Tag Archive for taste

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.

Taste Spoiled By Sweetness

A discussion of taste is one of the most difficult (and unrewarding) ones to have, for most people are unreflective about their likes. “I know what I like!” is supposed to end the discussion, followed up with “different strokes for different folks”.

Aesthetic immaturity is one of the reasons for a discrepancy in taste among people. Some have not developed their powers of discernment to approve the things that are excellent (Phil 1:9-11). A second reason is the sheer allure of sentimentalism in art. Christians who care about truth and care about truthful affections should care about the dangers of sentimentalism.

Art that trades in sentimentalism is sometimes called kitsch, for it cheapens the aesthetic experience by giving a shallow substitute. Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wrote this much-cited description of kitsch:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

When in the grip of sentimentalism, people are not moved by the beauty of the object, people are moved by how moved they are. They feel deeply the depth of their feelings; they fall in love with their love. The art becomes merely something used to obtain what seems to them a moving experience. The only way this is possible is when the qualities of the object perceived possess only superficial schemas of beauty that are instantly recognisable and provoke familiar emotions. Objects of true beauty resist this treatment; they insist on one’s submission to them; they insist on honest scrutiny. Roger Scruton:

Kitsch, the case of Disney reminds us, is not an excess of feeling but a deficiency. The world of kitsch is in a certain measure a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them.

Sentimental art evades or trivialises evil, presenting a fiction of an unfallen present world, and so allows its viewers to wallow in pleasant feelings. The sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent, loving, grieving, hating, pitying, not for the sake of another, but for the sake of enjoying love, grief, hate, and pity. Sentimental art denies the need for sacrifice in approaching beauty, but in so doing deprives feeling of depth and reality.

Dorothy Sayers called such art “amusement art” and noted that what people get from it “is the enjoyment of the emotions which usually accompany experience without us having had the experience”. Nothing in such an aesthetic experience reveals people to themselves; it merely enhances and inflates an image of themselves as they fancy themselves to be.

Real art helps its participants to escape, not from reality itself but from their own unimaginative experience of it. They are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Sentimental art simply gives pleasure with the illusion of true imagination. Its consumers do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred.

Real art gives those who receive it a kind of objectification, in which they are able to see themselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. They see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Sentimental art is all-too human, and ultimately childish. Its consumers want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so they escape into non-existent worlds where they are already experiencing pleasure and existing as beautiful. Sentimental art turns its back on a world it has never known.

The problem is not the symbolism in sentimental art, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, sentimental art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which its consumers are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of man’s own making, where everything is selected and placed in one’s own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. One quickly recognises the stereotypes and fills them with the feelings one knows he or she is supposed to have.

For this reason, sentimentality is a form of art hostile to what Christianity purports to teach: a denial of self, so as to worship the glory of Another. Richard Harries goes as far as saying that “Kitsch, in whatever form, is an enemy of the Christian faith and must be exposed as such”. Kitsch is not only an aesthetic failure, but a moral and spiritual failure, too. Christ’s beauty is not a sentimental prettiness, and therefore sentimental art has the potential of leading into idolatry. Scruton similarly claims that kitsch is not primarily an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith.

Differences in taste are explained not only by differing levels of aesthetic maturity, but by the human propensity to prefer what is easy, familiar, and flattering. Here the difference is not mere preference, but whether art will be used selfishly or sacrificially, whether it will be an act of learning or an act of narcissism, whether it will be a childish encounter with ourselves or a receptive encounter with reality. Since Scripture describes man’s propensity for self-deception, and his inclination towards self-worship, it is no surprise that sentimental art is popular and that unreflective people consider it their preference.

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.

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.