What’s the Use in Receiving?

By

Is there a qualitative difference between learning a song from your Grandfather and downloading a song from iTunes, from getting a recipe online and pulling out the yellowing paper of an old, family recipe? Ken Myers answers in the affirmative, channeling C.S. Lewis when he discusses the need for thoughtful Christians to consider not only content in what we appreciate in art, but also how we receive it.

Myers, in his excellent book All God’s Children and Blue-Suede Shoes, points out that while Christians have been very sensitive to the content of movies, music and other art forms, we have been less discriminating about how art comes to us and what that process can help us become. We have counted the references to the name of Jesus in music (at rough estimation, repeated about 9,000 times in many Praise and Worship songs) and we have checked for how many so-called “curse words” there are in films, but we have failed to recognize our increasing tendency to fracture and disconnect from our own history and community in how we receive art. Often we see art only as a vehicle for moralism and this has issued in some pretty crummy results. And by art I mean music, painting, drawing, writing, etc. Myers (and Lewis) argue that we need to receive art in a different way than we are being trained to by our culture (increasingly autonomous in the modern era) and I think he is right.

“A work of (whatever) art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used.’ When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities. The one, to use an old-fashioned example, is like being taken for a bicycle ride by a man who may know roads we have never yet explored. The other is like adding one of those little motor attachments to our own bicycle and then going for one of our familiar rides. These rides in themselves may be good, bad, or indifferent. The ‘uses’ which the many make of the arts may or may not be intrinsically vulgar, depraved, or morbid. That’s as may be. ‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.”

C. S. Lewis, quoted by Ken Myers in All God’s Children and Blue-Suede Shoes.

There’s nothing wrong with downloading songs from ITunes, but his point is that when we are increasingly detached into a selfish autonomy, we can lose something. And in our downloading we can still choose to ‘receive’ or to ‘use’ the art. This is why places like the Rabbit Room are so helpful to many of us ordinary people. Here we meet Andrew Peterson, Eric Peters and Ron Block (etc.) in a way we wouldn’t only through their songs. I think this helps us receive the art in a way that limits selfishness, autonomy and seeing it as mere utility and encourages the incorporation of community. It’s important not just what we receive, but how we receive it. We should, as Ken Myers says, talk about and practice more considered receiving and less mere consumption. In this way Andrew’s vision for the Rabbit Room is profoundly helpful to us. Allow me to make it clear again that I do not think downloading songs is “bad.” I do it all the time (there’s a real moral test for you, sheesh). And let me remind you to check out the Rabbit Room podcast at ITunes and do a positive review (this should be easily done if you take the few minutes to receive with your ears Eric Peters’ beautiful words in Episode 4).

This concern for receiving things thoughtfully goes for everything in our lives, well beyond art only. We receive food from many sources, but ultimately from the hand of God giving daily bread. It is not as direct as manna was for the children of Israel, but it is no less from God. Dr. Gene Veith is helpful when he uncovers for us the doctrine of vocation that Luther championed. Luther said that “God is hidden in vocation.” This means that he is present in all the good we have been given. And this should change the way we receive and consume. We have a Father, and when we are not thankful it is a serious family issue. Rebellion is like witchcraft. This may be part of why the Apostle Paul (and really so much of Scripture) equates being ungrateful with the vilest sins.

So let’s be thankful people. Let us be people who receive from God the good from his hand, and who do not despise his discipline (knowing that even that is from love). We should be wary of being polluted by the world. We should guard our hearts against the deceptive encroachment of soul-destroying and joyless sin. But let us add to our considerations how we receive and remember with thankfulness from whom we receive it.


13 Comments

  1. Caroline

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on art and reception — I think that the medium of receiving literature or music affects how we feel about it.

    When I bought my set of the Lord of the Rings books several years ago, I went with the least expensive set, and it included a copy of the Hobbit. The cover was plain, with a stereotypical “wizard walks down a path” sort of illustration. The paper was the cheap paperback kind, not smooth, with the ink that comes off on your fingers sometimes.

    A while later, I was shopping when I came across another copy of the Hobbit. It was larger, with lovely, silken pages and illustrations from the Man Himself. It had wide margins, where the text didn’t run into the edge of the paper. It’s now my “nice copy” of the Hobbit.

    The two copies are almost different texts entirely, and yet both are different from my memories of reading the Hobbit with my dad when I was younger.

  2. Jud

    The medium in which art is received defnitely has an effect on the receiver, but such effect is hard to quantify. Live music is a great example. Randall Goodgame’s “Laundromat” didn’t do much for me until I heard it live, and suddenly I “got it”. Now it’s one of my favorite tunes of his.

    The reverse can be true as well. I heard Randall live this past weekend, and while catchy, “Bluebird” didn’t really grab hold of me in that setting. But when I took the EP home and listened to it with my daughters, it became something awesome. My kids for some reason just love their Goodgame.

  3. Wes Roberts

    …some blogs I pass by and seldom read

    …some blogs I mark for reading later

    …this one is one of a few I take the time to read when they show up

    …and today’s post demonstrates why

    …thank you!!!

    …keep up the excellent work in all the areas represented!

  4. karin

    I haven’t heard of this book before today, but I would like to read it. The distinction between receiving and using is helpful. I love to read, but many times I fly through books and just consume them for entertainment. Every now and then I savor them. Some friends and I formed a book club almost a year ago, and this has enriched not only my reading experience, but my life. In reading the books in community, I not only discover things in the books that I wouldn’t see on my own, but I discover things in my friends that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and the experience of these works of art & these friendships is deeper, and helps shape me as a person, rather than just passing through my mind and filling an emptiness for a short time.

  5. Tony Heringer

    Sid,

    This is the Ken Meyers of Mars Hill Audio. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ken, I would wholeheartedly recommend checking out his Mars Hill Audio Journal — http://www.marshillaudio.org/about/aboutmha.asp

    So far I’ve been too cheap to subscribe for the annual MP3 download — don’t know why its just 30 dollars a year. So far, I’m just picking off the 6 dollar single editions.

    Either way you go, it is a steal for the quality that goes into it. If it sounds like NPR well, that’s because Ken used to work for NPR before going out on his own with the Mars Hill Audio Journal.

    As for the book…Samuel, it has been on my list for a long time. Just haven’t gotten around to it. That is the bad thing about coming here Wes, its a great site that just gives us more books and music to invest in. This side of Eternity there will never be enough time to consume all the good work recommended here.

    And if you think the Rabbit Room is bad in that way, Mars Hill is worse. Each addition of the Journal comes with detailed bibliography that gives the listener a cornucopia of resources related to the guests interviewed.

    Samuel,

    You’ve hit upon a common theme here in the Room. Much like Ken Meyers Journal, I think the intriguing nature of this cyber-place is a covering of trends in culture. Ken is very good at pulling out the trending of culture and I think the Rabbit Room is oriented that way as well.

    With respect to Christian artists, I think one of the links related to Tolkien I sent you this week-end addresses some of the ideas you are bringin up in your post. “The Lord Of The Rings” is described by Tolkien as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” And yet it is devoid of religious language, practice, etc. Tolkien was hailed as the greatest author of the 20th century and “The Lord Of The Rings” topping a similar list of fictional works.

    Why? Well, its good art. To get to Caroline’s point, I have a hard copy of “The Lord Of The Rings” — all three “books” with original illustrations. Which is as Tolkien originally wanted but the publishers said “too expensive!” He especially hated the division and naming of the books. In particular, he hated the title “The Return Of The King” — to which he said something like “Great, let’s just give away the ending!”

    I read it to my children when they were young and they loved it ((though it was tough sledding for dad reading it as bed time story – the elf language along with the singing was brutal for all involved ). It is a prized volume in my library. However, if I had to choose between a cheap version and no version, I’d say its still worth it.

    The same could be said of music. When asked about CDs vs. digital music, Bono commented that he saw the difference as hardback vs. paperback. There is an experience with a CD that you don’t get with a download — though some downloads — like Mars Hill comes close by providing liner notes. That gets you part of the way there, but there is a sensory experience with the tangible product that the digital one can never possess. I can read the news online, but its not near as fun as sitting on my front porch with a cup of coffee and a newspaper.

    A while back, Curt and I discussed the viability of movie theaters in the same context. He pointed out that the experience of seeing a film with an audience or just to get out of the house will make it viable — though I daresay it will become more expensive as time goes by. Much like fine arts performances have become — been to the symphony lately?

    This creates the kind of tension that Tolkien had with LOTR. His vision for the work was one book, but the practical reality was three books. He could have held his ground, but then there would not have been a LOTR – at least not until the costs declined. Even then, that one volume is 70 bucks – again, better to have the cheap version than none.

    This creative tension, is the sort of art and artist that guys like Meyers and the folks out here in the Room are championing. I pray that generations from now, if the Lord doesn’t tarry (and I pray daily He doesn’t), folks will look back and thank the true Christian artists for how Christ worked in and through them to further His Kingdom through their art.

  6. Josiah

    Thanks again for challenging us to think deeply. I am reminded of the Andy Gullahorn song “Nobody wants to work.” I am guilty of being part of a lazy Christian generation. In this country we are so used to being spoonfed that we don’t really want to go through much effort at all to recieve.

    On a side note… I think it’s a little ironic that I downloaded the Andy Gullahorn album with “Nobody wants to work” on it for free at noisetrade.com (giving out e-mail addresses of my friends and family). I love noisetrade and actually believe that Derek Webb is creating a great venue for independent artists to get connected to people who long to enjoy great art.

  7. Mark L

    When are we going to get a similar post on how Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader will mess up the reading experience? I remember a professor who used to love looking at, holding and even smelling books. I think I remember some great quotes from Buechner on physical books as well. If I remember correctly, it was in “Beyond Words” under “books’. I could be way off.

  8. Jacob

    Another book you guys might find useful is Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps. It’s about how technology shapes our faith. It talks a lot about how the medium is the message, not the “content” of said medium.

    A distinction that is more obvious is the use of Skype and other live video conferencing stuff. If I were in London and my wife were in Nashville, I’d love to talk to her through that, but it doesn’t replace being there with her in person. I see this e-book nonsense in a similar way. We’ve got to understand that how we engage with things is just as much a part of the experience as the content we are engaging.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *