The Book of Psalms has been an encouragement to me personally for years, resonating with me in a major way. The psalms demonstrate how real people wrestle with issues of faith.
For a recent Bible study I decided to do some background research, what I found was helpful as I reflected on how the Book of Psalms has fed my soul over the years.
The way the psalms provoke and guide emotion illuminates the role of art in our current society, helping us to consider what guides and mould our souls.
A vicarious resource
The Book of Psalms was referred to by the Jews as the 'The Book of Praises'. The Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) termed it 'The Book of Psalms'—referring to songs written to stringed instruments. Either way, this was the hymnal of the Jews.
At times I read Psalms like any other passage of scripture without considering the words 'songs'; but they are—laments, thanksgiving, wisdom and messianic—through the use of songs the psalmists were able to communicate rich truths, wisdom and facts of history to the people of God about God.
The Psalms hold a vicarious element—acknowledging common emotions and feelings. All of us, at one time or other, have been acquainted with grief, happiness and anger with a desire for vindication.
When we read psalms we can easily envision ourselves in the different circumstances the psalmists describe, especially identifying with the often visceral responses. As we read the Psalms our emotions are intentionally guided.
This reality is not true only of the Psalms, but other expressions of art, especially music. For decades music has promulgated different ideas and expressed truth claims.
Let us then consider how art influences, and how art expressions can be beneficial.
How art influences
In Confessions Augustine comments on the impact of art through his experience of the theatre in Carthage:
The theatre enchanted me, with its images of my own miseries. Its plays added fuel to my fire. What makes someone want to be made sad? Why behold doleful tragedies, vicariously experiencing what does not have to be suffered?
There is a mirror in art, may it be songs or dramatic expression. It is far reaching and carries a universal appeal because of universal human emotions—often stirred up through different circumstances and in different contexts.
Art replicates these circumstances and scenarios and expresses what others are knowingly feeling in an often affirming or prescriptive manner. Art influences because there is a vicarious element—people picture ideas that are precious to them and celebrate it along with the artist as they listen or watch.
Art also shows us that we respond viscerally just as much as intellectually. We 'feel' and it affirms this by facilitating our emotions. Art can also be instructive or prescriptive and by extension serves as a voice or platform to speak the truth.
Art with virtue and value
Art is supremely influential: movies, songs and even paintings, it has been for years. Art is a shaper of minds and culture.
I believe art should affirm human emotion, not relativistic ideas—meaning not all expressions should be given legitimacy through art. For example, not all sexual desires should be expressed and art, by extension, should be responsible in considering boundaries. Currently there are many who use sex in the media landscape sell, and by virtue are also shaping minds into thinking sexual expression is the crowning glory of humanity.
Famed British Writer and lay preacher CS Lewis quotes Augustine in his book The Abolition of Man saying, 'St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it'. In other words it is good to feel, but not every feeling is legitimate and dare I say right, not every affection shown towards an object is appropriate.
That being said, I believe for art to have value it must be linked to virtue; artists have a responsibility to affirm right expression as they excite the human emotions through art, as Lewis says, 'The aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought', obviously the statement is directed to a teacher, but I believe the artist bears a similar kind of responsibility.
So the question arises: how are people's emotions guided?
Famed Christian Apologist Ravi Zacharias says that philosophy, especially in our present context, comes to us in three levels: theory, or the foundational substructure of logic; emotive imagination and feeling, namely drama, literature and music; and lastly 'Kitchen table talk' or application.
Zacharias speaks of level two as:
The second level of philosophy does not feel the constraint of reason or come under the binding structures of argument. It finds its refuge in the imagination and feeling. Ways of thinking at this level may enter consciousness via a play or a novel, or touch the imagination through visual media, making belief-altering impact by capturing the emotions. It is immensely effective, and literature, drama and music have historically moulded the soul of a nation for more than solid reasoning has.
The question again is: is the soul of the nation being moulded for the better?
Think about this in the context of actors who play a role depicting a character they would never want their own children to be or musicians who have a radically different stage persona or even sing about a lifestyle they do not live—seemingly painting a picture of the ideal life while living another.
I believe there needs to be a consistency between the expression of art and what the artist believes. A question the listener/spectator must ask as he views life and reality through the lens of the artist, and the question the artist must ask as he interacts with impressionable minds and hearts is this: is it true?
Too many times have we seen both sides do the wrong thing; the spectator bestowing or surrendering responsibility to the artist, or the artist absolving him or herself from any sense of responsibility to their audience.
Once a truth claim is made there is a responsibility to make sure that it is a reflection of reality.
This is a challenge for those who enter the space of the arts—to express themselves responsibly as others of us remain vicariously engaged.
Paul Lewis is a Staff Worker for Inter School's Christian Fellowship in Kingston Jamaica, where he also resides. He has aspirations of becoming a Christian Apologist and he loves reading especially topics like: History, Philosophy and Theology. You can follow him on twitter @VeritasDeiVinci
Paul Lewis' previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/paul-lewis.html