Tag Archive for judgement

Taste Formed and Deformed by Culture

Taste is never shaped in isolation. We learn to love what we love from our family, our church, our school, and our society. In other words, taste is largely shaped by culture.

Culture can be defined as T. S. Eliot suggested, “the incarnation of a religion”. At the heart of any culture is Richard Weaver’s “metaphysical dream”: an unspoken but ever dominant vision of ultimate reality. From this vision, a culture creates worship, art, jurisprudence, custom, and social order. Quentin Faulkner says that “culture is perhaps best defined as the collective behaviour (together with the resulting artefacts) of a society engaged in acting out (symbolising) its most deeply held and cherished shared beliefs and convictions”.

Understood this way, culture is formative and , in some senses, determinative. As the composer Julian Johnson, puts it, “Culture is not something you choose: it confronts you with an objective force. To be sure, it is a composite product of individual consciousness and is amenable to our own work upon it, but it is far from being a matter of choice. Culture is no more a matter of choice than having two legs or being subject to gravity is; one can no more reject culture than reject electricity or weather”.

If culture is formative, much of what is wrongly called “personal taste” is actually shaped by example of others and exposure to others’ loves. Tastes are first received before they are scrutinised or even challenged. People begin their lives as members of a culture and identify with its loves and hates; it is only later that they begin to question if they wish to continue to own all that the culture holds dear.

“Ah!”, says the musical and aesthetic relativist, “this just shows that taste has no objective standard! It is completely different from one culture to another, and therefore no taste can be judged to be ‘better’ than another”.

Were humans all still living in isolated folk cultures in which they were united by religion, language, and geographical region, this study would have to consider how different folk cultures have approached beauty, and how taste should be related cross-culturally. But they aren’t. The technologies of mass culture have erased geographical boundaries. All that is left of folk culture are those remnants that have been selected by producers of mass culture to create new products: a movie about Native Americans, a pop song using Swiss yodelling, or a Disney movie about animals with themes sung in Zulu or Swahili. The truth is, we all live in the world of mass culture. The question of universals between cultures is really no longer a major question: we’re all in the same culture now. And it’s really a non-culture. Christopher Dawson says of mass culture,”[T]he new scientific culture is devoid of all positive spiritual content. It is an immense complex of techniques and specialisms without a guiding spirit, with no basis of common moral values, with no unifying spiritual aim…A culture of this kind is no culture at all in the traditional sense—that is to say it is not an order which integrates every side of human life in a living spiritual community.”

What kind of taste does mass culture produce in its members? Faulkner suggests two beliefs.

1. A belief in the individual’s right to pursue self-satisfaction, self-fulfilment, and self-gratification.
2. Confidence in the potential of modern science to create for us an ever improving quality of life, coupled with a fascination with the technology that is the result of modem science.

The kind of taste that most clearly corresponds to the first belief is what we disparagingly call kitsch (art that makes us feel good about feeling). The taste most properly aligned with the second belief centres on, in the words of Calvin Johansson, “media, presentation and image”. A culture given over to this will be one that emphasises what is more entertaining, such as exciting images, rather than text. When image dominates in a culture, a religion of the Word suffers.

In such a culture, taste is necessarily deformed, and such deformity reinforced. Indeed, only the mentality of the marketplace would define taste as entirely a matter of individual choice, like products to be purchased and consumed. Only a member of mass culture would see an eclectic selection of cultural products as “personal style”. “The equating of cultural choice with personal style signals the end of an understanding of culture as something related to objective spirit” (Julian Johnson).

Mass culture does not, and perhaps cannot, communicate transcendent ideals. Its art forms, made as they are to sustain narcissistic interest, are not capable of sustaining the Christian vision of a holy, glorious, and beautiful God. A culture of easy listening and easy living leads to the atrophy of imagination, and to simplistic sentiment.

When people are dominated by the sensibilities of mass or popular culture, it deforms taste in all the directions that Christian aestheticians have warned against: using art instead of receiving it, taking immediate responses as the “truth” of the work, promoting aesthetic relativism, and creating an appetite for narcissistic art.

Differences in taste can certainly be credited to the shaping force of culture. To what extent a person is embedded in in mass culture will have a proportionate shaping influence on his aesthetic taste.

Good Taste and Christian Taste

Even atheists used to believe in good taste. The infamous David Hume wrote in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals “In many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection.” (emphasis mine).

Today, it is hard to find a Christian who believes good taste is real, founded on objective realities, and possible to identify. Christians have changed places with relativists, and seem to be leading the charge.

T. S. Eliot reminded us that those desirous of good literary judgement need to be acutely aware of two things at once: “what we like,” and “what we ought to like”. Ron Horton said, “Whereas the immature approve of what they like and disapprove of what they dislike, the mature are able to approve what they dislike and disapprove what they like, or are inclined to like”.

Approving what we ought to approve of is clearly Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9-11. Scripture certainly calls for the development of good taste. “Let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Cor. 14:40). “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy– meditate on these things. (Phil. 4:8) “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Heb. 5:14)

Taste is then a discipline that can be developed. Taste goes beyond preference, for to call something beautiful is to say more than just, “I like it”, but to make the claim public in some way, to call on others to share your evaluation. Differing tastes may correspond to the difference between two sorts of beauty. In other words, bad taste is a taste for bad things, the love of what ought not to be loved.

Taste may even be sinful. Frank Brown, in Good Taste, Bad taste, and Christian Taste, suggests four forms of sinful taste. First, there is the Aesthete, who glories in creation, but not in the Creator. Second, one finds the Philistine, who cannot appreciate anything artistic or aesthetic, things which “cannot be translated into practical, moral or religious terms”. Third, one meets the Intolerant, who elevates his own standards to the level of absolutes. Fourth, there is the Indiscriminate, whose radical aesthetic relativism embraces all aesthetic phenomenon without discriminating between the superficially appealing and that which has lasting value.

To even speak of sinful taste is highly controversial in a relativistic age, so a few qualifications are in order. First, taste is rooted in a broader cultural context, and cultures necessarily have differences. (This does not mean they do not share universals.) Second, judgements of taste do not function like logical theorems, valid scientific inferences or valid moral claims. Taste can, contra the Roman maxim, be a matter of legitimate dispute. An element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty.

With all that said, some form of consensus should be sought, otherwise no discussions of beauty could take place. How does one explain differing tastes in beauty? I suggest four explanations, which I’ll take in turn:

1. Aesthetic Maturity
2. The Prevalence of Kitsch and Sentimentalism.
3. Cultural Formation and Deformation
4. Natural Preference

Aesthetic Maturity

The idea that one’s ability to discern beauty is a discipline that can be practised is unfamiliar to many Christians. It wasn’t always so. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Hidden beauties are commonly by far the greatest, because the more complex a beauty is, the more hidden is it.” Again, even a sceptic like David Hume wrote, “though the principles of taste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.” So, who is qualified? Hume says, “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

Edmund Burke saw the cause of bad taste as a defect of judgment due to lack of natural intelligence, or a lack of training and exercise in judgement. He added that ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy, and all other passions that pervert the judgement, will pervert the ability to perceive beauty. Taste, according to Burke, improves as judgement improves, by growth in knowledge, and better attention to the object, and by frequent exercise.

Taste engages much of the human soul. It perceives, appreciates, and appraises. If so, aesthetic maturity must be closely related to other dimensions of morality and maturity, including responsiveness, wisdom, love, and discernment. An overall maturity of character is related to aesthetic maturity, and the corollary is that aesthetic immaturity is a defect in one’s overall maturity.

If, as the Greeks said, Beautiful things are hard, one would expect the mature to be able to patiently and carefully discern such beauties, whereas the immature and impatient will pass them over.

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.


You Elitist, You

Since this series has dealt with “mangled” words such as tolerance, freedom, and authority, I was tempted to include elitism among them. Elitism, though, is really a misused word inseparable from the word authority. When the meaning of authority is mangled, be sure that a sorely maimed and deformed version of the meaning of elitism will make a showing.

This word makes its appearance in some Christian circles whenever a discussion of art, taste, or critical judgement comes up. That is, elitism does not rear its head when the discussion is over a simple prescription or prohibition from Scripture. There, Christians are happy to ping-pong proof texts at one another. Should the conversation require some extra-biblical information from experts, say from a musical composer, or a professor of literature, or a cultural critic, suddenly many Christians get uncomfortable, and feel the elitist camel is poking its nose into the tent. They might not think of it this way, but they are really struggling with the idea of authority, in two ways.

First, they feel that an appeal to any information outside of Scripture is a subversion of the authority of Scripture. They wish Scripture and Scripture alone to settle every debate. While this desire is commendable, it is neither the meaning of sola Scriptura, nor is it the meaning of the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture is the final authority. What God says has the final say, and overrules all other opinions. But sola Scriptura does not mean no other authorities exist in the world. The world is full of authorities on politics, medicine, history, nutrition, economics, art, the natural sciences and so on. Sola Scriptura simply means that none of these authorities claims equal authority with Scripture. Once these authorities have spoken, their views must be submitted to the final bar of God’s Word. Scripture gets to overrule any and all of them. That is not the same as saying we may safely ignore these authorities and depend on Scripture to answer every question. That attitude is not sola Scriptura, it is what is known as nuda Scriptura – naked texts expected to function apart from any other knowledge of the world around us.
The Bible was never meant to deal with every branch of human knowledge, or speak expertly on every topic. It provides commands and principles that cover all that we need for life and godliness. This is its sufficiency. But these principles, in order to find application in our lives, most often require that we gather knowledge from the created order and submit it to the God-breathed timeless principles of God’s Word. For example, to obey Romans 13:1-4, I need to learn the laws of the land, and Scripture doesn’t give those to me. To avoid enslavement to something (1 Cor 6:12), I need to find out what substances or activities are addictive, and Scripture does not identify these for me. Scripture is sufficient to thoroughly equip us, but no one expects Scripture to tell us which foods are healthy, which fashions are immodest, which technologies are edifying. Most of our knowledge will come from outside the Bible. All of our extra-biblical knowledge must submit to the grid of Scripture to be properly understood, and any knowledge that Scripture explicitly contradicts is false. But Scripture is sufficient not in the sense that it exists to be the sum total of necessary knowledge for life. It is sufficient in that its prescriptions, principles and wisdom, when used to judge and evaluate all other gathered knowledge, gives us all we need to live a life glorifying to God.

Second, even among those Christians who are willing to accept expert extra-biblical opinion when it comes to medicine, economics, or science, there exists a deep suspicion of any expert opinion regarding music, poetry, literature or the arts. Supposedly this is simply too arcane, too subjective, and perhaps even too mystical for any opinion to be held as more authoritative than another. And should one quote or refer to those whose vocation is to understand the fine arts, i.e. critics, it won’t be long before the word elitism is thrown in.

Elitism, properly defined, is rule or influence by an elite. Elite, in turn, refers to a class of people superior to others in rank, ability or power. In a democratic age, the idea that elites exist is both acknowledged and resented. Perhaps it is most strongly resented in the evangelical church, which since at least the 19th century, has become strongly populist.

Populism assumes that all that is true and good and necessary to life can be understood equally by all and accessed or perceived immediately, without specialised training or instruction. To a populist, what God wants us to know is what is absolutely necessary to know, and what is absolutely necessary to know must therefore be uncomplicated, immediately accessible, and transparently practical. Recourse is made to texts about receiving the kingdom as a little child, and this is supposed to end the discussion. Consequently, populism views higher learning with suspicion. Populism views consulting experts with suspicion. Populism views advanced studies with suspicion. Populism views tradition with suspicion. Populism views authority with suspicion. Populism views intellectuals with suspicion. The upshot is a roll-your-own-at-home Christianity, where sincerity and an open Bible will supply all we need.

There are two responses to populism. One is to rightly understand the priesthood of the believer alongside the doctrine of vocation. The second is to understand the role of critical judgements. We’ll consider these next.

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.