Bridging the gulf between conservative Christian colleges and the arts

Does immersion in secular music and literature strengthen faith? Does it destroy it?

Students encountering Plato’s Repub­lic for the first time often recoil at the strict censorship imposed first on the training of the guardians, then on everyone else for good measure. Poetry and music corrode and corrupt the soul, Plato insists, and threaten to upset society’s delicate moral balance. Only morally uplifting art—poetry extolling the vir­tues, music that connotes brave warriors going to battle—has a place in the ideal state.

Plato was wrong, I explain to students, precisely because he was right. His strictures on poets and musicians are impossibly narrow, yes, and conducive more to boredom than to virtue. But he was right that art challenges and disrupts the moral and political status quo. If your goal is to build a perfect society and freeze it in place, watch out for the artists.

From the early church to the present, friends of Plato have occupied pulpits and warned their flock of the pitfalls and temptations of art. Iconoclasts in the first millennium destroyed holy images in order to uphold true worship. Seventeenth-century Calvinists whitewashed biblical scenes painted on church walls and smashed statues of saints. Instruments to accompany singing are still sometimes banned as Satan’s helpers. Sermons inveighing against the evils of contemporary genres of art—rock music, films and plays that address controversial issues, realistic fiction—can be heard each Sunday.