The last few Sunday mornings I have begun the day by reading from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The language is thrilling, the images ethereal, the themes exalted. Then I proceed to church, a congregation that sings “praise songs” accompanied by a keyboard and guitars. Without fail, someone requests the children’s favorite, “Our God Is an Awesome God,” which contains the eminently forgettable line, “When He rolls up his sleeves He ain’t just puttin’ on the Ritz.”

For me, the jarring descent from Paradise Lost to “Awesome God” has come to symbolize a major dilemma of aesthetics. How does one appreciate high quality without becoming a snob? About some things, I have no snobbery: I wear hand-me-down clothes, stay in budget motels, and drive a boxy, practical car. But I can instantly sniff the difference between coffee brewed by Mr. Coffee and that brewed by Braun. And when it comes to music, I’ll always vote for Bach and Mozart over songs built around three major chords and a dull phrase repeated over and over.

How do we encourage Bach while not quenching the spirit of “Kum Ba Yah”? How to appreciate Milton without scorning gospel tracts? How do we recognize high quality of any type—physical beauty, intelligence, athletic ability—without devaluing those who lack such gifts?

Our world rewards the gifted at the expense of the ungifted. Stand outside a kindergarten playground and watch how children treat playmates who seem clumsy, ugly, or dense. Adults continue the pattern, paying professional athletes $5 million a year and teachers $30,000. We choose young girls of promising beauty, then starve, pad, and carve them with a plastic surgeon’s knife to transform them into Supermodels, who will then leave less-endowed women (99.9 percent ...

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