Friday, May 22, 2009

What is Good?

As I write this my mind leaps back to freshman year and I feel a bit like I am parroting Socrates in the Republic, asking about "the good". Okay, not quite. I know that God alone is truly good (Luke 18:19); he is The Good.

I'm not talking here about good on a scale from poor, average, good to excellent. I'm asking the question: "What makes up a good book, a good movie, a good piece of art, a good ____?" This good is referring to what is best, pleasing, wholesome, perfect. In the beginning, all of creation was good.

Surely we all long for what is good; we only settle for the mediocre when we have other motives, such as avoiding disappointment.

So what does make something good? In the case of a movie or a book, I usually look for several things (and I realize that even these criteria may be subjective!). The story must be well told, with some degree of creativity and artistry or excellence. In addition, it should be thought provoking. This does not necessarily mean that the movie or book has a specific intended message. Above all, it must have a good story. Many have probably written books on what makes a good story, but I remember something Donald Miller said when I heard him speak. He said that there has to be something at stake. The hero's choice to do the right thing can't be easy; the hero must risk something in order to be a hero. It's something that has stuck with me, because I think we all want our lives to be a good story. I do.

Can something be called good because it has stood the test of time? It does appear that many good stories and things like that have lasted a long time. An awful lot of bad things have done that, too, haven't they? On the other hand, some things seem to be made more perfect in their very transience. A butterfly only lives a short while.

Do those things which we call good strike a chord in us of recognition, or is that feeling one of longing for something that is outside of us?

As you can see, I have left you with more questions than answers. In this topic, however, I think that is how it should be. Shouldn't we always be asking what is good, and seeking to find that which is truly good? I am confident our search is not in vain.


  1. I particularly like this post because it is something I struggle with, certainly in regards to all the things you have mentioned and specifically in regards to music. What makes a work of music good? As a theorist I am faced with this question very directly. I cannot toss aside the majority of the music of the twentieth century, classical or popular. Nor can I join many of my fellow theorists/composers in disregarding most of the music written prior to the twentieth century. I must strike a middle ground (and I am not alone in this), but that requires me to evaluate a lot of music and to at least ask the question "is this good music?" Even if I cannot pass a full judgment on each piece, I am convinced that it is an important question to ask. It is too easy to be so open-minded that every piece is good, and it is too easy to disregard any contemporary work as valid. Many pieces that would flunk a popularity test contain a great deal of artistry and craftsmanship. At the same time, many pieces lauded as progressive or avant-garde seem to me so theoretical that they fail to exhibit any artistic and/or communicative function.

    Good questions...

  2. This reminds me of the "good struggle" I had with physics at Houghton.