A recent conversation with a friend of mine led me to consider the difference between entertainment and art. The difference is that entertainment seeks to distract from the difficulty of life, while art draws us in and seeks to shape how we understand it. Entertainment closes our eyes to the world for a few moments while art calls on us to open them a little wider.
Entertainment draws us outside of our lives and offers relief from it. It is comfortable and pleasant; this is why so many flock to it and why people spend billions upon billions of dollars on entertainment every year even though there are people not far from us who do not know where their next meal is coming from.
But art is something entirely different. Art draws us in and calls on us to feel and understand and act. Art, at least good art, makes us uncomfortable. It stoops down into the sorrows of life that we often want to look beyond and forces us to look it square in the face and search for answers.
Take this scene in the 1993 movie Philadelphia. The movie is about a homosexual man with AIDS, named Andrew (played by Tom Hanks), who seeks legal justice after being fired from his politically conservative law firm. His attorney, Don Miller (played by Denzel Washington), even though he is representing his case, essentially only sees Andrew as the law firm did: a homosexual man with AIDS.
In this scene, Andrew, nearing death due to his illness, describes the message and emotion of the aria playing in the background, seeing his own story unfold in the lyrics of the song. As the scene progresses, there is a palpable change in the way Don looks at Andrew. He begins with a look of disinterest and contempt, yet as he watches Andrew’s anguish, his expression changes. He no longer sees Andrew as a gay man with HIV, but simply as a man; a man with deep emotion who is dying (Hanks clutches his IV carrier throughout the whole scene) and who is trying to find purpose in his suffering.
This is what art does; it descends down into the pain of life and seeks to find answers, meaning, and understanding. In Andrew’s suffering, he grasps for answers. His answer in the suffering is that as long as the pain leads him to love other people, there is purpose in his pain. He believes that love will transcend and conquer his suffering. He comes so close! But, in the end, the love for which he settles is too small and, ultimately, unable to give purpose to his suffering. His love for others cannot save. Human love cannot transcend suffering.
Yet in the gospel, we find the meaning for which Andrew and all great art strives to attain. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The meaning to all of our suffering is found in the Suffering Savior, who came down into our suffering, conquered it, and leads us out with the promise of eternal glory.
In the truest sense, the gospel is art. It stares the ugliness of life square in the eyes and teaches us how to feel and understand and act. Christ redeems us from our suffering through his death. And the one who gave his life for us in love demands that we give our lives to him in return, even to the point of denying the very way we feel inside. And with this comes the promise that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” Divine love that calls for our love that leads to glory. This is the deepest and truest meaning in the universe.
All other art strives to attain this depth but ultimately falls short. May it drive us to love and worship the true and great Artist!