Of late, I’ve been circling around an essay in the New Yorker by Zadie Smith about taste. Once aesthetics is introduced into the study of religion, it begins to make sense of these little things like taste and serendipity that often go unnoticed by philosophers after Nietzsche. Whatever else it might be, religion is a surface phenomenon subject to surface variations. My colleague Ed Mooney at Syracuse University is a Kierkegaard scholar immersed in the very American aesthetics of Thoreau and Stanley Cavell. He blogs at http://edmooneyblog.wordpress.com/. Ed was kind enough to share these comments:
[Smith] takes a cross-section where the ‘content’ remains unchanged: the Joni Mitchell songs that blow her away now are the same recordings and songs that she hated (say) 20 years ago. When I’m a teenager I may see someone rocking back and forth as they pray, or shouting in a black gospel church, and hate it. Yet the same stuff can blossom decades later as a sublime “wow’ — not because there’s any new data, or new experience, or new interpretation that has come my way. Out of the blue it appears differently, my taste has “changed behind my back’ as it were. That’s what Zadie is taken by.
The other way we lose ritual, poetry, and gesture is that it just drops out. I didn’t read the NYT’s piece you cite, but (for instance) people may drop out the gold/frankincense/myrrh as needless detail, or decide the angels can be boys as well as girls, or that they should just be dropped and Santa’s elves fill in, or that the escape from Egypt is the rebellion against wage-labor-yet-to-come. So there is longitudinal variation, evolution, and rehabilitation, that reflects taste-change that is quite different from the mysterious, miraculous ‘taste-shift’ that Zadie Smith reports and that Kierkegaard takes so long to unpack from dozens of angles in Fear and Trembling.
It’s a great breakthrough, as I see it, to be able to see change in religious breakthrough, depiction and practice an analogous to religious insight, recording, and practice.