Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Who gets to say what is beautiful?

Let me totally up front with my limitations, prejudices, and conclusions:

  • I consider myself aesthetically challenged.  I just don't get why this color doesn't go with that one.  
  • I enjoy music, of various genres, but my analysis of it pretty much begins and ends with, "I like (or don't like) it."
  • I have great appreciation for a nice piece of wood well crafted.  I have made enough feeble attempts at doing that crafting, to have great respect and appreciation for those who do it with excellence.  I work hard at saying things well, and, to a lesser degree, expressing myself well in written form.  I seldom succeed in doing either in a way that could be described as "beautiful."  I think I'm able to translate that appreciation and respect for the crafts I am familiar with to those who labor in disciplines where I have no experience.  I think good art takes hard work, and practice, and that it involves that difficult to define quality, talent.
  • I realize that art communicates.  I know that what I say is said not only by the dictionary meanings of the words, and the grammatical parsing of the sentences, but by the emotions my words call on, and the cultural memories they stir.  As any good comedian--not to mention Simon and Garfunkel-- I know even the absence of words--when the silence is well crafted--communicates with eloquence.  The problem is different cultures have different cultural buttons, and the 21st Century culture in which I live is made up of a polyglot of cultural languages.  I really hate to insert a high-end, technical term here, but it seems to be that "different strokes for different folks" is a concept that definitely must be considered in this discussion.  Having said that, though I stood in awe of  Michelangelo's David, I think using a picture of a naked guy is in appropriate in worship.  In my culture it just pushes too many wrong buttons.
  • Finally, let me show my scars from the worship wars.  (For those who don't understand what I mean by "worship wars," first stop and thank the Lord, then if you are still curious, google it.  In those battles, I have leaned toward the amoral nature of music--music itself, apart from the words.  
A couple of recent articles have again raised this discussion in my thinking:
I saw a picture a while back that said something like, "Click if you think this world needs more beauty."  I very much wanted to click.  Yes, I do think this world needs more beauty.  I toured a local neighborhood recently, and I was bothered with how ugly it is--overgrown yards, falling-down porches, junk strewn about, and peeling paint flapping in the breeze.  I just spent a week+ redecorating a room in my house, and, while it doesn't show nearly as much as I wish it would, I work every week to say something with a measure of beauty.  Yes!  I think this world needs more beauty--desperately so.  I didn't click, though, because of one big question.  
Who gets to say what is beautiful?  
The world is filled with people who come at you with "too"s.  It's "too middle-class,"  "too baby-boomer-ish," "too Black," "too White," "too common," "too snooty," etc. etc. etc. too much.  Yes, the world very much needs more beauty, but I have to admit--and so do you--that we don't all agree on what is beautiful, and at least some of that difference of opinion is not based on the fact that I'm under, or over educated, or sold out to, or not in tune with, my culture, or common, or high-falutin', or etc. etc.  Some of it--I think more of it than I care to admit is because we are different.

Al Mohler, with his usual perception, commented on this broader issue by way of responding to a panel discussion on Christian rap music.  This excerpt from his blog-post, has the nuance that I am struggling to communicate.

Rap music is not my music. I do not come from a culture in which rap music is the medium of communication and I do not have the ear for it that I have for other forms of music. But I do admire its virtuosity and the hold that is has on so many, for whom it is a first and dominant musical language. I want that language taken for the cause of the Gospel and I pray to see a generation of young Gospel-driven rappers take dominion of that music for the glory of God. I see that happening now, and I rejoice in it. I want to see them grow even more in influence, reaching people I cannot reach with music that will reach millions who desperately need the Gospel. The same way that folks who first heard Bach desperately needed to hear the Gospel.
The good, the beautiful, and the true are to be combined to the greatest extent possible in every Christian endeavor, rap included. I have no idea how to evaluate any given rap musical expression, but rappers know. I do know how to evaluate the words, and when the words are saturated with the Gospel and biblical truth that is a wonderful thing. Our rapping Gospel friends will encourage one another to the greatest artistic expression. I want to encourage them in the Gospel. Let Bach’s maxim drive them all — to make (their) music the “handmaid of theology.”
In particular I appreciate Mohler's admission, "I have no idea how to evaluate . . . rap."
I am aware of my limitations, which I am sure exceed, Dr. Mohler's.  Lord, help me to keep those limitations in mind.

I found this post, which, I think, contains the discussion, a video, that prompted Mohler's commentary.  I don't know any of the men on this panel, but I have met, heard, and argued with them all.  Owen Strachan's thoughts are worth considering.

Here is one more post I found that critiques--don't read this if you agree with these guys--the arguments made by the panelists, Brent Hobbs

OK, I'm a preacher, thus I feel a compulsion to at least suggest some things that we ought to do with this.
  1. Just be quiet (I wanted to say "shut up,". but my wife would fuss at me.) about only being able to worship God, if--you know, "I can only worship God with organs, or guitars, or with people in suits, and dresses, or folk in blue jeans." or  "I need the place where I worship to be 'real'" as in, looks like a shopping mall, or "Worship can only take place in a sacred setting."  meaning pipe organ and stained glass.
    The fact is all of us have preferences, but that is all they are.  Three element are necessary for true worship, and none of them are listed above--you, God, and the absolute, Isaiah 6 conviction of the vast difference between the other two.

    "I saw the Lord high and lifted up."

    Certain things will help me in that regard, but in my fifty-one years of walking with the Lord, and my forty years of trying to help others worship Him, I have found that a change of heart-attitude is far more important than a change of venue.
  2. I ought to be able to say, "I really don't like your music."  or, "I think you dress really tacky."  or "This building, practice, way of doing things is too . . ." without starting a fight.  
  3. I should be able to hear what is said above without getting my easily culturally offended nose out of joint.
  4. I should be open to hearing arguments about what is the best way to do God's work.  I need to realize that my way does not necessarily equal the best way, nor is my way necessarily wrong.
  5. It's not about me.  I worship God.  He is supreme.  He has given me a mandate to enlist others in worshiping Him.  I must be willing to step outside of my comfort-zone to do that.
As always, I welcome your comments.

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