Reforming the Moral Imagination – 3

The moral imagination helps us make sense of reality, express our experience of reality and understand the big picture of reality.

When it comes to the matter of expressing our experience of reality, we are immediately dealing with the arts. The arts all employ analogy as their stock and trade. Whether it is music, poetry, literature, dance, sculpture, painting, architecture or theatre, the arts tell us “this is like that“. 

The tools of each art are different. Music uses melody, harmony, rhythm, tone colour and form. Poetry uses meter, rhyme, analogies and word sounds. Literature uses characterisation, plot, themes and so on. Whatever tools the discipline uses, it aims to evoke a response from those that read, watch or listen. It aims to do more than communicate propositions, otherwise it would simply take the form of discursive prose. Art does what propositions cannot do: it evokes affections in the one viewing or hearing it by re-creating the experience of the artist in the mind’s eye. By a skillful use of tools, the artist can evoke joy, sobriety, pity, admiration, patriotism, sorrow, outrage or awe.

Therefore, art is more powerful than most of us realise. It can be destructively powerful, because art is capable of lying. Art is capable of manipulating us into feeling what we ought not to feel, of viewing the world as we ought not to view it. Art can rebel against its God-given purpose: to give humanity a proper and ordinate way of viewing reality and to shape and evoke ordinate affection. Instead of giving us correct analogies, it can give us false ones. Instead of causing us to love what God loves and hate what He hates, it can cause us to hate what He loves and love what He hates. Instead of elevating our vision and ennobling our tastes, it can debase and spoil them, and then gratify them at the lowest possible level. Instead of teaching and instructing, it can simply reflect our corruption back to us and make it seem normal.

On the other hand, art is a powerful force for good. We cannot do without art. Indeed, that is not a choice we can make, for we are designed by God with imagination, and art is part of human life in the image of God. We should not miss the fact that the Bible does not come to us as a list of propositional statements. From Genesis to Esther, we are dealing with stories (with some Law in there as well). From Job to Proverbs, it is pure poetry and wisdom sayings. From Isaiah to the end of the Old Testament, the prophets speak in poetic analogies. Into the New Testament, and we are dealing with stories from Matthew to Acts. Finally, as we deal with the discursive thought of Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John, we are nevertheless dealing with analogies on almost every line. The Bible closes with perhaps the most graphic book of all- the apocalyptic book of Revelation. God communicated the Bible artistically.

Indeed, I don’t believe we can worship properly if we do not take art seriously, simply because it is impossible to worship the invisible God without art, any more than we can make statements without grammar. Certainly believers will differ in their awareness of significance in art. However, the better the understanding of art in the believer, the higher the chances are of fostering ordinate responses in worship.

Therefore, conservative Christians will give some time in their lives to the pursuit of understanding some of these things. We cannot avoid the task. We are commanded to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, so we will have to decide what we believe music communicates. We usually sing some form of poetry, so we will have to decide what constitutes worthy or unworthy poetry. We have to assemble, so we will have to give some thought to architecture. In our private lives, we have to make decisions as to what we will read, what we will watch, what we will listen to.

Once again, the Bible does not give us a guide to understanding music, poetry, painting, literature or dance. But because the arts are part of creation, communicate meaning, are employed by God in revelation, and are to be employed in worship, we are responsible on some level to seek understanding of them. We are not required to become experts. However, we ought to listen to the experts when they speak. An unsaved musicologist may not be able to tell us if a particular song aids worship, but he will be able to tell us what the musical combination achieves.  A secular professor of poetry may not be able to tell us what a religious poem about the crucufixion should say, but he can show us when rhymes jingle, when rhythms are humourous, or when the wording is sentimental or juvenile.

Because they want to worship God in truth, conservative Christians seek to understand the meaning of the art forms they employ in worship.

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