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Crystallized Prejudices

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 standardized, simplified form. Good art can be simple, eliminating unnecessary complexity. Likewise, standardization must be distinguished from stylizations 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 schematization means that it is essentially lacks form. Not that it is literally formless, but that its hollow schematized 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.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Towards Conservative Christianity.

One Response to Crystallized Prejudices

  1. Martin says:

    Great challenge – I hope you will discuss this further in your next post? Very good, I hope we're getting somewhere – it needs a lot of education. Reading these, I suspect the second one is stereotypical; it paints it all quite rosy, whereas the third seems a lot more realistic and takes into account our daily struggle with the reference to prayers and works. Not sure what to make of the first one…

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