Is the goodness of literature, like music and any other art, in the eye of the beholder?

I’ve struggled recently. I love to listen to music: when I’m writing, when I’m working, when I’m doing the dishes, when I’m driving—whenever. However, sometimes I grow weary of listening to the same playlist (albeit over 100 songs long and ever growing). Sometimes I even tire of listening to the same kind of music.

One of my favorite bands is the lesser-known act, The Gray Havens. Named after a realm within Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Middle-earth, the group’s latest album is a lyrical and musical exploration of C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised By Joy. The son of an Evangelical pastor, Dave Radford—the main singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist of the band—creates music that bends genres. He has self-identified his music as “lyrical folk pop” (if I’m remembering the name correctly).

Good with a capital “G”

Why do I tell you about The Gray Havens? It’s because I believe they are producing very authentically Christian and truly good music: tunes that make you sing along, have a great time, but also think and enrich your soul. This music you can draw from in your prayer and in your life. These are songs that—dare I say it—make you a better person for having listened to and meditated upon them.

Of course, this music isn’t Bach or Mozart. It’s not high art. But it’s good. Good with a capital “G.”

So why do I grow tired of listening to The Gray Havens and a number of other great bands like them? I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15). In a sense, it is almost because they are good and I am not. Or at least I don’t feel like being good at that moment.

Can Music Be Bad?

If I feel anxious, agitated, annoyed, or despondent, or even if I feel good (too good), I turn to the same old tunes I listened to in my high school and college days. These bands I would say that these bands generally produce bad music: that is, music that is bad for you.

Maybe the lyrics are depressing, licentious, nihilistic, or even vapid. Maybe the music is overly passionate and stirs up emotions and feelings that shouldn’t be stirred. Maybe the lives of the musicians themselves leave much to be desired: a string of broken marriages, infidelities, drug and alcohol abuse, in some cases, suicide. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Why do I listen to this trash at times? And why do I have trouble getting it out of my head once I’ve come to my senses and want to part ways?

I would posit that literature and music (and the other arts) have much in common in this respect. There is such a thing as good literature and bad literature. We need not live under the “dictatorship of relativism” as one great social commentator once called it a few decades ago. Not everything is relative, including and especially, art.

Some books are good for you and some are not. Perhaps some are somewhat “neutral” but others are most certainly bad.

What Causes It to Be Bad?

Some bad books may make themselves readily apparent: they may be littered with sexually explicit scenes, excessive and gratuitous profanity and obscenities, overboard violence. Yet besides this, what makes a book bad for you?

In a nutshell, anything (including art) that draws you further away from God is bad for you. Conversely, anything which draws you closer to Him is good.

Aside from reading it for the purpose of study, does Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto draw you closer to God? Does 50 Shades of Grey strengthen your relationship with God? How about a nihilistic, extremely violent horror novel? The answer becomes readily apparent.

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

How do we go from The Gray Havens to 50 Shades of Grey? How do we fall to the culture of death in which we sojourn? We grow tired of what is good for us and look for what’s attractive, what’s fresh and alluring, what everyone else is enjoying.

Where to from here?

So what are some practical ideas for how to transcend the current cultural milieu in which we find ourselves? How can we live in the world, but not be of it?

First of all, we need to firmly resolve to avoid all art, music, books, and anything else that will lead us astray. If we don’t really want this–really, really want it–we’ll never get there. In the words of another great observer of the twentieth century:

You tell me, yes, that you want to. Very good: but do you want to as a miser longs for gold, as a mother loves her child, as a worldling craves for honors, or as a wretched sensualist seeks his pleasure?

No? Then, you don’t want to.

Secondly, strive to find and read, listen to, and enjoy all artistic expressions that do lead one closer to goodness, truth, and beauty. Starting with the so-called “Great Books,” the classics of the Western canon, is a great place to start. But most books, songs, and art coming from an authentically Christian perspective will fit this bill. Does it have to be Christian to be good? No. But the point here is: find good art and enjoy it often. Train yourself to enjoy good art, books, and music.

Thirdly and finally, when you fall into that guilty pleasure of a trashy novel, a nihilistic song, or a mind-numbing television show, pick yourself back up and begin again. You can always reset and start over.

“Aren’t these the reasons that education in music and poetry is most important? … [B]ecause anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will … have the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful.” 

~ Plato

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