Art's Desire: Responding to Film and Literature

This is the first in a series of six posts, which was first published as an article in Anvil journal, Volume 28 No 3 (November 2012), and is published here by kind permission of the editor.

© Humberto Marum. Used under a Creative Commons licence

Reflecting or shaping?

Marvin doesn't like living in a media-dominated world. He doesn't watch television, avoids the cinema, shuns social networking and only reads non-fiction. He's on the sidelines of contemporary culture, but firmly believes that the world is in steep moral decline and desperately needs the gospel.

Zoë loves arts and media; her leisure time is packed with music, films, books and Facebook. She feels that traditional models of church are outdated and irrelevant, and that Christian gatherings should be creative, and unthreatening to people who don't share our faith.

These are not wildly extreme views, but nevertheless, most of us are somewhere between the two. Perhaps we feel some sympathy with both perspectives. What Marvin and Zoë both realise is that the defining feature of our society is the media. However hard we may try, we cannot insulate ourselves from the entire culture.

The media shape our attitudes, priorities and perspectives. Media producers often claim they simply hold a mirror up to society. In some ways they do, but it's a distorting mirror which shapes as well as reflects. We tend to assume that what we see on our screens is normal, and subconsciously we start behaving in similar ways. As Marshall McLuhan once shrewdly observed (drawing on Psalm 115:8), 'We become what we behold.'1 If the media don't strongly influence our behaviour, why did UK advertisers lobby so hard for the lifting of the ban on television product placement?

Quite how media and art affect us, though, can be hard to fathom. It is not simply an intellectual matter, though that is certainly a core part of it. No, their impact goes much deeper. Art -- whether visual, narrative or musical -- stirs our emotions with a force that statements of fact rarely achieve. We can be profoundly moved by something without being able to articulate a single thought about it. Our response to art is not irrational, but something besides rational thought is at work (the term nonrational seems too negative; perhaps pararational would be more useful). Since the Enlightenment, western culture has tended to over-emphasise reasoning and evidence, while downplaying emotions and spirituality. This infected the Church too, which has profoundly shaped our attitudes to creative expression. At a psychological level, this was a disastrous mistake, since humans are not (or shouldn't be) divided beings.

The image of the Creator

It is also mistaken at a theological level. The opening chapters of Genesis are vital for understanding what it means to be human. The most fundamental thing they tell us is that we are made in God's image (Genesis 1:27). There are many aspects of what that means, but one stares us in the face from Genesis 1. Dorothy L. Sayers, in her book The Mind of the Maker, writes:

Dorothy L. Sayers (image from Wikipedia)[Had] the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote [about human beings being made in God's image]? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the 'image' of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, 'God created'. The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.2

If all we knew about God came from Genesis 1, we would value creativity much more highly than we do. Of course, we do have much more revelation in the Bible, so the nature of the image of God is clearly much more complex, and it would perhaps be unwise to argue that creativity is the foundational aspect of humanity. Nevertheless, we must take seriously that this is the first aspect of God that we learn about in Scripture.

Sub-creators

This has enormous implications for understanding culture, especially the arts and media. It means that all human creative endeavours are echoes of God's creativity. Our culture-making activities derive from our nature as bearers of God's image. Our appreciation of good things in culture reflects God looking at creation and recognising it as 'good'. Christians, of all people, should be celebrating culture, not condemning it. There is even a sense in which art and culture declare our glory as sub-creators who bear God's image, in a reflection of creation declaring the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). So art that is done in the most authentically human way brings some glory to the artist who made it, but even more glory to the One who created the artist.

This is, of course, why art has always been important, even in those periods when dry rationalism has prevailed. Whatever worldview dominates a culture, its members are still human, with profound spiritual, emotional and aesthetic needs. Art is a fundamental expression of the image of God, and we ignore it at our peril. We should value it much more highly than the Protestant church has tended to in the past.

All this challenges Marvin's negativity about the media. There are clearly bad things about it, but there are also things to celebrate, and it is a fertile area of common ground with those who don't share our faith. Zoë, however, is good at celebrating culture, but she has an inadequate appreciation of Genesis 3, which is also vital for a robust theology of art.

Read Part Two in this series of six posts

Footnotes


  1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1st MIT Press edition (MIT, 1994), p. 19. 
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, (London: Methuen, 1941), chapter 2, 'The Image of God'. 

Image credits (from top)

Humberto Marum. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
Privacy policy
searchclose linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram