Monthly Archives: January 2020

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.

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.

Church Visibility or Church Publicity?

Church leaders find themselves today harangued and prodded to build an “online presence”. This usually means a busy Facebook page, a Youtube channel, a Twitter account, a static website, live-streamed services and more. Without these, we’re told, a church is mostly “invisible” to the world, and is “failing to reach its community”. It is even called a neglect of evangelism, a failure to connect, or hiding one’s light under a bushel.

In urban settings, it is true that the Internet has become the primary source of information. Gone are the days of the phone book, the classified sections in the print newspapers, the community noticeboards and the leaflets for the mailboxes. These still exist, but people looking for services, restaurants, directions, and, yes, churches, are likely to Google before they look to some other source. Therefore, I have no quarrel with those encouraging churches to use these means. Indeed, my church uses some of them, and will likely use more of them in the future.

I do have a deep concern that many who are pushing for “more online presence” have lost all sense of distinction between very different things: visibility and publicity.

Visibility is allowing those who are looking, and even those who may not be, to come across your church. In years past, this was everything from your church sign, to its steeple, to the bells on Sunday morning, to an ad placed in the community newspaper. Now, in addition to these, a church does well to enable those looking for churches through the window of a computer or cellphone screen to be able to find you. Visibility is simply gaining enough presence on the web for a “seeker” to come across your church as an option.

Publicity is a very different animal. Publicity is the work of marketers, advertisers, promoters, publicists, and those masters of hype and spin. Publicity is the creation of an image, a “brand”, to produce an impression of success, popularity, and customer satisfaction. When a church pursues publicity, it paints an idealised image of itself for its target-market. The church is a “relaxed atmosphere”, where all should “come as they are” and enjoy a warm welcome and a cup of coffee. Child-care is available, and plenty of parking, too. A nice “what to expect” page briefs the customer as to how to place this church on the spectrum of churches, so he can try before he buys. Photos of happy people abound, as well as pictures of the worship band, to assure you that there won’t be an organ.

Publicity works hand-in-hand with celebrity. The simple, but carnal, appeal to mass approval is supposed to confer importance upon the church. If the church’s social media has thousands of “likes”, followers or subscribers, if the pastor has his own radio or TV show or podcast (who doesn’t, these days?), if he has books published (preferably with his smiling face on the cover), if he is a sought-after conference speaker, then this must be hyped. The pastor becomes a brand, and if he has some particular spin or take on the Christian life, all the better. He can be marketed as the wild-at-heart preacher, or the ragamuffin Gospel preacher, or the Christian hedonist preacher, or the God-is-indescribable preacher, or the biblical-counselling man, or the current-affairs-and-prophecy man or you-fill-in-the-blank preacher. If you want celebrity, you can’t simply expound the Word each week: you need some unique schtick to distance you from the pack, and create hype around your personality.

Some Christians are so embedded in the celebrityism and exhibitionism of the web that they cannot see that these are hostile to the gospel. Publicity is the work of those wanting to sell something. It is a commercial animal, and it lives on the showmanship, competitiveness and shameless self-promotion of those hawking their products and selling their stuff. To treat your church, the gospel, or any man’s ministry in this fashion falls under the clear condemnation of Scripture:

“For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17)

“But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)

Publicity does not simply create visibility for your church or ministry. It reduces Christianity to the level of every other product and service competing for customers. It speaks the language of consumers, and those Christians using it should not be surprised when those arriving in church have the attitude that the customer is king. It trivialises holy things by portraying the church as just one more accoutrement to the narcissistic secular man’s life. It seems to believe the opposite of what Jesus taught: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Lk. 6:26), “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:13-14). It inverts these values and prizes what the Internet has trained us to prize: as many five-star ratings as possible, as many happy customer reviews as possible, and the endorsement of an “Influencer” with thousands of followers. It trains us to be exhibitionist instead of modest about our achievements, to praise ourselves instead of deflecting attention, and to hunger for online approval instead of seeking real-life faithfulness.

Yes, churches, seek visibility. People should know your church is there. But once you’re visible, that’s enough. Remember: He must increase, and we must decrease.