WeeklyTech #117

Roger Scruton on art and morality

Over this past weekend, Saturday Night Live had a sketch on The Weekend Update with “Goober the Clown”, which was seemingly intended to confront a serious moral issue in our society through the use of humor. The sketch was not only distasteful given the abhorrent realities of abortion and the devastation of women, but even the intended comedic element was completely lost as the writers sought to push a chilling message of pro-choice propaganda and political correctness.

Whether you have seen the sketch or not, the methods used to speak about such a serious matter and the attempt to moralize through art was nothing short of cringeworthy. Over the last few weeks, I have been mulling over the question of art, beauty, and morality after a student mentioned in class that they were writing a paper on the artistic value of many “Christian” movies and the way that art is often manipulated to outwardly push a particular message rather than to communicate certain moral realities through deep aesthetic value. 

In his usual eloquent and punchy style, the late British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton captures this manipulation and hijacking of art to push a moral message in his volume, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford Press. He reveals that art can and does indeed carry a moral message but it is best communicated through beauty rather than overt moralizing, where the artistic value connotes truth through richness, depth, and narrative development.

It is certainly a failing in a work of art that it should be more concerned to convey a message than to delight its audience. Works of propaganda…sacrifice aesthetic integrity to political correctness, character to caricature, and drama to sermonizing. On the other hand, part of what we object to in such works is their untruthful quality. The lessons urged upon us are neither compelled by the story nor illustrated in the exaggerated figures and characters; the propaganda message is not part of the aesthetic meaning but extraneous to it—an intrusion from the everyday world which only loses conviction when thrust on us in the midst of aesthetic contemplation.

By contrast, there are works of art which contain intense moral messages in an aesthetically integrated frame. Consider John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The advocacy of the Christian life is here embodied in schematic characters and transparent allegory. But the book is written with such immediacy and such a true feeling for the weight of words and the seriousness of sentiment, that the Christian message becomes an integral part of it, rendered beautiful by the compelling words. We encounter in Bunyan a unity of form and content that forbids us from dismissing the work as a mere exercise in propaganda.

At the same time, even while admiring Pilgrim’s Progress for its truthfulness, we may reject its underlying beliefs. Bunyan is showing the lived reality of Christian discipleship, and atheists, Jews and Muslims can find truth in his story—truth to the human condition and to the heart of one who has glimpsed in his life’s disorder the hope of a better world. Nor does Bunyan’s moralizing offend, since it emerges from experiences honestly captured and vividly confessed to.

Works of art are forbidden to moralize, only because moralizing destroys their true moral value, which lies in the ability to open our eyes to others, and to discipline our sympathies towards life as it is. Art is not morally neutral, but has its own way of making and justifying moral claims. By eliciting sympathy where the world withholds it an artist may, like Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, oppose the bonds of a too constrictive moral order. By romanticizing characters who deserve no such treatment an artist can also, like Berg (and Wedekind) in Lulu, endow narcissism and selfishness with a deceptive appeal. Many of the aesthetic faults incurred by art are moral faults—sentimentality, insincerity, self-righteousness, moralizing itself.

Scruton reminds us that true beauty is seen in the richness of a work and can connect deeply with an audience, communicating deep truths and morals. The SNL sketch was a poor attempt at sermonizing and pushing a moral position upon viewers without any true artistic value, which is ironic given much of the language used to discredit pro-life positions is based on pushing values and morals upon others. The SNL writer reverted to pushing a propagandist type message—”sacrific[ing] aesthetic integrity [for] political correctness”—rather than seeking to connect with audiences through actual humor and aesthetic value, which it has historically done even if you disagree with the messages being communicated.

But even if the message is morally upright, as in religious films, beauty is not a secondary value sacrificed at the altar of sermonizing. True creatives can communicate truths in beautiful ways, since the beauty communicates the value of the underlying message being presented. Truth and beauty correspond to one another and must not be pitted against one another, regardless of your political, social, or religious views.

If you would like to read more, check out the full volume from Oxford University Press and to learn more about the brilliant Sir Roger Scruton read this tribute at ERLC.com from my friend and Boyce College colleague, Dr. Bryan Baise.

The Rundown

UK’s Online Safety Bill could spell jail time for trolls – Issie Lapowsky | Protocol

Lawmakers in the U.K. are considering making it illegal to post certain content online that causes “emotional, psychological, or physical harm to the likely audience” and punishing violators with jail time, according to The Sunday Times. The provision would be part of the forthcoming Online Safety Bill that is currently being drafted.

Exclusive: Twitter takes aim at climate misinformation during COP26 – Sarah Fischer | Axios

It’s the latest tech giant to take aim at climate misinformation, expected to be more prevalent during the global conference, which brings together leaders from around the world to discuss the climate crisis.

The search for truth takes a hit at MIT – Adeline A. Allen | WORLD

Dorian Abbot, a renowned geophysicist at the University of Chicago, was invited by MIT to deliver a prestigious public lecture. But soon after that, MIT rescinded the invitation. The reason? He had dared to speak out in criticism against Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) and affirmative action programs.

How to Prepare for the Metaverse – Ian Harber and Patrick Miller | The Gospel Coalition

But even as the pace of technological change has felt dizzying and exhausting for churches in recent years, we’ve only seen the tip of the digital iceberg. The real change, which will truly transform our mental, spiritual, and ecclesial landscapes, is coming soon: the metaverse.

Roku will kick porn channels off its platform in March – Janko Roettgers | Protocol

The streaming-device maker announced a policy change last week that will effectively ban the world’s largest porn site, as well as a number of adult entertainment companies, from its platform on March 1, 2022.

Microsoft also eyes the metaverse – Ina Fried | Axios

Microsoft said at its Ignite conference on Tuesday that it will bring avatars and its broader Mesh platform to Microsoft Teams, as part of an effort to make meetings more immersive and collaborative. That’s part of a larger set of plans for the metaverse.

Concerned about digital platforms? – Daniel Huizinga | WORLD

But the recent proposed overhaul put forth by Democrats creates enormous new power for the government to define acceptable speech. Needless to say, that would threaten significant danger for religious organizations and the broader culture of free and open debate.

Can We Blame Christian Division on Algorithms? – Trevin Wax | The Gospel Coalition

More and more, pastors and church leaders acknowledge problems related to social media. Whether it’s division and disunity in the local congregation (due to church members duking it out online), or suspicion and distrust of Christian leaders, writers, and organizations (due to spurious claims, quotes out of context, or false accusations), the conclusion is the same: We aren’t doing well at discipling people to be discerning and reasonable online.