A Worship Catechism (1)

1. What is the great priority and purpose of man?

Man’s great priority and purpose is to love God with his entire being: heart, soul, mind and strength (Mk 12:29-30).

2. Why is this man’s great priority and purpose?

Loving with the entire being is worship: expressing the worth and value due to God (Ps 29:1-2). Man was created to express this glory (Is 43:3), as image-bearers (Gen 1:26-27), just as the entire created order is to reflect and magnify the worth of God (Psa 150, Rev 4:11).

3. Why should all creatures magnify God’s worth?

God is Beauty (Job 40:9-10). The Triune God is the perfection of all excellence in Being, the most delightful conjunction of all attributes of Deity, the quintessence of truth and goodness, and the most admirable and sweetest expression of this loveliness. This glory calls for the appropriate response of highest enjoyment and admiration (Psa 113:3).

4. Why should God delight in this worship?

God delights in His own glory above all things, knowing that the magnification of His glory is the greater good of all (Joh 17:24-26)

5. Why should man delight in this worship?

Nothing is more reasonable, and nothing is more profitable than for man to love what is most beautiful (Psa 16:11, Joh 17:13)

6. What is meant by loving God with man’s entire being?

To love God with the entire being is to love Him for Himself, not as a means to a higher love, but to delight and depend on Him ultimately (Ps 73:25).

7. Why should God not be loved as a means to another end?

God is the only God (Deut 6:4), the only One worthy of ultimate love (Ps 115:1) and not an instrument to some other love, for all things are from Him, and through Him, and to Him (Rom 11:36).


Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion

Religious music has long ago fallen victim to this weak and twisted philosophy of godliness. Good hymnody has been betrayed and subverted by noisy, uncouth persons who have too long operated under the immunity afforded them by the timidity of the saints. The tragic result is that for one entire generation we have been rearing Christians who are in complete ignorance of the golden treasury of songs and hymns left us by the ages. The tin horn has been substituted for the silver trumpet, and our religious leaders have been afraid to protest. It is ironic that the modernistic churches which deny the theology of the great hymns nevertheless sing them, and regenerated Christians who believe them are yet not singing them; in their stead are songs without theological content set to music without beauty. – A.W. Tozer, The Size of the Soul

Tozer wrote those words sometime in the 1950s. Sixty years later, things are not better. The trend has continued, carving a deeper groove into the valley of Tradition, till the ugly, atheological songs he spoke of now flow down into our liturgies unquestioned, as if from the mountains of the apostles themselves. Such shallow songs are now part of the approved canon of “good ol’ fashioned hymns” in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, while the truly great hymns are becoming relics, known by only a few.

How shocked some would be if they realised Tozer was condemning the hymns they cherish.
What are the “great hymns”, “the treasure of songs left us by the ages” Tozer speaks of? Judging by Tozer’s own anthology, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, they are hymns such as “Ride on! Ride On In Majesty”; “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts”; “Jesus, I Am Resting”; “Not All the Blood of Beasts”; “O Love Divine”; “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”; “Sweet The Moments, Rich in Blessing”; “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”, to mention a few. As he states elsewhere, the qualities of a good hymn are “sound theology, smooth structure, lyric beauty, high compression of profound ideas and a full charge of lofty religious feeling.”

In contrast, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Gospel-song era produced songs of shallow theology, unimaginative structure, limerick-style rhythms, clichéd lyrics and sentimentalised emotion. These are what Tozer calls “songs without theological content set to music without beauty”. While not all Gospel songs are useless to devout Christians, probably a large portion of them are. Where did these imposter hymns come from?

After Charles Finney, revivalistic Protestantism increasingly attached itself to the pop culture of the time, so as to draw in the crowds. Popular culture grew out of Enlightenment secularisation, riding on the wings of technology. To embrace popular culture, the church was embracing secularism.  As it happened, the popular culture during Finney’s era was a particular brand of Victorian romanticism and this influenced the ‘contemporary Christian music’ of the 19th century. The hymns of Watts, Wesley, Montgomery and Tersteegen faded from prominence, the songs by people like William Doane, Philip P. Bliss, Ira Sankey, Fanny Crosby, and Charles Gabriel were brought in.

The Gospel song is easy to recognise: 1) a proliferation of religious clichés – “echoes of mercy, whispers of love”, “heavenly sunlight”, “footprints of Jesus”, “gather at the river” ; 2) hackneyed rhymes – love/above, story/glory, face/grace etc. ; 3) merry-go-round, fun-fair, nursery-rhyme melodies (think of the popular tunes to “Jesus is Coming Again”, “Praise Him! Praise Him!” and ; and 4) sentimentalised affections -“I Come to the Garden Alone”, “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”, “Haven of Rest”, “Isn’t the Love of Jesus Something Wonderful?”. The popular hymnody reflected what Victorian sentimentalism stood for: the dreamy, clichéd, syrupy emotions and passions it lusted after were made to sound like Christian experience. The self-centredness of romanticism was made to pass for Christian devotion. It was really no different to what modern Christian rockers and rappers are doing today.

Unfortunately, the success of revivalists such as D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, who used and further popularised the Gospel song, made sure that these sadly shallow hymns found a place in evangelical hymnody. Hymnbook editors, under pressure to include the massively popular Gospel songs, produced eclectic collections containing revivalist Gospel-song shanties alongside vastly superior hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Come Thou Almighty King”, and “O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing”. The trend continues to this day. The results: the flattening out of quality, the blunting of the Christian public’s musical discernment and the demeaning of a once-lofty view of God.

But a century later, evangelicals and fundamentalists descended from revivalism have a hard time identifying some of their favourite “Great Hymns of the Faith” as being the target of Tozer’s criticism. Such hymns have become part of the movements’ identities. Such is the power of tradition. Fundamentalists criticise the worldliness of evangelicals who chase the latest popular musical styles (and rightly so); however, theirs is simply an older secularisation.

Unless we become reflective over quality and repudiate some of the shallow hymnody in our liturgy today, the inconsistency of our musical critiques will drown out any truth they might have. To denounce secularisation in Christian music today when the smell of the world is still very much lingering in our own liturgies all but robs us of authority to speak. Instead of merely nodding sagely at Tozer’s words, we need to understand they refer to us, and we need to repent.

Tradition in Trinitarianism

All Protestant believers descended from the Reformation recognise the primacy of Scripture to rule on all matters of faith and practice. We reject the Romanist view that Scripture is to be interpreted through the Magisterium, and the Magisterium through tradition.

Unfortunately, believers of our persuasion may mistakenly come to think of our doctrine as ‘tradition-free’. We may imagine that only Catholics use tradition for their doctrine; we biblicists need nothing of the sort.

This would be a profound mistake, and it would exacerbate the chestless Christianity so prevalent around us – churches without judgement. Understanding the crucial role of tradition in our judgement is vital for the health of the same.

Take the doctrine of the Trinity. Orthodox Protestant believers hold the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the fundamentals of the faith, and rightly so. But what does the Bible, by itself, teach on this doctrine?
1. The Bible teaches that the Father is God.
2. The Bible teaches that the Son is God.
3. The Bible teaches that the Spirit is God.
4. The Bible teaches that the Father is not the Son.
5. The Bible teaches that the Son is not the Spirit.
6. The Bible teaches that the Spirit is not the Father.
7. The Bible teaches that there is only one God.

Those seven statements summarise what the Bible explicitly affirms about God. Once we begin speaking of the tri-unity of God, of the three Persons united in one God, we have left pure exegesis and moved into systematic theology. Here the truth of what Scripture affirms and what it negates is harmonised and systematised. Those hyper-biblicists who point out that the word ‘trinity’ is not found in the Bible are correct in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny. (The word Bible is not found in the Bible either – does that mean the Bible does not contain the Bible?) We always have to move beyond the biblical data and systematise it, arrange it, and explain it in light of other Scripture. And when we do this, we do not start inventing theological words out of thin air. We use words such as trinity, persons, essence, generation, spiration, co-eternal, autotheos, because these are words developed over the centuries to help explain the biblical data. They are part of a theological tradition. Tertullian is the first to begin using the word ‘trinity’. The Nicene Creed in 325, and its revision at Constantinople in 381, gives us a framework to use. The words of the Athanasian Creed summarise biblical data in theological form and tell us, “We can say this of God, but not that, we may say it this way, but not that way…” The post-Reformation confessions had nothing to modify when it came to the received Trinitarian orthodoxy of the Catholic church, and continue to use its categories.  We depend on this theological tradition to make sense of the biblical data.

In fact, the writers of these creeds went beyond systematic theology into the realm of philosophy. Using the categories of ousia (being, essence) and hypostasis (subsistence, instantiation), these thinkers borrowed from Greek philosophy to attempt to relate and explain the biblical data. God was one ousia (Latin = essentia), but three hypostases (Latin = persona). Every time you hear someone say that God is one Being, but three Persons, he or she is really relating an explanation rooted in tradition.

Now it happens to be so good an explanation that I doubt it can or will ever be improved upon. The explanation of the data has come to be known as Nicene orthodoxy, or orthodox Trinitarianism, and a deviation from it is rightly regarded as heresy. But my point here is that this explanation, while the best explanation of the biblical data, is a product of a long tradition of Christian interpretation, theology and philosophy.

Of course, no tradition is infallible. The tradition is always to be tested with Scripture. Where the tradition is clearly shown to be wrong (such as the tradition of baptising infants), it must be dropped. But without any tradition, you do not even have a starting point to begin the critique. You don’t even have a vocabulary to begin understanding concepts in the Bible. You have an avalanche of biblical data. Rather, you receive a tradition, and once in it, you are able to test it, and evaluate if it is faithful to Scripture.

We are deeply indebted to tradition. We rely on it so often it has become invisible to us. For the Christian believer, tradition is not authoritative, but it is indispensable.

Adoration and Amusement

A great king had two sons, who were come to the age where one should be named as the crown prince. The custom of that country was that the king would choose his heir directly, without weight given to birth-order. He was hard-pressed at the choice, for they both loved him and had noble and kingly traits. He decided to test them. Whichever son pleased him most in the test would become the crown prince. He summoned his two sons to his throne room.

“My sons, you are both fine sons, more pleasing to me than all the wealth and splendour of my kingdom. I am torn at the thought of choosing but one of you to rule in my stead, but the tradition of our country knows nothing of two kings ruling on the throne. One of you must rule; indeed, one of you must rule over the other.”

His sons stirred, but did not glance at one another.

“I have chosen to put your kingliness to the test. I will judge the winner according to my own counsel, and there shall be no debate entertained. As I could crown one of you this moment without objection from the other, so I may judge the winner of my contest by my own wisdom.”

His sons nodded, their gazes still down, as was the law in that land for one in the presence of the king.

“The test is this: you will gather as much fame for my name in one year as you can. At the end of the year, your efforts will appear before me, and I will judge one of you to be king after me.”
The princes departed, wished each other luck, and immediately sought counsel from the wise men of the land.

The younger prince consulted with the old men. “Your father is looking to have his name loved greatly. Bring him some people who love him deeply and truly, however many or few, and you will be judged the wiser son.

The older prince consulted with the young men. “Your father is looking to have his name loved widely, for he is a great king, and greatly to be praised. Bring him throngs of people, by whatever means, and you will truly have brought him the fame he seeks.”

The younger prince travelled amongst the people, staying in one town for weeks at a time. There he taught the people patiently, every day explaining the glory of his father’s wars, his mercy with his enemies, his justice in ruling, and his kindness as a father. Some were taken by the descriptions of his father. Many were indifferent, and the young prince’s heart often grew discouraged. Often he felt like he was trying to kindle a fire in green wood. What would he have to show for his work? A handful of obscure people who loved the king dearly? He at times questioned the counsel he had been given. Nevertheless, he persevered.

The older prince travelled amongst the people, setting up fairs and stage-plays, tournaments and circuses, contests and puppet-shows in the name of his father. He knew how much people loved these things, and knew that they would be drawn to them. His thinking was logical: once the happy crowds found out that such were provided by the king, they would love him as well. He was not disappointed. Crowds gathered wherever he went. People thronged his demonstrations, and enthusiastically accepted his invitation to appear at the castle on the day of the king’s judgement. Occasionally, he would question the sincerity of those who followed in his train and eagerly awaited the next amusement. However, he dismissed such doubts, certain that it was better to present a large crowd of king-lovers than a thin one, even if a few were there for the wrong reasons.

On the day of judgement, the older prince filled the castle’s courtyard with hundreds of cheering people, with many others outside the walls. When the king appeared from the royal balcony, the crowd exploded in praise, and the younger prince sensed he had lost the contest.

The king proceeded to give an oration, climaxing with the promise that his subjects could forthwith have direct audiences with him in the throne-room upon request. The crowd seemed unimpressed. No applause was offered, and a silence settled over the courtyard. Here and there a shout echoed, calling for more jousting tournaments, cock-fighting and banquets. The shouts turned into disgruntled jeering. The crowd was now angry and hostile. The king ordered his soldiers to dismiss the crowd from his castle.

The king retired to his throne-room and sat down. The younger prince came in, bringing with him a small and strange group of unimpressive peasants: a little child, a blind beggar, a woman of the night, a leper, a cleric, a widow, an orphan and a soldier. They had been weeping during the king’s speech, and now prostrated themselves before him, along with the younger prince. The king rose, called for a meal to be set out for this group, and lifted up each one by his own hand. He led them to the banqueting table and served each one himself.

Which of the two sons did the will of his father?

The Magic of the Elves is Art

Some Evangelicals’ credo might be: “There is only one Tolkien, and Peter Jackson is his Prophet.” While there is no denying that the art of John Howe and Alan Lee made the films a visual feast, or that Howard Shore’s scores were moving and memorable, let us set aside the movies for a moment and return to Tolkien’s own vision of Middle-earth. Tolkien once wrote a letter to Milton Waldman, a friend and editor at Collins Publishers. The letter is sometimes published at the beginning of The Silmarillion, for it is one of the few places where Tolkien explained the meaning and purpose of his entire mythology. In it are some choice statements that are worth several moments’ contemplation, particularly for the average utilitarian Evangelical.

Here is Tolkien’s summary of what the entire mythology is about:

“It is, I suppose, fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-Creation) and Primary Reality.”

You probably didn’t get that idea when you saw Legolas skate-boarding down Helm’s Deep’s stairs. Legolas

What does Tolkien mean, and why should we care?

Tolkien was concerned with what humans, as those made in the image of God, do with creation. As sub-creators, once we have used our creation skills to simply survive, we turn those sub-creative powers to making those things that express meaning. Tolkien describes that in the same letter as “Art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife.” Here Tolkien sounds like Richard Weaver who says that art is what sets man apart from the animals:

“This great yearning of man to be something in the imaginative sense, that is, to be something more than he is in the simple existential way or in the reductionist formula of materialism is both universal and proper to him. The latter may be asserted because he is the only creature who asks the question why he is here and who feels thwarted in his self-realization until some kind of answer is produced.  This urge to be representative of something higher is an active ingredient of his specific humanity; it has created everything from the necklace of animal teeth with which the primitive adorns his body to the elaborate constructions which the men of high cultures have made to interpret the meaning of life and their mission in it. This is the point at which he departs from the purely utilitarian course and makes of himself a being with significance.”

To put it simply, art is concerned with the spirit. Man, as part of creation, distinguishes himself from those creatures not made in God’s image with his acts of meaningful sub-creation. Man’s art is either his greatest vindication as a child of God or his greatest condemnation as fallen from that state, for his art represents what he is, what he imagines reality to be, and who he worships. It is the highest statement of his beliefs and desires.

Tolkien’s mythology suggests how art in a fallen and mortal world can go in an evil direction or a holy direction. Here Tolkien describes evil art:

“It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic).”

Art used for holy purposes is the ‘magic’ of the Elves:

“I have not used ‘magic’ consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous reforming of Creation.”

The idea that art is sub-creation, and that it is either faithful to the Creator, or a selfish abuse of creation is something Christians should consider carefully. For if the art we use in worship constitutes an abuse of creation (say, a narcissistic celebration of ourselves), then we find ourselves in the awkward position of claiming to worship the Creator with a distortion of His creation.

Illuvatar is not worshipped with Dark Magic.

Cheap Thrills (7) – Conclusion

As Kaplan concludes, he considers the social functions of popular art. He sees its appeal in finding a common denominator among people. It is popular because it appeals to almost universal tastes. As to its function, popular art is no longer associated with serious cultural concerns, such as religion, love, war and politics, and the struggle for subsistence. Instead it has become, in Dewey’s words, “the beauty-parlour of civilization.” In other words, popular art is where we go to indulge our love of self, to enjoy ourselves, to escape into worlds of our own making.

Kaplan does not feel particularly alarmed by the rise of popular arts, seeing a limited place for it. He ends by saying, “If popular art gives us pleasant dreams, we can only be grateful-when we have wakened.” In other words, popular art is no more real (or significant) than our own night-dreams, but if they are pleasurable, who’s to complain? As long as we wake up, Kaplan seems to urge. A life lived in dream-state is pitiable and sad.

Of course, Kaplan is arguing as an aesthetician, and not as a Christian. While Kaplan is enormously helpful in identifying the nature of popular art – and therefore popular culture – he cannot help us determine its appropriateness for worship – or indeed, its effect on Christian discipleship. Here we must take his descriptions of popular art, and then compare it with what we know of worship and Christian living. To summarize Kaplan’s argument, popular art

* schematises and reduces art into an easily recognisable stereotype. Whether musical, poetical, literary or visual, the art is pre-digested so that its consumers instantly recognize the stereotype and fill in the outline with their own feelings.

* replaces perception with mere recognition. Popular art is essentially formless, it is simple in the sense that it is easy. It reminds us of what we know, it prompts us to feel what we already feel. Our familiar feelings are simply reinforced. Through its stereotypes, we associate certain feelings with the work, while not being transformed in our own emotions.

* moves in a close circle around the self. The art only has significance in light of the viewer. He sees himself in its materials, with the art providing easily recognizable prototypes to project himself upon. The result is wallowing in our own feelings: feeling, without understanding of our feelings. This is sentimentalism.

* creates an escape into childish versions of reality which exist nowhere, and which return us to reality unchanged.

In essence, popular art represents childish and immature taste. It appeals to narcissism and infantile self-obsession. It flatters an impulse in every human.

If Christian worship is the admiration and adoration of a beautiful God, will this art enable or disable worship? Is it compatible with benevolent love, denial of self, ordinate affection and realism? If the culture needed to cultivate a Christian epistemology will emerge from Christian worship – and Christian worship will emerge from Christian art – what kind of culture will emerge from narcissistic worship? What kind of epistemology will be shaped by the art of popular culture?

Cheap Thrills (6) – Leaving Us As It Found Us

All art is ‘escapist’. That is, all art enables a temporary escape from reality. Serious art is different to popular art in how it enables this escape, and for what reason. Real art may show us the world that is, or even the world as it might be. Popular art simply shows us the world as we would have it.

It does this not through its use of symbolism, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, popular art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which we are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of our own making, where everything is selected and placed in our own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. We quickly recognise the stereotypes, and fill them with the feelings we know we are supposed to have.

Once again, popular art is an exercise in narcissism. It assures us that our prejudged values are correct, and our very narrow perspectives are the correct ones. All art is illusory, but serious art aims to return us to reality, being illusory without being deceptive. Pop art is a tissue of falsehoods, in Kaplan’s words.

Popular art may be said to suffer from too little fantasy as too much: it simply does not do enough with its materials. Instead of working far enough to confer reality on its products, it stops short, letting its prettified depictions of life-as-we’d-like-it-to-be substitute for the real.

Real art helps us to escape: not from reality itself but from our own unimaginative experience of it. We are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Popular art simply pleasures us with the illusion of true imagination. We do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred.

Real art gives us a kind of objectification, in which we are able to see ourselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. We see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Popular art is all too human, and ultimately childish. We want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so we escape into non-existent worlds where we are already pleasured and beautiful. Popular art turns its back on a world it has never known.

Consider how these paintings portray the idea of the Cross. What kind of escape does each provide? What kind of world is portrayed in each? Which transforms us and which reflects us? Once we return, how are we changed by each?










Cheap Thrills (5) – Emotions Wild and Weak

Ours is a culture of boredom. With a growing number of amusement devices, apps and entertainment choices, we would expect boredom to have been completely eradicated. Unexpectedly, people are more bored than ever. This is because the kind of ‘art’ now consumed by most does little to truly entertain (that is, to enter the mind of another artist). It entertains only in the sense that it passes time, while giving the illusion of true entertainment.

The key difference between serious or useful art and popular art is that popular art provides an emotional experience without perspective. The consumer feels, but he feels without understanding. He has little perspective on his feelings, he merely wallows in them. Serious art deepens feeling, giving it content and meaning, providing a mirror of the mind to us. Our own emotions become meaningful, as we see their details, and in their interconnections that give them meaning.

Serious art has this depth, while popular art is correspondingly shallow. It leaves our feelings just as it finds them, formless and immature. It evokes them so quickly as to have no root in themselves. “They are so lightly triggered that there is no chance to build up a significant emotional discharge.”
This weak but wild approach to emotion is sentimentality. This is what Kaplan says is most distinctive of popular art. Sentimentality has a deficiency of feeling, words without weight, promises without fulfilment. Paradoxically, sentimentality is also excessive, abandoning emotional restraint. Nothing wrong with being deeply affected, but sentimentalism has this excess without a perception of meaning. Kaplan says, “ Sensibility becomes sentimental when there is some disproportion between the response and its object, when the response is indiscriminate and uncontrolled…Sentimentality is loving something more than God does.”

It is sentimental not because it calls for intense feeling, but because it calls for more than the artist or the audience can understand or apply significantly to the object. There is simply not enough to be understood, and this vacuity of meaning is intentional. The tear-jerker elicits tears, but why we weep is outside the occasion and beyond our perception.

Sentimentality moves in a close circle around the self. The art only has significance in light of the viewer. He sees himself in its materials, with the art providing easily recognizable prototypes to project himself upon. The focus remains my feelings, feelings about me. While real art calls us to empathise and give ourselves to the aesthetic experience, it rewards us by transforming us. Popular art takes us as we are and leaves us the same, with the illusion of having been deeply affected. In truth, we have felt deeply, but only in orbit around ourselves, drawing out of what we already know and love. It is as if we are enjoying a filmed performance of ourselves, using the bare schemas and prototypes of pop art to provide the skeleton or scaffolding on which to place the body of Self.
Pop art’s self-centeredness hollows and flattens us, emptying us of perspective on our own feelings. In essence, in becoming emptier people, we are becoming more bored, through the medium which was supposed to alleviate our boredom. We are drinking seawater.


Consider these three imaginative depictions of King David’s experience of losing a child (2 Samuel 18:33). Which of these helps us to understand and master our feelings – particularly the feeling of grief? Which might transform our emotions? Which provides us with a mirror of our own minds, and which causes us to lose ourselves in our feelings?

Gabriel’s Theodicy

He was to us bright, so without shadow.
And our praise was plain, in those pristine days:
(Strong without rival; Pure without evil!)
Yes, plain: until the covering cherub’s fall.
As lightning, at once we saw Him anew.

Cheap Thrills (4) – Merely Nostalgic

What if the culture we seek to reach has become dominated by amusement? This was Neil Postman’s argument about Western culture by the 1980s in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. When Postman and Kaplan speak of amusement, it is not the kind of recreation or avocation that involves some kind of play, exercise, creation, or the entertainment of beautiful thoughts.

Popular art is bad in that it amuses through mere reinforcement. Popular art entertains by trading in familiarity, and by trafficking in familiar emotion. Popular art does not need to be excellent in itself, it simply needs to be effective in bringing certain feelings to mind, evoking past satisfactions, producing nostalgia, and in providing occasions for reliving experiences. In other words, the emotions we feel with popular art are not expressed by the particular song, painting or poem, they are merely associated with them. In popular art, we lose ourselves, not in the work itself, but in pools of memory.

Popular art does this by using forms so stereotyped, so instantly recognizable as to require no engagement with itself. The form is so schematized as to be the equivalent of cue cards for a public speaker. The form does not have substance enough to broaden our feelings. Kaplan says, “Popular art wallows in emotion while art transcends it, giving us understanding and thereby mastery of our feelings.” Popular art is, once again, narcissistic, making our own feelings the subject matter, and indeed the goal of the aesthetic experience. We are not drawn out of ourselves, but driven deeper into loneliness.

We love what we know, therefore we love what is familiar. Popular art is always familiar, always reminds us of what we already know, and is therefore deeply attractive to the laziest parts of our souls.

What happens to a people who are used to their music evoking nostalgia, when they come to sing and make music before God? What might happen in Christian worship, if the Christians have been trained by their culture to seek what is familiar when music plays? Can worship transform the worshipper, if its forms trade in nostalgia and the familiar?



Consider these three hymns. Which of these trades in nostalgia, pools of memory, or mere association? Which is nothing more than a cue to wallow in feelings we think we ought to have?
Which calls us to investigate the poetry for itself – for its images, descriptions, language, rhymes, meter, tone? Which trades in clichés that are mere symbols for familiar responses? Which affects us but gives us mastery of our feelings? Which leaves our feelings unchanged, merely invoking what we already feel (or think we ought to feel) about the supposed subject matter?

‘Tis the Christ
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See Him dying on the tree!
’Tis the Christ by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ’tis He, ’tis He!
’Tis the long expected prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
Proofs I see sufficient of it:
’Tis a true and faithful Word.

Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting his distress:
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.

Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed!
See Who bears the awful load!
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man, and Son of God.

The Old Rugged Cross
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

How Deep the Father’s Love for Us
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom