I’m no expert…

Kris | Books,Miscellany | Monday, March 11th, 2013

Who Needs Classical Music?Let me clarify up front for all you musicians that I’m no musician and have no credentials or any other qualifications to talk about music. So don’t take as expert testimony whatever I say about Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music? In fact, I’m going to do my best to say as little as possible about music–you can read his book yourself. But his theses not only seem sound to me, but they suggest other applications. That’s what I want to say a few words about, and what I’d like to spend more time thinking about.

In fact, it seems to me that some of what Johnson says here resembles C. S. Lewis’s analysis of literature and our judgments about it in An Experiment in Criticism. And it should, because the distinction both make is really between art and pop, and one major difference between them is that art has a depth to it that invites or even demands “rapt concentration” and reflection, multiple readings (or repeated listening) in order to tease out its thoughts more fully.

After making some obvious observations about our culture’s devotion to appearances and image that leads to one-dimensional music, Johnson says something that started a little train of thought:

What might seem harmless in relation to cultural practices, fashion, cars or even music, is clearly invidious in relation to people. The ideal of humanity on which we have based our greatest religious, ethical, philosophical and political thinking is not defined by our outward, material surface but by our capacity to exceed the limits of our material existence. Great art expresses this ideal in every work. In rejecting it to embrace the ideal of a blank and depthless surface embodied in contemporary culture, we reject the ideal of humanity and instead a simulacrum–a synthetic and hollow substitute. Human potential is not well expressed by the fashionable, the glossy, or the chic, and yet we allow ourselves to be dominated by a culture defined almost exclusively in these terms. In doing so, we collude in our own reduction to objects.

My wee train of thought headed in the direction of the “popification” of worship. That is, I wonder whether, in our efforts to reform the worship service according to pop principles– to strengthen the church’s appeal to unchurched people, or to speak in the everyday language of people who are swimming in pop culture–we have inadvertently stripped worship of all transcendence. Our worship might be more immediately accessible, might evoke emotional responses more easily. But is the price an inability to reach below the surface of people’s lives?

I don’t think I’m saying anything new here, but this connection is made clearer to me as Johnson lays out his case concerning classical music. And when he says something like this:

Real intellectual work is increasingly eclipsed by comment, opinion, and journalese—endlessly ironic, friends with everybody and nobody, believing ultimately in nothing. We live in a digest culture in which an unwillingness to engage in sustained thought rapidly becomes a hostility toward it. Before long, the hostility masks an incapacity to do so.

I think I understand better why I find more and more people (people who sincerely love God) who shy away from reading the Bible. They prefer a digest of it; the fact that it isn’t all immediately clear and rewarding is all the argument they need for not picking it up off the shelf.

I need to think on this more. If my train of thought is on the right track–or even close–perhaps it will help me recover some of my own losses.


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