Discernment is a buzzword in evangelical culture these days. It’s used in describing how we should choose our friends, how we should go about deciding between good and bad and, in general, how we tell what God wants us to flee from and what He wants us to embrace. Discernment is a good thing; the Bible is filled with warnings against uncritically ingesting anything that we encounter.
Within the past 40 years, however, this word has become a casualty of the proverbial “culture war.” When evangelicals speak of “discernment” now, they typically refer to the ways in which we interact with popular and artistic culture. Namely, our “discernment” has been reduced to a set of formulas that decide whether or not something is immoral.
You see, in our biblical eagerness to discern what is heaven-sent and good for Christians to take in, we have lost our way. We have websites like Dr. Ted Baehr’s Movieguide.org and Dr. James Dobson’s Plugged In that, instead of delineating general artistic merit of things, thoughtfully tell us how many “s-words” are in a given film or album. In the name of discernment, we have lost the ability to discern good art from bad art—or reality from a happy illusion. We have lost the capacity to reach our culture because we have abandoned it.
I am not arguing for a rejection of a general conception of morality in our choices of art and cultural involvement. Rather, I want to suggest that, as Christians, we are equally as responsible to determine if art is creative or uncreative as we are to put an arbitrary moral label on it. Discernment means embracing art that reflects the values of a creative God who is interested in exposing the inherent sinfulness and sadness of human nature. To be truly discerning, we must take this into account, perhaps more readily than a vague statement for or against one side in the “culture war.”
According to Willowcreek Marketing, the Christian sales industry is a $4.2 billion market: music, movies, T-shirts, posters, gifts, church supplies, home-schooling curricula, etc. There is an overwhelming problem with this fact. Discernment in our artistic appetite has been supplanted by a hunger to buy and sell more “Christian” entertainment of dubious artistic value. Think about it: How many Christian pop products have you ever seen that have been artistically virtuous? Being generous, there may be 10 percent that actually possess an inkling of creativity. That means that 90 percent of the aforementioned products are horrible knock-offs of secular alternatives, or so shoddily done, they caricature our faith before the eagerly hostile eyes of the general.
Christian music is probably the arena in which real art is most visible within the Christian community; however, even in the music scene, I must seriously raise questions about the concept of a “worship industry.” How dare we make the worship of an Almighty God into a money-making industry, an industry in which any mediocre and tepid contemporary Christian band can resurrect its career with a well-timed worship album.
The list of poor discernment within Christian culture goes on and on. Our popular visual art is second rate; much of popular Christian “poetry” and “literature” is sad; and the depth of our interaction with artistic culture in our churches is usually limited to vague, youth group references to Braveheart.
Christians have decidedly failed in discerning goodness in our art. In embracing a mediocre copy of an already mediocre popular culture, we have left discernment and turned instead to a dangerous isolationism that rejects the God-given power of art. Perhaps a complete paradigm shift is needed.
While I respect people like Dr. Dobson and Dr. Baehr for their deep Christian commitment and leadership, I would like to posit a small suggestion: Instead of simply labeling some piece of culture generally “evil” because it contains “5 f-words and brief sexuality,” should we not also be equally discerning in our judgment of artistic merit (embracing good, creative art and rejecting bad, cliched art)?
With such discernment, evangelical culture would suddenly find itself embracing creativity and rejecting mediocrity. Million Dollar Baby would be a fantastic character study instead of “about” euthanasia; Ernest Hemingway would be celebrated for his unflinching portrayal of human hopelessness in a self-created world sans God rather than demonized as an agent of naturalistic fatalism who swears too much; and Radiohead’s Kid A would go from being a dark rumination on paranoid despair to a re-imagining of musical possibilities. Simultaneously, this new discernment would help us realize that critical thinking is not something to be afraid of. It would be nothing short of revolutionary, and it would be good.