Art As Prophetic Voice
“13 Reasons Why” does what all good art should do
13 Reasons Why, welcome to your blog.
Netflix’s latest and most controversial hit show, 13 Reasons Why, tells the story-in-flashback of why main character Hannah Baker has committed suicide—told through the eyes of her friend Clay Jensen. It’s a teen melodrama/murder-mystery, mixed with classic high school tropes and clichés (the jocks are popular, the artists are nerdy), yet clothed in 21st-century low-saturation ice-blue color grading and photography tricks. A weird and potent mixture that makes the subject matter hit hard. Laden with as much language as any R-rated film, violence (including a drawn-out portrayal of suicide), drug use, and brutal sexual encounters, the show seeks to prove that high school in 2017 is not like Saved By the Bell.
The show has people talking—about teen suicide, bullying, sexual assault, the nature of “truth,” the importance of empathy, and especially: In a teen drama dealing with these issues, how far is too far? How graphic is too graphic? News outlets everywhere report the show’s wide reach and subversive message to teens. Experts warn parents about the show’s impact on kids with suicidal thoughts. Critics everywhere have reached a consensus: “This show is dangerous! Thou shalt not watch.”
Hmmm. Not surprisingly, when a show like this hits this level of controversy, the point is missed.
By the time the prophet Hosea shows up on the scene, Israel has been practicing idolatry for years. God is furious with their unfaithfulness to him. Exile is imminent. The nation is likened to a prostitute, unfaithful to her divine husband. And so God gives Hosea a real-life sermon illustration: He must marry a prostitute in portrayal of their “whoredom.”
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hosea 1:2)
Hosea, like many of the prophets, was an artist, a performer, a poet whose art spoke boldly to the cultural issues of his day. His marrying of Gomer the prostitute was a boundary-pushing art installation that critiqued culture while breaking its taboos. His body of work is filled with harsh language, difficult subject matter, pictures of God’s judgment that did not sit well with the public. Many who listened to Hosea likely asked, “How far is too far?” Indeed, if Hosea were alive today and writing—say, a TV series—many critics (many Christian critics) would reach a consensus on his art: “These poems are dangerous! Thou shalt not listen!”
Art is best understood as prophetic voice. The artist is responsible for embedding truth in story—or poem or music—in a way that penetrates culture, in order to move that culture toward repentance, righteousness, and ultimately, to God’s glory. Understanding art this way puts a responsibility to be godly and truthful on the artist, without content restrictions that could impede his or her message. An artist acting as a prophet will use his or her art to challenge us, provoke us, and push us to God’s ways. There are indeed false prophets in the creative arts, but these are not (always) the ones who violate taboos; they are often the ones that push culture toward idolatry in the most “family-friendly” ways.
There’s so much wrong in the world. So much hurt. I couldn’t help feeling I’ve made it worse. Hannah Baker, 13 Reasons Why
Teen suicide is no joke, evidently the leading killer of youth in our country. Sexual assault is all too common, and devastating. Bullying in the 21st century is brutal, as it is done behind closed doors over the internet. “Truth” is up for grabs. 13 Reasons Why speaks boldly with prophetic voice to these important cultural issues in our day, and drags them into the daylight as Hosea publicly portrayed Israel’s idolatry before them.
Admittedly, the way it does this does not sit well with many of us. Its creators have violated taboos: pushing the boundaries of YA fiction, touching on sensitive topics with brutal portrayals, telling a story of hopelessness without clearly identifying what could have brought hope. Am I saying 13 Reasons Why is exactly like Hosea? No, but it does challenges us—like a prophet would—to listen to one another, empathize with the hurting, not to assume we know every person’s struggle, to treat others with respect. Do you think Jesus likes seeing teens end their life prematurely? Did he not empathize with the hurting? Did he not listen to others, offer hope and healing, treat them with respect? Does he not urge us to do the same?
That is the reason why art can be—it must be—a prophetic voice.
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27–28)