Monthly Archives: September 2019

Ten Mangled Words : “Taste”

De gustibus non est disputandum, said the ancient Romans. There is no disputing over taste, meaning that in matters of personal taste and preference, there can be no profitable dispute, and therefore there ought to be none.

There’s much truth to that. If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, and have no time for fantasy, then we have no quarrel. If you’re partial to Elgar instead of Bach, then live and let live. If seafood floats your boat, and red meat turns you off, then to each his own. Jack Spratt could eat no fat, and all that.

The problem with the word taste is that it refers to more than one human experience or ability. Because we use the same word for these very different things, we run the risk of equivocation when we use the word: speaking in two voices. We may mean one thing, but seem to mean the other. We may find ourselves alternating between the two meanings in the same conversation. This not only brings confusion to discussions, it can also be manipulated by the dishonest. To heal this mangled word, we need to separate the competing or differing meanings, and find synonyms to use alongside taste.

The first meaning is the one meant in the Roman maxim. Here, taste refers to individual preference. The creation is awash in a variety of colours, tastes, fragrances, textures, sounds, shapes, words, ideas and the infinite combinations thereof. Part of the variety is the individuality of the human being, who at the earliest age begins to demonstrate preferences, likes and dislikes. Differing tastes encourage more variety, more experimentation, and more innovation. It is in this sense that the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is loosely true: individual preference finds pleasure where others do not.

Within the sphere of what is upright and pleasing to God, differing taste ought to be a source of curiosity, enjoyment and fascination. Learning what another enjoys in something I do not will either initiate me into beauties and pleasures I had not known, or at least fill me with new regard and enjoyment of another fascinating human made in God’s image. Scripture certainly encourages believers to show deference to one another’s preferences, when those preferences fall within the bounds of what is pure, true, just, upright, noble, virtuous, lovely, etc.

The second meaning was very far from the minds of the Latin creators of that maxim. Taste in this second sense was used from around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to describe a faculty of judgement. Philosophers and aestheticians of the time were grappling with the question of the subjective and variable experience of beholders and the properties of what is beheld. The question of “good taste” and “bad taste” became an important one, even to sceptical empiricists like David Hume. Here taste does not refer to preference, but to discernment. As a trained palate can distinguish subtle flavours, so a person of good taste can distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate, beautiful and gaudy, classy and tacky, art and kitsch. The mark of one who has learned and absorbed the accumulated good judgements of thousands of people who have now already died, is that he is “civilised”, “cultured”, “a man of discrimination”, “a man of good taste”. The fact that you can already hear the watchdogs against elitism barking after that last sentence tells you all you need to know about the current attitude towards these ideas.

But in fact, Scripture has just as much to say (in fact, much more) on this second meaning of taste. It does not use the term taste (just as it does not in the first meaning). It uses the terms discernment, judgement, wisdom, understanding, and conscience. It gives rather elaborate instruction on how to cultivate this kind of taste, how to use it and not abuse it. And in fact, this kind of taste can only develop through some kind of “disputing”. Comparison of judgements, disagreement, discussion and debate is how these judgements are formed, shaped, chastened and refined. To fail to compare, criticise and communicate about these judgements is to leave them in the dark, unwatered and away from sunlight.

Our study of this word will require a few steps. First, we’ll need to understand where taste as personal preference is encouraged and protected in Scripture. Second, we’ll need to become alert to how this matter of preference is applied in illicit ways in the modern church. Third, we’ll need to understand how taste as good judgement is commanded and commended in Scripture. Fourth, we’ll need to see how good judgement is developed both in the world and in the Word.

 

Votes From the Democracy of the Dead

The idea of ordinate affection is not welcome today. Narcissism has become a celebrated virtue, and is now even given the monikers transparent, authentic, and real. The two ditches of sentimentalism and brutality now take up most of the road and a slender middle path of appropriate love is known by few and trod by fewer. Amusement is now the dominant mode for transmitting and receiving knowledge, so if it doesn’t entertain me, it may not be true. A life of vicarious wish-fulfilment in popular movies and music keep us feeling our feelings, while nostalgia and familiarity in pop culture keep us feeling full, even when we’ve not been fed. A culture of despair and nihilistic boredom is anaesthetised through constant diversion.

To speak to this culture of ordinate affection, right loves, orthopathy or appropriate sentiment is to invite everything from indifferent dismissal to scorn to incensed outrage. It’s not uncommon to have the discussion of affections labelled “ideological”, “elitist”, “esoteric”,or “speculative”, even by professing Christians.

But, he who knows only his own generation remains forever a child, said Santayana. Ordinate affection is neither a novel nor an abstruse concept. Consider:

Augustine (354-430):

“When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately… So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love; and on this account, in the Canticles, the bride of Christ, the city of God, sings, “Order love within me”.” (City of God, XV, xxii).

“Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake.” (On Christian Doctrine, I, xxvii)

“He loves thee too little, who loves anything with thee which he loves not for thy sake.” (Confessions, IX, xxix)

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153):

“We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable.” (On Loving God, I)

“You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love.” (Ibid.)

The anonymous author of Theologia Germanica, (late 14th century):

“And where a creature loveth other creatures for the sake of something that they have, or loveth God, for the sake of something of her own, it is all false Love; and this Love belongeth properly to nature, for nature as nature can feel and know no other love than this; for if ye look narrowly into it, nature as nature loveth nothing beside herself. But true Love is taught and guided by the true Light and Reason, and this true, eternal and divine Light teacheth Love to love nothing but the One true and Perfect Good, and that simply for its own sake, and not for the sake of a reward, or in the hope of obtaining anything, but simply for the Love of Goodness, because it is good and hath a right to be loved.” (Theologia Germanica, XLII)

Thomas Traherne (1636–1674):

“Can you accomplish the end for which you were created, unless you be Righteous? Can you then be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours; and you were made to prize them according to their value: which is your office and duty, the end for which you were created, and the means whereby you enjoy. …For then we please God when we are most like Him. We are like Him when our minds are in frame. Our minds are in frame when our thoughts are like His. And our thoughts are then like His when we have such conceptions of all objects as God hath, and prize all things according to their value.” (Centuries of Meditations, First Century, XII)

François Fénelon (1651–1715):

“Men have a great repugnance to this truth, and consider it to be a very hard saying, because they are lovers of self from self-interest. They understand, in a general and superficial way, that they must love God more than all his creatures, but they have no conception of loving God more than themselves, and loving themselves only for Him. They can utter these great words without difficulty, because they do not enter into their meaning, but they shudder when it is explained to them, that God and his glory are to be preferred before ourselves and everything else to such a degree that we must love his glory more than our own happiness, and must refer the latter to the former, as a subordinate means to an end.” (Spiritual Progress, III)

Henry Scougal (1650–1678):

“The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love” (The Life of God in the Soul of Man).

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

“For if we love him not for his own sake, but for something else, then our love is not terminated on him, but on something else, as its ultimate object. That is no true value for infinite worth, which implies no value for that worthiness in itself considered, but only on the account of something foreign. Our esteem of God is fundamentally defective, if it be not primarily for the excellency of his nature, which is the foundation of all that is valuable in him in any respect. If we love not God because he is what he is, but only because he is profitable to us, in truth we love him not at all.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, On Original Sin 3:144)

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963):

“The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, coarse or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful.” (Surprised By Joy)

And to bring it into this century, with no evangelical axe to grind, here is philosopher Roger Scruton:

“for a free being, there is right feeling, right experience and right enjoyment just as much as right action. The judgement of beauty orders the emotions and desires of those who make it. It may express their leisure and their taste: but it is pleasure in what they value and taste for their true ideals.” (Beauty).

 

Affect or Effect

The difference between affections and emotions is seen in what art is used in worship.

Since worship uses art, worship leaders can use it in precisely one of these two ways: to affect us, or to create effect.

They can work with poetry, music and the spoken word to work with the imagination. There the worshipper can contemplate the invisible God for who He is, and be affected by truth. As Edwards pointed out, this “impression” is made during corporate worship:

“The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart in the time of it; and the memory profits as it renews and increases that impression.”

Once corporate worship is over, the worshipper is returned to regular life with his desires and inclinations more focused on the kind of God he claims to know and love.

Conversely, worship leaders can also work with poetry, music and the spoken word to simply achieve effect. They can aim to create an experience in which the worshipper experiences  immediately–and one might say viscerally–the supposed experience of God. God is not contemplated with the understanding; the appetites and feelings are targeted directly, and the resultant experience is associated with God. The worshipper leaves corporate worship and returns to the rest of his life with the creation of an addiction: he will need more of the same next week to feel anything for God. Ironically, these descendants of the Reformers have created a kind of evangelical Mass: the presence of God is only known and felt at church. This time, the Presence is manifest not when the priest rings the bell, but when Dude strums his Fender Stratocaster.

There are almost limitless ways of creating an effect: the effect of dreamy intimacy with God achieved by a breathy worship leader narrating a quasi-romantic prayer to Jesus over softly playing chords, the effect of sympathy for the cause of Jesus by impassioned pleas for people to come forward while a sentimental hymn is played in the background, the effect of jubilation achieved by a sweaty worship leader literally jumping to the pulsating physicality of music played at volumes only possible with electronic amplification, and so on. If an effect is needed, a technique can be engineered. However, there is a simple term for this kind of approach, one that many contemporary worship proponents would bristle at: manipulation.

There is nothing accidental here. Worship leaders know what kind of art will produce what kind of result. Philosopher Roger Scruton tells us the difference between real art and manipulative art:

Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own. (Beauty)

Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation. These actually help us to pursue realities, precisely because there is a distance between us and the things we contemplate. Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfilment of desires. Real art takes us out of reality, teaches us, and returns us changed: our desires are more focused on the worth of objects in reality. False art takes us out of reality, mimics it, and gives us substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification. It also returns us to reality different: our emotions dissipated through a substitute reality, and a little more dependent on or expectant of such manipulative techniques to feel anything. One kind of art actually grows our affections, the other shrivels them.

When Scruton speaks of the distance that true art creates between us and what it portrays, it reminds one of the way Yahweh has set up worship in contrast to the orgiastic worship of the pagans. In the Old Testament and the New,  God simultaneously respects the rational humanity of man and calls for a true worship of Himself grounded in the understanding. He does this by portraying Himself in serious, non-manipulative works of imaginative art: the narratives, psalms, metaphors, prophecies and commands of Scripture.

When believers have followed God’s pattern, they have written songs, poems and prayers that reach the understanding through the imagination, which slowly (painfully slowly, sometimes) move and shape the affections. For the one for whom worship has become an itch that needs to be scratched weekly, God’s approach is intolerably slow and dull. Such a man wants a clamorous appeal to his appetites, which respond automatically, sensually and ephemerally. Esau would like a bowl of soup now, please. What good do these hymns, promises and principles do for my bored & achin’ heart right now, man?

By contrast, the result of a slow and patient appeal to the imaginative understanding of regenerate man is a deeply grounded love for God that is ordinate, not a fleeting response that evaporates once the marionette strings stop tugging.

We’re told that the worship wars are over and it’s obvious which side has lost. So be it. As Eliot said, “We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”