To understand why people think about reality the way they do, you have to understand their unconscious idea of reality, their vision of ultimate things, what Weaver called their metaphysical dream. To understand their metaphysical dream, you have to understand the culture that shaped that dream. And to understand that culture, you have to understand its worship and art.
A culture takes shape around religious ideas. In fact, it is a religion externalised. A religion is best understood by its worship, and by the instrument that all worship uses: art. In a culture’s worship and art, you will see its view of reality most clearly.
Therefore, one of the most important things Christians can do is understand the meaning of the art that the cultures around them are producing. And since we are living in a mass culture, an anti-culture that peddles the eclectic and contradictory ideas of secularism, it’s important for Christians to understand the worship of secular culture. Popular art, as distinguished from high art and folk art, is actually the tool, the craft, by which secularism shapes the loves and attitudes of its people.
Abraham Kaplan, former professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. Kaplan’s article, The Aesthetics of the Popular Arts, should be read by every Christian leader and Christian serious about understanding culture, evangelising one’s neighbour or worshipping seriously. Kaplan’s article considers the popular arts from the perspective of form, evoked emotion, and effect. Kaplan gives compelling reasons for seeing pop music (or painting, verse, film, literature) as immature, stereotyped, and sentimental.
In studying popular art, we are really comparing worship. We are asking whether the tools of secularism’s religion sustain the weight of contemplating the transcendent? Can it do justice to the depth of the tragedy of human experience, or open up vistas of thought beyond a man’s nursed prejudices? Can it provide finely nuanced expressions of human affections, honing and shaping those of the receptive? Can it take a man out of his narcissism, and confront him with reality as it is, or as it might be? If it cannot, then you have discovered something about the metaphysical dream of secularism.
Kaplan contends that popular art, as he defines it, cannot. If he is correct, then popular art can hardly be an adequate vehicle for Christian worship or ideas, though it may certainly fit those of another religion. If popular art trivialises the human condition, sentimentalises our own experiences, and turns profound truths into mind-numbing clichés , then popular art must be the enemy of serious worship. In this series, we will examine some of Kaplan’s thoughts, with some examples to consider.
For starters, consider these two very different imaginings of death. What do they suggest about death? What are the differences in ideas? How are these differences made clear through the music itself?