Dialog, Debate, and Art

When someone hears the word debate, it generally recalls images of two people in an argument. The people are viewed as enemies. A good example would be any political debate. In debates, people often lose sight of the issues and begin attacking one another. The idea is to win a debate. And the most interesting thing about debates is that usually those involved in them are so set in their ways, that neither person is willing to admit that he or she could be wrong. In debates, minds are not changed, but often, feelings are hurt.

This blog is not about debate, it is about dialog. Dialog is a civil discussion with someone who may or may not agree with your own ideas. In great dialog, different ideas (maybe even contradictory ones) can be shared without the conversation erupting into a verbal fist fight. This idea currently seems lost on the political spectrum. It also seems lost in many instances where Christians (even with good intentions) act in hostility towards a culture that is moving further away from the Judeo-Christian foundation.

Dialog causes people to evaluate their own beliefs in correlation with the beliefs of another. It does not always end up changing someone’s position, but the two people in dialog together should understand where the other is coming from by the end of the conversation.

A problem I see with many Christians, especially here in the Bible Belt (The southern United States), is that they often think it necessary to “debate” with others about God. If someone is not a Christian, they attempt to argue with that person as if he or she is purposely living as an enemy of God. Much of the time, people who are not Christians do not hate God, they either don’t know God or have a different view of him. Even if I believe that Christianity is the only true religion, I don’t think Bible bashing is the best way to help others see the light.

There is no room for Bible bashing in arenas where true dialog can take place. If I am to share my faith, I want the way I share it to reflect the faith I profess. The Jesus of the Bible ate with sinners, he loved the worst of the worst and they loved him. As Rich Mullins put it:

“The whores all seem to love Him
And the drunks propose a toast
And they say, “Surely God is with us.”

If some of the worst people around by social standards loved Jesus, then how come so many people from all walks of life seem to hate Christians?

I think one reason is because Christians put up the front that they are better than everyone else–you know—”holier than thou.” And then they judge everyone, condemning them without ever trying to understand them.

That is not how Jesus did it, and that is not how I will do it.

I will dialog with anyone about Jesus and/or Christianity, but I will not debate. I don’t have time for it–life is too short and time is too precious.

I think the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. I like to think that people who do not share my beliefs feel less threatened by me than they do when talking with some other Christians. I think that is also why so many non-Christians feel like they can ask me questions about faith. I hope that they do not feel condemned by me, but I hope they feel loved.

So the question is, if you are a Christian how do you treat non-Christians around you? Do you debate them? Do you dialog with them? Or do you simply do nothing?

Art as Dialog

Just as I believe it is important for Christians to dialog with those in the culture around them, I believe that art should be viewed as a form of dialog and Christians should engage with art in the spirit of good dialog. Music, movies, and television should be viewed as forms of dialog.

Should I watch this? Should I listen to that?

In education, most dialog takes place at conferences and in producing journal articles, theses, and dissertations. You also have different subjects like History, English, Mathematics, and Philosophy.

What would dialog look like if it was applied to the most popular forms of entertainment in America? How would it help us make more sense out of what we listen to and watch?

Here’s how I see it.

Subjects in school are like genres in art. For movies you have major categories like Drama, Comedy, Thrillers, Documentaries, Horror, Adventure, and Westerns. For music, you have major categories like Rock, Pop, Blues, Country, Hip Hop, R&B, Jazz, and Rap.

Conferences are like movie theaters and concert halls.

Presentations are like individual films and songs.

A thesis or dissertation would be like a trilogy in film, or a concept album in music.

When a screen writer decides to join the dialog, he or she writes a film. Then a director (sometimes the same person) films the dialog. Then it is edited and given a soundtrack. The dialog is then presented in a theater or on television.  It is critiqued by movie critics or tv critics.

When a composer decides to join the dialog he or she composes a song or group of songs. They are recorded by an artist (again, sometimes the same person), and then they are edited and placed on an album. The album is released and it is critiqued by music critics.

Here are some examples of how it works:

King Kong was written and produced in 1933. It was remade several times each giving a new take on the conversation.  Here you see one conversation being re-presented.

Armageddon is produced as a film. Someone else says, that can be done better. Deep Impact is produced. A conversation is started about what it would be like if earth was destroyed. Then comes, The Day After Tomorrow. Then comes 2012.  Each work is similar in concept, but it is a different take on the “what if” scenario.

In music, Chuck Berry writes and records Johnny B. Good.  Then numerous other artists record the song, including Jonny Rivers, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, AC/DC. Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, and even Elvis Presley. Again each one is a different presentation of the same conversation.

John Mellencamp records Smalltown. Allen Jackson sings Small Town Southern Man. Kelli Pickler sings Small Town Girl. Miranda Lambert sings Famous in a Small Town. Charlie Robison sings My Hometown. Each song is about something similar, but they are each a different take on what life is like in small town USA.

When one begins to see art as conversation or dialog, then that changes how one interprets art and how one enjoys it.

In academic dialog, the goal is to arrive at the truth. In viewing art as dialog, one looks for a truthful expression. More than one person can be right, but people can also be wrong.

So, when I am asked if it is ok to listen to this or that, I wonder if the person is asking me if they can listen to it without having to think about it, or if they are asking me if I agree with it.

Simply put, I don’t think anyone should ever listen to a song or watch a film that they are not willing to think about. If they are willing to think about it, then they can watch or listen to it. To think is to enter the dialog. Music and movies speak to us. If we listen to what they have to say, then we must choose to agree with them or disagree.

Are there films we should not engage in conversation? Yes. There is also music we should not engage in conversation. But I think we do a great disservice to ourselves when we watch or listen to anything (even something that is Christian) without thinking about it. We also do a great disservice to ourselves when we refuse to watch or listen to something just because it was written by a non-Christian. Learning the perspectives of others helps us understand other people better and it helps us grow as individuals.

God created human beings in his image. That means that all humans bear God’s image to some extent. God is creative and when we create art or anything else it is representative of how we bear God’s image. Unlike God, all of what we create is not good, but if all truth is God’s truth, then any created art that bears the truth brings glory to God.

Escape or Engage

When people watch movies, they often tend to “turn off their minds.” They seek to escape reality for a while and lose themselves in a visual story. Perhaps there is a time for this, but even when we seek to escape, our minds are still presented with messages that contain another person’s worldview.

Dialog is important to engaging because it shows active interest in the subject. When we simply turn of our minds as a way of escape, we are closing the door on dialog, but our thoughts are still being shaped by the subject matter.

As opposed to movies, literature often calls and even compels us to put on our thinking caps.

It is almost impossible to read a novel to escape, but when reading one is easily whisked away to another world.

It should be a goal to approach movies and music the way one is compelled to approach literature. In fact, that should be the goal for approaching any form of art, our relationships, our jobs, etc.

Being Open Minded and the Gray Box

In order to really understand culture, it is necessary to be open-minded. I already stated that there are many cultures that surround us and shape who we are. In the process of becoming who we are, we become familiar with different ideas and concepts and then we assume that the things familiar to us are true. However, we could be seeing things incorrectly. I also mentioned that we perceive the world as we see it and not how it is. Because our beliefs are, at least to some extent, the result of outside influences and familiarity, it is easy to be close-minded about ideas that challenge our beliefs or take us out of our comfort zones—beliefs that make us see the world differently.

But if we are not open-minded enough to genuinely listen to perspectives that challenge our own, we will never grow in the truth. Sometimes challenges cause us to change our beliefs—and that can be scary, but sometimes challenges also strengthen our beliefs.

I recently heard the philosopher Keith Putt state that in history, whenever someone or a group of people has claimed to have absolute truth that it has always led to violence.

That is because whenever a people group claims to have absolute knowledge about something, they tend to force it upon others.

I am not of the opinion that we should force our beliefs upon others, but instead I believe that we should discover the truth for ourselves.

I do not think truth is relative. In fact, I think truth is quite absolute. However, I also think that I am a flawed person with limited knowledge about absolute truth. And while I know that truth is absolute, I am less inclined to think that I understand reality so well that I possess absolute knowledge about everything.

Instead, I believe that we each live in a gray box. In this box are all the things that require us to make decisions about the truth—about what to believe. We must decide for ourselves what evidence supports what beliefs. We must look for truth around us, but we must be willing to change our beliefs if we realize that we are holding something to be true that is just not plausible.

Each day we make decisions about what to believe. Sometimes we make correct decisions, sometimes we make incorrect decisions. That is why open-minded dialog is necessary. This kind of dialog helps us to refine our understanding of our correct beliefs and it helps us to see where we need to change our incorrect beliefs.

My Personal Beliefs about the Nature and Character of God

Here are the beliefs that I think are true about the God we worship as Christians. These beliefs inform the way I engage the culture and dialog with cultural issues.

As a Christian, I believe that there is one Triune God. What this means is that I believe there is one God-essence that is manifested in three persons. In Christianity we refer to them as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Father is a spiritual being who wills things to happen. The Son is better known as Jesus Christ. The Son has existed with the Father eternally but chose to act in history by taking on. This happened at the birth of Jesus around 4 BC. Jesus was hung on a cross and his human spirit died, but his God-essence remained. When he was resurrected, his human spirit was returned and now he remains in human form in heaven. The third character is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has existed with the Father and the Son eternally. The Spirit indwells believers and gives them comfort, peace, and purpose as he reveals to them what God wants them to do in life.

The Spirit is not the Father, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, but they are each God. They also always work together in unity.

What the Father wills, the Son does, through the Spirit. For example, the Father willed that the Son save humanity from sin, so the Son added humanity to his divinity and was born of the virgin Mary. It was the Holy Spirit who opened her whom and allowed her to become pregnant as a virgin. So the Son saved came to earth to save humanity through the Spirit.

I believe that God knows all things actual and possible. He knows what life choices we will make and all choice we could make. He knows infinite numbers of paths that our lives could take given any decision we could make in any situation. God knows every thought every living creature has ever had, has, or will have. He knows the inner nature of the heart. This is what we mean by stating that God is an all-knowing being.

God also acts in time. God created the universe and holds it together, but God also acts in time and in events in history. Throughout history many people have claimed to do things in the name of God, that were not the actual workings of God. It is sad that people through their own selfish motives have been willing to raise the banner of holiness to justify evil. But when God works in history, it is for good. God is the friend of the down-trodden, the rejected, the orphans, the widows, the discriminated, the hurt, and the broken.

I also believe that God is consistent in his being. God does not change who he is; his nature is remarkably consistent.

God is also very situational. He chooses to act in the way that is best for his creation in every situation.

Sometimes people tend to describe God as if he is an emotionless killjoy. This is not the case. I believe that God created humans to have emotions as a reflection of himself. I believe that God perfectly expresses his emotions, and this is part of what makes him situational. Different situations warrant different emotional responses. God’s emotional responses are always consistent with his nature and perfectly suited for the situation at hand.

God is not some bland emotionless being. He is not some deity that has stepped away from earth as an onlooker. God is active in human affairs daily. He delights in all he has created, and he desires for his creation to enjoy life to the fullest.

Because God desires his creatures to enjoy life, and because he is active in human affairs, God desires for humans to talk to God. Many people make prayer out to be a formal time where several basic statements are made, so that they can move on with life. But prayer isn’t really about saying what you’re supposed to say when you’re supposed to say it. Prayer is about talking to God as if he is a friend and father. Prayer is about conversing with God throughout the day. It is about sharing your struggles, your pain, your sorrow, your accomplishments, any good news you receive, needs that others may have, and doing all of it with an attitude of thankfulness. I think we should be respectful of God when we talk with him, but we should also be relaxed and honest. We should also look for answers to our prayers. We should look for answers by observing things that happen around us, and by listening to the Holy Spirit as he prompts us.

God wants us to follow him and obey him, but he wants us to do it joyfully–not legalistically, not ritualistically, but consistently.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the church and think that some rules must be followed and that some rituals are necessary. What I am saying here is that we do not follow traditions just to follow traditions. We should do things ritually, only when they are done from our heart for God.

God is also forgiving and empowering. God forgives us for a sin. We all have it. God empowers us to overcome sin and to accomplish things we could never do on our own. Accomplishing such things, of course, helps lead to enjoying a full life. God gives people joy. The joy God gives remains present. Sure, everyone has bad days, hears bad news, and goes through trials, but when we know God is walking through the trials with us, we have a joy that allows us to keep going even when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

While God allows us to go through tough times and experience pain, God never wrongs us or mistreats us.

God is perfectly good.

God is not just a cosmic being, he is my best friend, and he is a father to the fatherless, he knows me better than I know myself, and he walks with me daily. Or rather…I walk with him. Sometimes I get off the path and go astray, but his love for me is not based on condition, like the love of many people is, and so whenever I stray, it is always only one step back to him. God gives peace. The peace he gives cannot be found in anything else, and nothing else can compare to the joy that comes with God’s peace.

If you really want peace in life, if you really want a full life, if you really want to find meaning and purpose in all you do, believe in God, and invite him to be a part of your life, every day.