What makes Great Art?
Authors, and artists in general, put a great deal of time and effort into their work. Inherent in that work is a worldview, but not many authors seem to place as much emphasis on the message their work is sending as they do on the work itself. Some seem to be entirely unconscious of it.
“Art for art’s sake” is a phrase that seems to embody the personal philosophy of a great many authors. This is a shame. Because art, like any other pursuit in life, can be used for good or bad, for weal or woe. And great art is one that fuses both beauty and truth.
One worldview to rule them all
Worldviews are like the bones of our body. Everybody has them and they are what hold everything together. For those not familiar with the concept, for our purposes here, we’ll define worldview as the meaning we ascribe to life. Worldview answers fundamental questions like why we are here, what is wrong with the world, and how we can fix it.
You might think that fiction on the surface wouldn’t care as much about worldview. That it’s something for philosophy or theology to deal with. But every story says something about the world. Even the most mindless, chase scene filled, shoot-em-up story is saying something. Perhaps that life isn’t important, that all that matters is strength, skill, the survival of the fittest (or the most well armed, best-looking, funniest), etc.
The point is, since every story is by definition communicating this overall message, what sort of message are we communicating with our art?
O me! o life!
One of the reasons worldview matters so much in fiction is because stories do not just have a worldview, but they shape the worldview of their readers. “Dead Poet’s Society”, which was a film, appropriately, about literature, is not exactly a flawless piece of art, but it had this unique quality: it was conscious of the role art plays in the shaping of our worldview.
In a classic scene, the teacher, played by Robin Williams, challenges his students to consider their purpose in life. He suggests that they are part of this great play called life and may write a verse in the great story of the human race. He then asks them, “What will your verse be?”
The minor theme
I am a Christian. For that reason everything I write comes from a Christian worldview. In his amazing work, Art and the Bible, Francis Shaeffer describes how the Christian worldview can be divided into two themes, the Major and the Minor.
The minor theme has to do we the reality of living in a broken world. There is pain. There is suffering. There is death. There is heartache. There is loss. These things afflict the Christian as well as the non-Christian.
This theme also describes the reality of man’s rebellion against God. We have enshrined ourselves as autonomous moral agents, as the captains of our souls. Our pride and willful disregard of our Creator keep us from knowing true joy and offer a fearful prospect for our eternal destiny.
The major Theme
The major theme is just the opposite. It revolves around hope and meaning. We are not just bags of atoms scattered by cosmic chance. God is real. He loves us. And he has called us to know Him and thus, true peace and happiness. Yes there may be troubles in this world, but, to quote Sam Gamgee, “Even darkness must pass.”
In addition, what is good and right can be known. They are not mere arbitrary social constructs, defined by the will to power. Because goodness flows from God, and God has placed his image in us, we may know the truth. And this truth may change and transform this Paradise Lost in which we live.
Mixing it up
If we are to give a full-orbed reflection of reality in our work as writers, we must strike the proper balance between these two themes. The major must be the major, but the minor must be given space as well. Most artists, Christian or non-Christian (and yes, you can be a non-Christian and produce Christian art) tend to emphasize one more strongly than they should.
Christians, for example, may be tempted to emphasize the major to the exclusion of the minor. Because the bible’s truth is so important, and so often overlooked in modern fiction, we feel the need to make an overt presentation of the gospel. We see this in the “salvation story” or in heavy-handed allegory. Such stories will come across as “preachy” to many who are not already Christians, and even to some who are.
I’m not saying that such works have no place, merely that they are not usually very good art.
But in an effort to counteract this, some Christians seem to swing in the opposite direction. They adopt the values and conventions of the world. For these writers, the minor theme is all that matters. Christian ideas and principles and man’s need for a Savior, if they are there at all, are slapped on and shoehorned in, or twisted to fit with a non-biblical view of God.
The minor theme certainly reigns in the non-Christian arts. And the secular worldview dominates the western world. The idea of the lostness of humanity is more exalted today than perhaps it has ever been. Anti-heroes, sarcasm, and purposeless violence are the rule of the day.
Great art fuses the two
But great art, true art, must combine the two themes. Yes, the reality of the fallen world must be exposed. But we are not to rejoice in it. Instead we ought to mourn. But as the bible says, we do not mourn as those without hope. There is a great and glorious end to it all. Joy comes in the morning. Death has lost its sting. And we few, we happy few, have the privilege, nay the honor, to write of such glorious themes.
May we, like so many great writers of the past who understood these two themes so well, write stories that ring with authenticity and hope. May we open up a window to heaven, that shines light on people where they are, and not just where they need to be.
Those are the stories worth reading.