How should Christians portray sin in their art?

Andy Rau

October 9, 2008

I think Christians have a massively increased responsibility to portray realistic and nuanced moralities in their stories and art. After all, if anybody should have insight into what the heart of morality is, it's Christians who've been to the bottom and been helped back out. I think there's no topic too depraved for a Christian to discuss in art, because faith deals with the whole of human action, from the most vile to the most inspired, and we have a responsibility to comprehend the whole so as to reproduce our part in a way non-Christians could find enlightening. Most modern Christian fiction, at least, falls far short of this. We need to portray sin in a way that helps each other recognize it.

It's very discouraging for young Christian artists to know that, no matter how Orthodox and effortful your work is, many Christians would immediately distrust you and attack your work if it seems to deviate from their sense of propriety. A huge bloc of Christians out there don't trust anybody or anything beyond a shortlist of theologically pre-approved preachers and writers (and, for all intents and purposes, chain-letter authors), and meet every new attempt at faith-expression, in and out of their home church, with suspicion. That's unfortunate.

October 9, 2008

By far, the best Christian author to portray sin in current years is Ted Dekker. He has taken some heat, though, for this, and the new movie based on his book with Perretti, "House" is rated R, for violence and themes, I believe.

Anyone interested in this debate should look at his books and/or interviews that he does. The subject comes up often in relation to his writing.

October 10, 2008

What bothers me is that they want to make it (the depiction of sin) as something everyone does, or is normal for society. Portray it as it is, wether you want to or not. Try to portray the sin not as normal, but something that we do, but should try and not do. John

October 10, 2008

It seems to me that the issue is intent. The Bible speaks of sin and gives examples because it is history. The primary aim of fiction is to entertain.

Much of the Christian church has lost all idea of shame and outrage and holy living in our culture. Christians trade holy living in exchange for being relevant in the culture. Jesus may have gone to a house of ill repute, but he would not have enjoyed porn or sexual escapades for the sake of evangelism. We have lost sight of sin. We justify being enterained by sin for the sake of . . . what?

A movie is rated "R" by the world because even the world knows that viewers will be entertained by sex, violence and/or vulgarity. It we entertain ourselves that way then we have no right calling ourselves, "holy before the Lord."

October 11, 2008

Christian writers should portray sin like the Bible does. One of the most popular Bible stories is about King David staring at a naked woman bathing and then ending up killing her husband and committing adultery. Imagine an adaptation of that played out in a novel or in a film. That's pretty much soap-opera stuff when you think about it. Some Christians may shy away from that kind of gritty reality while others may face it head on. So it's up to the artist and the Holy Spirit to decide on their own balance when it comes to storytelling.

One of the best novels that portray sin is Francine River's "Redeeming Love." It's a Christian novel that deals with prostitution. It's an adaptation of the Biblical story of Hosea and Gomer. It's gritty but not raunchy.

October 11, 2008

Aside from the obvious backfiring that when conservative Christians condemn a film it's popularity goes up... Films which portray or even glorify evil and suffering can have the effect of bring home the thing we moderns may have forgotten namely, that Evil does exist and that people can become bound by it and need more than gentle therapeutic help to get out of it.

The Harry Potter books were condemned by Christians because we don't like sorcery but Harry was the boy whose life was saved by his mother giving hers and who later redeemed his friends and his world by giving his own life. You even have a bodily resurrection of sorts. If that doesn't remind millions of readers of what happened 2000 years ago then I don't know what, aside from the Bible, will!

October 11, 2008

Jim, I disagree with the idea that the primary aim of fiction is to entertain. I think fiction has mainly been used to dramatize our ideals of right and wrong and play them out according to our cultural expectations and assumptions. I think fiction, like history (Biblical and otherwise) is essentially an analysis of morality and human efforts - everybody from the Greek tragedians to Voltaire to Bernard Shaw has held some variation of this view, and I can't think of any Christian authors of any reputation who disagree. As far as I can see, fiction has never been morally neutral or mere entertainment.

That being said, how do you think Christians should write about sin? Should we be explicit in describing and discussing sin, or is that illicit? Should we be euphemistic and censoring? Does talking about corruption invite people to corruption? Or does it help us as Christians to ensure that we are ignorant (inasmuch as people who daily acknowledge their hopelessly fallen state who've thrown themselves at God and His promise of redemption could pretend to be...) of sex, violence, and vulgarity? Are those the only moral issues that matter?

Assuming you don't think storytelling only runs the continuum from pointless divergence to out-and-out-evil, how do you think Christians should tell stories?

October 12, 2008

I've explored the area of Christ's life, sin - including the crucifixion with an impressionistic approach. Click on my name-link to see my paintings.

October 14, 2008

What do you think the Bible would be rated?

October 16, 2008

Thank you for the response.

Here's my main point. I very much enjoy the BBC productions of Charles Dickens. Within these masterful pieces of literature is murder, cruelty, sex, prostituion and all the evil and sin that can happen in a society. I am greatly moved by the portrayed evil. But within these productions I see no nudity, no acutal sex act; the violence is greatly muted; the language is very tame. I can be aware of the evil and moved by those who do evil without seeing all the details. Certainly, thank goodness, art is not neutral but pleads for a society to wake up and recognize the evil therein.

No, talking about corruption does not lead to corrupton; I believe glamorizing it does. And no, we don't have to be ignorant about evil and by all means it should be part of art. It's not the what, it's how the what is portrayed. Sex, violence and vulgarity are not the only issues that matter. It grieves me when war is glamorized as well as the sins of greed, enviromental pollution and others.

And too, have we come to a place where our own imaginations must be put on hold and instead rely on all details produced by the artist? Reading many of the great classics of literature, even the Bible, it didn't have to paint every detail of a picture for us to see the picture.

What bothers me most, I believe, is that showing sex and graphic violence and using vulagarity can lead to sin. I am a person who struggled with bondage to pornagraphy in my early years; it started not with hard core stuff, but with what might be called art.

I believe some "art" can negatively affect our culture; it , in a sense, dumbs us down; the artist may be very creative and imaginative, but little is left to the imagination of the viewer, rather it seems to me, that emualtion results--sex, vulgarity, language, violence--I can't believe there's not a relationship between some art and how people respond to art. We are a species that learns from what we see and hear.

Censorship. Is there nothing you wouldn't censor? We censor all the time for children, yet somehow we think as adults we can take anything--it will not surprise me if graphic pedaphile sexual activity will one day be on the screen; or graphic torture of children will be at the movies. And it will not surprise me if Christian reviewers will say, "It's important we portray this in great detail so people know of the evil." What? I can't know and respond to evil unless I see it in all it's detail? Isn't that an insult to the viewer/reader/listener? At the same time we will be satisfying the purient interests of some of the viewers. Too bad.

I remember a story, I don't know if it's true: Michangelo began producing nude sculptures which was apparently radical for him. His mentor asked him why he was doing so and Michangelo said because that is how God made us. The mentor said, "Yes, but you are not God."

Lastly let me say that there may be a sophistication that I do no have. It may be that others aren't tempted with lust when they see nudity and sexual activity on the screen. Maybe this is why I'm not connecting with you and others. But I know this of myself, it I watch a sexual scene at a movie or read it in literature and it leads me to lust, then I may commit adultery in my heart. That is a serious matter. Yes, I could watch more of it until I became more desensitized, but I wonder if that's really the Christian approach.

Thanks again for you response.


October 16, 2008

As someone who didn't really have a porno issue growing up, I can't relate to you as much regarding pornography. At the same time, you have to admit: if it was your sexual appetite that was destroyed by porno, your hypersensitivity shouldn't determine the rules for nudity and such in the art of others. It seems to me that the artist has to chase his understanding of sin in a personal and resonant matter so as to reflect what he understands and experiences - not to those who can't easily distinguish nudity from erotica from pornography from just naked-people.

You might be greatly moved by portrayals of sin in Dickens. I was moved by portrayals of sin in Cold Mountain. That doesn't make you more holy than me, does it?

Some facts:
Movies are not written all by one guy. Hundreds and even thousands of people write scripts.
Not all scripts that get made into movies are created equal: a few are pretty good (the new Batman),
and the rest are mostly bad (The Happening).
No artist intends to desensitize it's audience to violence or sex.
That's a side effect of bad storytelling and a reliance on spectacle all around.

So, of course, it follows that not all nude scenes are created equal. Some nude scenes can be relatively boring (Matrix II), because of a lack of craft. Some movies handle violence well (Rambo II), and others have extended torture scenes in them that are quite disturbing (Syriana). But you could hardly make a story like Saving Private Ryan or Full Metal Jacket without "gratuitous" violence.

You're right: we do learn from what we see and hear. In the case of those movies, though, it becomes obvious that a different 'message' was taught by all of them - that message, of course, was the product of us watching the protagonist wrestle his way through the plot. We empathize with the character, go along for the ride, and in the end, learn about how he got through (or didn't get through) the evils arrayed before him. Not all movies are the same. Not all stories are the same. A message could be "religion is hypocritical" (Saved), or "God is ironic" (Bruce Almighty) or "Jesus died horribly, like we often do" (Passion of the Christ). We "believe" this because we "see" our characters learn it on the screen.Lucky for us, nowadays, they come with warnings and everything. You'll never mistake Losing Isaiah for Saving Silverman for Finding Nemo again. Ideally, you'll never go on a ride you don't want to.

If you can't handle any nudity in movies, don't go to movies with nudity in them. I hate and fear and avoid horror movies for that reason. Not all horror movies are badly made (Pan's Labyrinth), but I'm overwhelmingly more likely to hate tomorrow if I see a horror movie today. Not all of us worry about the same sins, and I don't think it should be up to anyone but ourselves as to what we see, nor should we decide for anybody else. I'm probably on my own on this site, but not all nudity has the same effect on me. What you find prurient I might just find distracting (again, Matrix II). If your sense of right and wrong completely shuts down on sight of a naked body, I can't empathize, but I still don't think that means you should hog the remote. Not, of course, that I think anybody should have to watch Matrix II, but you get what I'm saying. Matrix II is a horrible movie.

That being said, the overwhelming responsibility for a Christian artist is to portray a sense of sin in their stories as they've encountered it in their lives - not as a mere "testimony", because giving a testimony isn't the same thing as telling a story, and art is for stories. The same rules apply to Christians as non-Christians in quality storytelling. Show me a movie that glamorizes corruption (Godfather? Hellboy? Oceans 11? Striptease?) and I'll show you a movie with a deep sense of right and wrong, moral theology, ironic justice and redemption, and the effect of choosing corruption, all dramatized through fallen characters - like you and me.

If Christians aren't writing movies as good as The Godfather because Christian culture may scold them, you get what we have: former Christians writing movies as good as The Godfather.

Because that's what artists do: write what they want, as best they can, and to hell with our creepy paternalistic moralities.

(I also think a big, secret part of Christians' objections to "secular" movies is that Christians get wrapped up in them as easily as our non-Christian counterparts - only we don't like to ever concede that we're not different than they are. After all, we're saved! We're the elect! That should make us LESS human, right? Nah. We'd like to be cool bad guys and strippers with hearts of gold, too - but most of us would let never anyone see us cop to it, even in the dark and anonymity of a movie theatre.)

And as for the story about Michaelangelo, it's probably not true. After all, the artist got his first chance to study anatomy (nude figures) from the mortuary at his Church's hospital - and, besides, the Italians never shared much in our Puritan proprieties to begin with.

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