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