Beauty is hard work. Being good enough to produce something like Handel’s Messiah requires years of training, apprenticeship, and dedication. The actual creation of it requires a great deal of work. And even all that is not enough — schooling and hard work can’t put in what God left out. If the talent isn’t there, then there will be no great work of art, no matter how dedicated the artist might be.
Not everybody is a Handel. Maybe one or two in a generation are so talented — and not all of them have access to good training, or work as hard as Handel did. So it becomes very important, if we are to have beauty, that we attend to our history. If you only get the combination of hard work and talent that produces a Handel every two or three generations, and you want to have a lot of beautiful music, then you have to hoard it from your past. There won’t be enough to go around in this generation alone — or any other generation. Which is to say that in aesthetics and art as in everything else, “a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children,” and we must honor our fathers and mothers.
Now, imagine what happens if a generation arises which does not honor its fathers and mothers. The rationalizations vary; perhaps they are sweeping away the barnacles of accrued affectation and getting back to the primal essence of the art. Perhaps they are forsaking superstition and ignorance and advancing forward into the light of a scientific new day. Perhaps they are simply seeking things to which they feel an intuitive connection, and abandoning the past as irrelevant. Perhaps they have pronounced all their fathers might gain of them Corban… (we’ll come back to that thought.)
Whatever the justification, the result is the same. Failure to honor one’s fathers and mothers leads to being cut off from the benefits of their wisdom. Forsaking the law of your father is not a good idea. In the matter of beauty, the results are particularly bad. The lessons of the past are forgotten and must be rediscovered, and the accumulated treasure of the past is ignored. The result is inevitably a great deal of ugliness, and the loss of an ability to tell that it’s ugliness. The best rock opera of the nineties may turn out to just be a trifle less terrible than a field of weak contenders. Without the accumulated treasure of the past, there’s little basis for comparison.
This is what has happened in worship. When we think of the “worship wars” today, we think of the battle that started in the 1970s and really didn’t go mainstream until the 80s and 90s — shall we sing praise choruses, or hymns? The folks who argued for choruses, and against hymns, felt that they were casting off the dead hand of almost two millennia of orthodusty and revitalizing the church. The folks who argued for preserving the hymns felt that they were guarding a great trove of wisdom and glorious worship, stretching back to the dawn of the church. They were both wrong.
They were wrong because mostly, the hymns at issue were 19th-century revival songs that were, in their day, the music of a similar revolution. Before that, most churches had a strong continuity in their worship and music with the preceding 1800 years of church history. The great revivals of the 19th century, along with various good effects, also succumbed to the sin of contempt for the established church, and therefore for their fathers in the faith and the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the generations who went before them.
The result, as we’ve been discussing, was a good deal of ugliness. In time, people noticed that it was ugly, shallow and unhelpful, and began to do something else — and the result was the present ‘worship wars,’ a revolution against the revolution. (Not, please notice, a counter-revolution. That would imply undoing the sins of the past, and what we got instead was more of the same.)
Which is to say that, having discovered that sin didn’t work, we decided to try compounding it rather than repenting of it. We needed to admit that the first revolution was a sin, that we had forsaken the wisdom of our fathers. We needed to begin to honor our fathers again. This we did not do, and many of us still have not.
The result, predictably again, is much ugliness, and a goodly number of ridiculous spectacles. A guy whose faith has been sustained by numerous Calvary Chapel messages about how the locust-scorpions of Revelation 9 are helicopters and the end is near — this guy is tormented by concern that his Lutheran friend is not being “fed” in his supposedly dry liturgical service. The Lutheran fellow, for his part, visits his friend’s church once and is permanently put off Bible studies. Jeepers.