Here’ s what happens a lot: I’ll be in a discussion of the Gospel and the Arts, or Literature, or Music or Theatre or whatever, and the same binary comes up. There are two kinds of art: ‘worldly’ art and ‘spiritual’ art. We’re to avoid the one and embrace the other. Art can invoke the Spirit, but art can also offend the Spirit. Art can embrace darkness or light. If we realize the movie we’re watching is ‘worldly’ (the word we mostly use is ‘inappropriate’), we should walk out of the theater, turn off the DVD player. Walk out. Leave. Erase that song from your I-Pod, turn that book back in to the library, leave the museum. We’re in the world, but we’re not of the world. We should follow a higher standard. Those are the metaphors: light and dark, up and down. We even have all those wacky object lessons we remember so fondly from Seminary or Sunday school. My favorite is the dog poop brownie one. A teacher brings in some brownies–ask the kids if they want one. Mentions, oh so casually, that they’re really good brownies, except for just a little dog poop that got in the bowl. Of course, nobody wants them then. Well, isn’t that what we do when we see a movie, say, with just that one inappropriate scene. Aren’t we polluting our minds and spirits, just like we’d be polluting our bodies if we ate those brownies?
I’m mocking the binary here, and I shouldn’t. It’s grounded in real concerns–about offending the Spirit, about keeping our kids safe, about not becoming desensitized to violence or the commodified sexism of way too much popular culture.
But I still don’t like it, and I wish we could come up with something better. Here at BYU, we had planned to do a production of Troilus and Cressida. The powers-that-be said no. It’s a play, they said, that just doesn’t have enough light in it, that partakes too much in darkness. Not appropriate for BYU. We’re doing Romeo and Juliet instead, because, you know, teen sex and suicide have a lot more, just, light goin’ on in ‘em. It’s easy to make the administrator who made this decision seem like an idiot, but I know who made it, and he’s not an idiot at all; he’s a bright guy and a good guy, responding to real pressures and concerns. But still, the idea that one play has qualities inherent in the work itself that automatically renders it more welcoming to the Spirit, and that another play lacks such qualities, again inherent in the language and structure of the play itself; well, that’s a pretty silly and indefensible argument, especially for a live art form like theatre.
In fact, our experiences with the Spirit are subjective, individual, unique. It’s entirely possible for me to feel the Spirit in a theater very powerfully, and for someone else to find the same work on the same night offensive and spiritually damaging. The Lord works with each of us differently, according to our needs and difficulties and experiences.
I just reject it. I don’t think there exists such a thing as worldly art. I think there’s just art, and it speaks to some people and it doesn’t speak to other people. I think the whole binary, in fact, encourages an entirely negative aesthetic, where we judge books or plays or music or movies on what they don’t have. “That was a good movie. It had no nudity or violence, and just a little bad language.” I think that’s an approach to art that reduces the Gospel to checklists and proscriptions. And at its worst, it promotes a very unhealthy power dynamic–it promotes unrighteous dominion. I say Troilus and Cressida is inappropriate because I’m your boss, and that means my spirituality is the one that counts, that matters. In fact, there’s rather a famous talk on the Arts and the Spirit of the Lord that reduces to that argument, and to nothing else.
And as a teacher, I really really really hate the binary. I’ve seen it damage too many kids’ lives. Kids major in Theatre because they’ve fallen in love with an art form. They come to us, and learn some skills and some craft, and then they graduate. And they fall in love even more. And then they see something, a play, a movie. It’s wonderful. They love it even more because they understand it better. But it’s worldly. It has some stuff–some language, some nudity maybe. And they decide they have to choose, between the art form they love and this institution which declares (they think) that love invalid. And where do they get the idea that the play or movie or book they love is ‘worldly?’ Well, from all those Sunday School lessons and sacrament meeting talks on the dangers of ‘worldliness.’ Their culture DOES suggest that they’re wrong for loving the art they love. Because of that ‘worldly’ v. ‘spiritual’ binary.
I want a new paradigm. I want us to get away from all that neo-Platonic dualism. I want us to talk about the Spirit differently than we do, not interpolate one person’s subjective experience into a rule for how it functions. I don’t know how to do it though.
So . . . any thoughts? I have more questions than answers here. But I do know I’m going to keep eating those brownies. I don’t think there’s poop in ‘em, for me.