More On Appreciating Beauty
To Ryan Hill's question about cultural engagement, I think part of Christian maturity is indeed understanding the culture. To do this, we have to engage it in some form. There is no easy answer to guide us in our cultural interaction. We each have to know ourselves and our sins and then let this knowledge shape the way we approach culture. We keep the concern for holiness close beside us as we listen to music, watch tv, and read literature. With Spirit-fueled discernment, we thus seek to understand our world and to hear its patterns of thought in the media it creates.
Each Christian will have different standards and abilities to handle secular content. The key is to be discerning, to be accountable to others, and to be careful. With that said, there is tremendous value in knowing what the culture thinks and says. Generally, though, you don't need to plunge into secular culture to understand it. You can sample it, and keep your ears and eyes open, and you'll be able to talk with lost people on their level. I don't need to watch much popular media to understand how the MTV generation thinks. I don't need 30 hours a week of secular radio to understand its various worldviews. I don't need to read through whole chick lit series to understand how teenage girls are thinking. A sampling will do. I think that's a helpful starting point.
To respond to KC, good taste is not a virtue. But loving beauty is a good thing. Seeking to make the world beautiful is a good thing. And the cry of artistic relativism is too easy to shout in this modern age when perspectivalism dominates. For example, I am a bad painter. Michelangelo was not. How can we tell? Art critics can you help there. I'll suffice it to say for now that I believe that there are grounds for good art. My wife and I can both play the piano (in a sense), but I will play it very simply and poorly (with one hand) and she will play it elegantly with great complexity and technical excellence. Her piece will be more technically difficult and thus better than mine. My simple rendering of "Jesus Paid It All" with one hand may move you or I, but I don't think it's as good as her more sophisticated performance would be.
In terms of objective standards within a discipline, I think we're misunderstanding one another. I mean simply that disciplines and groups craft standards within themselves by which they judge one another. The operatic community has its own standards for excellence, the spoon-making community has its own standards, the ballroom dancing community has its own standards. These standards may well conform to principles outside of the particular communities, but they are nonetheless shaped by each community.
Riley asked about how far one goes in pursuing beauty. Having been a bit of an extremist in matters of faith already in my young life, I generally seek to avoid extreme conclusions. I think it a good principle to generally push oneself to appreciate the finer things of life while leaving a bit of room to enjoy other media. I try to listen to classical music for a good part of the day, for example, but I'll listen to a little rap or something like that at the gym. It is not my personal mission to reach extreme conclusions. I merely want to go hard after beauty, while avoiding extremism. One can focus hard on health and fitness, and thus steward one's body well, but we all need a little chocolate cake every now and again. So with the life of the mind.
I appreciate Brian's comment about the world not finding ultimate beauty anywhere than in God Himself. I agree with that statement. However, there is much to be said for appreciating "what is true, what is beautiful" and so on as Philippians 4:7-8 tell us. The Reformed worldview understands this essential truth and thus does not close itself out from culture simply because it is not inherently Christian. We are those who see all truth as God's truth, all beauty as God's beauty. We thus work to celebrate beauty and to lead men away from shallow, filthy, and debased existences, pointing them to the common graces of God's world even as we declare the majesty of His special grace as revealed in Christ.