Does Artistic Purity Ever Demand Vulgarity?

the crucifixion pixelated header

This is the fourth installment in the “Whatever” series on a biblical view of the arts, drawn from Philippians 4:8. If you missed the last three articles, you can read them here: Whatever is True, Whatever is Honorable, and Whatever is Just.

Whatever is Pure: Set Apart Art

Something pure (ἁγνός hagnos) is set apart or holy; such a thing is “free from ceremonial defilement.” This word indicates two main things about Christ-honoring art: it should not glory in sin, and it should not be tainted by unbiblical worldviews.

Pure art is not necessarily safe art. Sometimes purity of heart demands a vulgar expression.

Most Christians think that holiness in art can be achieved superficially. As in, if it is “safe for the whole family,” then it is free from impurity. This is incorrect. Pure art is not necessarily safe art. Sometimes purity of heart demands a vulgar expression. And judging art on the basis of a superficial rating is misguided. Some of the most innocent-seeming children’s movies are chock full of unholiness. And some of the most disturbing, unsettling, and seemingly “vulgar” things are included in the Bible for our edification.

The Old Testament has many graphic and explicit sexual images as well as graphic descriptions of violence. A few passages for your consideration (though there are many throughout the Scriptures) would be Job 31:9–10, Ezekiel 23:20, Judges 3:21–23; 2 Kings 9:8 (read the KJV; the NASB is expurgated), and a significant portion of Song and Solomon, etc. One of my former teaching elders said that if we understood the idioms that Solomon employed, we would sell Song of Solomon in a brown paper bag. Obviously this is a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one.

Understand that the translators in many cases are not translating verses as explicitly as they may be written in the original tongue. Many know the passage from Isaiah 64:6 translated in the NIV as “When we display our righteous deeds, / they are nothing but filthy rags.” This may be an adequate translation (the NASB says “filthy garment”), but it is not literally what Isaiah wrote. He wrote that our righteousness is like a used menstrual rag. In modern parlance, our righteousness is a used tampon in the sight of God. This is gross and disgusting and should make us feel uncomfortable. But it is nonetheless the Word of God.

The question of vulgarity in Christian art constitutes one part of the broader question of how we are to represent sin and a fallen reality in works of art. It is also part of the broader question of what the purpose of art actually is. Since most people consider art to be at least nominally connected to beauty, they might reject work that explores the unseemly. But some things in this world are unseemly, and if art is meant to communicate truths immanently (see Whatever is True), then it needs to tell the truth about the world. Consider the following paintings, both of which concern the Crucifixion (an obviously unseemly event):

Tournier and Bosch

The one on the left, by Nicolas Tournier, is undeniably a more “beautiful” painting, and it accurately depicts the eerie stillness and sadness friends and family of Jesus must have felt after his death. It shows great skill, but it also nearly sterilizes the event. The blood is modest, as is the mourning. It is a safe scene, and very little more. The painting on the right, by Hieronymus Bosch, accurately depicts the vicious mockery and pettiness of Jesus’ accusers and murderers. Both paintings reveal a true aspect of the crucifixion, but I would argue that Bosch’s painting, though it is more crude, is also more powerful, both psychologically and theologically. It is “ugly” art. Yet it is still good.

When Paul writes, in Ephesians 5:11–12, that it is shameful even to mention the deeds done in darkness, he still requires that we expose those same deeds with the light. Learning to expose the deeds of darkness accurately without being party to darkness is a lifelong skill that Christian artists need to take very seriously.

Paul tells us: “All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable. All things are permissible, but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23). If an artist includes vulgar elements in his art merely to be shocking or edgy, his purpose is misguided, worldly, and compromised. But even if the artist’s purpose is to edify, he may not actually succeed in edifying. The measure of edification is in the receiver, not in the producer’s intentions. The receiver and the artist must carefully weigh a piece of work to determine if its “vulgarities” glorify or pathalify sin.1

The Importance of Audience and Context

Moving outside of depictions of sin, are there things that we should not be talking about because they are private? For instance, marital sexuality is quite beautiful and holy. But that doesn’t mean it would be good or edifying to publicly display a nude painting of my wife or a video of … well, you get the idea. But then we have books like Song of Solomon that are much more frank about marital sexuality than most Christians are comfortable being. So where do we draw the line?

I think audience or context is probably the most important consideration in this discussion. I might read Song of Solomon (or parts of it at least) to my children, but I am not necessarily going to explain the sexual mechanics of that book in any explicit detail until I think that would actually be edifying. And other parents will have other rules for their children (perhaps not quite as liberal as mine). But I also find it extremely disturbing when Bible stories meant for children gloss over the seriousness and grotesqueness of sin.

Art made by Christians does not always need to be intended for a general audience.

For instance, the VeggieTales version of David and Bathsheba (King George and the Ducky) is unoffensive to the point of completely trivializing the point of the biblical story. In it, a selfish King George steals a bath toy he wants, and the audience of children learns a lesson about sharing. (Although I’m not exactly sure what VeggieTales is advocating by King George sharing all of his duck toys at the end of the story.) But sharing really isn’t the only lesson children need to learn from the story of David’s tragic life-altering sin. They need to learn that sin is horribly ugly, terrifying, and dangerous. And King George and the Ducky just doesn’t do a very good job of that. In order to shield the audience from a conversation about death (the Uriah in this story doesn’t even die) and adultery, the storytellers paint a less than realistic picture of sin and its consequences.

Art made by Christians does not always need to be intended for a general audience. And, on a side note, art made for children shouldn’t be good only for children (as C. S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story.”) Some art made by Christians might end up being for a more mature audience, and I think that is permissible and often profitable.

This also raises a question of whether there are different rules for visual art than for verbal art. Am I allowed to say something in a poem that I would not be allowed to depict in a movie or painting? That is a huge question, and I don’t have time to fully address it here. But ultimately, that is a question for artists to carefully consider before God. If an artist is pursuing God with his whole heart, and God leads that artist to make art that offends much of his audience, I would tend to fall on the side of supporting the artist rather than condemning him. These are difficult questions requiring much discernment.

Not all actually good and very edifying art will seem wholesome to every viewer in every age … or every age group.

As has already been discussed, we are to expose sin (or pathalify it, to use my word), but we also must be careful that every word (and work) be “for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). It follows that images and words should also adhere to this criterion. The point of the “vulgarity” in the Scriptures is usually to expose or pathalify sin to accurately represent unrighteous words or deeds.

We should recognize that different applications and audiences require different art at different times. Not all actually good and very edifying art will seem wholesome to every viewer in every age … or every age group. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good art. It may mean you aren’t part of its audience—you aren’t the intended “hearer.”

So, if every word and work must be edifying, does that rule out “curse” words? Not necessarily.

What Exactly is an “Unwholesome Word”?

If we are not to allow “unseemly” or “coarse” speech to “proceed from our mouths” (Eph. 4:29; 5:4), how much more should we disallow the unwholesome from having a place in something like art that is more lasting than speech? But that brings up the question: What is unwholesome? All communication—including artistic communication—should be aimed at edifying the hearer, but there are some things that modern Christians consider vulgar or coarse that the Bible nonetheless includes as God’s Word. Again, this is a subject that requires discernment; every Christian should consider his brother more important than himself in the application of this principle (Phil. 2:3).

Some words are strong words, but are not necessarily careless words, or words used in vain. There are words like “damn” or “bastard” that actually do have a meaning, and, when used according to their meaning, I see no reason to condemn them. And there are other words, either crass or offensive, that may be useful in narrative and poetry if the purpose is actually to offend, shock, or unsettle the hearer. I think we need to be careful and choosy about this language, but I cannot see biblical reason to wholly rule out this language if it is carefully used with a particular audience and effect in mind.

In Matthew 12:36, Jesus says that we will be judged for “every careless word” we say. When used carelessly, even the most innocuous words are damaging to the hearer and “unwholesome.” It is absurd how much our culture uses God’s name in vain. We even have a blasphemous acronym littering the internet. Language in general suffers degradation at every turn. It behooves the artist to consider carefully every word he sends out into the world, and to edit his words laboriously (Prov. 10:19).

As for curse words and the representation of sin, the Bible uses strong (some might say explicit) language at times according to the need of the moment. Each artist and each patron must prayerfully distinguish between the necessary representation of sin to set the stage for God’s redemptive work and a representation of sin that leaves the patron weak and unedified. We must not be deceived in this. Satan would love to transmit the pleasure of sin to countless Christians through the well-meant artistic output of his enemies.

Satan would love to transmit the pleasure of sin to countless Christians through the well-meant artistic output of his enemies.

Some artists include curse words and other earmarks of a fallen world in their narratives because they are attempting to accurately represent reality as it is. Though I think this goal is valid, I believe it can often be achieved without using “curse” words or “explicit” expressions of sin. It requires more creativity to accomplish a true representation of our world in this manner, but it is nonetheless possible (with a little work) in many, though not all, cases. For centuries, talented artists have practiced indirection for this purpose. Shakespeare was a master of this. He transmitted the idea that certain characters had degenerate language without having to use many foul words (though some of his words were fouler than others).2

Getting Salty

At the same time, we as Christians need to stop being so squeamish. Christian readers are so notoriously offendable that Christian publishers and distributors refuse to sell anything that might be even slightly controversial.

Recently, Lifeway apparently dropped an author because she used the term “vagina.” She was not using it flippantly, but the Christian distribution giant purportedly thought the word would be offensive enough to its customers to affect sales. One commentator on the decision pointed out:

This is not to say that the more “foul” or shocking is always the better, more God-honoring writing. And this is not to say we don’t all need a “good stiff edit.” The best editors will note where language or voice or stories don’t ring true, where they fail structurally or where they are being cliché. They will know where writers are being crass or shocking for its own sake and when they are not trying to speak truthfully and carefully for Jesus’ sake.

But there’s a world of difference between being edited and being censored. It’s been rightly pointed out by many people that according to their own standards, many Christian bookstores ought not to carry the Bible. Those of us who’ve read the Bible know it includes a fair share of “near profanities.” And yet, we call it the Truth.

We need to carefully consider whether we Christians have become a saltless bunch. Salt is gritty and it stings. Sometimes the truth is the same way. An expurgated reality is a false one, and presenting only sterilized art will do little to address the real issues of a dirty world. In order to remain pure and promote purity, sometimes our art must address filthiness. To repurpose a proverb (Prov. 26:4–5), we cannot address filthiness according to its filthiness, lest we become filthy. But we must address filthiness as it deserves, lest it be clean in its own eyes.

  1. There does not seem to be one word in English that means “to demonstrate something to be ugly” or “make evident that something is ugly or twisted.” I propose this word pathalify (pronounced pa-THAWL-ih-FIE) to fulfill this need. It comes from the Hebrew (pātal    ) which is used in Psalm 18:26: “to the crooked, God shows himself oblique ( pātal  ).”
  2. A classic case is the degeneration of Othello’s language as he comes more and more under the evil influence of Iago. This point is made on page xviii of the Introduction to the 2009 Modern Library Paperback Edition of Othello.

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