Why are there such different “tastes” among people? Is the debate over music in worship simply a “preference issue”? Are matters of music, dress, recreation merely matters of “personal style”? We have tried to sort out the meanings of the word “taste”, and have seen two distinct meanings.
The first is the act of judging, or discerning. It is the faculty that can tell good from evil, true from false and beautiful from ugly. When exercising judgement, we are doing more than privately enjoying personal likes. We are trying to find out what is worthy to be enjoyed, known and experienced. This is a public judgement, one that is meant to be shared, compared, and criticised by others. It is possible for this taste to be more or less true: to conform to what, according to God is excellent (Phil 1:10). That does not mean it will be easy, or that our judgements will ever reach unanimous consensus. Apparently, God built difficulty into the world. The fact that we struggle to learn how to love what God loves is instructive in itself. Perhaps true relationships require real thought, meditation, thorough testing and experimentation.
This judgement should be grown and attended to with the same diligence that we give to growing in moral holiness or in theological knowledge. Our aesthetic maturity is not some extraneous social grace, or an elitist boasting point, but a measure of whether we can perceive the world as God has made it. It takes long practice, and a refusal to simply choose what is easy and sentimental. It requires a self-consciously counter-cultural posture. But it is as necessary as the other areas of worldliness that we abstain from. Loving beauty is not an optional extra to the Christlike person. Good people do not love ugly things.
The second meaning of “taste” is what is usually meant by “preference”: the differing inclinations and interests of people. As bishop Richard Harries points out, “[T]here are many kinds of beauty and whilst all forms will be characterised by wholeness, harmony and radiance, they will have these attributes in different ways”. If we then imagine a spectrum of truly beautiful things, we may still expect aesthetically mature people to find differing preferences within that spectrum.
Two caveats are in order.
First, such differences ought not to be termed “personal style”, a term which usually refers to an eclectic menagerie of beautiful and ugly, one which is supposedly immune from criticism simply because such a collection represents an individual’s choice.
Second, aesthetically mature people will be able to recognise why another object of beauty, while not their own preference, has merit and should be judged to be beautiful, or conversely, disdain an object as unworthy, in spite of the fact that it may be preferred by oneself or a close companion. The focus is not on freedom to choose; the focus ought to be on supplying plausible justification for your choices, giving warrant for your loves, not expecting the fact that you love something to be justification in itself for that love.
In those Philippians 4:8 areas, there is room for preference, indeed, room for opposing convictions. In what displeases God, there is no preference at all. If God has no taste for it, neither should we.
In summary, the question of good taste is not a simple one. Aesthetic maturity is needed, but relativism rules the day in our postmodern world. Narcissism, sentimentalism and kitsch provides an alluring and deforming effect on good taste. This bad taste is widely promoted through the media and structures of mass culture. Preference plays a role in explaining discrepancies over good taste, but preference has a far smaller role than aesthetic immaturity, loyalty to sentimental art, and cultural deformation.
Ironically, as in many areas of Christian growth, it takes the presence of a virtue to spot its absence. You need good taste to spot bad taste. You need good judgement to see the errors of bad judgement. Perhaps then, at the heart of Christian good taste is the attribute of humility: the patient, teachable, childlike spirit that is willing to admit its weakness or ignorance, learn from its betters, and develop the discernment to love what God loves