Tag Archive for preference

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

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.

Preferences and Adiaphora

God reveals His will in Scripture in three ways.

The first is by explicit command or prohibition. God simply mandates certain behaviours and forbids others.
The second is by principles. Principles give truths, usually in timeless, axiomatic, or generalised form, which must then be properly connected to the specific circumstances that a believer is in.
The third is by allowing areas that He neither requires nor forbids explicitly in His Word. Theologians have called these things adiaphora, from the Greek which means ‘indifferent things’. These refer to matters where Scripture has not told us one way or another. Here careful judgement is needed. The meaning of the thing or activity in question must be properly understood, and then linked back to Scriptural commands or principles.

It is this third area that we must understand in order to correctly use the term preference. One characteristic of modern libertarian Christianity is its tendency to adopt an inverted legalism. In order to justify its ‘freedoms’, it makes an appeal to the letter of the law. That is, it shaves down the actual obligations of a Christian to explicit positive or negative biblical commands. It wrangles free of the implications of many biblical principles, claiming exemption from them with the post-modern’s motto: “that’s just your interpretation.” Finally, when it comes to adiaphora, it looks incredulously at the one seeking to form a judgement on any such matter. After all, if God hasn’t said anything about it, then the matter is meaningless, morally neutral, and without any serious moral implications. By a weird abuse of sola Scriptura, the only admissible judgements are the first category of explicit commands and prohibitions. The rest of life, it seems, does not matter to God. Finally, with rich irony, these legalists brand anyone who offers a moral judgement on any of the adiaphora with the term – you guessed it – legalist.

It ought to be obvious to us that God did not aim to write an exhaustive manual detailing His will on every possible event. The Bible would then fill several libraries, and be an ongoing work.

It ought to be equally obvious to us that God does want us to glorify Him in every detail of our lives (Col 3:17, 1 Cor 10:31). He has a perfect will, and He wants us to know it (Rom 12:2, Eph 5:16). Therefore, it ought to be plain to us that what God has supplied in the Scripture must be applied to life using information not contained in the Scripture.

Why are Christians so intimidated at the thought of getting grounds to apply a Scripture from outside the Scriptures? Probably because they have confused sola Scriptura with nuda Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture alone is the final authority for life and godliness. There is no higher bar or court of appeal than the Bible. There we find God’s will revealed. No information outside of the Scripture is to be considered as authoritative as Scripture itself.

However, nuda Scriptura is the idea that Scripture can come to us unclothed, apart from the understanding imparted from the believing community of faith and the Christian past, apart from the progress of theology through the centuries,  and apart from any other accompanying information from beyond the Scripture, even if it be true and given by experts or authorities in their fields. Scripture’s authority becomes limited to the naked black-and-white text, and nothing more than its own explicit applications will be admitted. In supposedly wanting nothing more than the unadorned statements of Scripture to guide his life, such a person ironically destroys the authority of Scripture to speak on life in general. Scripture’s protectors become its captors, not merely keeping competitors out, but keeping its own authority locked within the prison of its own two covers.

Most nuda Scriptura practitioners are unaware of how inconsistent they are with this attitude. They oppose abortion, but the Bible nowhere explicitly says that the killing of an unborn child is an instance of murder. They oppose taking God’s name in vain, but they cannot point to a single Scripture which gives an explicit application of that command. They regard recreational drug use as sinful, but cannot find a verse which links drug use to principles forbidding addiction or harm to the body.

And yet they oppose these things. That’s because they unwittingly violate their nuda Scriptura ethos, and supply outside (non-Scriptural) information to make a valid application. They find out from doctors that life begins at conception; they reason that using the actual name of God in an everyday slang fashion is to treat it in an unworthy manner; they find out information on the addictiveness and physical effects of the drug in question. In other words, Scripture does not give them either the application, or even the link to the application. They do, through the use of reason and outside information. We do this all the time, and God expects us to do so.

I think the disingenuous attitude of “the Bible doesn’t say that” really begins once a cherished idol is under fire. The person lives by sola Scriptura in every other area of his life. However, should one of his loves be challenged – his music, his entertainments, his dress to worship, his use of disposable income, his reading matter – suddenly he reverts to nuda Scriptura. Now he wants the Bible to speak explicitly to the matter under question, or his supposed devotion to chapter and verse will throw it out. This is a lying heart.

Adiaphora are not areas where the lordship of Christ does not apply, to be exploited for our own convenience. All of life is to be lived for the glory of God, including those areas where Christians can come to opposite conclusions.

The Protection of Preference

Scripture loves unity among the saints, but does not mandate uniformity. Somewhere Tozer points out that a hundred pianos all tuned with the same tuning fork will all be in harmony with one another. So believers, when conformed to Christ and submitted to the same sound doctrine, will find their Spirit-given unity (Eph. 4:3).

But within the Body of Christ, we will necessarily be different from one another. Indeed, as unpopular as it might be to say this out loud, we will not even be equal. We will be different in both the degree and the kind of giftedness we possess. We will possess and receive different amounts of honour (1 Co. 12:23-24). We will have very different functions in the Body (Ro. 12:4).  We will supply different portions of what is needful (Eph. 4:16). Our differences make us neither useless to the Body (1 Cor. 12:15-18), nor autonomous and self-sufficient (12:21-22). We are mutually interdependent.

Scripture speaks often on this theme because of equal and opposite errors. One is to expect that unity must flatten out differences and enforce a uniformity of ability, appearance, opportunity or even outcome (as the social justice warriors now demand). This ends up destroying the church’s true diversity through legalistic taboos, and making unity a matter of outward similarity. The Bible wants us to accept that we are different and yet unified.

The other error is to turn our diversity into a kind of conglomerate of preferences, with each competing with the others for its space in the sun. The church becomes a mall of consumeristic “tastes”, and everyone demands some shelf-space. Here, preferences turn into protected islands of private property, guarded fiercely, and sometimes even paraded proudly. Here Scripture simply rebukes us for selfishness. A difference in preference can be exploited by the flesh into despising or judging (Ro. 14:3, 10). We can parade our preference causing sorrow in another (Ro. 14:15). We can flaunt our liberty in front of one whose conscience is still unstable, leading him to choices that will destroy him (Ro. 14:13, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:7-13). But these are proud responses, selfishly insisting upon our own preference at the expense of another’s. Essentially, we assert our differing preference as more important, or more valid, than another’s.

This ends up destroying the church’s true unity through a foolish tolerance of selfishness, making diversity a matter of mere multiplicity of competing preferences, regardless of how the co-exist. The Bible wants us to accept that we are one body, with differences submitted to that unity.

Protecting the submitted differences within the church involves several beliefs and practices.

First, believers need to embrace the differences and “inequality” as part of God’s created order and redemptive purpose. We do not need to set up quota systems in the church. No one should ever be excluded on the basis of race or wealth or sex. Diversity, when yielded to the lordship of Christ, is beautiful.

Second, believers need to understand the meaning of “the weaker brother” (It does not refer to someone with a stricter conviction than yours). Protection of the conscience of others always trumps my own liberty.

Third, believers need to know that liberty is always loving, not self-assertive. The strong protect the weak (Ro. 15:1-2). Personal rights and privileges can and should be suspended, delayed or forgone entirely for the sake of winning others and upholding a blameless testimony (1 Cor 9:1-27).

Fourth, believers need to understand that certain areas of life allow for opposite conclusions and practices by Christians, with both sets of Christians pleasing God (Ro. 14:5-6). Certain matters can legitimately have more than one approach by very different Christians, and these responses can all be acts of holiness. Identifying and distinguishing these from matters of clear moral prescription or prohibition is where we now turn.

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.