Cheap Thrills – 5 – Affective Anaesthesia

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

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2 Responses to “Cheap Thrills – 5 – Affective Anaesthesia”

  1. paul Says:

    The image of “applause” signs or “laugh” cue cards for the studio audience comes to mind. The sad reality for many is that it is difficult to find a church that doesn’t use an actual rock band. Singing songs like #2 or #3 performed more traditionally seems like a positive step. How bad is it to offer up well intentioned but cliched, shallow, sentimental, etc. expressions of worship, particularly when done in ignorance? What about participating in it when it’s the only corporate opportunity available?

  2. David Says:

    Paul,

    Yes, we are in a dilemma, but we can avoid being false in the midst of it. That is, I might find myself in a church where there is error, but as long as the error is not catastrophic, it is still a church, and I must worship where I can in good conscience. As an example, if the church decided to recite a creed containing error, should we recite it for the sake of participation? At that point, we might quietly refrain from participating. The same is true of songs that are clichéd, shallow, sentimental, for they represent a form of error.

    When done in ignorance, it lessens the worshippers culpability, but does not render the worship less profane. Once the conscience is informed, all the more reason to eschew what is unfitting. Participate where conscience allows. All else being equal, we aim for maximum participation, not minimal, but our aim is to worship in Spirit and in truth, not merely to make our neighbour feel we are in sync with him.

    Interestingly, I wouldn’t put #2 and #3 in the same category. I think #3 represents a serious improvement on the doggerel of #2. It is not as useful for worship as #1, but I do not think that the poetry of #3 is deleterious to a Christian sensibility.

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