with us; all that we know about God comes through the Word. The Word is always spoken; it is always speaking. The Gospel of John tells us that the Word is Christ, and it is, but it is not only Christ. Christ is its pinnacle, but more, the Word is God as he is in the world; it is the means by which he is made known to us. It is for example the means, as Genesis 1 teaches, by which God makes, thus it resounds through creation and we hear it in the oceans and mountains and sky. And therefore we experience these things as beautiful, because they manifest the divine.

    3) How does the Word in art create a new heaven and a new earth? Because God is not merely manifest through the natural order of things. He is in the sea and sky but he is not to be identified with them; similarly, he shines through the faces of those around us –

    3) But, he is not us and we are not him. We are sinners, fallen and living in a fallen world.

    4) But we are also children of God, and saved of his grace. The natural order is not all there is; that portion of God uniquely manifest in Christ, his Word of grace, transcends and overflows the creation. It makes it holy and sanctified, something more than what was there alone.

    5) There are two types of communication here; one between us and God and one between us about God. The first is our encounter with the Word. And it is a variety of communication that resonates with what some theologians have called the sublime: a means of communication that is fundamentally emotional and psychological; awe, reverence, a sense of contact with something that is other. The sublime is also that sense that allows us knowledge of concepts – love, freedom, sin, grace, and so forth. These things transcend the natural order, but they are also real. They are a priori, existential realities that we encounter in aesthetic ways.

    6) Thus, art is essential. We are capable of producing it because we possess a spark of divinity, we can co-create, tap into the power of the Word and create beauty; we must produce it because we must remind each other of the sublime, that the order of things as they are is fallen and sinful, but that a new world, redeemed of grace and transformed in God’s image, is possible and coming. Thus, art can be sacramental, conveying the grace of God by making us aware of divine realities about God’s love, saving work, and ultimate sovereignty over the universe. It can also be prophetic, speaking God’s judgment to a sinful world and calling us to imagine a new order.

    7) But what is beauty? The presence of God; the reflection of his virtues. The moment in which the light of grace shines through something physical and tangible. Beauty is that quality which we experience as joy, because we recognize our best selves in it.

    8) Problem, and provocative question: Particular examples. How does all this help us decide what movies to see, what books to read, what music to listen to? These are hard questions, because of the inherent limitations of the human condition. All our judgments are flawed; only God judges perfectly. We run the risk of allowing our fallen natures to govern our tastes on one hand, but also of allowing the idolatry of our cultural predilections to blind us on the other. What I propose above, I think, encourages us to separate the question of morality out from that of aesthetics at some level; I would argue that while morality is important, we cannot allow its always temporary and contingent standards to subsume deeper questions of the divine nature and our connection to it. God’s virtues are bound up, I think, most ultimately in the doctrine of the Trinity, of the everlasting relationship among the members of the Godhead. That relationship is about order, faith, trust, and most powerfully love. It is dynamic, alive, a constant and vital exchange. The best art gestures towards these things rather than the artificial standards that overlay but cannot be mistaken for them, toward the reality of a living God in constant dialogue with the world.

    Comment by matt b — September 6, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

  4. #3:This sounds like Plato and Musing. But I admit I slept during that class.
    I think you are saying, I should rely on things higher than artificial standards such as Best Sellers, or ‘R’-rated, in making my Judgments of Art etc.(?)
    I know very little about Art. But I have read many times on these blogs, that Mormons have very poor taste when it comes to Art. Why is that? Why did the Greeks have a better connection with aesthetics, than Mormons?

    Comment by Bob — September 6, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  5. Bob, these are very valuable questions. I would agree that some R-rated movies can be of value and that a certain rating isn?t necessarily a good reason to watch or not watch a movie. But the difficulty becomes how we judge what to watch: is the violence in a war movie gratuitous or a mere representation of reality? For O?Connor, violence could be used as a literary device (not as an end in itself): ?the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him? (Mystery and Manners 114). I think the same could be said about film. And of course I?m not saying people should see all violent R-rated movies because they shouldn?t be squeamish about portrayals of violence.

    As for the question of Mormon aesthetics: I think because Mormons have been cautioned by their leaders so much about what art they should and should not see, obedience rather than aesthetic judgment has become the highest good. We are overly concerned with discerning evil that it is often to our detriment. We lose our ability to recognize grace in what appear to be evil situations.

    Of course, O?Connor has something to say about this too: ?To insure our sense of mystery, we need a sense of evil which sees the devil as a real spirit who must be made to name himself, and not simply to name himself as vague evil, but to name himself with his specific personality for every occasion. . . . From my own experience in trying to make stories ?work,? I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace? (Mystery and Manners 117-18).

    I am sorry to quote so extensively from O?Connor, but she describes so well what I believe to be a right perspective on the function of evil in art. Evil must be put in its proper relationship to grace or else it is evil for the sake of evil. I also think the ability to discern evil in its proper relationship to grace has been lost largely as a result of our popular capitalistic culture. Much of the drive behind artistic endeavors today is an economic one, which often results in the sacrifice of good artistic judgment on behalf of the creators and viewers. I honestly think that when Mormons start living up to the religious and economic counterculture that they should embody they will develop better taste in art. An important topic, but one too extensive to go into here.

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 6, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

  6. Art has no metaphysical meaning….period.

    Comment by PJD — September 7, 2008 @ 10:40 am

  7. #6 “Period”. Too black and white a term for the other terms that are very Gray. ( Art, Metaphysics, and Meaning).

    Comment by Bob — September 7, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  8. PJD, that’s a controversial claim, although I’ll not go down that road.

    Comment by Clark — September 7, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

  9. I guess I am having a problem seeing the “Fine Arts” as “faith-based”, or somehow channeling God’ feelings. They seem more like emotional outlets of those who are inner driven, (even selfish), rather than ones receiving outside inspirations(?)

    Comment by Bob — September 7, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  10. Regarding Bob’s first comment:

    There is much good LDS art – Minerva Teichert, J. Kirk Richards, for example – and much good art by LDS – Nathan Florence, Brian Kershisnik (my favorite), surely many many others. Our aesthetic sense is not crippled simply by being LDS; but the crap you find at Deseret Book might give one the impression that as a people we have very bad taste. Our only defense here, I suppose, is that non-LDS pop culture is equally terrible.

    Regarding the original post:

    This is a fine topic, and a step up from the usual discourse on media consumption among LDS (“No Rated-R!” “Well, what about Schindler’s List?”).

    Elizabeth’s notion that engaging “dangerous” art may lead us to a profound experience of grace resonates over here. Art that takes us to the abyss, absurdity, nausea, or Buddhist-ish suffering before showing us (even mere glimpses of) God, grace, and moksha (release) is the profoundest and most satisfying (cathartic) art. From the canon of uncontroversial material, King Lear comes to mind, if we see beyond the tragedy on its surface.

    But so much from my list of “truth and transcendence via art” would not be welcome in Sunday School, or Family Home Evening for that matter. And Moroni 7 be damned, the same spirit that tells me I may be redeemed in spite of myself is the same that glimpses that redemption in Billy Elliot (R), the Godfather (R), Catcher in the Rye (banned at various times/places), and (towards the social gospel) in Rage Against the Machine (Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics). I cannot honestly deny these edifications without putting others I might describe from the pulpit in jeopardy. But this is only personal narrative so far.

    At the systematic level, I see a need to distinguish between “gratuitous” and perhaps “purposive,” or something like that. As patrons of galleries, libraries and theaters, we have to be able to discern before we consume. The choice between “Harold and Kumar” and “All the President’s Men” (a must-see that is heavy-laden with f-bombs) is plain. But what about media whose virtues are not so apparent from previews or reviews? Are we left to guess and check, or toe the line? “Follow the spirit” is (with respect) a convenient answer, but one that can justify too much or too little. At the same time, I am uncomfortable with letting the MPAA act as my spiritual fiduciary.

    One of you smart folks needs to come up with a Kant-like formula for those of us whose spiritual signals still transmit through rabbit-ear antennae in the age of cable and dish.

    My personal aesthetics favors SUBTLETY over most other artistic virtues (though I will now have to answer to my enjoyment of Kirk Richards’ more daring pieces). Subtlety is where I might begin my analytic of “gratuitous/purposive.” But taste is a tricky thing. Deseret Book sells an awful lot of Walter Raines prints.

    Comment by MTN — September 8, 2008 @ 2:09 am

  11. #10: MTN, I think we mostly agree. I never said Mormon Art was bad, only Mormons in general have poor taste in Art. My sister, in the center of her backyard, has this large bronze turtle with a little boy with a fishing pole sitting on it’s back. She thinks it’s great Art. She said others in her Ward have this bronze Art in their yards.
    I read the opening post to say the “Spirit”, (I may be wrong), will lead to good Art/or cause good Art to be. It seems the best Art in history, came from the secular world(?).
    I have also have often wondered why some of the worst people, liked Art the best? (Think Nazi & Soviet Art).

    Comment by Bob — September 8, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  12. I’m out of my league with this discussion, Liz, but thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Comment by Christopher — September 8, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  13. This is an important discussion because it lends gravity to the process of selecting art, whether for entertainment or learning. We should consider well what we allow to take up our attention, because it makes us. Our brains never take out the garbage, and any evil images, no matter how teaching, will not always reappear in proper context during idle moments. Self-examination and honesty dispel devils.

    I agree that Mormons have poor taste in art, and that this is possibly due to our inherited moral biases and our fear. An example of this is the prohibition of Brian Kershisnik’s Nativity in the Conference Center. One of the most spiritually inspiring paintings I have ever seen could not be displayed there because Mary is depicted nursing Jesus. I do not agree that just because it could make someone uncomfortable, it was a good choice to leave it out of the Conference Center.

    Comment by LJD — September 9, 2008 @ 11:08 am

  14. I live about 5 miles from the Getty Museum. I have taken my grandsons there. I have little hope that they will become Avant-garde…but at least they can say they have some understanding of what is meant by “Good Art”.

    Comment by Bob — September 9, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  15. Neal Kramer explores a similar (as in providing a framework for a “careful examination of the morals at stake”) but rather structural approach in his essay Heart, Mind, and Soul: The Ethical Foundation of Mormon Letters in the special fall 1999 Mormon literature edition of Dialogue.

    Comment by Wm Morris — September 9, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  16. […] Mormun Aht. Ur Overstatin teh potentul. « Mai Christian […]

    Pingback by Mormun Aht. « The Bloggernacle Back Burner — September 9, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

  17. MTN, we cannot claim to believe that there is a prophet of God on the earth and that we receive guidance from him and yet not follow it. The prophet?s counsel is the Lord?s counsel (D&C 1:38). Anytime we ignore the Lord?s counsel, we deaden ourselves to the influence of the Spirit. Therefore, any edification that may be gained by watching a violent movie such as ?Schindler?s List? is negated because we have offended the Spirit. No matter its redeeming qualities, it is damaging to our soul. It is a dangerous line to cross because of the spiritual deadening we experience makes it harder for us to make right choices. Only as we draw closer to the Light may we see to choose. Obedience, not aesthetic judgment must be the highest good.
    The Shakers believed that in everything they did, they should glorify God–whether it was planting their fields or cleaning their houses. They said, ?Hands to work and hearts to God.? If we follow their example with art, either in the creation or viewing of it, we will be safe. We are not honoring and glorifying our God if we go against His wisdom. We should follow what we read in Moroni 7–that which is light is from God. That which is not light is from the devil. We honor God by seeking light.
    LJD, I too was moved by the Kershisnik painting, but the right thing was done. If it could offend others or distract them from the Spirit, it should not be in that house of worship. The number of people who would be offended by Nativity would be minimal, but we serve a Master who leaves the ninety and nine and seeks after the one. Placing Nativity in the conference center would be forgetting the one to please the ninety and nine.
    In short, I do believe that good art will edify and change us. If we follow the Savior and do as He would–glorify the Father–we will inevitably choose the better art. Whether or not that causes our taste to be criticized is of little consequence.

    Comment by DLD — September 9, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  18. If we can’t watch violent movies, then we shouldn’t watch the news either. Life is violent and ignoring that fact is ignoring the essential nature of the world we live in. Yes, we should listen to the prophets, but they aren’t art critics. Not watching R-rated movies is an excellent guideline, and one I believe given to us by the Lord. But people should still be able to judge when a movie is using violence for an instructive purpose or only for the sake of violence. If we can’t do that, then we can’t be responsible partakers of art.

    I too think Latter-day Saints should live their lives like the Shakers (:)), that is, in a way that glorifies God. But merely not watching R-rated movies doesn’t cut it. It involves engaging the world around us, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. How is the sight of war and poverty on the screen different from the sight of war and poverty in real life?

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 9, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

  19. I never said that watching R-rated movies was the key, it was just a highly available example. My main point was that if we live to glorify the Father and have that in our intentions when we do something, it will turn out for our good.

    Comment by DLD — September 9, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  20. DLD, that scripture does not say that the prophet’s counsel is the Lord’s counsel; that strikes me as an idolatrous reading. Rather, it states that if God chooses to speak through his prophets, his Word (in all its senses; see #3) remains effective. Big difference.

    Further, I think you offer a shallow reading of what ‘good art’ is. Mere content does not define ‘good;’ a better, if still imprecise, measuring stick is that to which art directs that content. Violence and pain and suffering are bad things, yes, but it is the paradox of our salvation that God chose such means to save us, and the paradox of our existence that our world and our souls are full of them at the same time that they are struck by the light of grace. The story Christ chose to tell about himself descends below all things; if we seek to simply ignore objectionable content, we are denying our need for salvation as well as the stunning grandeur of atonement. Far better to humbly acknowledge our flaws, and to embrace art that tells the story of transcendence in all its glory than to pretend that salvation is easy.

    Finally, I think you think the Holy Spirit has a much weaker stomach than is actually the case.

    Comment by matt b — September 9, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

  21. Matt,
    1 – do not try and twist my words to say something other than they do. When a prophet speaks as the prophet he speaks for the Lord, it is what He wants us to hear.

    2 – Yes, Christ did descend below all things. But my question to you is, would you live in your own excrement? Why seek that which is worst and basest about the natural man? Christ desceded below all things and suffered so that we would not need to. Why spit in His face and say “I’ll do it myself.”

    3 – If you believe you can blatantly walk in defiance of what the Lord has commanded us and not lose the Spirit, you have either not read the scriptures or have misinterpreted them grossly.

    Comment by DLD — September 9, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  22. DLD, chill out. Disagreement and discussion is allowed and encouraged here, but suggesting that someone has “misinterpreted [the scriptures] grossly” simply because they disagree with you is uncalled for.

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  23. DLD – I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. Let me try to clarify a few things.

    1) The word ‘idolatry.’ I used this because the construction of your sentence placed the prophet in the active and primary role of declarer, and God in the secondary role of affirmer. It seems to me that the reverse is the case.

    2) The story of atonement and redemption is the most powerful of those art can tell. It is powerful to us, and speaks to us, because we are sinners. It teaches us most profoundly about who God is. It is his ultimate work in the world. And, because ours is a fallen world, and we are sinners, that story is shot through with sin. That is the simple truth of our existence, and to ignore sin in art is to produce art that is shallow, meaningless, and does not resonate with the vibrations of God’s cosmos. Now, I should be clear that there is a difference between depicting and advocating sin. But at the same time, the first is not the second.

    3) I’m not sure how I’m defying scripture. Perhaps you could clarify.

    I’ll note further that my first comment was a bit uncharitable toward you, so it’s natural that you’d respond in kind. Hopefully you’ll forgive whatever offense I caused. I’m happy to continue this dialogue (though I’ll be unavailable after tonight), and hope that we could do it in mutual respect.

    Comment by matt b — September 9, 2008 @ 11:47 pm

  24. #17 – I’m always troubled by the “remember the weakest among us” argument. In all humility, my intellect is one of my greatest spiritual weaknesses–sometimes pride, self-righteousness, or simple boredom are my greatest obstacles to feeling the Spirit. That said, it’s admittedly easy to bore me–as soon as the General Primary Presidency starts talking in conference, for example, it’s usually easy for me to tune out.

    So that said, should I insist that all conference addresses refer to Greek tragedy (I recently heard a stake conference talk that did!) or other “smart stuff” simply because I might get bored at hearing another story about pigeons, and might potentially turn away from the Spirit?

    I do see what you’re getting at, but it’s hard to find things that offend zero people. And as I always say to folks: “If everything that we adults consume should also be consumable by children, then that means we should let Primary kids get endowed in the temple, right?”

    Comment by Bro. Jones — September 10, 2008 @ 9:47 am

  25. 17, The Shakers believed that in everything they did, they should glorify God?whether it was planting their fields or cleaning their houses. They said, ?Hands to work and hearts to God.? If we follow their example with art, either in the creation or viewing of it, we will be safe.

    If we follow their example with art, we won’t have any. Or at least none which resembles anything that we today call art.

    Comment by sam — September 11, 2008 @ 9:36 am


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