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.