Of Criticisms and Comparisons

Yesterday, Stephen Altrogge (a blogger I much respect and admire) wrote an article entitled Would the Psalms Survive Our Criticism?. He makes the case that Reformed Christians should judge art and creativity fairly, since we are often dismissed as being against both of those things.

I appreciate what Altrogge is trying to say; but there are parts of his argument which I find questionable. Not necessarily incorrect, but perhaps incomplete and less clear than they could be.

First, Altrogge writes,

… when it comes to interpreting a song or a piece of poetry or spoken word, we have to use our theology carefully. We need to interpret and critique the piece on its own terms rather than immediately plopping all of our systematic theology on top of it.

Of course, “plopping” theology down on things is never a good idea. It’s clumsy and inept. But there’s a difference between plopping theology and using it as a tool to separate the good stuff from the bad.

Christians are not free to set aside theology when it comes to art. It is the lens by which we see and interpret everything! When I watch a movie, or read a book, or listen to a song, I cannot judge it solely “on its own terms”, i.e. by its artistic merits. My verdict would be incomplete. For though I may acknowledge those merits, the be-all-end-all must be whether or not the art in question aligns itself with Bible truth.

Point being, art, like everything else, must be ultimately judged on God’s terms. His are the only ones that matter.

Altrogge doesn’t really argue otherwise, but I think he would have done well to reinforce this more than he did. Art is great, but (as one commenter wrote) God’s truth trumps art. And Christians must learn to subjugate their love for art accordingly. When we fail to do so, we throw away our Bible-based, theological lenses and jump on the bandwagon of cultural normality – all in the name of “being fair” and critiquing art “on its own terms.”

I also think Altrogge makes a questionable move in comparing the 17th Psalm with Jeff Bethke’s “Jesus/Religion” video – mainly because of the vast differences between the two.

Psalm 17 is Scripture, the inspired Word, and David uses poetic – but completely biblical – language to paint a picture of God’s actions. It’s a piece of art, yes; but more than that, it’s true.

Jeff Bethke’s video is a piece of art, too; but the trueness of it is muddled. Good points are made, but error is mixed in, too. The result? Confusion. It ends up reinforcing the modern notion that anything like “traditional” or “organized” religion must be rejected.

For the record, that’s not just my opinion. Bethke himself agreed when Kevin DeYoung addressed the video’s flaws.

So I ask you… what are your thoughts on Altrogge’s article? Are my concerns valid ones? Or am I making mountains out of molehills? Let me know what you think down in the comments section, as I believe it’s a subject worthy of discussion.


12 thoughts on “Of Criticisms and Comparisons”

  1. Excellent post, Corey.

    I agree with your assessment. On the one hand, Christians can come across as being cultural neanderthals who only count the number of objectionable items in a movie and miss the excellent cinematography, etc. But on the other hand, you can’t ignore for “art’s sake” the things that don’t jive with God’s standard. Art isn’t neutral and requires discernment, hence the need to apply theology in its evaluation.

    For believers, if we are representing God through our work, it is incumbent upon us to not distort who He is to the best of our fallible human ability and understanding of the Word of God. Someone could write a song about Isaac Newton and paint a totally wrong picture, but who cares? There is no influence that might result in eternal consequences. But it’s not the same with God. Therefore IMHO, we can’t take “creative license” when it comes to Him.

    1. Exactly, Persis. Too often, in our efforts to avoid one ditch, we slip into another. Just because Christians needn’t be “cultural neanderthals” (as you brilliantly put it) doesn’t mean we can be lax in our application of theology to culture.

      Thanks much for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. I appreciate it. :)

  2. Slinger,

    I agree that we should judge fairly and the only way to do so is to compare evrything to scripture. We cannot separate ourselves from theology. i know folks who justify (in their own minds) all sorts of worldliness in the name of being relevant to those they are “trying to reach”. We must be careful. What did God think about the art & culture surrounding Baal worship? Not much.

    We are not able to function secularly if we believe God is who the Bible says He is. I do not see how we can interpret anything “on its own terms” apart from our theology. That type of thinking will lead christians all the way to the scene of the crash…

    Thanks for listening,

  3. Well written article, my friend. As you know, I “liked” right away (yesterday), but I haven’t linked to the article until I could read the article you referenced. Now having read it, I’ll just add this:

    As with you, I understand what Mr. Altrogge is attempting to say; however, where I disagree with him is where I agree with you.

    His view is skewed because he begins with the art and not with the Artist, the triune God. If the scriptures are the inspired Word of God, then they first must be seen theologically… and most specifically, radically viewed through the crucified Christ first, else we have no foundation, no guide, and no cornerstone upon whatever we view or perceive.

    It’s not a matter of “plopping all of our systematic theology on top of it” as Mr. Altrogge presents. Our theology is not on top, but instead, the foundation (Eph 2:18-22). All scripture is discerned through the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14) and testifies of Jesus Christ (John 5:39), and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).

  4. Reblogged this on Justification by Grace and commented:
    My dear brother, Corey the Ink Slinger, presents some very sound insights in our interpretation and discernment of scripture.

    Sometimes we must define what we mean when we use terms such as “theology” these days, but if the heart of theology is the authority of scripture to reveal the triune God by the revelation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, then our perspectives will cause our theology to be foundational in all our heart, soul, thoughts and actions, and not merely a tool to enhance our lives in the here and now.

    Check out Corey’s article, and if you have the time, please read Mr. Altrogge’s article as well.

  5. Agree with you and Cardwell. Might expand…

    The Scriptures are both judge of and exemplars for all other literature. I doubt you will find any type of literature that is not already exhibited in the Scriptures. Cardwell talks about theology not being on top, but underneath, as foundation. Altrogge (hope I spelled that right) talks in terms of using criticism and applying theology to the Psalms. Cardwell is on the right end of the telescope…theology flows from the Psalms…beautiful pictures that portray the beauty of Yahweh’s glory and truth come rushing from them… gush from them, and in that flood all other poetry and literature is washed to see what it really is. Not to mention, of couse, that I am washed and evaluated as well.

    Altrogge does not parse out the fact that there are, on the one hand, quality or excellence of execution and, on the other hand, truth and beauty. To, as he says, judge something on its own terms is really more in the vein of looking to the quality/excellence of execution. Was it well done? Does it portray its intended object well? But if it meets those tests, it still has to undergo the truth/beauty test, which of necessity flows from God’s Word. Truth and beauty are objective as they stand before Yahweh.

    It is possible, of course, to mess up the execution side so badly that truth and beauty can’t be seen, even if they are the object. But it is impossible to have excellent execution on something that is at its heart ugly and get anything but well-executed ugliness. Cinematically lush movies that glorify inappropriate sexual themes and acts are still pornography. The machine on display in some museum that takes in food and produces excrement may be a fabulous piece of techno-art. It still produces excrement. “Gosh, this looks cool and does it well, but man, the smell.”

    Good post, Corey!/PB

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