Archive for March, 2010

The Character of Worship – 1

March 30, 2010

 Among conservatives, there is often a discussion about the difference between the elements of worship and the circumstances of worship. God prescribes the elements of worship: reading Scripture, preaching, praying, singing and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. However, how these elements are to implemented is a matter of circumstances: how long the readings should be, who ought to pray, and for how long, what the sermons ought to be like, what should be sung, and how, and if instruments should be used, and what kind, and if one cup or several cuplets should be used. These and many others are the circumstances of worship. God seems to expect us to judge how to implement those elements. In other words, we are to judge for ourselves regarding the circumstances of worship.

A parallel issue is that God prescribes a certain character for worship, but expects us to judge what that character looks like in corporate worship.

For example, we’re told that our worship should be decent and orderly (1 Corinthians 14:40). What does that mean? Decent and orderly means very different things to different people.

We’re told our worship must be performed in reverence and awe of God (Hebrews 12:28). What does that mean? Reverence and awe means very different things to different people.

We’re told our worship should be joyful (Ps 100:2). What does that mean? Joy means very different things to different people.

We’re told our worship should be solemn and careful (Eccl 5:1-2). What does that mean? Solemnity and carefulness mean very different things to different people.

Here is one of our biggest problems in the worship wars. We all agree with the propositions that call for reverence, orderliness, joy or seriousness (just as many agree with the prescribed elements for New Testament worship). We agree that God has prescribed this character for our worship. However, we vigorously disagree when it comes to deciding what are appropriate manifestations of these prescribed characteristics of worship. Just as the debate begins when one discusses what are the correct circumstances of worship, so the debate begins when we begin discussing what is the correct form that the character of worship should take.

Many evangelicals will simply point to the silent nature of God’s Word when it comes to describing what God means by these characteristics and assume that He has no preference on the matter. This idea is simply post-modern: there is no such thing as a correct answer to the question of the application of these commands for a certain character in worship. There is no such thing as appropriate emotion, just appropriate for you and appropriate for me. Or maybe a bit wider: appropriate for my culture, appropriate for your culture. Appropriate for my era, appropriate for your era. Christian practitioners of this kind of thinking probably don’t know how much they sound like the Enlightenment philosophers who rejected most of Christianity. No, there is more to this than the facile explanation that “different people express their joy differently.”

The problem we have is that Scripture seems to assume that we will understand what it means by decently, reverence, gravity, or joy. We can infer that God would not prescribe the character of our worship, if He did not care how we flesh out that character. We can infer that if He did not describe what that character looks like, it must be for one (or possibly both) of two reasons:

  1. It is impossible to fully describe correct incarnations of appropriate emotions.

  2. He expects us to come to those commands with a ready-made knowledge of what He means.

The first reason is demonstrable. One can hardly write a rule-book on feeling, without destroying those feelings in the process. One could never cover all the gradations and variations and possible manifestations of ordinate affection for hundreds of cultures that would receive the gospel without writing a soulless tome that brought the heart under another Sinaitic code.

However, such a reason gets us no closer to solving the problem. This brings us to the second reason why He is silent: He expects us to know what He means without His spelling it out in Scripture. So, how are we supposed to know? The answer will seem circular to many, but self-evident to others: correct judgements regarding the character of worship are made by those who are governed by appropriate emotions.

Since the affections make the judgements, those with ordinate affections make ordinate judgements. The serious man knows seriousness; the flippant fool calls it morbidity. The zealous man knows zeal; the sluggard calls it fanaticism. The modest man knows modesty; the sensualist calls it priggishness. The reverent man knows reverence; the irreverent man calls it aloofness. The joyful man knows joy; the melancholic calls it foolishness.

The more you become the kind of person who feels ordinately towards God, the more you are able to judge what He means by these characteristics. In the next post, I’ll show some Scriptural proof for this assertion, as well as quoting some cultural critics who’ve said the same thing.

Why We Christians Should Mimic Popular Trends

March 24, 2010

* Because popular trends are such permanent things.

* Because that way, we will never be irrelevant (not even in 50 years).

* Because popular trends are so truthful in their communication.

For example, see below.

Worship: Effective or Affective

March 15, 2010

In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse…[He was] right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject matter and the mere cultivation of effect…Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own.

Roger Scruton, Beauty

Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation. These actually help us to pursue realities, precisely because there is a distance between us and the things we contemplate.  Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfillment of desires. Real art takes us out of reality, teaches us, and returns us changed: our emotions are more focused on the worth of objects in reality. False art takes us out of reality, mimics it, and gives us substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification. It also returns us to reality different: our emotions dissipated through a substitute reality, and a little more dependent on or expectant of such manipulative techniques to feel anything.

Since worship uses art, it can use it in precisely one of the two ways Scruton speaks of. It can work with poetry, music and the spoken word to work with the imagination. There the worshipper can contemplate the invisible God for who He is. Once corporate worship is over, the worshipper is “returned to reality” with his emotions more focused on the kind of God he claims to know and love.

Worship can also work with poetry, music and the spoken word to simply achieve effect. It can aim to create a surrogate worship experience in which the worshipper experiences  immediately, and one might say viscerally, the proposed experience of God. God is not contemplated with the understanding; the passions are targeted directly, and the resultant experience is associated with God. The worshipper leaves corporate worship and returns to reality with the creation of an addiction: he will need more of the same next week to feel anything for God.

There are almost limitless ways of creating an effect: the effect of dreamy intimacy with God achieved by a breathy worship leader narrating a quasi-romantic prayer to Jesus over softly playing chords, the effect of sympathy for the cause of Jesus by impassioned pleas for people to come forward while a sentimental hymn is played in the background, the effect of jubilation achieved by a sweaty worship leader literally jumping to the pulsating physicality of music played at volumes only possible with electronic amplification, and so on. If an effect is needed, a technique can be engineered. However, there is a simple term for this kind of approach, one that many contemporary worship theologians would bristle at: manipulation.

Ask yourself: does most modern Christian worship chase after effect, or after the genuine contemplation of the object of worship, leading to ordinate affections? When Scruton speaks of the distance that true art creates between us and what it portrays, it reminds one of the way Yahweh has set up worship in contrast to the orgiastic worship of the pagans. In the Old Testament and the New,  God simultaneously respects the rational humanity of man and calls for a true worship of Himself grounded in the understanding. He does this by portraying Himself in serious, non-manipulative works of imaginative art: the narratives, psalms, metaphors, prophecies and commands of Scripture.

When believers have followed God’s pattern, they have written songs, poems and prayers that reach the understanding through the imagination, which slowly (painfully slowly, sometimes) move and shape the affections. For the one for whom worship has become an itch that needs to be scratched weekly, God’s approach is intolerably slow and dull. He wants a clamorous appeal to his appetites, whose response is automatic, pronounced and ephemeral. By contrast, the result of a slow and patient appeal to the imaginative understanding of regenerate man is a deeply grounded love for God that is ordinate, not a fleeting response that evaporates once the marionette strings stop tugging.

What Education Is For

March 8, 2010

All homeschooling parents, educators, teachers, Bible college professors and lecturers, classical education advocates, Christian school teachers and administrators:  this article may be one of the best you’ll read. Print it out, if you can. Read it again. When the “huh?” begins to be replaced with a sense of what education is supposed to do, you’re in a better place.

Jesus So Totally Rocks

March 2, 2010

“Like, Jesus so totally rocks!” says Dude.

Dude is expressing his love for Jesus. He is expressing it in terms familiar to him, terms he uses for many other things that he loves.

We can agree on this much: Dude loves Jesus, and Dude is expressing it in his vernacular. What we do not agree on is if Dude’s exclamation is just a skateboarder’s version of love for God, or if it represents a sentiment entirely foreign to the Scriptures.

In other words, is Dude’s exclamation just another culture’s expression of love for Jesus, or has Dude completely misconstrued what it means to love Jesus? Is Dude’s statement merely a contemporary translation of the idea of a Christian loving Christ, or is it a transformation of Christian worship into something entirely different?

Of course, most today would rush to defend Dude’s statements as sincere love for Jesus expressed in a rather coarse way. They would say that the fact that he is aiming positive sentiments towards Jesus means he loves Christ, and probably just needs to be guided into a more proper expression of that love.

C.S. Lewis would beg to differ.

“If we say that A likes (or has a taste for) the women’s magazines and B likes (or has a taste for) Dante, this sounds as if likes and taste have the same meaning when applied to both; as if there were a single activity, though the objects to which it is directed are different. But observation convinces me that his, at least usually, is untrue…

Hence to say simply that they like one thing and we another is to leave out nearly the whole of the facts. If like is the correct word for what they do to books, some other word must be found for what we do. Or, conversely, if we like our kind of book we must not say that they like any book.” (An Experiment in Criticism, pp 1, 4.)

Lewis goes on to argue that the kind of love  people have for objects (in this case, books and music) is entirely different depending on what the object is, and what people aim to do with it. One wants to use the object, the other wants to receive the object. The one who wants to use objects typically picks the kind of objects which can readily be used: simple, undemanding, obvious, swift-moving (read: entertaining). The one who wants to receive objects chooses those which present some form of difficulty and are not immediately apparent to a casual inspection, and which have the ability to transform the one who uses them. The kind of object determines the kind of love.

So in what way does Dude love Jesus? Since “so totally rocks” is a sentiment used of several other things, we can understand what he means. If I were to translate Dude’s statement into somewhat more recognisable English, it might read a little more like this: “Knowing Jesus is fun. The experience of Jesus is greatly entertaining, even thrilling. I recommend Jesus to others, because He is as exciting as bannister skateboarding, Playstation 3 or a rock concert.”

Dude’s experience of Jesus is clearly of the kind that Lewis saw as using what it likes. Dude sees worship as something to be consumed. But here is the crunch: if Dude’s experience of loving Jesus is synonymous with adventure sports, console games and head-banging, what is his view of Jesus? Again, Lewis put it this way:

“The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, course or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful.” (Surprised By Joy, p220.)

If the object of Dude’s approval, which he calls Jesus, evokes the same affections as other forms of entertainment, it stands to reason that the object of Dude’s approval is another form of entertainment. Or to put it another way, he has imbibed a view of Jesus as an entertaining person. If the object of his approval were in an entirely different class of object (the transformative kind), he might, even in Dude-language, express his approval differently. In fact, he might find that Dude-language itself has become inadequate to express the affections he experiences when admiring an object far loftier, and more demanding, than what his culture had exposed him to up to that point. He might even conclude that much Dude-language has now become inappropriate to express what the Bible means by love for Christ.

This is what the gospel has done to every culture it has penetrated: opened blind eyes, transformed the inner man, and transformed the cultural forms (including language, art and music) that were hostile to the gospel. It has done this when its true message, made up of the true Christ and His true atonement, has been correctly translated to that culture, so that it could understand and believe on the true and living God.

Which leads one to the question: Has Dude truly heard the gospel?