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Affective Anaesthesia

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series

"Cheap Thrills: Pop Art and Transcendence"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

You can recognize 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 idolize our own feelings, we become anaesthetized 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.

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

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

7 Responses to Affective Anaesthesia

  1. Pastor De Bruyn,

    I realize the questions at the end of your post were probably intended to be reflected upon by the reader and not answered in the comments. I did reflect upon them, but I guess the only way to make sure I've been tracking with you is to type out my answers and see if I've passed the quiz – so to speak.

    "Which of these trades in nostalgia, pools of memory, or mere association?"

    The Old Rugged Cross

    "Which is nothing more than a cue to wallow in feelings we think we ought to have?"

    How Deep the Father's Love

    "Which calls us to investigate the poetry for itself – for its images, descriptions, language, rhymes, meter, tone?"

    'Tis the Christ

    "Which trades in clichés that are mere symbols for familiar responses?"

    The Old Rugged Cross

    "Which affects us but gives us mastery of our feelings?"

    'Tis the Christ

    "Which leaves our feelings unchanged, merely invoking what we already feel (or think we ought to feel) about the supposed subject matter?"

    How Deep the Father's Love

  2. Brenda,

    Good judgment grows through comparison and discussion, so thanks for joining in.

    My reason for using three examples in these posts has been to avoid a too-binary "this one's the good one, this one's the bad one.", had I only used two. Sometimes an example has bits of both. And sometimes a question refers to more than one example.

    I think you've picked up on how "The Old Rugged" is a fair example of what Kaplan is speaking about. "How Deep" is more complicated than that, and I want readers to think through this. If Townend's hymn is an example of popular art, why? If not, why not? Before I show my hand, it can be helpful for you to give examples of clichés vs fresh images, helpful language vs banal, thoughtful rhymes vs. predictable ones, appropriate rhythm and meter vs. unhelpful, messy or trite ones in his lyrics.

    I'm not asking you for a lengthy critique, but if you're willing, it might be a helpful exercise to do this. Ask, what works in "How Deep"? What does not? Why or why not?

  3. O.K., I'll provide a little more information.

    How Deep the Father's Love — the first time I heard this song was when I was shown a video of a Keswick Conference. That setting has affected (or shall I say tainted?) my analogy of the song. But, before I get into certain phrases of the song, I would suggest that the order of the verses is such that it sort of jerks my emotions around so that when it's done I feel like I've ridden a roller coaster and I'm just back where I started.

    For starters, I would suggest a rearrangement of the verses.

    Verse one would be the same as it is.

    Verse two would be "Behold the man. . . ."

    Verse three would be "How great the pain. . ."

    verse four would be "Why should I gain. . ."

    Verse five would be "It was my sin. . ."

    Verse six would be "I will not boast. . . ."

  4. If I may chime in… the rhymes in 'How Deep…' almost never work. The first is a B-D rhyme, whereas the following ones have a hard time with suitable rhymes. The last one is an A-C rhyme, which seems out of place – or was it on purpose to mark the concluding stanza? Yet I am not sure about such purposefulness, given what Brenda mentions above.

    I thought the second and third stanzas contain some powerful thoughts. The fourth seems to repeat the thoughts of the third without introducing much new. Generally, there are a few 'déjà vu' lines there, which remind me of other songs (and thus, risk becoming clichés).

    Also, the story does not seem too well put together, as Brenda already mentioned. The other two hymns are stories better told, a clear beginning and end, whereas for this one, the stanzas could be swapped without disturbing anything; there is a clear thread missing.

    Are we on the right track? I must say I am enjoying this. It really helps to go through these steps.

  5. Brenda & Martin,

    My evaluation of "How Deep" is that it is not inferior pop art, but has several commendable features that reward examination. First, the image of a man abandoned is not clichéd or trite. Sin piled upon his shoulders, the burning loss of the Father's fellowship – these are helpful images. We do not feel that the Cross has been trivialized or spoken of in trite fashion.

    Second, the whole idea of the loss and sacrifice of the Son being the gain and joy of the believer is carried through most of the stanzas. I agree with Brenda that it sometimes seems as if the thoughts wander, but I can trace a theme throughout. I think we could re-arrange some of the order as Brenda suggests. Townend's other best-known song, "In Christ Alone", as good as it is, also suffers from a kind of rapid-fire of truths and images without enough unity, like being a tour bus that's going too fast. Having said all that, I still think the idea of an unmerited exchange comes across quite strongly.

    As to form, the iambic meter is appropriate for the serious subject. I agree that the rhyme scheme is inconsistent and disappears altogether at some points. This does not bother me too much, though it can make the last stanzas feel as if they are drifting. On the other hand, the language is mostly interesting, direct and clear, without being unimaginative and boring.

    Quite a few lines end with a feminine accent (unaccented last syllable) – treasure, measure, glory, accomplished, finished. This perhaps accentuates the passive feel of abandonment, though it can feel unsatisfying to end a song in that way.

    All in all, I think "How Deep" is a very good poem in itself. It is not as good as 'Tis the Christ', but if Townend keeps improving, perhaps future work may be.

    I think it is difficult for us to separate our experience of the poetry of 'How Deep' from the music that accompanies it – which is a different matter altogether. If we had read Townend's work in a collection of poems, without hearing the breathy-crooney performances of it, we might have judged it to be a better, even superior, poem.

  6. A word or two about Da Ol' Rugged…

    First, I think this hymn has many examples of phrases with no real meaning in themselves. Some phrases are mere pointers to a feeling we are supposed to have. Chief of these is the title 'Old Rugged Cross.' What are we to make of this? What makes it rugged? Rugged as in rough, as in durable, as in uneven? Are we to view the cross as that ancient, durable truth, or as that old, unsightly thing? In the end, we are not really told, except to say that the cross appeals to us whereas the world hates it. I might feel about the 'old, rugged cross' the way I feel about 'my old, rugged T-shirt', so despised by my wife, which yet has a wondrous attraction for me. This is exactly what Kaplan is describing. The image is vacuous and merely nostalgic, I do not examine it, I fill it in with my own emotions.

    This occurs throughout the poem. "Emblem of suffering and shame' 'world of lost sinners' 'his glory above' 'home far away'. The language is predictable and familiar, which is why it points not at something greater, but back to our own feelings.

    Notice also the noticeable difference in tone between 'The Old Rugged' and the other two. What is the attitude of these three poets to the crucifixion? 'The Old Rugged' is almost entirely an exercise in the poet's personal pleasure in his idea of the cross – namely that it would pardon him and provide him with trophies and glory one day. Nothing wrong with testimony hymns, but one cannot help feeling that this hymn drives us into ourselves, wallowing in self-consolation, rather than in all the kinds of joys that contemplating the Crucifixion elicit. It appears to me that this is a song about ourselves.

    Third, if we're going to make sure that the language communicates orthodoxy, was the cross stained with 'blood so divine'? Unless we are Eutychians, blood cannot be divine. (And yes, I'm fully aware of Acts 20:28.) The Person who shed His blood is divine, but blood is always, and forever, a property of a human nature. Allowing for poetic licence, I can't see how this image is helpful. Any Christian familiar with controversies over the hypostatic union would not play carelessly with wording like 'blood so divine'.

    Finally, consider the form. Read the the hymn out loud, as you would a poem. You will quickly find the lilting, swaying sound of anapestic meter (with some substitutions) throughout. While anapestic meter can work when done well ("O Thou in Whose Presence My Soul Takes Delight") it usually lends a skipping, even humorous tone to the poem. This is totally inappropriate for a consideration of the Cross.

    It is not surprising that this hymn is well-liked. We'd do well to ask if it is liked for the same reasons that some like 'Tis the Christ'.

  7. Martin, thanks for joining the conversation.

    I admit that the first time I heard "How Deep the Father's Love" it had a striking effect. I heard others around me comment that they had never heard it before either, but immediately liked the song. However, those people also really like "The Old Rugged Cross." They don't see any difference between the two songs.

    As I read "How Deep the Father's Love", while trying to forget the way I heard it performed, the phrasing of the poem makes me think about a logic class I once took. In that class I learned that premises and conclusions can be true, thus making an argument valid, but that doesn't necessarily make the argument a sound one.

    I've heard at least one person express criticism of the song – particularly the stanza that makes it sound like the Father turned His face away from His dying Son because it was too painful for Him to watch. Consider the phrase "How great the pain of searing loss, The Father turns His face away." It may be true that God turned His face away. It also may be true that God felt pain at the loss of His Son. But, should those two premises be connected to indicate that this is why the Father turned His face away?

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