In Tents #28 Ethics and Aesthetics Part 6, Final Thoughts

Much of Shostakovich’s music was banned for the sin of formalism–whatever that means–so it wasn’t heard until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
–Peggy Woodruff, introducing Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” on KBYU FM March 14, 2013

The idea that ethics and aesthetics are the same thing is an elegant hypothesis, one that explains a lot, such as why discussions about aesthetics so easily turn into disagreements and heated arugments. We’re not talking about whether a formalist or structuralist or impressionist or expressionist approach is most fitting to the story we’re telling, we’re talking about the spiritual aspects of the form and of the story, or the spiritual implications.

A story is not simply a story, it’s a moral act to be judged by formal and informal criteria as sinful or virtuous, criteria we attach to our definitions of virtue and sin.

And that’s the problem I see with equating ethics and aesthetics. I’ve been listening to Leviticus and Numbers this week. The ethical instructions are precise–don’t gather sticks on the sabbath, don’t lie with animals, don’t hanker for the melons and cucumbers of Egypt. The subtext that performing external ordinances can align our inward natures with God was brought to the surface 30-plus generations later, the implication explicated, in a terrifying sermon delivered on a mountain side, in which the koheleth delivering the sermon insisted that ethical action is a matter of internal intent rather than external performance. A devotional act like bringing a sacrifice to the temple is meaningless if my brother or sister has aught against me. Leave the gift at the altar and make that aught into a naught, unknotting the emotions and actions that separate me from those I ought to love.

That is, the ethical content of an action can be difficult to discern–especially in a narrative form like music, dance, or story, where the narrative arc of that action defines a parabola rather than a line straight to a moral. Parabolic art gives us a great deal to think about, but very often doesn’t tell us how to think, or quite what to think about.

Consider the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer might be a discourse on how we treat our neighbors, and how we ought to treat everyone. It might be another question. “Who is your neighbor? How do you behave toward your neighbor? What if your neighbor isn’t a nähegebauer but a ferngebauer? Is neighbor merely a matter of nearbuilder or farbuilder?

But the answer may be a story about some people and how they react to a helpless person–followed by a question, Now which of these three was neigbor to him who fell among thieves?

That’s a fairly linear story straight from Alef to Bet. Suppose the storyteller decides to take a detour to Gimel, Dalet, He, Vaw, and Zayin (not necessarily in that order). Suppose the storyteller decides to make the people we usually look to for spiritual guidance the ones who fail in their neighborliness, and someone we despise–an apostate, an atheist, or even (gasp!) a secular humanist–the true neighbor in the story?

What are the ethics of that choice? Are they self-evident? Is the storyteller performing an act of disrespect toward the stake president and visiting general authority who cross the street to avoid the beaten man because, after all, they’re reorganizing the stake tomorrow and have a very busy afternoon? Or is the storyteller simply emphasizing that when all sin and fall short of the glory of God, any sinner can reach out to that glory?

Or maybe the storyteller simply wants to open the story up to some rich pondering. Of course we can always choose to refuse the invitation to ponder, and instead re-fuse a cultural landmine.

I’ve been reading Henry B. Eyring’s Choose Higher Ground, and it’s clear in several passages that Pres. Eyring wants to defuse the cultural sparring that has us feeling our way thru each others’ mine fields and fuse us in a more perfect union with each other and the Lord we all serve. This is especially evident in a passage where he mentions what began as a mild disagreement between “two people–good people.”

It started as a discussion of what was true but became a contest about who was right. Voices became gradually louder. Faces became a little more flushed. Instead of talking about the issue, people began talking about themselves, giving evidence why their view, given their great ability and background, was more likely to be right (180).

Pres. Eyring describes his reaction as alarm. “We have seen the life-destroying effects of such tragic conflict,” he says, adding that the wounded pride often involved can rend people from their cultural, from their sense that they belong, that they have fellowship.

The kind of conflict he describes can also rend cultures. As Jewish followers of Jesus welcomed gentile converts they developed a culture that more and more removed from its Jewish beginnings. One consequence of that remove is that things said in a Jewish context gained a non-, even anti-Jewish context.

Consider one example (please forgive the length), from Acts 2, Peter’s sermon responding to the spiritual gifts manifest and exercised on the day of Pentecost. It’s surely fair to say that in Christian tradition verse 36 became the most important verse in this sermon, completely ignoring the careful Jewish context Peter uses, quoting both Joel and David.

14 ¶But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judæa, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words:

15 For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.

16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel;

17 And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:

18 And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy:

19 And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke:

20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come:

21 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:

23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:

24 Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.

25 For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved:

26 Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope:

27 Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

28 Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance.

29 Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.

30 Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne;

31 He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.

32 This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses.

33 Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear.

34 For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand,

35 Until I make thy foes thy footstool.

36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.

But verse 36 is not the end of the matter. If we see this as a condemnation of The Jews–the whole tribe–we fail to consider the crowd’s response.

37 ¶Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?

38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.

40 And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.

I’m not sure whether verse 36 is Peter’s deeply felt declaration, or a rhetorical flourish you might hear in a sermon designed to bring people to the mourner’s bench. I incline toward the latter, because if Peter really meant that the people listening to him, or Jews collectively, were responsible for Jesus’s death, why offer them such an easy out as “Repent and be baptized?” He says nothing further about Jesus’s death, or anyone’s guilt for it. The crowd has asked the question he wants them to ask, and he’s able to give them a way to save themselves from an untoward generation.

At some point Christians stopped seeing this sermon as an invitation to forgive their enemies, and saw it instead as a statement of enmity for the group they had sprung from.

The imaginative sympathy that invites us to see from the perspective of our enemies and those outside our circle abounds in Jesus’s parables. Early Christians eventually abandoned that ethic of looking with love to our enemies, and one of the ways they did that was to reimagine Jesus and the Pharisees as enemies and then use the term Pharisee as metonymy for the whole tribe of Judah, which then became a metonymy for enemies that must be put under their feet.

Next month I want to present some resources for studying the stories of Jesus and the Pharisees, then return to that study.

Till then, your turn.

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3 Responses to In Tents #28 Ethics and Aesthetics Part 6, Final Thoughts

  1. Wm says:

    We’re quite good at ignoring what prophets say.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    …and substituting what we want them to have said.

  3. Dennis Clark says:

    And what if we refuse this infusion of one-ness, what if we don’t want to be one with the saints, and prefer to be one with our other one? I understand the question “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” in the way you explicate it. But couldn’t it have some of the same effect as “What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?” Is there any possibility of irony on the part of Peter’s audience?

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