Representing Sin in Christian Art
This past April, a colleague and I drove up to Cleveland to present at a conference, and as part of the festivities we got to attend a reception at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: great food, good music, and a hundred or so uber-nerds crowding the dance floor and rocking out to piped-in Journey songs. Surrounding all this, of course, were dozens of music-themed exhibits, including a rather interesting one on attempts by various legislative and religious groups to censor rock and roll over the years. Their criticisms, I suspect, are familiar to many of us: rockers glamorize immoral behavior, their songs are coarse and often vulgar, and as Audio Adrenaline once put it, “if it’s syncopated rhythm, then your soul is gonna rot.”
Now, I’m not here tonight to argue about rock-n-roll per se, but to point out that this kind of polarizing critique has strongly affected how we conceptualize and classify Christian art, especially in terms of music. If mainstream secular art thrives on nihilistic excess and debauchery—what we would assess theologically as sin and rebellion against God—then its Christian counterpart, many contend, ought to be positive, uplifting, and most of all keep sin safely in the abstract. Consider, for example, a few slogans for explicitly Christian radio stations. WBGL in Champaign, IL declares itself “family-friendly radio” and offers “a positive source of encouragement to family development”; Z88.3 in Altamonte Springs, FL boasts that its selections are “safe for the little ears,” and our own 104.9 The River vows to be “positive, uplifting, [and] encouraging”—even offering “The River Promise” to “keep 104.9 the River a safe place for families.”
Don’t get me wrong here: having at least one station free of the four-letter screamfests populating most of the Top 40 on any given day is a good thing, as is giving parents ways to safeguard their young children from negative influences. But this squeaky-clean version of Christianity glosses over a very important truth: this world, being itself fallen and populated by a bunch of perpetually mark-missing people, is often anything but positive, uplifting, encouraging, and family-friendly. And if Christians are to use art to represent the fullness of creation, the necessity for redemption, and the opportunity for salvation, whitewashing the reality of fallenness both cheapens the art and lends credibility to those who denounce Christianity as fantasy. Human sinfulness—ugly, broken, painful, and yes, sometimes even offensive—is a central part of the entire Scriptural narrative of redemption, and must necessarily be equally central to the work of any Christian artist who hopes to move from warm fuzzies to the actual Gospel.
This often places such artists between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, they seek to represent the physical and spiritual reality of human sinfulness, but on the other hand their audiences have come to expect a positive and uplifting message—and these same audiences make a habit of decrying anything with a hint of immorality as not real Christian art. That’s the problem that I want to focus on tonight. One way to approach it would be to talk about specific content, and the appropriateness or effectiveness of more or less graphic ways of representing sinful acts. For instance, we could look at Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and ask whether the graphic violence was justified; or, we could read Walker Percy’s fiction and ask similar questions about his representations of adultery. However, I want to put a slightly different spin on the question: how can Christian artists—and more broadly, Christians who use any form of culture to make an argument—represent the fact of sinfulness, and use that fact to point towards the chance of and need for redemption?
Before we move on to study an example together, let me point out a few things about aesthetic and moral choices based on my own studies in literature. Every writer—and the same principle applies for filmmakers, photographers, painters, actors, directors, and so on—has to make a set of ethical choices about how to represent reality: whether or not the piece in question is “realistic,” he or she still makes certain truth claims about how that reality works. Naturally, these choices are bound and in some cases dictated by the genre in question, especially when it comes to representing sin and sinfulness. Literature, for instance, typically lacks an explicitly pictorial aspect, so it’s possible to include a story element without necessarily showing it directly. At the same time, a good writer must create and somehow represent all the relevant aspects of a given story world, family-friendly or otherwise. To do so requires two sets of decisions: first, what material to include—or, we might say, what elements of sinfulness to highlight—and second, how to contextualize that material in terms of concepts like sin, repentance, redemption, and so on. In other words, both the representation of sin and the author’s attempts to assign some sort of meaning to it—even if that meaning is simply hedonism or some other denial of sin’s importance or efficacy—is part of worldview creation and communication. After all, as Thomas Sowell reminds us, facts (even unpleasant ones) “speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theories or visions are mere isolated curiosities.”
So, how can Christian authors wrestle these “isolated curiosities” into a coherent worldview, whether or not the text is explicitly evangelistic? Well, the basic model of rewarding the good guys and punishing the sinners dominated English and American literature for several centuries: for example, Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, which was a runaway bestseller in England and was the first novel published in the American colonies, is subtitled “Virtue Rewarded.” As you might expect, that’s pretty much how the plot goes: the poor but virtuous Pamela is under constant threat of seduction by her nefarious master, Mr. B, but after fending off his advances for years—and telling all about it in the letters which comprise the actual text of the novel—she eventually impresses him so much that he proposes an honorable and equitable marriage. Much of what became known as “conduct literature” followed this pattern closely, even up to a lot of present-day Christian fiction. And quite frankly, while this approach was somewhat effective when the majority of one’s reading audience held similar worldviews to the authors, now it’s more of a recipe for ridicule. Even Christian thinkers and writers who otherwise value reason and theological rigor sometimes fall into this trap: I still remember having to read an awful novel by Christian apologist Josh McDowell entitled The Love Killer, from which I learned that the slippery slope between unsupervised kissing and drug-addicted teen pregnancy was approximately half a paragraph long.
That said, I do think there are some effective ways to demonstrate the reality of sin and depravity, without automatically reducing complex human experience to a morality play. The process, however, can be difficult. For one thing, conceptions of shared values have changed drastically in the past century, and particularly since the 1960s: in the logic of the liberal utopia, insisting on any single transcendent morality is itself the unforgivable sin. The watchword now is diversity, which in theory encourages actual cultural engagement in both the public and private squares, but in practice entails ridiculing or simply ignoring exclusionary truth claims. One result of this weakening of moral standards, as many cultural critics have observed, is a desensitization to many actions and ideas that would have shocked previous generations, especially in public forums like television or popular literature. A sitcom like Roseanne, for instance, pales in its envelope-pushing to Family Guy, but both built their reputations breaking cultural taboos. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes tonight, while Roseanne often approached these taboos, such as teen pregnancy and homosexuality, with at least an awareness of their controversial nature, a common Family Guy technique is to normalize similar—and often more extreme—issues by letting them pass without comment or even the opportunity for critique.
This brings us, by an admittedly unusual path, to Flannery O’Connor: a devout Roman Catholic writer of the mid-20th century, whose fiction features crooked Bible salesmen, an atheist who founds “The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ,” and a proper Southern lady who insists that she is not a “warthog from Hell.” Unfortunately, we won’t have time to dip into any of these stories tonight, but I do want to spend a little time on one of O’Connor’s essays, entitled “The Fiction Writer & His Country” (1957). In this essay, O’Connor is responding to an editorial published in Life magazine complaining that the pessimistic writing of the time lacked “the joy of life itself” and overlooked “the redeeming quality of spiritual purpose.” Indeed, a lot of Christian artists today would agree with the editorial, and a common defense of slapping the “Christian” label on various art forms is that doing so is ostensibly the “positive alternative” to modern nihilism. However, O’Connor took the opposite stand—that “writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable” (33).
Personally, I think O’Connor’s views are worth serious consideration as we work out how to assess (and create) culture in a fallen world. Elsewhere in the essay, O’Connor argues that since “in the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense,” then a “belief in Christian dogma...frees the storyteller to observe” (31). Or alternatively, as the Newsboys put it in their song “God is Not a Secret,” “I’ve heard that positive pop you dig/ I’d rather be buried in wet concrete.” O’Connor, I suspect, would argue that glamorizing sin and ignoring sin have the same root cause: they both distort the reality of human nature, one by way of immorality and the other by way of amorality. She put it this way:
Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause. The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience...when you have to assume that [your audience holds different beliefs], then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures (33-34).
With this framework in mind, I want to conclude our time tonight by looking at a text way outside my field of academic expertise, but one that highlights some of the major issues I’ve mentioned: the music video for a song called “Monster,” by the Christian hard rock band Skillet. This particular song has enjoyed lots of “crossover” success, climbing to #4 on Billboard’s “Active Rock” and “Mainstream Rock” charts, and has been featured prominently in various pro wrestling events and media products. So it’s not surprising that many conservative Christians have complained loudly about it, saying that it’s not even remotely a “Christian song.” Let’s watch the video, and then we’ll spend some time discussing the song’s imagery and lyrics in light of O’Connor’s ideas about making sin noticeable.
[At this point I played the video and passed out lyric sheets.]
Now that you’ve had a chance to read the lyrics and watch the video, would you classify this as a Christian approach to the problem of evil? Does Skillet’s description and presentation seem accurate to you? Is it effective?