Archive for February, 2013

Cheap Thrills – 6 – Sentimentality and Increasing Boredom

February 22, 2013

Kaplan disputes the idea that popular art provides relief from boredom. In one very real sense, it perpetuates it.

The key difference between serious or useful art and popular art is that popular art provides an emotional experience without perspective. The consumer feels, but he feels without understanding. He has little perspective on his feelings, he merely wallows in them. Serious art deepens feeling, giving it content and meaning, providing a mirror of the mind to us. Our own emotions become meaningful, as we see their details, and in their interconnections that give them meaning.

Serious art has this depth, while popular art is correspondingly shallow. It leaves our feelings just as it finds them, formless and immature. It evokes them so quickly as to have no root in themselves. “ They are so lightly triggered that there is no chance to build up a significant emotional discharge.”

This superficiality and spuriousness is sentimentality. This is what Kaplan says is most distinctive of popular art. Sentimentality has a deficiency of feeling, words without weight, promises without fulfilment. Paradoxically, sentimentality is also excessive, abandoning emotional restraint. Nothing wrong with being deeply affected, but sentimentalism has this excess without a perception of meaning. Kaplan says, “ Sensibility becomes sentimental when there is some disproportion between the response and its object, when the response is indiscriminate and uncontrolled…Sentimentality is loving something more than God does.” It is sentimental not because it calls for intense feeling, but because it calls for more than the artist or the audience can understand or apply significantly to the object. There is simply not enough to be understood, and this vacuity of meaning is intentional. The tear-jerker elicits tears, but why we weep is outside the occasion and beyond our perception.

Sentimentality moves in a close circle around the self. The art only has significance in light of the viewer. He sees himself in its materials, with the art providing easily recognizable prototypes to project himself upon. The focus remains my feelings, feelings about me. While real art calls us to empathise and give ourselves to the aesthetic experience, it rewards us by transforming us. Popular art takes us as we are and leaves us the same, with the illusion of having been deeply affected. In truth, we have felt deeply, but only in orbit around ourselves, drawing out of what we already know and love. It is as if we are enjoying a filmed performance of ourselves, using the bare schemas and prototypes of pop art to provide the skeleton or scaffolding on which to place the body of Self.

Pop art’s self-centeredness hollows and flattens us, emptying us of perspective on our own feelings. In essence, in becoming emptier people, we are becoming more bored, through the medium which was supposed to alleviate our boredom. We are drinking seawater.

And what happens to a generation fed on worship music that is sentimental? What happens to their ability to feel, or to understand their own feelings? What happens to the understanding of the event of worship, if we teach people to wallow in their own feelings during corporate worship?

***

Which of these helps us to understand and master our feelings? Which might transform our emotions in contemplating Psalm 130? Which reminds us of ourselves, using Psalm 130 as the occasion? Which provides us with a mirror of our own minds, and which causes us to lose ourselves in our feelings?

Cheap Thrills – 5 – Affective Anaesthesia

February 15, 2013

You can recognise popular art not only through its form (or formlessness), but through the feelings it evokes, according to Kaplan. He disagrees with the common objection that popular art is mere entertainment. All art, Kaplan argues, has intrinsic interest and intrinsic value, giving joy to the beholder without regard to more serious interests. That popular art does so is not reason enough to disqualify it as serious art. Only a kind of perverted puritanism would imagine good art to be boring, or bad art to be interesting and enjoyable.

Kaplan sounds like G.K. Chesterton as he turns commonly accepted ideas on their head. Popular art is not, as many think, an exercise in diversion, diverting our attention to other objects. Instead, it is mere reinforcement. Popular art entertains by trading in familiarity, and by trafficking in familiar emotion. Popular art does not need to be excellent in itself, it simply needs to be effective in bringing certain feelings to mind, evoking past satisfactions, producing nostalgia, and in providing occasions for reliving experiences. In other words, the emotions we feel with popular art are not expressed by the particular song, painting or poem, they are merely associated with them. In popular art, we lose ourselves, not in the work itself, but in pools of memory.

This goes back to its formlessness. The form is so schematized as to be the equivalent of cue cards for a public speaker. The form does not have substance enough to broaden our feelings. Kaplan says, “Popular art wallows in emotion while art transcends it, giving us understanding and thereby mastery of our feelings.” Popular art is, once again, narcissistic, making our own feelings the subject matter, and indeed the goal of the aesthetic experience. We are not drawn out of ourselves, but driven deeper into loneliness.

The deep and sad irony is that as we idolise our own feelings, we become anaesthetised to them. Like the addict who experiences the law of diminishing returns, as we wallow in our passions, they affect us less. Instead of growing into people whose affections are vigorous, we become somnambulant.

What might be the effects of the use of this affective sedative in worship? What might be the effects on us as affective beings, if we live on these sedatives? Is this generation one that feels too much or too little?

***

Consider these three hymns. Which of these trades in nostalgia, pools of memory, or mere association? Which is nothing more than a cue to wallow in feelings we think we ought to have?
Which calls us to investigate the poetry for itself – for its images, descriptions, language, rhymes, meter, tone? Which trades in clichés that are mere symbols for familiar responses? Which affects us but gives us mastery of our feelings? Which leaves our feelings unchanged, merely invoking what we already feel (or think we ought to feel) about the supposed subject matter?

‘Tis the Christ
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See Him dying on the tree!
’Tis the Christ by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ’tis He, ’tis He!
’Tis the long expected prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
Proofs I see sufficient of it:
’Tis a true and faithful Word.

Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting his distress:
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.

Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed!
See Who bears the awful load!
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man, and Son of God.

The Old Rugged Cross
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
Refrain

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

How Deep the Father’s Love for Us
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Cheap Thrills – 4 – Mere Recognition

February 8, 2013

Kaplan argues that popular art is formless. It does not possess form in the truest sense. Form in good art, is precisely what invites true participation, creative perception, and diligent interpretation. Good form places demands on us. Its form even arouses a certain amount of fear and tension: we must embrace ambiguity and plunge in, exposing ourselves to the possibility of change. We will emerge from an encounter with good art somewhat changed, our views adjusted, our understanding broadened, our desires shaped.

Kaplan argues that this is precisely the encounter that we want to avoid, and which popular art caters to.

Instead of perception, there is mere recognition. Discrimination is cut off, as we instantly recognise the stereotype. Since we instantly recognise the materials, they are only instrumental, and without inherent value. They merely remind us of what we already know. They are cues to feel what we know we are supposed to feel. The background music in the movie uses melodious strings to signal to us that love is being born, a very different experience to experiencing a serious composer like Prokofiev. The popular art consumer shrinks from the challenge, even perceiving such a thing as a threat to be opposed.

In short, popular art is simple basically in the sense of easy. We cannot look to it for a fresh vision, or turn to it for new directions, or find unexplored meanings.

***

Which of these paintings refuses a casual or superficial inspection? Which encourage such a use? How do they do that?

Which stimulates a mere recognition, and which calls for active perception? What is it about the form of the paintings that achieves this?

The Prodigal<br /> Son by Harold Copping

Canon Revisited

February 5, 2013

Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 368 pp.

Perhaps one of the greatest objections to the Christian faith comes in the form of objections to the canon of Scripture: why these 66 books, and not some others? Indeed, I often struggled with defences of the faith that tried to wrangle out of this matter by pointing out that Jesus quoted Scripture, as if this sets the limits of the canon by itself. (It does not.) The other approach, giving the historical pedigree and apostolic authorship of each New Testament book, also seemed to fall short. After all, was the canon then only as reliable as the archaeological and text-critical evidence we have in hand? Or worse, our interpretation of that evidence?

Kruger’s book does not attempt to convince the sceptic that the very idea of canonicity is tenable. Instead, he hopes to show the Christian that canonicity is a biblical, reasonable and verifiable concept. Kruger’s focus is on New Testament canonicity, where much of the recent debate has focused (Gospel of Judas, Da Vinci code, etc.)

Kruger presents the case for a self-authenticating canon, a concept that many will struggle with. After all, we’ve been taught to imagine ourselves as neutral fact-collectors, and believe that we sit as judges over all truth-claims. The idea that some truth claims are foundational, and therefore cannot be verified by any higher chain of evidence will not be palatable to many. Kruger does take time to explain why foundational truth claims, like God’s existence, or the truth of the canon, must be the case, and that some circularity of reasoning is unavoidable in establishing such. He goes on to show why other models of establishing the canon, such as the Roman Catholic model, or the model that uses external evidence, are flawed (though not useless). Such models always result in some group of people, or set of evidences, holding more authority than the Word of God itself. If the Bible is God’s Word, and the canon reflects God’s Word, then the 27 books of the New Testament will both define what the canon should be, and exhibit those attributes themselves.

His model of a self-authenticating canon is then unpacked. Kruger sees the marks of canonicity, as defined by Scripture itself as: 1) divine qualities (beauty, power and efficacy, and doctrinal, thematic and structural unity), 2) apostolic testimony (with the apostles as ministers of the new covenant), and 3) the corporate reception of God’s people. Kruger takes time to explain what he means by divine qualities, and convincingly explains how the Bible as a covenantal book required the apostles as ministers of the New Covenant to write down and explain this New Covenant. This took place in an environment in which God providentially exposed His people to these books, and His indwelling Spirit guided His people to recognise the attributes of canonicity. Considerable space is devoted to showing how bookish the early church was, and how a recognition of continuing written revelation was a widespread concept very early in the church.

Kruger deals with some of the objections to books like Hebrews, Jude and 2 Peter, but here the explanations feel rushed and a bit perfunctory. In his defence, no book on canonicity could adequately deal with all the objections and counter-responses, without turning into a series of volumes. What Kruger has set out to do, he has done well.

The self-authenticating model of the canon is a welcome theological and philosophical alternative to rather confused reasoning on this matter. I commend this book to Christians serious about knowing their own philosophical basis for holding to the New Testament that we do.

Cheap Thrills – 3 – Crystallised Prejudices

February 1, 2013

The popular arts are often criticized by aesthetes for their form, or perhaps formlessness. Kaplan responds to this by directing us once again to how people use the popular arts, much like Lewis does in An Experiment in Criticism.

Kaplan points out that the problem with the popular arts is not merely its standardised, simplified form. Good art can be simple, eliminating unnecessary complexity. Likewise, standardisation must be distinguished from stylisations that unite works from particular cultures, periods, schools or even individual artists. Marked resemblances do not imply a bad standardization.

Kaplan points us to the problem, and it lies within us. Popular art is not simply a recurrence of form, but in a deficiency in the first occurrence. The forms are stereotyped, not merely standardized.

What is a stereotype? It is when we are given not a true form, but merely a blueprint, an index, a digest. Since the consumer of popular art wants recognizable fare, popular art omits whatever is outside the limited horizon of what we know already. It reduces what actually is into what we would pre-judge it to be. It crystallizes our prejudices: reducing life not into a reflection of what is, but what we already believe it to be. All else is an unnecessary complication, only the dominant elements necessary to reinforce the recognizable stereotype are emphasized.

Kaplan also points out that in popular art, this schematisation means that it is essentially lacks form. Not that it is literally formless, but that its hollow schematised nature makes it a form with nothing to apply to: like a newspaper made up entirely of headlines. Popular art is pre-digested: whatever work needs to be done has already been done beforehand. The consumer of popular art has no demands placed on him. He looks only for outcomes, but is impatient with development or unfolding. He is tracing mere shapes, apprehending the work in a second-hand sense, but he is not receiving the work for itself, giving himself to understand and embrace for what it is. He is looking for what he expects to already be there. Popular art appeals to something in us. We’d do well to think what it might be.

***

With these thoughts in mind, consider these three poems, all considering the death of a believer. Read each one (preferably aloud), and then ask these questions, adapted from Professor Spiegelman (in How to Read and Understand Poetry).

1. What do I notice about this poem?
2. Does the poem demand I inspect it? Does it surprise or stretch me?
3. What new words or new images do I see? Does the language delight?
4. Why is the poem this way, and not another?
5. Do any of these poems fit Kaplan’s description of stereotyped fare? If so, how?

(I’ve omitted the authors, in the hope that we might evaluate these poems for what they are. Read ’em before you Google ’em.)

The sweetest blossoms die

The sweetest blossoms die.
And so it was that, going day by day
Unto the church to praise and pray,
And crossing the green churchyard thoughtfully,
I saw how on the graves the flowers
Shed their fresh leaves in showers,
And how their perfume rose up to the sky
Before it passed away.
The youngest blossoms die.

They die, and fall and nourish the rich earth
From which they lately had their birth;
Sweet life, but sweeter death that passeth by
And is as though it had not been:—
All colors turn to green:
The bright hues vanish, and the odours fly,
The grass hath lasting worth.
And youth and beauty die.

So be it, O my God, Thou God of truth:
Better than beauty and than youth
Are Saints and Angels, a glad company;
And Thou, O Lord, our Rest and Ease,
Are better far than these.
Why should we shrink from our full harvest? why
Prefer to glean with Ruth?

As the shadows of the night

As the shadows of the night round are falling,
I am thinking of that day by and by;
When the trumpet of the Lord shall be calling,
As the day breaks o’er the hills.

Refrain:
I’ll go singing, I’ll go shouting on my journey home,
Till the day breaks, till the day breaks;
There’ll be singing, there’ll be shouting, when we all get home,
When the day breaks o’er the hills.

When we gather home at last there’ll be singing,
Such as angels round the throne never heard;
For the song of souls redeemed shall go ringing,
As the day breaks o’er the hills.

I shall rise to be with Jesus forever,
I shall meet the ones who passed on before;
We shall meet to part no more, never, never,
When the day breaks o’er the hills.

Asleep in Jesus

Asleep in Jesus, oh, how sweet
The scene of closing day,
Where holy angels come to greet,
And bear the soul away!

Refrain:
The angels bore our loved one home
In shining garments fair;
And some bright day we hope to come
And join thee over there.

With grace divine and perfect love
Thy pilgrim days were blest,
But sweeter far thy joys above,
And more serene thy rest.

Thy prayers and tears have gone before,
Thy works shall follow on,
And gather gems forevermore,
To glitter in thy crown.

May we who knew and loved thee here
With angels bright ascend,
Thy blessed heav’nly rest to share,
When mortal life shall end.