In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse…[He was] right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject matter and the mere cultivation of effect…Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own.
Roger Scruton, Beauty
Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation. These actually help us to pursue realities, precisely because there is a distance between us and the things we contemplate. Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfillment of desires. Real art takes us out of reality, teaches us, and returns us changed: our emotions are more focused on the worth of objects in reality. False art takes us out of reality, mimics it, and gives us substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification. It also returns us to reality different: our emotions dissipated through a substitute reality, and a little more dependent on or expectant of such manipulative techniques to feel anything.
Since worship uses art, it can use it in precisely one of the two ways Scruton speaks of. It can work with poetry, music and the spoken word to work with the imagination. There the worshipper can contemplate the invisible God for who He is. Once corporate worship is over, the worshipper is “returned to reality” with his emotions more focused on the kind of God he claims to know and love.
Worship can also work with poetry, music and the spoken word to simply achieve effect. It can aim to create a surrogate worship experience in which the worshipper experiences immediately, and one might say viscerally, the proposed experience of God. God is not contemplated with the understanding; the passions are targeted directly, and the resultant experience is associated with God. The worshipper leaves corporate worship and returns to reality with the creation of an addiction: he will need more of the same next week to feel anything for God.
There are almost limitless ways of creating an effect: the effect of dreamy intimacy with God achieved by a breathy worship leader narrating a quasi-romantic prayer to Jesus over softly playing chords, the effect of sympathy for the cause of Jesus by impassioned pleas for people to come forward while a sentimental hymn is played in the background, the effect of jubilation achieved by a sweaty worship leader literally jumping to the pulsating physicality of music played at volumes only possible with electronic amplification, and so on. If aneffect is needed, a technique can be engineered. However, there is a simple term for this kind of approach, one that many contemporary worship theologians would bristle at: manipulation.
Ask yourself: does most modern Christian worship chase after effect, or after the genuine contemplation of the object of worship, leading to ordinate affections? When Scruton speaks of the distance that true art creates between us and what it portrays, it reminds one of the way Yahweh has set up worship in contrast to the orgiastic worship of the pagans. In the Old Testament and the New, God simultaneously respects the rational humanity of man and calls for a true worship of Himself grounded in the understanding. He does this by portraying Himself in serious, non-manipulative works of imaginative art: the narratives, psalms, metaphors, prophecies and commands of Scripture.
When believers have followed God’s pattern, they have written songs, poems and prayers that reach the understanding through the imagination, and which slowly (painfully slowly, sometimes) move and shape the affections. For the one for whom worship has become an itch that needs to be scratched weekly, God’s approach is intolerably slow and dull. He wants a clamorous appeal to his appetites, whose response is automatic, pronounced and ephemeral. By contrast, the result of a slow and patient appeal to the imaginative understanding of regenerate man is a deeply grounded love for God that is ordinate, not a fleeting response that evaporates once the marionette strings stop tugging.
(This post originally appeared at Towards Conservative Christianity)