The Problem with Moralistic Art: A Note on the Expository Demon


An Empty Theatre Stage

I am not an avid theatre goer, but it is something I secretly love. Rather than the grand urban stages, I especially enjoy the small, intimate theatres that we have here in Atlantic Canada and tucked away in cities across the country. I like theatre because I like to see the seams in the costumes, the imperfection of story-in-flesh.

Theatre is the most incarnational of storied arts.

Over this past year I have seen 6 plays that have a moral message in them. It is very easy to critique evangelical filmmaking (see this great article here)—too easy, in fact. Even with the increase in technology, funding, and the elegance of videography, the kinds of movies my mother-in-law loves to bring home from the Christian bookstore are painful for me to watch.

blue like jazz don miller steve taylorAdmittedly, I enjoyed Moms’ Night Out when I was forced to watch it, and I loved Blue Like Jazz (I think Steve Taylor is a genius). But the Left Behind films are the poster boys of bad Christian art. Painful, and too easy to mock.

Because it is so easy to whitepaper Christian art, let me turn instead to other stories that emerge out of popular culture to talk about the problem with moralistic art.

These six plays were each designed to challenge an audience to think about environmental issues, immigration policy, aboriginal issues, and cultural diversity. Five of the plays were commissioned to tell this kind of story, while one is a popular published play. They were all performed on Canadian stages, though one is a British plays, and they have shown on many stages across the country. Each of them was well acted, and each featured with superb stage management and creative direction with minimalist staging. None were big productions, though they reached a large audience throughout their respective tours and runs.

From an audience perspective, the plays were filled with moments of great humour and great sadness. I laughed at times, and was sometimes very moved. I am grateful for the experience of being there, always just a few feet from the pain and problems the playwrights wanted to feature.

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisBut there was a problem. Of the 6 plays, 5 of them had moments where the message came to the forefront and the story or characters slipped into the background. Setting aside one self-deprecating short comedy, the other 5 plays each had moments of the thing that C.S. Lewis called “the expository demon”—the potential to bend the story into a philosophical dialogue. One of the reasons Lewis liked writing Narnia was that it slayed that demon, or at least kept it at bay. Even then, some readers of Narnia thought the message threated to outstrip the story. This is my concern with some of the plays I’ve seen over the last year.

Of these plays, about half of them used dialogue as a hammer, so that the characters in brief moments became embodied brochures. Honestly, 4 of them felt like very short versions of 1980s Billy Graham films, where there is a moment to repent at the end of the play.

Now, my concern is not the issues. These are things I’m passionate about. I very much want my culture to be challenged by environmental apathy, immigration access, and systemic cultural racism. I am not critiquing the ideas.

I am critiquing the art.

Let me highlight one of the plays, the one that I thought was artistically the best.

“Lungs” is a two-person play by Duncan Macmillan, and has been staged successfully many times throughout the world (see favourable reviews in the UK’s Guardian and Canada’s Chronicle-Herald).

It is filled with comedy, a couple who are thinking about their future together. The woman, a doctoral student, is passionate about environmental issues and is wondering whether it is ethical to have children in an age of carbon overload.

The actors that performed this piece did a phenomenal job. It is an intimate play, and I was so close that I felt each awkward moment with my own awkwardness, and each loving movement with my own empathy. Beautifully done.

But I think the play goes off the rails. As it comes to a close, the environmental problems in the background come to the forefront and frame the end-of-life experiences of the characters. The world around the characters falls into social apocalypse: smoke, sirens, noise, hatred, scarcity.

I’m not against apocalypse. I love stories that end badly, whether it is Flannery O’Conner or your Hollywood blockbuster.

Anthony Black Francine Deschepper lungs AntigonishBut this was a moment where the expository demon emerged. A great play—a brilliant play, really—went sideways, and the artfulness of the moment was lost as the narrative pixelated.

This is, I think, the problem of moralistic art: We don’t trust the stories to work as stories. We don’t trust images. We don’t trust movement.

We don’t trust anything except words.

As Walter Ong said, “the Word became flesh, and we made him word again.” We have a cultural tendency, when there is something important to talk about, to only trust the talk.

It’s too bad: a play is word in flesh, where the narrative is the most important thing. Plays and films can be powerful social transformation tools, but only if we forget they are tools.

Margaret Atwood Handmaid's TalePicasso once said that art is a lie that tells the truth. We are talking here about art with ideas. The activist playwrights are passionate about social issues and terrified about a future that ignores the problems. The Christian filmmakers have a story that they think will transform all things to the good and want to share that. So they use their art as storytellers to try and share what is essential to them.

But in doing so they often fail to trust the story.

There are some good storytellers that take ideas head on. Margaret Atwood as a feminist writer, C.S. Lewis retelling myths in Till We Have Faces, and Marilynne Robinson recasting biblical narratives are three that come to mind. But there is nothing worse than reading a book or watching a film and discovering that we were being used.

Can there be good moralistic art? Perhaps, but only if the art is first and the moral emerges naturally from the art. Stories rooted in meaning must look sideways at their subject matter. There needs to be a self-forgetfulness about art that is about something.

We must exorcise the expository demon.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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55 Responses to The Problem with Moralistic Art: A Note on the Expository Demon

  1. Wayne Stauffer says:

    I’m with you–any “art” that has to have an accompanying explanation isn’t art in my book…it’s a sermon or a propaganda poster or speech. i prefer artists who let those with eyes to see and ears to hear to “get” their message or enjoy it for reasons other than the message

    wayno Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are right. The artist must trust the audience–and the art–to do the work needed.


    • Your statement indicates a supreme confidence in the fact that you will understand any message in any work of any art form to any level or depth, and therefore, you never need any interpretor or assistance from any artist to understand exactly what their message is. Or am I missing something here?


      • I’m not sure, Patrick. Which statement do you mean, exactly?
        I’m not speaking so much about us ever understanding the work. If someone is convinced Tolkien’s ring of power is really about the temptation to sell insurance, so be it. I’m speaking about me (or author or X or Y), when we sit down to write a story. How do we authentically engage with a moral or religious idea while being true to the story (and story form) in front of us?


        • The comment – “any “art” that has to have an accompanying explanation isn’t art in my book…it’s a sermon or a propaganda poster or speech” seems to me to be limited.
          “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.” [Bishop Richard Whately] To measure how good or bad something is requires knowledge about the artist’s intent of what the art form is trying to do. Unless the intention of the work has been made clear to everyone by some other means other than the art form, good criticism is impossible. There are an infinite number of intentions and goals in the universe, and if two people can’t agree on what the creators intentions are, real understanding of the what the art form iscommunicating is impossible.“…we can limit our understanding by the intellectual barriers we raise! Often, the mind has no greater enemy in the pursuit of knowledge than the mind itself, with its prejudices and prior certainties” [L.Ellsworth Kallas]


        • If you show me a frying pan that you’ve created, and I criticize it for not playing MP3 files, there’s a mismatch of intention in what we’re trying to measure and evaluate.


        • Exactly, you must tell me what your creation intends before I even begin to assess or criticize it until you do I am wasting both our time.


          • Not if we treat the thing as an artifact. We have a thing here. What is the thing? Is it a good or beautiful thing?
            In writing, there are other things besides knowing the author’s goals that can help. Some are authorial breadcrumbs, like a foreword or prologue. But there are paratextual clues, like subtitles (The Frying Pan that Wasn’t: A Memoir), or chapter titles. Some of those are editorial rather than authorial.
            And sometimes we say, “the author doesn’t know best here.” I’m a creep in that I read the letters of dead authors–mostly made for private not public use. I shape them into something new in reading them.


        • As far as the skill involved in creating the vessel that contains or carries the treasure goes, I am not qualified to even tie your bootlaces in that regard. Only the skilled can judge the skilfulness involved in the creation, but that is not the same as judging the merits or value of the result, that is being assessed and judged by others who can only determine the purpose or meaning of the creation from its creator and the creation itself.
          In the introduction to his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” Frankl explains what I am trying to get at, and this was only the introduction …

          “I had none of this in mind when I wrote the book in 1945. And I did so within nine successive days and with the firm determination that the book should be published anonymously. In fact, the first printing of the original German version does not show my name on the cover, though at the last moment, just before the book’s initial publication, I did finally give in to my friends who had urged me to let it be published with my name at least on the title page. At first, however, it had been written with the absolute conviction that, as an anonymous opus, it could never earn its author literary fame.
          I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing. I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.

          And so it is both strange and remarkable to me that—among some dozens of books I have authored—precisely this one, which I had intended to be published anonymously so that it could never build up any reputation on the part of the author, did become a success. Again and again I therefore admonish my students both in Europe and in America: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” [Victor Frankl]

          The “message” or “treasure” could be self-evident in the work, but if not, surely there’s not much harm in me asking “What are you trying to accomplish here?”, and whether you know best or not, surely, if you sincerely desire a qualified answer to whether, in this creation you did know best or not, the more open, informed and educated those doing the assessment are, then the more intelligent and constructive the approach to any appraisal will be.


  2. L.A. Smith says:

    Preaching to the choir here, too. I share your pain with the Evangelical films….even though I share that worldview they truly make me cringe. I think you are right when you point the finger at our reliance on the Word leading to reliance on words to tell the story. And I hate to say it, but sometimes it is just easier to “tell, not show”. Could it be that we have set the bar too low in our Evangelical circles? I think so, personally. We accept sub-standard books and films because they have a conversion message, and we reject books and films that don’t have it all spelled out. There seems to be some conversation about this in various corners of Christian/Evangelical publishing, (see this excellent series over at Speculative Faith – however, so there is hope that this will start to change.


    • “Telling” is always the easiest. I had to kill a narrative “I” once because it created too much telling (not moralistic, but humorous, in this case).
      We probably do accept the sub-standard, but I’m a poor critic on this point. I simply don’t read it. If it has an Amish 19th century love story cover, I go elsewhere. We know why authors keep going to the “olden days”: they don’t have to deal with the real sexual reality of Christian young adults. Christian historical fiction is a kind of perverse moral escapism.
      Yet, there are probably a great 100 or so Christian writers working in beautiful art, but we don’t know who they are. I suspect this because I constantly encounter strong prose by Christian bloggers. And i continue to like a lot of Christians who do music.
      I’ll check out the speculative faith site. Well spotted.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ChrisC says:

    I don’t really know how possible it is for a lot of artists today to balance art and ideas. It may be possible for some. However, in an author like Dean Koontz I can tell when he’s sets aside his narrative for some purple-prose homily. It may be that he cares more about the ideas than the story. It’s a fair enough stance, I suppose. However, why not choose philosophy as your genre is that’s the case?

    Then there are strange cases like the late Terry Pratchett were there is a message (however scrambled) and yet I find myself entertained more often than not. I don’t how he managed that balance.

    For my part, I’ve found that the modern writers who work best are those who let the ideas (if any) emerge organically from the story itself as it goes along. It may be possible that any Inspired story idea may contain it’s own themes as a sort of inherent building block. If so, I like the idea it presents of narrative as something who’s meaning is meant to be a semi-unconscious puzzle to be solved.

    Also, there’s a good book that deals with how authors and audiences take in art and, according to the Wade Center, was part of Lewis’s personal library:

    Click to access lewis_public_shelf.pdf

    It’s called “Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition” by S.L. Bethell, and it gives a great history of the production and reception of art in a way that recalls the evolutionary theories of Owen Barfield. It also is probably the closest we’ll ever get to an Inklings theory of film.


    • I don’t know Dean Koontz, but I like this line, “some purple-prose homily.”
      There are some genres that work pretty well for more homiletical work. Fairy tale works with tropes and the symbols sit next to the surface (like Narnia). Realism is far better for a moral sermon than fantasy–and especially high fantasy. But you can’t have a wise wizard/old woman character anywhere better than high fantasy. Parody and Satire (like Pratchett, or Screwtape) profit highly in the slap-in-the-face moralism, when done well. When not done well, there is no story possible.
      Well done on the Bethell link. Our library has it, so I will look it up when I go on Tuesday.
      Honestly, I really struggled with Barfield!


      • Hannah says:

        ‘Splintered Light, Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World’ by Verlyn Flieger gives clear insight in Barfield’s linguistic concept of fragmented meaning, but I also have problems with reading Barfield himself, still have to tackle ‘Poetic Diction’.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I suppose it is only “Poetic Diction” that has me baffled. Lovely writing, evocative ideas, but it feels like I am trying to catch Spanish ideas in the little bit of French I know. I’ve been told to turn to “Saving the Appearances.” We’ll see!


  4. Hannah says:

    Thanks for your blog. I totally agree that art should speak for itself and should not need any internal or additional explanation (comments of Dorothy Sayers in ‘The Mind of the Maker’ on stories), even more so in our image oriented culture. In our post modern times it seems better to show rather then tell as words have lost so much of their traditional meanings, e.g. biblical words like sin.
    Great that you found the Anthology of Children’s Literature at last and thanks for sharing the links.


    • I should type out Sayers’ intro to “Mind of the Maker”–it really is a theology of art.
      Not all times would be like these, but the expository demon is a problem in today’s feeling of authenticity.
      I enjoyed CS Lewis’ “Studies in Words.” A bit odd, but cool.


    • ChrisC says:

      I think I might understand when you use the phrase “image oriented culture”. If by that you mean the inability of most audiences to suspend disbelief for any work of art (regardless of production value) unless it’s presented in a metaphorical gilt wrapped package, then I think I might have an explanation for that.

      I think there are two types of imaginative experiences out there. The first is artistic, creative, in a word, Mythopoeic. The second is fundamentally selfish, constricted and self-absorbed. In a word, power-fantasy oriented. It is possible Lewis mentioned something like this in one of his essays or books, where he uses the phrase “castle building” or something like that.

      I even know a good film that, perhaps, illustrates this idea of two different varieties of imagination. Believe it or not. David Bowie made two music videos around Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth”. The first is called “As the World Falls Down”, and features an actress who looks suspiciously like the one in the photos of Sarah’s off-screen mother at the start of the film (perhaps this is meant to be her?). The second is titled simply “Underground”, and if Henson was behind the lens on this one then he really is/was an artist.

      I mention all this, because together both vids give a good display of the two opposing types of imagination: the anti-creative (As the World Falls Down), and the genuine creative (Underground). It just seemed to make sense, as I think it can be argued that “Labyrinth” as it’s core, is about the difference between the selfish mindset (like the kind you complain about?) and the kind of effort it takes to both enjoy art, and live a fulfilling life at the same time. Just a thought.


      • Hannah says:

        It leads away from Brenton’s theme of this blog, but I was thinking more in the line of Neil Postman’s “Amusing ourselves to death” with the shift in 19/20th century from what he calls a “typographic” mind-set in a print based culture to the modern “peek-a-boo” TV-world with an endless stream of disconnected facts/images, leaving little room for critical logical thinking.
        So, it was not a complaint, but observation that evangelicals, turning to a word based message might miss out on reaching a wider audience.
        Lewis’s brilliant “Abolition of man’’ is also about this shift in thinking.

        I watched Bowie’s beautiful music video’s on YouTube, but still do not quite understand your two types of imaginative experiences. It did remind me though of the fascinating history of the Labyrinth. Monty Don in his series “The secret history of British gardens” shows part of it with a 17th century labyrinth as medieval representation of the many, often maze-like turnings in the journey of life and pilgrimage to Jerusalem and 18th century labyrinths as selfish playground for the rich with many hidden corners for illicit courtships.
        There is new interest in them, as contemporary picture of the search for meaning and as walking through them stimulates meditative thinking.
        Seeing gardens as form of art, this might still be in line with Brenton’s theme.


        • ChrisC says:


          Apologies. I clearly misread your statement, which put me in mind of a lot of vloggers I’ve seen who tend to be obsessed with how a film looks or celebrity, as opposed to how well it is written. Those were the kind of people who I thought of as using the imagination for self-absorbed purposes. I just tend to think such thought is antithetical to any real creative exercise of the imagination. Sorry about that.

          Getting back to the point, you mention reaching a wider audience. I tend to think word based messages work better than image ones most of the time. I think it’s a question of the right illustrative example at just the right time. Which makes the sort of thing you talk about trickier than ever. Also, I think you have to factor in the question of the willingness of any given audience to listen to the message before all else. Like I said, tricky, and I don’t know if there are any easy answers to this sort of problem or not.


          • Hannah says:

            Yes, I also think it is tricky to get the right balance and that it depends on the audience. Postman gives good examples of the shift in span of attention in the USA, comparing the lengthy election debates in the 1850s (up to 7 hours a day, pp 44-49) with the advertising soundbites of the presidential elections in 1984 (p97).
            So there is bound to be a shift from lengthy theoretical expose to the more image based. And modern media have opened up many new ways to communicate, especially for story telling. But it is essential to remain true to the art form as Brenton put it so well in this blog.
            One of the reasons I turned from visual arts to literature is that a lot of modern art has become so intellectual that it cannot be understood without a lengthy explanation. I then much rather read a good novel with “the ideas (if any) emerged organically from the story itself as it goes along”.


            • Thanks both for this convo, which I missed this weekend as I cleaned up my late mother’s apartment. On a twisted connection, we had a dinner for those that supported my mother through to her death. Among them was a theatre director, whose partner played Sarah’s stepmother in Labyrinth. She was a hint at the stock stepmother, and not a developed character. Much of the set up to the film is to get us to bring all our fairy stories with us. This was one of them.
              I was that close to David Bowie, I was!


  5. loritischler says:

    Brilliant. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. loritischler says:

    Btw., You actually “got” Lewis’ Studies in Words???!!! :/


    • Well, not all of it. But I was working up to it for a few years. I teach Greek every 3 years, and have been moving my English and French reading back into the Middle period. I know a bit of Hebrew and German, and I pretend I know Latin. So I love words and their meanings and especially their histories. My son and I play the “Cognate” game, where we think of a word and then think of all the words connected to it.
      So I am primed to like the book.
      What I’m missing are the hundreds of literary references to late medieval and early renaissance lit.


  7. Joe R. Christopher says:

    I haven’t re-read George Bernard Shaw’s plays in mamy years, but–if I remember correctly–he played with the ideas he liked and those he opposed in the dramas, but wrote long essays arguing for his actual positions in the introductions to the dramas when published. It was a legitimate artistic decision, I thought. (But the second time through some of the books I read the plays and not the introductions.)


    • I haven’t read Shaw since school, and didn’t like him then!
      I think most authors up until a certain date thought there was “meaning” in their work. CS Lewis sort of anticipated deconstructionism and reader response criticism when he suggested that he as author was not the best person to decide what that meaning was. Yet he also maintained that the author only truly knew the creation story of the book or poem. So even in general fiction or poetry there is a dance between the meaning and the art.
      But there are certainly genres that allow the meaning or moral to sit up front. Fable and parable, of course. But fairy tales are essentially moralistic. The moral of an epic sits far deeper, and in realistic novels we are too look sideways at the theme.
      I think stage plays can use very obvious tropes and morality themes. Some of the plays I saw were quite good. But even then, there has to be some authentic interplay between message and story. The balance isn’t always there.


  8. WriteFitz says:

    Well stated! Personally can’t stand the Christian movies for precisely those reasons. My Christian friends look at me like I’m playing devil’s advocate when I say so. Don’t they see the only people such movies “touch” are the ones that already are in their camp? It’s a joke to most non-believers, and just down right cringe-worthy art.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hannah says:

    Might there also be a confusion in the kind of knowing & understanding? CS Lewis first wrote “Problem of Pain”, but after the death of his wife said he didn’t really know anything about it, and then wrote “A Grief observed”.
    Is the reason why “We don’t trust the stories to work as stories. We don’t trust images.” that only so called objective scientific knowledge is seen as being true and stories only as subjective experience/fantasy … ? Just as if all we can really know about water is that it is H2O. But that is such a reduction, water is so much more and art helps us to discover that meaning.
    Is the heart only a pump or the seat of our soul where life giving spirit is added to our blood?


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  22. keebslac1234 says:

    A cracking good story has the capacity to under my skin (and stay there, itching). In my experience, those who would be good story tellers need to understand that bald morals in stories most usually only relate to those who already hold those morals. They almost never stick. One story that continues to nettle me (satisfying one of my criteria of what would be “art”) is Herman Melville’s “Bartleby: The Scrivener.”
    As for the outright moral stuff that’s attempted? “I prefer not to.”

    Liked by 1 person

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