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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, June 20, 2008

Repetition

There is a problem with newness; or, rather, there is a problem with an obsession with newness. As I write this, I am listening to J. S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” for the I-don’t-know-how-many-hundredth time. It hasn’t lost its sweetness, its beauty, its ability to lift my soul. In fact, I’ve found that when I am in a good mood, I have started going about my daily business whistling the melody of it - at least, the portion of it that I know.

So is the greatness of Bach’s music in the fact that it is old? Not necessarily. That which is older is often better for us, due to the depravity, both moral and aesthetic, of the culture we find ourselves in. As C. S. Lewis said, in his defense of reading old books, every generation has its blind spots. The point he was making was that there is a need for us to read authors who lived in another era, in order that we be fuller people, aware of our own generation’s blind spots. And yet the reverse is also true. It is noticeable with those who become obsessed with an era other than their own. Those who spend all their time reading Puritan authors, for instance, can easily lapse into seeing everything the exact same way that the Puritans did, including buying into any erroneous beliefs the Puritans had as well. Then there are those who become taken with the Victorian era, the result being Anglo-Catholics afraid of going to Hell (or, maybe, just spending more time in Purgatory) for accidentally eating the main course with their salad forks.

The greatness of Bach’s music lies in its conformity to the Triune God. Something in his aesthetic reflects God’s character, causing even pagans over the past three hundred to praise him.

And yet, much of the appreciation of good art lies in the repeated experience of it. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate “Jesu” the first time I heard it, or any of Bach’s music, for that matter. It took a certain measure of maturity before it hit me the way it does now. And now, I can’t help but to praise God for allowing me to experience such beautiful music. It is such that it isn’t merely listening to beautiful music anymore. It is, for me, hearing God speak, telling me that He loves me, and that so long as He reigns, everything is going to be alright in my life and in this world.

But the repetition is important. It is an enculturation, a shaping of my view of the world. This is part of the reason that commercial music is everywhere in the public sphere. The idea is to shape the individual until he thinks of himself mainly as a consumer. In so doing, the person begins to act as he has come to think of himself. His main goal is to attain material goods, thinking he needs them, whether or not he actually does. This is part of the reason that I don’t shop on Sundays. I believe Sabbatarianism to be Biblical, and so I seek to devote all of Sunday to rest as Scripture requires, and to worship of God and study of His word. But the commercial sphere wants that day, too. Think about it - why do so many sale ads get published in the paper on Sunday? Certainly, it’s technically the beginning of the week - though, considering our language of “the weekend” and beginning a new week on Monday, one would think Sunday was the last day of the week. But we and the advertisers together have made Sunday the biggest shopping day of the week, and any notion of giving that day to God has largely disappeared from our culture. Lest anyone miss it, this hasn’t made us any Godlier. As a Christian who believes the Sabbath is Sunday, I’m more than happy to refuse that day to the pagans who could care less about me but want my money.

And so I have grown to largely hate commercial music. So far as I can help it, I don’t want it shaping me into something I don’t want to be, something other than the best person I can be. I prefer to expose myself to those art forms that are most glorifying to God and most beneficial to me. That doesn’t mean that Bach can be all that I listen to. But, as with all forms of art, I’m thoughtful in what I choose.

Repetition in stories are important in the same way that repetition in experiencing music is important. Children here often understand this better than we adults do. They tend to glory in the repetition of a thing. A father picks up his son and throws him for what may seem to the child to be hundreds of feet in the air. And what does the child say, as he falls into his father’s hands, the giggling mess that he is? “Do it again, Daddy.” It is the wisest people for whom the setting and the rising of the sun never gets old.

Children are the same way with stories. How many parents get weary of reading the same bedtime story to their children night after night? And this isn’t to say there is never a need for a change. There are many stories in the world, and sometimes children need to be directed to a new one, lest the old one become wearisome for them and they begin to stagnate. God even varies the rising and the setting of the sun for us on a regular basis.

But children know that the enjoyment of the story lies to some degree in its repetition, though they may not know why. It is in the repetition of it that it shapes you and becomes part of you. It is also in the repetition that one can really know if it’s a good story. There are stories that immediately please on a superficial level, but do nothing on repeated exposure. But good stories carry an eternal newness about them. They have a depth that only opens to you over time. You experience them over and over again, and you learn things about them that you didn’t know before. In this sense, a particular artistic creation reflects its creator. Shallow people create shallow art; people with depth of character create art with depth of character. And reverse is true as well: shallow art creates shallow people, and art with depth of character creates people with depth of character.

God does new things all the time. “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end. The children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you” (Ps. 102:25-28). Sometimes He turns fertile fields into a lake, and sometimes He turns lakes into deserts. Sometimes He allows Christian kingdoms to last a thousand years, and sometimes He moves the center of the activity of His church halfway around the world. And yet some things He does the same, day after day, for His own glory and enjoyment, as One who delights in repetition, and for our sakes, that we may reflect His enjoyment and rest secure in Him.

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