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Concluding Thoughts

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series

"Cheap Thrills: Pop Art and Transcendence"

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

As Kaplan concludes, he considers the social functions of popular art. He sees its appeal in finding a common denominator among people. It is popular because it appeals to almost universal tastes. As to its function, popular art is no longer associated with serious cultural concerns, such as religion, love, war and politics, and the struggle for subsistence. Instead it has become, in Dewey’s words, “the beauty-parlor of civilization.” In other words, popular art is where we go to indulge our love of self, to enjoy ourselves, to escape into worlds of our own making.

Kaplan does not feel particularly alarmed by the rise of popular arts, seeing a limited place for it. He ends by saying, “If popular art gives us pleasant dreams, we can only be grateful-when we have wakened.” In other words, popular art is no more real (or significant) than our own night-dreams, but if they are pleasurable, who’s to complain? As long as we wake up, Kaplan seems to urge. A life lived in dream-state is pitiable and sad.

Of course, Kaplan is arguing as an aesthetician, and not as a Christian defending worship. While Kaplan is enormously helpful in identifying the nature of popular art, he cannot help us determine its appropriateness for worship. Here we must take his descriptions of popular art, and then compare it with our mandate for worship. To summarize Kaplan’s argument, popular art

* schematizes and reduces art into an easily recognizable stereotype. Whether musical, poetical, literary or visual, the art is pre-digested so that its consumers instantly recognize the stereotype and fill in the outline with their own feelings.
* replaces perception with mere recognition. Popular art is essentially formless, it is simple in the sense that it is easy. It reminds us of what we know, it prompts us to feel what we already feel. Our familiar feelings are simply reinforced. Through its stereotypes, we associate certain feelings with the work, while not being transformed in our own emotions.
* moves in a close circle around the self. The art only has significance in light of the viewer. He sees himself in its materials, with the art providing easily recognizable prototypes to project himself upon. The result is wallowing in our own feelings: feeling, without understanding of our feelings. This is sentimentalism.
* creates an escape into childish versions of reality which exist nowhere, and which return us to reality unchanged.

In essence, popular art represents childish and immature taste. It appeals to narcissism and infantile self-obsession. It flatters an impulse in every human.

Here we would do well to ask ourselves several questions about worship:

1) Should worship transform the worshiper? If so, how does this occur?
2) Is worship a response to revelation, or a record of my experience?
3) How is a worshiper’s experience of God to be related to worshiping God?
4) Should a worshiper be aware of his feelings while worshiping, or does this detract from the authenticity of worship? If this awareness is needful, describe what this awareness is like.
5) How should the imagination be used in worship?

Once we’ve answered the questions regarding what kind of event worship is, and once we’ve considered how an artist has used his materials, we’re in a position to evaluate if it is appropriate in the life of a Christian. If popular art really is an exercise in narcissism, sentimentalism, and escapism, and if it dulls and flattens us, it is hard to see how much of this can be healthy for the life of a worshiping Christian.

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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.

4 Responses to Concluding Thoughts

  1. Thank you, Pastor, for this challlenging series. It has been profitable.

    As I read this last installment, two things came to mind. First, Heb. 12:15-29 (although it could have been Isa. 6, or Gen. 4:3-7.

    The other was this poem by Wilbur Rees:

    $3 WORTH OF GOD (Wilbur Rees)

    I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please.

    Not enough to explode my soul and disturb my sleep.

    Not enough to take control of my life.

    I want just enough to equal a cup of warm milk.

    Just enough to ease some of the pain from my guilt.

    I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please.

    I would like to find a love that is pocket-sized.

    I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.

    Not enough to change my heart.

    I can only stand just enough to take to church when I have time.

    Just enough to equal a snooze in the sunshine.

    I want ecstasy, not transformation.

    I want the warmth of the womb, but not a new birth.

    I would like to purchase a pound of the eternal in a paper sack.

    If it doesn’t work, I would like to get my money back.

    I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please.

    I would like to hide some for a rainy day.

    Not enough for people to see a change in me.

    Not enough to impose any responsibility.

    Just enough to make folks think I am ok.

    Could I just get three dollars worth of God, please?

    Jim Lowery

    Richmond, VA

  2. Thanks David – great series. Your questions at the end are hard to answer, though. I guess many of them are dealt with elsewhere on this website. Although I think I learned a lot going through these exercises, I still feel inadequate going to church on Sunday and saying we should change our corporate worship because…

    1) Should worship transform? I'm not sure. If worship is a reaction or response to what God is doing, it may only be a realization or expression of thankfulness toward God, but does transformation come through (corporate) worship or rather, is it the work of the Holy Spirit more generally?

    2) Worship as expression of experience or response to revelation? I'd say it can also be an expression of experience. Miriam worshiped after Israel crossed the Red Sea. Amazing Grace is a record of how God worked in Newton's life. If you mean, should worship be an experiencing of God or some kind of feeling of His presence, I guess we agree that that is not normative. Maybe it happens when God is visiting during times of revival but otherwise I can't confirm that I 'feel God's presence' during corporate worship in another way than at other times.

    3) Experience – I guess previous experience (or revelation) will incite to worship. David wrote many hymns that relate how God worked in his life, or reflect his reaching out to God during times of hardship in his life.

    4) Feelings – I guess we should always be conscious of our feelings, but have enough objectivity not to be dominated by them. I may feel sad but my faith should be stronger than such a feeling, such that hope and trust in God will dampen the sadness. Or I may be euphoric but the Bible tells me to be sober as well. I don't see in the Scriptures that some special feeling should be conjured up during or through worship. This may happen but seems to be exceptional (e.g., King Saul prophesying in a 'drunk in the spirit' state).

    5) Imagination – we use it when we write a worship song. We may also use it when singing or playing that song – though this should not distract from the worship, e.g. we should not try to gain others' attention but should be motivated by glorifying God with our talents and imagination. I guess the rest is down to whether you go by the regulative principle, i.e. the use of imagination should be limited by what God has ordained in worship. It should definitely be subject to appropriate choices, i.e. wild imagination may be a God-given ability but is not necessarily edifying.

    My own questions are,

    # Are the marks provided by Kaplan to describe popular art sufficient to identify whether a given worship song is indeed part of the category of 'popular art'?

    # Should we ban all stereotypes from worship or can we put up with some? Have you done an analysis of the psalms to see whether any of them may be seen as using stereotypes?

    # Does all worship music need to have the potential of transforming us? Can it not be expressive, i.e. the giving of thanks for what God has already done?

    There are probably more, but it's all about how to apply the above and how to objectively decide which songs should be preferred, which can be tolerated in small doses, and which should be avoided (or may even cause damage).

  3. Thanks Martin.

    # Kaplan's are certainly one of the best. There might be others, but marks of stereotyping, sentimentalism, and narcissism are fundamental, and will go a long way to rightly discerning the average song.

    # Don't confuse stereotype with standardization. Certain forms will unite artists, and we certainly find examples of standardized art in the Bible. A stereotype is something different altogether, and since it empties, demeans and even falsifies what it purports to portray, I would say stereotypes should always be eliminated from worship.

    # My own view is that worship that does not transform has not been worship in the truest sense, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 seems to make clear. To see God's glory, whether our responses are admiration, thanksgiving, contrition, etc, will create some change in the responsive material that is the new nature. Certainly change takes place outside of corporate worship, but all change comes from beholding the beauty of God, whether in private, corporate or lifestyle worship. Regardless of whether the response is awe or thanksgiving, such response nevertheless change the worshipper in greater lesser ways.

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