The Moral Hedge, Pt. 2

The Three Tests

Continuing the line of thought from Part One, Scripture clearly indicates that art does carry moral weight. For the Christian, where is the line between what is acceptable and what is not? How can it be found? The first two tests we have derived are such:

  1. Is the artwork inherently good or evil?
  2. Is the artwork’s intended purpose for pure or evil ends?

A third we shall add, although there is a great deal of overlap amongst them. But first, I must add an interjection.

The Testament of Conscience & Holy Spirit

Here on, the distinction between right and wrong becomes more difficult to discern, though that does not minimize our responsibility to correctly judge between them. This is why God gave us His Holy Spirit:

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you (John 16:13–14).

God has given us a Helper to distinguish these things, so we are never left to our own hunches. Furthermore, He has equipped all men with a conscience to perceive basic right and wrong. Paul attests that the conscience is present in both believers and non-believers alike, “so that all men are without excuse:”

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them (Romans 2:14–16).

Between these two helpers, the Christian has no reason to neglect discernment. Let us therefore not become lazy in our rightful jurisdiction, but sift through these things attentively. There is almost no such thing as a “gray zone,” although the line may be dangerously faint and may shift based on the believer’s own conscience.[1]

The Defining Question

While it is straightforward to determine from Scripture whether crafting an idol is right or wrong, it is noticeably harder to test more sensitive issues. For instance, is there a difference between pornography and the nude paintings Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel? Let us assume that he crafted these works with godly intentions: to stimulate the marvel of God’s works (thereby passing the test of purpose). The human body, created by God, bears both His image and signature, and apart from the stain of sin it passes the test of inherent evil. Still, there is a third test we may conduct on the art in question.

  1. Is the artwork inherently good or evil?
  2. Is the artwork’s intended purpose for pure or evil ends?
  3. Does the artwork represent Christ and align with His teachings?

This principle is Biblical because believers are called “ambassadors of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are “Little Christs” (which is the literal translation of the word Christian) and must not defame Christ by misrepresenting Him. Keep in mind that Christ Himself followed God’s precepts and biddings—a call we share as His earth-bound representers.

…Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner (John 5:19b).

Most of the Christian’s artistic moral dilemmas concern participation in an artistic piece, and in these situations we must ask whether we can represent a certain work of art and Christ simultaneously. Because we must represent Christ and Christ follows God’s precepts, it is logical that our call as ambassadors is to both follow and correctly represent His law. Any work of art that causes us to misrepresent God’s commandments is wrong.

Is it wrong to draw nude individuals? Genesis informs us that before the Fall Adam and Eve were innocent to the point of not recognizing their own nakedness. When they sinned, shame fell upon them, and God Himself covered them so that they were not exposed. Since then, Scripture handles nakedness very differently, beginning only six chapters later in Genesis 9:

…Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness (Genesis 9:20–24).

From the context it seems Ham did not merely stumble in on his unclothed father by accident (Genesis 9:25). Perhaps he stared, perhaps he jested. But we can easily infer that he disgraced Noah by not honoring the sacredness of the body (though tainted by sin from the Fall), and so looked on with baser instincts and did not cover his father. In contrast, Shem and Japheth honored their father by both covering him and not exposing their own eyes to his nakedness. What a severe distinction between Noah’s words regarding Ham and those for his other two sons:

When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers…Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant (Genesis 9:25–27).”

The sinful flesh of man can no longer view the exposed body with innocence (a clean conscience unaware of sin). We must reconcile ourselves to the reality of our flesh and realize some things are not permissible for man to look on because of the Fall. Man knows well the mind’s proclivity to lust after another individual’s body, particularly unclothed. Jesus told us that to lust is to have already committed adultery in the mind (Matthew 5:27–30). Between the Biblical interdiction to look at the naked human figure and the enormous temptation to lust and commit sin, it must be concluded that any field which promotes the presentation of an unclothed individual is at fault. Even nude painting done in the name of Christianity is at fault! Irrespective of Michelangelo’s intentions, his presentation of the unclothed figure “in the name of art” is forbidden by Scripture. We must stop the Christian naivety by hedging this so-called “Christian artwork” from the law of Scripture. Michaelangelo was born long after inspired Scripture, and however noble or perhaps godly he might have been,[2] his work is not so “sacred” as to be elevated above the precepts of Christ’s Law, nor has it been morally spayed by the passage of time.

It is irrelevant whether a nude painting has been labeled as “Christian artwork” or “pornography,” and unless we pretend that the regenerate Christian has taken leave of his lustful body, we must not tempt our weak flesh (Mark 14:38). Only after the conscience has been cleansed of the knowledge of sin can one look upon the human body with perfect innocence. God has promised this when we are given new bodies fit for Heaven, but until then, we are forbidden to view the unclothed body. Portraying the naked human body in a church or cathedral only misrepresents Biblical teaching, and so creation, engagement, or promotion of such artwork is wrong.

Applying the Third Test

What a thorny quandary to follow to its Biblical conclusion! When we apply the representation test to other artistic dilemmas, things become clearer still. What about music or a film that positively portrays adultery, sorcery, or assault? First, let us ask whether Christ would condone those practices? Of course not. Second, as a Christian—and therefore an ambassador of Christ’s law—is it morally acceptable for me to depict these practices as anything but evil? It cannot be, or I would be a double-minded man by representing two natures at polar variance with each other. I therefore could not support such portrayals by performing or acting in them.

What if a piece of music is truly abstract, but the artist is morally loose? Again the question of representation emerges. While I may have a freed conscience to perform one of his pieces without condemnation, there is the possibility I might misrepresent Christ to my audience by singing his music. Imagine I have auditioned to perform Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, or Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Both are pieces of abstract music, but Tchaikovsky and Copland were homosexuals (a practice the Bible clearly condemns as wrong in many passages such as Leviticus 20:13). My conscience is clean because there is nothing inherently wrong with the music or its intended purpose, and most of the audience is unaware of either man’s background. Playing one of their pieces will not cause the average listener to question my faith, so I could perform and represent Christ at the same time. But suppose I performed one of Elton John or Michael Jackson’s “cleaner tunes” for an average audience. Who from this generation is ignorant of these men’s godless lifestyles? Few indeed. To perform these works would confuse the conscience of the listener, so that the mere act of singing may prove a stumbling block to those who thoughtfully examine whether Christ changes lives. For me to sing such works would be a gross misrepresentation of Christ.

Now it sounds like I am in fear of my image. Far from it! I would gladly forsake the Nutcracker if it kept me from becoming a stumbling block to another Christian musician (well-acquainted with Tchaikovsky’s life) who previously struggled with homosexuality. It is not for fear of perception, but concern for the conscience of others, that I would deny such things. (This alludes to the “disputable matters” Paul discusses in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.)

In Part Three, I will share some true stories from my own life and practical steps to discerning within the arts. I continue to welcome discussion!

  1. I use the qualifier almost because of Paul’s words on “disputable matters.” But as I move forward, I think we will find even those matters are ultimately clear for the individual based on the tolerance of his own conscience. ↩︎

  2. I have not explored his moral life and do not endeavor to explore it in this submission, as it is entirely irrelevant to the issue at hand. ↩︎