Carolyn Arends is a musician and author
in Surrey, B.C. She has taught at Pacific Life
Bible College, Columbia Bible College and
Last year some Christian artist friends urged my husband and me to see a production at a local theatre. The play
contained some of the most profan-ity-laden dialogue we had ever
heard. And yet, as the story unfolded,
we realized we were witnessing a
profoundly redemptive story – one
that pointed surprisingly and unmistakably to the gospel of Jesus.
We left the theatre moved and
confused. Without the gritty language, would the play have been
able to point so powerfully to grace
in the midst of brokenness? Was it
okay to expose ourselves to the
language for the sake of the story?
Those of us who love stories (told
in all the various art forms available
to us) face a quandary. What if to tell
a story honestly, unsavoury or downright evil behaviours must be portrayed? The Apostle Paul encouraged us to train our minds on
“whatever is true, whatever is noble,
whatever is right, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, [and] whatever is
admirable” (Philippians 4: 8).
Does that mean we are constrained – either as receivers or
creators of art – to keep certain
topics or words off limits?
In a class I was teaching on faith
and the arts, I struggled through
this question with a group of col-
lege students. We recognized that
factors like maturity and personal
history are important. Some things
aren’t appropriate for children, and
mature viewers might need to
avoid any portrayals that are “stum-
bling blocks” in their particular
context. And we could all agree on
extreme cases of exploitative and
gratuitous sex, violence and abu-
sive language that are clearly out-
side the bounds of the Philippians
4: 8 mandate.
But we were less sure what to do
with greyer areas.
What if the questionable elements in a story are not there to
titillate, but rather because they are
an important part of telling the
truth about the human condition?
The Bible itself contains many
frank and unflinching depictions of
human depravity. If we were to
legalistically and thoughtlessly
apply the Philippians 4: 8 mandate
to Scripture, we’d have to censor a
good deal of what is there.
Despite several lively debates, we
never did arrive at a clear consensus. But we did settle on a framework that helped us at least begin
to more thoughtfully and prayerfully engage with stories of all kinds.
When tasked with evaluating a
piece of art in any genre, we asked
ourselves three questions, inspired
by the Church’s long history of appropriating (quite appropriately, I
think) Plato’s three Transcendentals:
Is it good?
Is it true?
Is it beautiful?
Is it good? – involves ethics and
morals. It requires us to consider
not only whether a story contains
offensive words or scenes, but also
whether the worldview it tacitly
conveys is an ethical one. It might
be possible for a film to be rated G,
but embody an insidious worldview
in which material success is con-
sidered the ultimate meaning in
life, or people are exploited as
nothing more than means to ends.
Conversely, it might be possible for
a movie to contain violence, sex or
language but provide a perspective
on the human condition that moves
the viewer toward a more ethical or
Is it true? – is an even more theological question. Does the story –
whether it is fact or fantasy or
something in-between – say something honest about the world and
the people who inhabit it? Does it
hint at anything true about God?
Even if the worldview in a story is
in conflict with the gospel, can it
teach us something true about the
perspectives and needs of the
people who hold it?
Is it beautiful? – has to do with
aesthetics. It asks whether the art in
question is well crafted and successfully formed. A depraved story may
be breathtakingly depicted. (In such
instances we should exercise caution.) Or, as is sometimes the case
in explicitly “Christian” storytelling,
a good and true story may be shabbily crafted. (Caution is required
here too! Please!)
With these three questions, we
begin a process of discernment that
each of us will be working through
for the rest of our lives. We might
decide that a story lacking in one of
the Transcendentals is still worthy
of our attention due to its strengths
in another. Conversely, we might
discover that even a story we deem
to be good or true or beautiful is out
of bounds if it cultivates behaviour
in us that is not. Most essentially,
we’ll know that our challenge is to
support and create work ourselves
that is deeply good, unflinchingly
true and as beautiful as we can
possibly make it. /FT
What if the questionable elements
in a story are not there to titillate, but
rather because they are an important
part of telling the truth about the human
See no evil?
Three questions to ask of the art we receive and create