What’s Wrong With Art and Music: A Student’s Guide

June 11, 2015 — 2 Comments

9781433538964

More often than not, I give books a 4 out 5 star rating after I read them. This is mainly because I’m fairly selective in what I choose to read and have a good idea what I might like. Occasionally, one of these books turns out to be a dud, and then I end up writing a post like this to explain why I thought that. The particular book in question is part of a series that I have otherwise enjoyed. Crossway’s Reclaiming The Christian Intellectual Tradition has offered several useful primers on various subjects from a Christian worldview. Unfortunately, the volume on Art and Music is not one of them. And yes, I made the title of this post intentionally ambiguous.

Before being critical, it’s worth noting that the opening chapter is quite useful. In it, authors Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake explain the difference between modern and postmodern understandings of beauty. When they are set to explain what we mean we say “beauty” the authors guide students well. Likewise, the bulk of chapter two is quite helpful. In it, the authors offer an apologetic for cultural engagement with art and music. As they see it, “There can be little doubt that the leisurely contemplation of general revelation is an essential part of the Christian life and that our capacity for joy depends, in part, on our being good stewards of leisure” (Kindle Loc. 452, emphasis original). Then, they go on to give four reasons why you should enjoy art and music:

  1. Artists and musicians expound general revelation in much the same way that preachers expound special revelation
  2. Art and music are communication from our fellow man
  3. Art and music help us avoid being desensitized
  4. Failure to enjoy art and music invites folly

So far, so good. Had the book ended there, I would probably commend it to you. However, there is huge exegetical blunder at the end of this chapter, and everything kind of goes downhill from there.

As the authors begin to conclude the chapter, they quote Genesis 1:10 with the word “saw” missing. The point they are trying to make is that most people would assume that the word missing should be “said.” Instead, God looked around and saw what he created was good. The authors then say this:

Notice that God does not look back with fond memory on the formlessness that has now been displaced. He shows no regret for the lost deep over which he once brooded. Instead, he pauses to enjoy the most beautiful physical objects around. We follow his example when we elect to fill our leisure hours with the very best things we can— among which are the best works of art and music. Lamentably , many Christians justify their fondness for things nearly “without form and void” by trying to point out one or two good things in those leisure activities. “Sure, the pop song I like isn’t as good as Beethoven, but there’s more in it than you think.” Yes, and there may have been something poignant about the earth without form and void, so pregnant with potential as it was. But this will be true of all created things, even the ones that humanity has, as far as possible, muted. We are to pursue the best things. (Kindle Loc. 591-598)

The last line is certainly something worth pondering and perhaps debating. But, making that point as an application of Genesis 1:10 is not a sound exegetical move to say the least.

To begin, the word “good” in Genesis 1:10 cannot be synonymous with “most beautiful” which is what the authors here assume. The former is a designation that may have aesthetic overtones, but it is not being used in context to communicate a superlative quality. Here it probably has a functional meaning related to order, which is essentially what God is doing in Genesis. Order is desirable, and both of those connotations connect with the word used, as well as with the way it would have been used in parallel ancient Near East creation accounts. While it is a stretch to base the idea that we should spend our time enjoying good things on Genesis 1:10, it is even more of a stretch to suggest that verse supports the idea that we should “fill our leisure hours with the very best things we can.” This could be true, but this is the wrong text to try to make that point.

Once the authors have concluded this chapter with the conviction that we must pursue the best in our leisure time, they have to have a criteria for establishing what that is. They thankfully shy away from making the high/low culture divide a way of determining what is best. The distinction has racist and imperialist roots and makes anyone who employs it seem like an elitist. Instead, they rely on C. S. Lewis in the following chapter to parse out the difference between use and reception of culture. If the art or music can be received, rather than merely used, it is an acceptable pursuit.

As the rest of the book unfolds, it seems like this was just a roundabout way for establishing a distinction between high and low culture and then arguing that only high culture is worthy of a Christian’s time. One sees this in the conclusion to chapter 3:

The reason partakers of popular culture and high culture are mystified by each other’s tastes is that they apply entirely different criteria for judging culture, according to whether they are accustomed to using it or receiving it. There are many appropriate uses for art and music, which need not be denigrated. But for the leisurely contemplation of general revelation, for what we do when we listen to (as opposed to “put on”) music and look at (as opposed to “put up”) art, the best works will be those that, like the Grünewald and the Raphael, reward reception. (Kindle Loc. 800-805, emphasis original)

While I would agree that we should aim for reception in our leisurely contemplation, I don’t think pop culture is excluded. The reason for that is that I don’t make the mistake the authors make in chapters 4 and 5. There, they apply criteria for evaluating a work of art to a scene from a movie (chapter 4) and criteria for classical music to a pop song (chapter 5). This is a slight oversimplification, but the point is that once you set up the evaluating criteria in a way favorable to high culture, folk and pop culture come out looking unworthy of your time (especially in the latter case).

Much of this could have been avoided if the foundational exegetical mistakes didn’t set the tone in chapter 2. By seeing a call to only enjoy the best in leisurely cultural contemplation, the authors would not have had to come up with criteria for determining the best. This is the wrong category to employ when deciding on cultural pursuits. For one, it doesn’t actually work in practice other than to decide that some genres of music are better than others. Also, it doesn’t work within a given genre of music. If Rachmaninoff is the best when it comes to piano concertos, should you bypass Chopin? If Bach is the best, does that mean downplaying Beethoven?

A better conviction is to enjoy everything to the glory of God. This entails actually figuring out how to do that with whatever cultural pursuits you have. At bare minimum it would mean reflecting on them well instead of passively consuming them. Another post would be need to sketch out what I think that looks like, and motivated by the lack of helpful direction in this book, I might just do that.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to What’s Wrong With Art and Music: A Student’s Guide

  1. Thanks, Nate. I appreciate the way your Spider sense tingled, and the way you went to bat for excellence no matter where it’s found: popular or elite art. Good review.

    Peace,
    Ted

    • Thanks Ted! Although to be honest, my Spider sense wouldn’t have tingled as much had I not read your book first!

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