A few months ago, I was on jury duty and witnessed an interesting idea of what Christianity is and how faith and art relate to one another. One of my fellow jurors was an older lady who made it quite clear to us from the beginning of our service that she didn’t want to hear any foul language from us because she is a Christian. This particular day, another juror, a man not much older than me, went out to his car and got a speaker for his phone so we could listen to some music. We had been waiting to be called into the courtroom for most of the morning and though we’d all gotten pretty friendly, the music was welcome. A song with a pulsing, catchy beat started playing. Everyone was enjoying it, including the older lady. About a third of the way through the song, the theme of the song switched to sex. Though it took her a few seconds to decipher the lyrics, as soon as the older lady understood the song, she clapped her hands over her ears and exclaimed “I can’t listen to this! I’m a Christian! I don’t want to fall off the bandwagon!”
I’ve been turning this instance over in my mind ever since. Though I understand her motivations (except for her calling Christianity a “bandwagon”), I can’t help but think of how un-Christ-like she appeared in that situation. Jesus sat, ate, and listened to sinners many times during his earthly ministry (Luke 15:2.) Just imagine how differently events like the woman being caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) had gone if Jesus had thrown his hands over his ears and cried out “I’m the Messiah! I can’t listen to this woman’s sins!”
I then started thinking about portraying sin in art and how artists have an incredibly unique calling. Now what exactly constitutes “art” is another discussion for a different time. “Art” for this article’s sake, includes all works people have created, be they music, literature, video, audio, painting, or any of the many other artistic mediums. Here are just a few of those thoughts on the subjects previously mentioned.
- Portraying sin in art.
This is one of those “How much is too much?” questions and, as is common with these kinds of questions, there are multiple answers. Some Catholics are just fine with discussing sin in and through their art. Some think that there are certain lines an artist shouldn’t cross in their work. And there are some that think sin shouldn’t be portrayed at all. There are many reasons why arguments can be made for all three points of view. It’s up to each artist to create in accord with their conscience. And it’s all too easy to blame malformed consciences of artists for the amount of “bad” or “sinful” work that is out there. There are many factors to blame for that, our secular culture top among them. But I think it’s important to remember that even sacred art deals with sin. Some of the most beautiful artistic works in history deal with sin and its bad effects, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta, Endo’s Silence, and the image Divine Mercy. The list goes on and on. Art of all forms can be a tremendous power for evangelization and we cannot evangelize properly if we lessen or ignore the truth of humanity’s fallen nature. Pope St. John Paul II said it best in his Letter to the Artists: “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
- The unique call of artists.
Thinking of the artistic vocation reminds me of the boy in John 6:9. The apostles were puzzled about how to feed the five thousand when St. Andrew introduced a little boy who had five loaves of bread and two fish with him. He was willing to offer his gifts to Jesus, paltry though they seemed. Jesus took them and made an extraordinary miracle with those gifts. While it’s an insufficient analogy, each artist (and each person for that matter) is like that boy. We are given gifts from God and we have the choice to put them at his disposal or not. Artists have an even deeper level of this choice, which corresponds to their God-given vocations. This is an extraordinary opportunity, one that should not be taken lightly. Because who knows what miracles can happen because of a faithful giver and a gracious God?
Please don’t be like that older lady and cover your ears or your eyes every time you come across an art piece that you think might be challenging for you. God gave that artist a special vocation to create that work and in listening to, viewing, or reading that work, you give glory to him and to his creation. Jesus himself not only created and told many parables, he also listened to the stories of others. He showed us the importance of listening and of lending one’s attention to another person, however wild or difficult their message may be to us, whether they’re just speaking to us or communicating through their art. In these days of so much media that can be and is harmful, it is important to be discerning and to know that there are good works out there. It is just as important to know that we do not need to be afraid of anything in this world, for God has conquered it (John 16:33.) God bless you.