Cultural Decay & The Arts

“One of the reasons I do the work I do is because I believe that American society is in a state of cultural deterioration, and that the Church is often making things worse rather than better. Specifically, serious art, literature, and music no longer have the position of importance in the lives of educated Americans they once had, and I believe that our lives (and the shared life we call our “culture”) are worse off for that. Celebrities (people famous for being famous rather than for creative achievement) have replaced artists in the minds and hearts of people who should know better.”

Ken Myers wrote that last Monday. I can’t agree more. That’s precisely why I’ve been blogging about this lately.

In fact, I just finished listening to some extremely interesting lectures he gave at Southern Seminary earlier this year, which give tremendous insight on how popular culture affects how we think and live. As a Christian seeking to live for God’s glory and at the same time enjoy God’s gifts in creation without succumbing to our culture’s sin and disorder, I find this an area that all Christians need serious help navigating. Frankly, we’re pretty naive about what’s culturally beneficial and terribly gullible in embracing and even helping to advance elements of cultural disorder – even in the church.

One of the remedies for our cultural decay is some art education. Sadly, this an endeavor Christians are largely indifferent toward. This is a tragedy, as it is a failure to be really good at training ourselves and others to be really good receivers of the gifts of God in His creation, and thus, really good worshipers of the Giver.

As Dana Gioia said in his commencement speech at Stanford this year, “Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding the world and expressing the world – equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being – simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, ans physical senses.. There are some truths about life than can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.”

The earth is the Lord’s and thus something designed to bring us understanding of Him (truth) and the experience of human pleasure (joy) in many different ways (taste, smell, sight, touch, hear). But not all those ways (joys) are equally accessible. Many of them require a little more discipline, more a little familiarity with.

But we are too easily attracted to settle for the immediate gratifications of popular culture. But shouldn’t we be more thoughtful than we typically are about the elements of culture we consume? Like most things easy, it ruins your tolerance for things a little more difficult. And like most things instant, it ruins your palate for something better. No one needs to take a class to listen to that latest single from U2, you can appreciate it (or not) immediately.

But the truly good things in life usually require a little more effort than what immediate gratifications typically offer. And, as Ken Myers wrote in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, “popular culture encourages a mood of expecting everything to be immediate, a mood that deters greater depth and breadth in other areas of our lives, including our understanding of Christianity and our experience of obedient faith.” (p. xv)

So in the interest of grasping the both the truth and beauty that God has hand-built into the created order with greater depth and breadth, we ought to be better at appreciating, understanding, and enjoying it more deeply. For me, this means seeking out resources to help me do that better. I want to be a connoisseur of God’s art. What I now realize is that that art is found not only in the physical world God created, but often in the works of art that God’s creations themselves create, like paintings, drawings, photography, literature, poetry, film, architecture, etc.

I’m starting to feel my way around in this endeavor, but here are a few of the best resources I’ve found that approach culture and the arts from a Christian perspective. I’ll be blogging about some of them, so stay tuned. This is merely a starter list of what has helped me so far. I’ve got a wish list of other books to take me further. But, I’d love to find out what has helped you.

Books:

Art for God’s Sake, by Philip Ryken

The Liberated Imagination, Thinking Christianly About the Arts, by Leland Ryken

Realms of Gold, The Classics in Christian Perspective, by Leland Ryken; audio version available here

All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, by Ken Myers

Periodicals:

Books and Culture

First Things

Articles & Essays:

The Necessity of the Classics, Louise Cowan by (PDF); audio version available here

Toward a Christian View of Art, by J. Scott Horrell (.doc)

The Ten Commandments for Artists, Makoto Fujimura

Can Poetry Matter?, by Dana Gioia

Websites/Blogs:

International Arts Movement

Via Affirmativa

EIKON

Arts & Letters Daily

Poets.org

Audio Journals & Courses:

Mars Hill Audio Journal

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

How to Read and Understand Poetry

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