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Should we judge art, or the artist?


1:00 P.M. EST Aug. 3, 2010

A UMNS illustration by Ronny Perry.
A UMNS illustration by Ronny Perry.

How much should Christians take into account a celebrity’s behavior when deciding whether to spend their time — and their money — on that celebrity’s creative work?

It’s a question Christian bloggers and ethicists have been pondering since last month’s release of a profanity-laden recording in which Mel Gibson appears to threaten and to admit to hitting his ex-girlfriend. Gibson’s troubles coincide with Swiss authorities’ recent decision to reject the U.S. request to extradite Roman Polanski, convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in 1977.

Now, Gibson is the focus of a domestic violence investigation while Polanski remains a fugitive from justice. Does that mean Christians ought to shun the work of both filmmakers?

Linda Bales Todd, who oversees women and children’s issues for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, said an individual likely would have to make such decisions based on his or her own conscience.

“We as a denomination believe in redemption and forgiveness and transformation,” Bales Todd said. “They are still children of God, and we are called to love them. We are also called to hold them accountable and find ways they can be healed.”

The United Methodist Church has long taken a stand against violence in the home and between nations. Bales Todd works to raise awareness about domestic abuse within the church.

Still, she said, even batterers can change, and she is wary of rejecting people’s gifts because of their sins.

Controversy over ‘The Passion’

The debate is particularly acute for those Christians who found Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” deeply moving. When that film was released, several critics had serious concerns that the film perpetuated anti-Semitism. Those worries were exacerbated in 2006, when Gibson was accused of railing against Jews after a traffic stop for driving under the influence.

Mel Gibson holds Domenica, a foster child from Ecuador, at the Mending Kids Christmas party. Photo by Jeff Turner.
Mel Gibson holds Domenica, a foster child from Ecuador, at the Mending Kids Christmas party. Photo by Jeff Turner.

However, many Christians viewed “The Passion” as a valuable testament to faith and a useful tool for evangelism.

Timothy P. Jackson, professor of Christian ethics of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, made a point of going to see the film precisely because of the controversy it provoked.

In general, Jackson believes in freedom of expression. He also thinks buying or watching a piece of art does not necessarily endorse the views of its creator.

“If, however, buying or watching something directly contributes to the wrongdoing of the author, then obviously one must withhold one’s support,” Jackson said. “Presumably, watching ‘The Passion of the Christ’ does not directly impact whether Mel Gibson is guilty of domestic abuse. Buying the hate literature of neo-Nazi groups or the KKK, in contrast, would allow them to go on fomenting injustice, so this would be wrong.”

The views and behavior of artists have long come under public scrutiny. More than 40 years ago, 22 U.S. radio stations banned the Beatles’ music from the airwaves after John Lennon told an interviewer that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” One station in Longview, Texas, staged a public burning of the group’s records.

But the rise of tabloid publications and websites now means people know — or think they know — far more today about public figures’ dirty laundry.

Withstanding press coverage

The Rev. Patricia Farris, senior minister of First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, Calif., wonders whether John Wesley’s reputation would have withstood that kind of daily press coverage. Wesley had a troubled marriage and could often be a poor friend, she said.

“John Wesley’s personal life had many things that weren’t commendable and we wouldn’t want to model our life on,” said Farris, who has taught church history at Claremont School of Theology. “Even so, his theology, his polity and his legacy has a value that stands on its own.”

“I think it’s a real conundrum because we are living and working in the human condition and none of us is perfect.”— Linda Bales Todd

Ultimately, she said, if people did not separate artists’ flaws from their art, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of art left to enjoy.

If an artist remains unrepentant, that also can influence how people respond to his work.

Ada Maria Isasi-Díaz, professor of ethics and theology at Drew University’s Theological School in Madison, N.J., empathizes with those who feel morally obligated not to fund what they see as destructive ideas or behavior.

Isasi-Díaz said she strongly opposes Gibson’s views, and she can’t help but let those views color her desire to see his films. Still, she acknowledges, she may be missing some good movies.

Time will tell

Sometimes, the best way to evaluate an artist’s creative output on its merits is after the artist has died.

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson, who long faced allegations of child molestation, was on the verge of financial ruin when he died suddenly last summer. But in the year since his death, Jackson has made a “comeback,” including a record-contract extension with Sony and a new Jackson-themed video game. Even such a child-centric company as Disney feels comfortable about re-showing Jackson’s 3-D film “Captain EO” at its theme parks.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, told The New York Times that Jackson’s “humanity has been recovered.”

Jackson is now remembered for the joy his music and moonwalk brought to generations of youngsters.

When it comes to dealing with the gifts of sinful people, there are no easy answers.

“I think it’s a real conundrum because we are living and working in the human condition and none of us is perfect,” Bales Todd said. “And we all deserve the grace that Jesus brings and John Wesley professed.”

We want to know your thoughts. What do you think is the best way to react when celebrities make bad choices?

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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