ESSAY
A Bad Man Speaking Well
POSTED
November 22, 2022
FILED UNDER
Wisdom

The scuttlebutt of the last hundred years would tell us that Albert Einstein was a horrible husband, Winston Churchill was a racist, Mother Theresa was a hypocrite, and Caravaggio a murderer. From Benjamin Britten’s boys to Gandhi’s girls, it can be depressing and confusing to hear about people of great import whose legacies are inextricably woven with competing threads of genius and depravity. Does one cancel out the other? Do artists get immunity for their conduct if their work is canonized? Should the Christian boycott the extraordinary contributions of bad people? Are good men the only ones worth listening to?

No doubt there is an important lesson in Quintilian’s famous maxim about orators being good men who speak well. Even the Scriptures make it clear that elders are not to be men who merely know the Bible better than others, but they are to be men whose character accords with the commandments of the Lord. Men, then, ought to be judged not merely by the content they create but the content of their character. What then are we to do with bad men speaking well?

It should first be said that assessing one’s character can often only be done well in retrospect. When a man’s body goes into the ground, it often unearths a host of revelations about him. Many men who have spoken well will be ultimately shown to have been much more of a mixed bag than anyone may have thought possible. This reality may also emerge at the hands of crisis while the man is alive.

The Donatist controversy which took place around the fifth century, split the church in Africa in half. This schism centered on the proposed need for the clergy to be faultless in order for their ministerial work to be accepted as legitimate. Folks, understandably, began to question whether or not their own baptisms were legitimate if their minister at the time was found to have buckled under persecution. These kinds of questions have not vanished from circulation. How many people baptized in Word of Faith congregations later come to question whether or not they should be re-baptized? What about those who came to faith under a pastor who ran off with their secretary? It is the reality of God’s objectivity that will establish a clear line of order in the midst of this confusion.

When we discover some hidden evil in an artist, the power of the art is often diminished because we see that he or she believed the creation to have been important enough to have lied about their own character. A child-abusing composer cheapens the great compositions due to the residual cost of building the art. No serenade for horn and strings is worth the sacrificed psyche of an abused child, no matter how masterfully arranged it is. But does the evil action of the creator render the serenade worthless? The answer for the Christian must be yes and no.

It is undeniable that the medium is the message. The frame, the artist, and the medium are all content as well as vehicles for content. With this in mind, we recognize why some artists would be black-listed under totalitarian regimes, even if they were only producing slap-stick comedy. This is due to the fact that content does not emerge from a vacuum. The artist, especially for the last 600 years, has been remarkably present in the art, whether one is aware of this or not. And any communication worth paying attention to is arguing a point. Creators know there is no such thing as unbiased data.

In his book, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, Henry Van Til says, “It ought to be unequivocally clear that sin did not invalidate the cultural mandate nor excuse man from fulfilling his cultural task. The fact that man has broken (transgressed) the law of God does not imply that God’s law has been abolished, that it has lost its force for man’s life as a creature of God.” Criticism, remember, is the first action of God after the work of creation. What Van Til is saying implies that an artist ought not be held to separate standards of criticism simply because the artist is a pagan, a bad Christian, or a complete fraud.

Every artist knows full well that they themselves are on the chopping block when their work is under criticism. That’s why Mark Twain famously stated, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” And every artist ought to be on the chopping block when their work is under criticism. Part of the reason for the dilemma around bad men speaking well existing in the Church is that criticism has languished. The options that have long existed around this hypothetical serenade for horn and strings is to either suggest that it is unbiased data and therefore passes the Christian approval test with flying colors or it is condemned as being a twisted monster since it was forged in the artistic kitchen of a monster. Pagan is as pagan does. Clearly, both of these are insufficient since the Bible shows a much more rich but multiform path forward.

The apostle Paul gleans amongst the fields of pagans and brings home portions of such richness that they are continually with us, having been canonized by the inspiration of the Spirit in our Holy Scriptures. From Aratus to Meander and Epimenides, we are shown that the Christian ought to be a practitioner of criticism, having the capacity to discern the gold from the trash in a work of art. Notice, Paul quotes one line from Epimenides and does not download the entire text of Oracles of the Poet of Crete.

And so what emerges is that the work of reading, watching, and listening is the work of assessing and it requires maturity. Paul, elsewhere, will warn Christians to stay away from writers in the traditions of men that peddle vain philosophies in opposition to Christ. Surely, Epimenides fell under this banner at times. The jewel of the critic is to understand when Epimenides is worth preserving and passing on proper portions as worthy inheritance. This would tell us that criticism is a neglected work in the Church that ought to be developed. It is not work for a neophyte.

It needs to be said that not every work is worth mining. There may be gold in some hills, the miner would be better off leaving in the ground. Again, this requires wisdom and the kingly art of criticism. It is the glory of kings to search out the matter. It is the lover of wisdom that avoids certain streets when walking home in the evening.

The onus for artistic worth moves transactionally from the artist to the critic in the natural course of events. God created. God critiqued. That is the order. The work itself is allowed to stay put and be assessed. If it is forgotten, then the matter is closed. If there is any hope for it to persevere, it belongs to those who understand that everything in the world, every note, every brush stroke, every article and adjective, will live or die based on its proximity to union with Jesus Christ. Not all artists can bring their work into this preservation, but, praise God, some critics have rescued works from the fire . . . and more are needed.

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