Archive for the ‘Culture & Arts’ Category

Why We Need The Worship Wars

April 26, 2013

Unless you believe in orthopathy as essential to Christianity, the worship wars are much ado about nothing. They represent the dying thrashes of hide-bound traditionalists, raging against the waning popularity of those songs most familiar to them. They represent the immature clamour of people who do not understand the Romans 14 principle, and want to elevate their preferences to the level of orthodoxy.

If you believe, as I do,  in the very notion of orthopathy, then the worship wars are a natural, and indeed, essential part of church life. While no Spirit-filled Christian delights in conflict, no Spirit-filled Christian doubts that some conflict is inevitable and necessary. Consider how important doctrinal conflict has been.

We should be very thankful for the heretics and their heresies. Without them, we would not know all the ways that Christian orthodoxy can be denied and twisted. Before the heretics come along, orthodoxy is assumed, without clear definition. Through the heresies of Gnosticism, Ebionism, Apollonarianism, Eutychianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Sabellianism, the church hammered out orthodox Christology and trinitarianism. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds represent responses to heresies, and defining points for orthodoxy. The creeds represent points of definition. After the definition, deviations represent heterodoxy. A certain amount of vagueness or imprecision is expected before the point of definition that becomes intolerable after the point of definition.

For that matter, we can be thankful for the heresies of transsubstantiation, indulgences, baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-redemptrix, and others, for leading to the Reformation with its five solas. In many ways, our propositional statements of faith, as ornate as they now appear, partly represent a kind of timeline of doctrinal combat.

What has been true in the area of orthodoxy, has also been true in orthopathy. The affective domain of the faith, which is not merely what we have said, but how we have felt, how we have responded to those truths, has had its heresies, and its turning points of definition. If we are orthodox in doctrine, we should expect that we will respond to the truth as other orthodox Christians in history have, not an identical reaction, but an equivalent one for our place and time. And in two thousand years of doctrinal development, there has also been two millennia of affective, aesthetic development.

Steve Miller, in his masterful misrepresentation of liturgical history in The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, enjoys surveying the worship wars of previous centuries, in hopes of persuading us that sooner or later, the critics of CCM will get with the times, as did the critics of Watts’ hymns, or the critics of the organ, or the critics of a liturgy in the vernacular. That these debates existed, we do not doubt. That the modern worship wars are simply the contemporary version of these discussions, we do not dispute. That they represent nothing more than initial alarm to what will become standard orthopathy in one generation, we vehemently dispute.

Certainly there have been overreactions and over-corrections. Certainly, novelties are often regarded with suspicion, and once they become normative, the previous objectors seem amusingly alarmist. But what we often miss is that through the debates over orthopathy such as conflict over polyphony, original (that is, non-psalmic) hymns, or the gospel song, the church was doing in the affective domain precisely what it had done in the doctrinal domain. Doctrinal controversies said, “We speak of Christ like this, and not like that.” Affective controversies said, “We respond to Christ like this, and not like that.” And before the nearly wholesale abandonment of traditional worship forms in favour of entertainment at the end of the 19th century, Christian worship represented an inheritance of hundreds of years of corrections and refinements.

We should not be surprised that there exists in our era contention over proper sensibilities toward God. The truly alarming thing would be if there were none. What is somewhat different in our era is the post-modern mood that despises debate and clear definition. This pseudo-tolerance has long ago compromised the doctrinal integrity of professing Evangelicals. The same worldly mood that abhors necessary conflict and clear definition in doctrinal matters, is even more incensed at the thought of anything similar in the more subjective realm of orthopathy. In some ways, the most problematic people are not the combatants in the worship wars, but those who insist there should be none.

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Cheap Thrills – 8 – Concluding Thoughts

March 8, 2013

As Kaplan concludes, he considers the social functions of popular art. He sees its appeal in finding a common denominator among people. It is popular because it appeals to almost universal tastes. As to its function, popular art is no longer associated with serious cultural concerns, such as religion, love, war and politics, and the struggle for subsistence. Instead it has become, in Dewey’s words, “the beauty-parlour of civilization.” In other words, popular art is where we go to indulge our love of self, to enjoy ourselves, to escape into worlds of our own making.

Kaplan does not feel particularly alarmed by the rise of popular arts, seeing a limited place for it. He ends by saying, “If popular art gives us pleasant dreams, we can only be grateful-when we have wakened.” In other words, popular art is no more real (or significant) than our own night-dreams, but if they are pleasurable, who’s to complain? As long as we wake up, Kaplan seems to urge. A life lived in dream-state is pitiable and sad.

Of course, Kaplan is arguing as an aesthetician, and not as a Christian defending worship. While Kaplan is enormously helpful in identifying the nature of popular art, he cannot help us determine its appropriateness for worship. Here we must take his descriptions of popular art, and then compare it with our mandate for worship. To summarize Kaplan’s argument, popular art

* schematises and reduces art into an easily recognisable stereotype. Whether musical, poetical, literary or visual, the art is pre-digested so that its consumers instantly recognize the stereotype and fill in the outline with their own feelings.
* replaces perception with mere recognition. Popular art is essentially formless, it is simple in the sense that it is easy. It reminds us of what we know, it prompts us to feel what we already feel. Our familiar feelings are simply reinforced. Through its stereotypes, we associate certain feelings with the work, while not being transformed in our own emotions.
* 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 result is wallowing in our own feelings: feeling, without understanding of our feelings. This is sentimentalism.
* creates an escape into childish versions of reality which exist nowhere, and which return us to reality unchanged.

In essence, popular art represents childish and immature taste. It appeals to narcissism and infantile self-obsession. It flatters an impulse in every human.

Here we would do well to ask ourselves several questions about worship:

1) Should worship transform the worshipper? If so, how does this occur?
2) Is worship a response to revelation, or a record of my experience?
3) How is a worshipper’s experience of God to be related to worshipping God?
4) Should a worshipper be aware of his feelings while worshipping  or does this detract from the authenticity of worship? If this awareness is needful, describe what this awareness is like.
5) How should the imagination be used in worship?

Once we’ve answered the questions regarding what kind of event worship is, and once we’ve considered how an artist has used his materials, we’re in a position to evaluate if it is appropriate in the life of a Christian. If popular art really is an exercise in narcissism, sentimentalism, and escapism, and if it dulls and flattens us, it is hard to see how much of this can be healthy for the life of a worshipping Christian.

Cheap Thrills – 7 – Escape to Never Never Land

March 1, 2013

Popular art is accused of being escapist. Kaplan agrees and disagrees. He argues that popular art seeks to escape the ugliness or troubles of this world, but it does so differently to serious art. Art may give us an idealized depiction of the world, but it seeks to transform the reality of the world. Real art may show us the world that is, or even the world as it might be. Popular art simply shows us the world as we would have it.

It does this not through its use of symbolism, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, popular 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 we are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of our own making, where everything is selected and placed in our own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. We quickly recognise the stereotypes, and fill them with the feelings we know we are supposed to have.

Once again, popular art is an exercise in narcissism. It assures us that our prejudged values are correct, and our very narrow perspectives are the correct ones. All art is illusory, but serious art aims to return us to reality, being illusory without being deceptive. Pop art is a tissue of falsehoods, in Kaplan’s words.

Just as in the discussion of sentimentality, the problem may not be too much, but too little. Popular art may be said to suffer from too little fantasy as too much: it simply does not do enough with its materials. Instead of working far enough to confer reality on its products, it stops short, letting its prettified depictions of life-as-we’d-like-it-to-be substitute for the real.

Real art helps us to escape: not from reality itself but from our own unimaginative experience of it. We are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Popular art simply pleasures us with the illusion of true imagination. We do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred. It is, as Kaplan puts it, the difference between masturbation and a mature love that reaches outside the self.

Real art gives us a kind of objectification, in which we are able to see ourselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. We see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Popular art is all too human, and ultimately childish. We want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so we escape into non-existent worlds where we are already pleasured and beautiful. Popular art turns its back on a world it has never known.

***

Here are three imaginative depictions of King David’s experience of losing a child (2 Samuel 18:33). Each calls us to escape. Where do we escape to, in each one? Which returns us with a deepened sense of what such anguished grief feels like? Which actually prettifies the pain?

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

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.

Cheap Thrills – What Popular Art is Not – 2

January 25, 2013

Kaplan begins by defining what he means by the popular arts. In his definition, popular arts does not refer to:

1) Pop art, the dadaistic art movement that emerged in the 1950s.
2) Bad art. A work of art might fail in what it attempts to do, it might not succeed in what it attempts to do, rendering it bad. By itself, this does not make it popular art. While popular art may be bad art, bad art is not necessarily popular art.
3) Minor art. Minor art can be excellent art that is excellent after its own kind, even if it fails to reach the greatness and aesthetic depth of other works. It may be more popular than works of greater value or depth, but this does not make it popular art, by itself. Kaplan compares The Hound of the Baskervilles to Crime and Punishment as an example.
4) Folk art. Though often and sometimes easily confused, folk art is produced unselfconsciously, and perhaps anonymously, by a people group. The work is not always produced in an aesthetic context, but often grows out of the culture of that group. Kaplan regards Song of Songs, Gothic cathedrals and Byzantine icons as examples of folk art.

The popular arts are much more like mass art, what is mass-produced and received by vast numbers of people. Even here, Kaplan offers qualifications, pointing out that there is no fixed a priori relation between quantity and quality. Indeed, Kaplan does not fully agree with the thesis that the popular arts represent what democratization, technology, and capitalism does to the arts: commodifies it, appeals to the lowest common denominator, and then sells it to as many people as possible. He agrees that a good case can be made for this, but feels that the theory does not explain what the popular taste is, albeit supplied by democratization, mass-media technology and capitalism.

Kaplan’s thesis is that popular art is not the degradation of taste, but its immaturity. Something peculiar to the experience of the popular arts is the key to recognising it. We will consider this next.

Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

December 21, 2012

by C. S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

October 26, 2012

The common grace of God is His acts of love to all men, whether those men be good or evil (Mat 5:43-45). This common grace includes giving mankind men who see more clearly than most what is true, good, and beautiful, even if they are not His children. Indeed, sometimes the children of this generation are more shrewd than the children of light (Lk 16:8).

One such man, who lived 24 years beyond our allotted fourscore, was Jacques Barzun, who died yesterday. Barzun’s magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, was written when he was 92. For an encyclopaedic account of the collapse of Western culture, this may want to be your first choice. His account of the dissolution of Western society (especially when read alongside Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea), will give any Christian leader a strong sense of the history and consequences of ideas.

It was several years ago that I picked up The Culture We Deserve, and found myself underlining paragraphs, and asterisking whole sections. Barzun is like an updated Matthew Arnold: seeing the importance and virtue of high culture for preserving a consensus of the good and the beautiful. Barzun was not afraid to call it as he saw it: the West has been disintegrating, not progressing, in its cultural life. The Use and Abuse of Art, I’ve been told, is another gem.

His book on writing, Simple and Direct, made me feel as if I had done nothing but write in clichés my whole life. I still think this book is superior to Zinsser’s On Writing Well and, in some respects, Weaver’s Rhetoric and Composition.

Barzun, though he made no profession of faith in Christ, taught me more about thinking clearly, writing well, and loving the good, than many of those I found within the household of God. And I, for one, am thankful to God for His common grace in giving our generation such men.