Tag Archive for discernment

Taste and Preference: A Last Word

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

Christian at the Movies (1)

I was about ten when the first Rock ‘n Roll evangelists came to town. They weren’t proselytising on behalf of Iron Maiden. They were there to tell us about the rampant satanism and occultism in contemporary rock and pop.

To rapt audiences, they played snippets of songs backwards: “[ssshkp]…[ssshkp]…[ssshkp]…meeshnar eep… [ssshkp]… eeg zatan… [ssshkp]…’There! Hear that?'”. We heard about the backmasking and subliminal messages embedded in most songs. It was terrifying to know that Satanists were manipulating us with hidden and even inaudible messages. As a child, it made me want to block my ears and run out of most shops.

And it wasn’t only the music. The Smurfs were satanic because it had Gargamel the wizard and a cat named Azrael. Gummi Bears was satanic because Zummi would cast spells by saying words backwards. Thundercats and He-Man were satanic because of Set and Skeletor. Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was just as bad. Ditto for The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. Playing Dungeons & Dragons was tantamount to holding a seance.

Of course, there was (and still is) occultism in popular entertainments, just not to the level the evangelists suggested, nor in the conspiratorial way that alarmist evangelism thrives on. When all that blew over, besides having made Fundamentalism look goofier than ever, it probably harmed believers in a far more serious way. While looking for the frontal assault of satanism, Christians became oblivious to far greater dangers in popular entertainments, to which they gave a free pass.  The concepts of sentimentalism and trivialisation seemed tame and silly compared with the roaring lion of occultism. The ideas of implicit morality, worldview, and celebrated or denigrated ideas went missing. Moral universes, characterisation, Christian or non-Christian imagination – these were (and still are) alien concepts to most Christians. And besides, it’s easier to spot the occult than to judge something for its beauty or worth.

Consequently, in this scheme of things, the cornpone silliness and trivialisation of the Rapture in A Thief in the Night was ignored, while the witches in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty made those films clearly wrong. The bawdiness in The Princess Bride was no problem, but Pokemon was clearly a tool of Satan. Characters smooching each other on a weekly basis was fine (as was the formula in 80s and 90s TV shows), but the mention of spells, magic, dragons, witches, wizards was insidious occultism grooming our children for a future career in the occult. We could trivialise the entire faith in Veggie Tales and cartoons of Bible accounts, but those were “safe”, as opposed to how Disney would slip in supposed satanic salutes. In short, Christians learnt how to strain out gnats and swallow camels at the movies.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I still find Christians operating at the same level. The films and TV series have changed, but the criteria of evaluating them seems to be the same: is there occultism? Is there bad language? Is there sex and nudity? Is there gory violence? If these are absent, then the film or programme is “innocent”. (Indeed, for some Christians, even these are no hindrance to their watching a movie.)

So you will find believers watching completely anti-Christian films, discipling their children with sentimental (and therefore anti-Christian) visions of reality, and loving their choices because they score 1 out of 10 on the SNVL rating, and have no mention of magic or fantasy. Conversely, you will find the same Christians avoiding decent or even helpful visions of ultimate reality because of some reference to magic or the presence of evil in the story, and choosing rather to wallow in saccharine portrayals of reality.

Maybe you are one of those fortunate Christians who has managed to raise a family with nary a screen in site. Maybe you have acreage aplenty, and your kids can roam free in the great outdoors till mama calls ’em in for supper. You have my admiration and righteous envy. For those of us in the city, and for those of us in cities with high walls and electric fences, screens are both a part of life and a survival tool for parents. While my children probably watch a fraction of what most children today watch, they still encounter movies and TV shows, and it is my duty to teach them discernment.

To that end, I wrote out ten questions for them to consider as they come across films. At this stage, my wife and I still strictly control and filter what they see. But that cannot last forever. One day, they will be independent, and have their own internet connection. By then, I hope that what will keep them pure will be not merely VidAngel or Covenant Eyes, but their own consciences shaped to love what is true, good, and beautiful. Here are the first four.

  1. If it portrays contemporary or historical life in this world, what kind of world does the movie/TV show claim we live in? Is it true?

  2. If it creates a fantasy world, what kind of other world does the movie/TV show create? Is it similar to God’s true world? If it’s better, how? If worse, how?

These first two questions ask what kind of moral universe the movie creates. Every film is a mini-cosmos, a world that the characters inhabit. We are asked to enter that world, and view things from its perspective. The important question is, what sort of world is it? Is it a godless world? Are humans intrinsically good or evil? Is the morality like that of Scripture or is it inverted? Perhaps it is deliberately amoral, nihilistic and purposeless. Is there good and evil, truth and lies, ugliness and beauty? Do you emerge from this world, fantastical or realistic, with a clearer vision of the true world that God has made, or is it somewhat distorted? A fantasy world is not a false world; it is an alternate world. A false world is one which distorts good and evil, Creator and creation, truth and lies, whether it uses realism or fantasy. A false world reshapes the very lens of perception with which we come back to our own world.

3. Does this movie/ TV show make fun of, or glorify, something that God hates?

4. What kinds of actions and characteristics does it celebrate? Does it celebrate what is shameful? Does it invite unlawful curiosity?

One of great powers of theatre and spectacle is its immersive character. Writers such as Augustine and Pascal warned about the power of theatre to envelop us in the action, until we sympathetically feel what we should not feel. We desire the married woman to elope from her abusive husband with the kind stranger. We want to see the hero take violent revenge on his evil persecutors. We long to see the romantic tension defused in some act of on-screen sensuality.

We need to ask, does this film make us lustful, envious, covetous, or vengeful? Do we laugh at immorality, pride, arrogance and conceit? Do we begin to admire the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life? Are we drawn in to covet another man’s wife or husband, to desire what we are told not to desire? Within the movie experience, are we sympathetic and supportive of sinful behaviour? Do we become contemptuous of wisdom and righteousness? Then the film is shaping our conscience away from God.

Many of the protagonists in modern movies are, by biblical definition, fools. They are immoral, proud, self-directed, profane, irreligious, immodest, bloodthirsty, violent, and ungodly in their speech. Yet they are the “heroes” of the tales. If we think that these heroes are not shaping our children just because we filter out the worst bits of nudity, violence, and language, we are straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

The next six next time.

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.

 

Identifying Authorities

Within the avalanche of information coming at us, how do we identify true authorities in any domain of knowledge? How do we judge the anonymous Youtube channel, the self-proclaimed discernment ministry, the mega-church pastor, or the well-known author? We need something more than merely an intuitive feeling that a person ‘makes sense’, or ‘seems to know what he’s talking about’. All false teachers do, or they wouldn’t gain a following. Nor can we trust that we have some remarkable internal common-sense. Everyone thinks of himself as a pretty shrewd fellow, while the Bible unflatteringly calls the lot of us sheep. What follows are some suggested methods to wade through the morass.

1) In the case of living teachers of Christian virtue, does the person you trust exemplify the kind of life you are to follow? Is he an example of true Christian piety (Hebrews 13:7)?

2) Does the person you trust himself submit to a tradition? In the case of the Bible teacher, he must be able to defend his position using Scripture, sound reason, and a proven theological method. Something similar holds for a teacher in any other domain, be it science, history, economics, or human behaviour. Can you evaluate his teaching against anything in the past? Does he seem to translate and pass on what has been tried and tested in the past, or is he boasting in his novelty and creativity? The saying is mostly valid: what’s entirely new is seldom entirely true, and what’s entirely true is seldom entirely new. 

3) Does the person you trust exemplify right thinking? Does he display good reason, sound judgement, unprejudiced evaluations and fair-minded attitudes? This third qualification carries the catch-22 of ‘it takes one to know one’, so we need to discipline ourselves in the canons of right thought, to be able to see it in another.

That is, when we choose to trust a person as some kind of expert in a particular domain of knowledge, we ought not to do so simply because the person seems to have such knowledge in great quantity. There is little skill in accumulating vast amounts of knowledge, and only marginally more in impressing others with the size of that knowledge. What counts when it comes to the pursuit of truth is of a person demonstrates the ability to think. Right thinking is not vast recall, or enormous powers of regurgitation. Right thinking has to do with how knowledge is assimilated, analysed and judged. People are led astray because they are mesmerised by the sound ‘n fury of a lot of facts and figures. “If someone can remember that much, he must be clever enough for me to trust.”
Mortimer Adler wrote a very important and useful book for the development of right thinking, called How to Read a Book. What follows is an abridged summary of his guidelines for the right assimilation of information, followed by the correct understanding of its meaning and of its significance.

* Come to terms with an author by understanding what the important words are in his work, and what he means by them.

* Having done so, discover the key propositions, premises and conclusions contained in the work.

* From these, understand the author’s argument. Observe if his argument is deductive or inductive. Observe what he assumed. Observe what he says can be proved, what need not be proved and what is self-evident.

* Consider what his solutions are.

* At this point, the work of criticising the contents of the book takes over. Critical judgement will say I agree, I disagree, or I suspend judgement with good reasons for doing so. Critical judgement can only be done when you can state the author’s argument in terms he would agree with.
To judge critically is to acknowledge your emotion, make your assumptions explicit and attempt impartiality. The disagreement will not be mere opinion; it will give reasons for the disagreement without being contentious.

* There are three ways of disagreeing with an author rationally, stated as responses to the author:
1. “You are uninformed” – the author lacks relevant knowledge.
2. “You are misinformed” – the author makes assertions contrary to the facts.
3. “You are illogical” – the author reasons poorly or fallaciously.
A fourth way exists, which is really a way of suspending judgement. It is to say “Your analysis is incomplete,” which is to say that the author has not solved all the problems, or did not see the ramifications and implications of his ideas, or failed to make relevant distinctions, or failed to make as good a use of materials as possible.

Once we have begun to grasp and practise these ways of handling knowledge, we are better off in two ways. First, we are able to better handle the knowledge coming at us from every side. If a book, or website or video fails the tests of right thinking, and does so again and again, there is no reason to trust its analysis or to place much stock in it. Second, we are better able to evaluate the teachers of knowledge themselves. A person who consistently commits fatal errors of logic, whose sources are erroneous, or who mishandles his materials disqualifies himself from our consideration as some kind of expert. No matter what the domain of knowledge, we want to hear from people who think properly when they handle that knowledge.

It might seem that we are a long way from plain biblical discernment when we speak of right thinking. But that is because we have imbibed a form of thinking which divorces the God-glorifying task of good thinking from the God-glorifying task of biblical interpretation. If we think well, we are better able to spot teachers who handle the text of Scripture properly. If we think well, we will consult the right people on various areas of human knowledge., and distinguish the authorities from the posers.