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Here’s a conundrum: how do you critique “bad” art without coming off as someone who doesn’t understand that the “message” is more important than the work?

Let me define a couple of words in that sentence first:

“Bad” is being used in the context of art that still needs work. Art that probably could have used a bit more skill or technique before being presented to the public. Or art that simply doesn’t make the grade.

“Message” is being used in the context of the Gospel message and/or general biblical message.

I’ve often found myself in this conundrum. When I was worked at a secular newspaper, I had to attend the performance of a local, amateur musical theatre group which specialized in Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. This particular performance of “The Pirates of Penzance” was truly terrible. Most of the singers were past their prime and if you can’t hit the notes, G&S musicals are unforgiving. Fortunately I didn’t have to write a review, but just report on the fortitude of the players in producing the play.

I’ve also found myself in this situation as a Christian journalist, and now blogger. Theatre performances that just didn’t hit the mark. Books that could have used better writing or editing. Musicians whose songs could be better written or CDs better produced. In most cases, I’ve tried to be gracious in my comments, often biting my tongue to keep my more cutting opinions from being voiced.

Occasionally I’ve found a few people with whom I could share honestly. In many cases they’ve actually recognized the shortcomings and have learned lessons to be used for the next time. And the conversations we have about improving the art form have both been encouraging and enlightening.

Most of the time, though, when I’ve voiced criticisms, I’ve be accused of missing the importance of the message in the medium. I’ve been told it’s not important the book be better written or the play be better performed. People have been exposed to the Gospel and that’s all that matters.

The implication is that God can use art in spite of the quality, or lack thereof. There’s truth in that philosophy. E.g. God used an ass to get his message across to Balaam (Numbers 22: 21 to 41). Therefore God can use bad art to get across His message of salvation.

But why should He have to? When I look at the scriptural record describing the construction of the Tabernacle or any of the versions of the Temple, I see artisans who were so humbled by the responsibility that they produced the best work they possibly could.

My intent has never been to be curmudgeon or to disparage the art or artist. But I believe we can all strive for excellence in our art. Any choice to be satisfied with less than excellence dishonours God and dishonours our art.