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What’s the Use in Receiving?

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.

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