Relativism, Objectivity, & Fittingness
On Monday I wrote this piece that got a little pushback from a few friends and I have decided to answer a few questions and offer a little clarification. In that post I argued that Christians have fought for objectivity in the realms of “truth” and “morals” and “ethics” while simultaneously abandoning the pursuit of objectivity in the aesthetic realm. The result of this has been a(n) (blind?) adoption of aesthetic relativism in the church.
First, I think a little clarification would help out a lot. I believe that the church has adopted a type of aesthetic relativism in the same way that Modern Western culture has adopted moral relativism. What I mean by this is that the adoption is inconsistent. Modern Western culture is not entirely relativistic when it comes to our morals. Whenever talks of abortion or sexuality come to the fore, there are certain morals that are imposed (so not everything is relative).
“A woman has a right to abort her baby but not kill her newly born baby.”
“All sexuality is merely preference and therefore not a moral issue, but pedophilia and rape are wrong.”
Moral relativism has swept over our culture, but when it comes to things like rape and murder of newborn children there are standards that are still being applied. Now, these standards don’t have any proper foundation and they are being applied inconsistently but the fact remains that some morals are being imposed. Relativism is not being consistently and thoroughly applied to the realm of morality (something I am thankful for).
I believe that this is analogous to what is happening within the church in many ways. In the same way that a modern secularist is against rape, even though they don’t have a proper epistemological foundation for the stance, so too much of the church is against certain forms of worship. Very few churches are worshiping to dubstep or heavy metal styles of worship. Yet, because we have given very little thought to the realm of aesthetics in worship over the last few generations, these churches have no reason why such a style of worship is wrong, they just know that it is.
This means, when I’m arguing against aesthetic relativism I’m, first and foremost, wanting Christians and churches to begin to think about this issue. I’m not necessarily offering a solution at this point but bringing up a problem that needs to be addressed. How is it that we know that dubstep is a wrong form of worship but modern praise ballads are acceptable? If we can’t answer that question then we need to take a few steps back and re-evaluate our position on aesthetics.
Having said all this, I want to offer some more thoughts on how we move forward in this area. Aesthetics is not like math or logic. When we are looking to please God with our aesthetics we cannot work things out in the same way as we would when we are trying to please God with our budget or argumentation.
Aesthetics is a rich and layered field. It is also a powerful thing and therefore our approach to it needs to be one of humility. There aren’t going to be simple answers. But if we can learn to honor God properly in our aesthetic preferences then we will learn to properly wield a strong battering ram on the gates of Modernism.
If aesthetics isn’t like math and there aren’t “answers” then how do we approach it? Well, I’m going to put forward an approach to aesthetics that I’ve picked up from Ken Myers. The term Myers uses in his approach to aesthetics (and music in particular) is the concept of “fittingness.”
If we look at music in particular we can hear this (almost) intuitively. Notes are either in harmony with one another or they are not. The concept of “discord” comes from music. If the notes are not in harmony then they are in discord with one another. Medieval writers spoke of Satan’s rebellion as being in discord with the symphony of creation that God was conducting.
Further, when it comes to aesthetics, there is a connection between “form” and “content.” Myers goes to great pains to make this point in his book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Myers argues that there is either a fundamental agreement or disagreement between form and content, and this is especially so in the church.
The “content” of a service of worship is the worship and praise of the Triune God and his declaration of love and forgiveness over His people. If we follow Myers’ argument then we can say that the (aesthetic) form that a service of worship takes can either agree or disagree with that content (the worship and praise of God).
Does the form of music “agree” with the content of the service? Does the attire of the congregation and those administering the service “agree” with the purpose of the gathering?
None of this is to argue for some sort of boring uniformity. A man wearing a kilt to a service of worship in Scotland and a man wearing a pair of slacks and a dress shirt in America are trying to accomplish the same thing. A primitive African tribe using native drums in their service of worship and a congregation in Geneva using an organ are (hopefully) looking to accomplish the same thing.
Rather, what I am saying is that forms of music that communicate something antithetical to the reverent worship of God are not appropriate for gatherings of worship. One example of this could be the use of syncopated music in worship gatherings. “Syncopation” is a form of music where various rhythms are employed simultaneously to make the music off beat. Such a form of music discourages corporate unity and encourages individuality and uniqueness which is something to be avoided in corporate worship.
Now, this is not to say that syncopated music is “bad.” I for one enjoy jazz music from time to time and the origins of Jazz are found in syncopated music and solos. I’m simply saying that, in the case of the corporate worship of God, the form of syncopated music disagrees with the content. If we begin to think this way about music and aesthetics we must begin to apply it consistently.
As I stated in my previous post, many Christians have adopted forms of popular culture into their gatherings of worship. Popular culture, in its very nature, is designed for consumption and quick digestion. Like fast food, popular culture (music, tv, consumer goods, etc.) are meant to be consumed and quickly digested leaving the consumer hungry for the next item of consumption.
This is why “pop” music songs are only popular for a matter of weeks before the next, newer, song comes along and replaces it. Furthermore, popular culture is easily digestible. There is no need to develop a “taste” for popular music. There is little complexity and nuance to popular music like their is to higher forms of music. Again, like fast food, it goes down easy but does not make up the ingredients of a healthy diet.
When Christians churches adopt the same forms as the popular culture but infuse it with “Christian” content they are (at minimum) sending mixed signals. Easy digestion is antithetical to the “hard sayings” of Jesus in John 6:56-60. The form communicates that the content of the Christian faith is easily digestible and is constantly reinventing itself to please the ever changing desires of the congregation. Ken Myers says the following:
Because many Christians have adopted the subjectivism of popular culture, questions of aesthetics of liturgical expression are usually reduced to a question of "what the market (i.e., the congregation's tastes) will bear." (All God’s Children, pg. 100)
While opposition to this aesthetic relativism does not mean a bland uniformity it does mean that there are right and wrong forms of worship. While some might presume that such an approach is coming from a curmudgeon who desires less creativity and imagination they could not be further from the truth. I believe that a commitment to honor God in our aesthetics is going to require much more creativity and imagination. Furthermore, it might require the church to recover a multi-generational outlook and commit to teaching our children to read music and sing well.
A recovery of beauty in the realm of aesthetics in the church is not going to be an easy task. It is going to take a long time and the odds are unlikely that our generation will taste the fruit of faithfulness. But what greater example of selfless love is there than laying down our own aesthetic preferences so that our great grandchildren can reap the fruit of a robustly beautiful church.
Food for thought.