Archive for April, 2013

Why We Need The Worship Wars

April 26, 2013

Unless you believe in orthopathy as essential to Christianity, the worship wars are much ado about nothing. They represent the dying thrashes of hide-bound traditionalists, raging against the waning popularity of those songs most familiar to them. They represent the immature clamour of people who do not understand the Romans 14 principle, and want to elevate their preferences to the level of orthodoxy.

If you believe, as I do,  in the very notion of orthopathy, then the worship wars are a natural, and indeed, essential part of church life. While no Spirit-filled Christian delights in conflict, no Spirit-filled Christian doubts that some conflict is inevitable and necessary. Consider how important doctrinal conflict has been.

We should be very thankful for the heretics and their heresies. Without them, we would not know all the ways that Christian orthodoxy can be denied and twisted. Before the heretics come along, orthodoxy is assumed, without clear definition. Through the heresies of Gnosticism, Ebionism, Apollonarianism, Eutychianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Sabellianism, the church hammered out orthodox Christology and trinitarianism. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds represent responses to heresies, and defining points for orthodoxy. The creeds represent points of definition. After the definition, deviations represent heterodoxy. A certain amount of vagueness or imprecision is expected before the point of definition that becomes intolerable after the point of definition.

For that matter, we can be thankful for the heresies of transsubstantiation, indulgences, baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-redemptrix, and others, for leading to the Reformation with its five solas. In many ways, our propositional statements of faith, as ornate as they now appear, partly represent a kind of timeline of doctrinal combat.

What has been true in the area of orthodoxy, has also been true in orthopathy. The affective domain of the faith, which is not merely what we have said, but how we have felt, how we have responded to those truths, has had its heresies, and its turning points of definition. If we are orthodox in doctrine, we should expect that we will respond to the truth as other orthodox Christians in history have, not an identical reaction, but an equivalent one for our place and time. And in two thousand years of doctrinal development, there has also been two millennia of affective, aesthetic development.

Steve Miller, in his masterful misrepresentation of liturgical history in The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, enjoys surveying the worship wars of previous centuries, in hopes of persuading us that sooner or later, the critics of CCM will get with the times, as did the critics of Watts’ hymns, or the critics of the organ, or the critics of a liturgy in the vernacular. That these debates existed, we do not doubt. That the modern worship wars are simply the contemporary version of these discussions, we do not dispute. That they represent nothing more than initial alarm to what will become standard orthopathy in one generation, we vehemently dispute.

Certainly there have been overreactions and over-corrections. Certainly, novelties are often regarded with suspicion, and once they become normative, the previous objectors seem amusingly alarmist. But what we often miss is that through the debates over orthopathy such as conflict over polyphony, original (that is, non-psalmic) hymns, or the gospel song, the church was doing in the affective domain precisely what it had done in the doctrinal domain. Doctrinal controversies said, “We speak of Christ like this, and not like that.” Affective controversies said, “We respond to Christ like this, and not like that.” And before the nearly wholesale abandonment of traditional worship forms in favour of entertainment at the end of the 19th century, Christian worship represented an inheritance of hundreds of years of corrections and refinements.

We should not be surprised that there exists in our era contention over proper sensibilities toward God. The truly alarming thing would be if there were none. What is somewhat different in our era is the post-modern mood that despises debate and clear definition. This pseudo-tolerance has long ago compromised the doctrinal integrity of professing Evangelicals. The same worldly mood that abhors necessary conflict and clear definition in doctrinal matters, is even more incensed at the thought of anything similar in the more subjective realm of orthopathy. In some ways, the most problematic people are not the combatants in the worship wars, but those who insist there should be none.

Mind Your Manners – 4 – Irreverent and Culpable

April 12, 2013

 Thus far in this series, we have seen several truths about manners and their relation to worship and worship forms:

  1. All cultures have manners. All cultures recognise the importance of appropriate responses.

  2. The expression of these appropriate responses differs greatly between cultures.

  3. These differences do not relativise the affections of reverence or honour. They demonstrate that meaning comes about in different ways for different cultures.

  4. The meaning on the gesture that represents the affection may have come about through use, through association, or through some stipulation by an authority. Furthermore, the culture may have the response wrong through its own idolatries.

  5. Inhabitants of a culture are responsible to understand the meaning of the gestures, forms, metaphors, and expressions in their culture. They are responsible to do so, because they have the obligation to communicate with God and man, and must do so with the tools they have.

This brings us to our last question. If what we have said is true, there are plenty of people committing acts of profanity and irreverence in the name of God. If an act or gesture does not become reverent simply because I sincerely wish it were so, or claim it is, then plenty of people are performing acts of irreverence and disrespect towards God. However, they would deny this, so how do we account for this?

First, some are ignorant of meaning, but still culpable. With today’s public education system, it is quite possible to insult a teenager without his knowing it. The teen’s small vocabulary or ignorance of metaphors does not change the fact that he has been insulted. Furthermore, if he decides to repeat the insult to a superior, his ignorance does not make him polite. Ignorance of meaning still makes one culpable. Quite a few people were apparently ignorant of the meaning of carrying the Ark on an ox-cart as opposed to the prescribed method, but their ignorance did not absolve them. Some may be enlisting in worship those musical forms that embody irreverence and disorder, without understanding that those forms do so. They are not innocent, for if one can tell others what your CCM does not mean, surely you have to be in a position to say what it does mean.

Second, some are desensitized to meanings, but still culpable. People growing up with R-rated rap are unlikely to detect how sensual Strauss’ waltzes are. The meaning of those waltzes has not changed; but the sensitivity to perceive it has diminished with the flood of the erotic. If you are surrounded by the chaos of rock, eventually the chaos seems normal, and you detect no incongruity in using it for worship. Again, this does not reduce culpability, any more than man’s depravity makes him less culpable to believe the gospel. Perverseness does not make us more innocent, but more guilty.

Third, some are dismissive of meaning, and especially culpable. Some are not interested in even considering the meaning of their cherished idols, lest they have to surrender them. They mock attempts to parse meanings, and hide behind the words preference, style, subjective, and non-issue. Again, they pretend the meaning of their chosen expression is open and relative, except when their music is criticized, at which point they become quite dogmatic that their music does not mean that.

In summary, many are rude to God, with more or less culpability for their irreverence. They deny that they are irreverent, but they will have to give account for their posture towards God. The one who did not know his Master’s will will be beaten with less stripes. The one who did – the one who knew that his Master had called him to test all things and hold fast to what is good – but instead suppressed the truth, was willingly ignorant, and a sluggard regarding discernment, he shall be beaten with many.

The Power and Place of Ridicule

April 9, 2013

A post like this may seem to some like those who call evil good and good evil. Can there be anything edifying in ridicule? Is ridicule ever an exercise in saying what is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous and praiseworthy?

Our aversion to ridicule may not be because we side so strongly with principles of biblical communication. It may be that we have not sufficiently loved what God loves, so as to hate what God hates. Perhaps our dismissal of ridicule as a lawful form of expression for a Christian represents a concession to our culture’s apathy and indifference to right and wrong, and deference to a kind of social equanimity, so visibly manifested in what is called “Minnesota Nice” in that cheerful and chilly State. Courtesy, aversion to argumentativeness or conflict, quiet and modest disagreement, and a generous opinion of all others is seen as ‘niceness’, and of course, Christians are supposed to lead the pack in niceness.

No doubt we could quickly proof-text the importance of being peace-makers, of the courtesy and benevolence contained in love, and of being winsome witnesses to Christ. Who would deny these? No Christian I know of. However, what is often denied is the plain fact that Scripture contains plenty of ridicule, some of it from the lips of the godliest men in Scripture, whose examples we are to imitate.

Elijah is doing nothing less than ridiculing the prophets of Baal when he asks if their God is on a journey or otherwise indisposed. God, through the mouth of Isaiah, mocks the man who uses one end of a piece of wood to bake his bread, and the other end to become his god. Jeremiah does the same, adding that Israel reminds one of camels and donkeys in heat. God ridicules Job’s impertinence in demanding answers from the Almighty by asking him what would be elementary on a Grade One Creator exam. Solomon mocks the sluggard as a squeaky door on its hinges, the lustful youth as a dumb animal to the slaughter, the complaining wife as an incessant dripping on a rainy day, and the fool as a vomit-lapping dog. It’s hard not to see Paul’s descriptions of the Cretans as ridicule, and what else shall we call our Lord’s descriptions of the Pharisees, when He called them blind leaders of the blind, or pictured them praying with themselves thanking God that they were not as other men?

It is the quick-and-easy response of the Niceness Police to point out that these expressions came either from God Himself or from apostles and prophets, and we have no business trying to mimic them. To which I respond, how do you know? On what basis do you place the scorn and ridicule of the Bible as off-limits to God’s people today? Did Scripture teach you that? Do Scriptures such as Ephesians 5:4 or Philippians 4:8 actually indict the verbal behaviour of the prophets and the Lord Himself? It would seem we need to find a place for Scripture’s use of ridicule and scorn, not bowlderise it. We need to harmonise ridicule with principles of godly communication, not embalm it as a historical curiosity.

What does ridicule do? By making sport of the object, we laugh. When we laugh, we know that the object is not to be taken seriously. We are not to lend credibility to Baal worship, or Pharisaism. Such beliefs and behaviours are contemptuous and should be scorned. By encouraging and provoking contempt for what God hates, we may create a simultaneous piety toward what God loves.

Why should we choose ridicule over a less edgy form of expression? In the nature of things, not every opinion needs to be treated seriously, because not every opinion has been seriously considered or seriously articulated. Not every act deserves serious consideration, for not every act has been seriously contemplated for its meaning, or seriously performed. If the speakers and doers were not serious to begin with, do they merit being taken seriously? Should we unjustly lend them treatment they do not deserve? Should I listen to a nonsense rhyme with the scrutiny I give to Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion? If someone is acting like a duffer and a goofball, the perfectly appropriate response is to point out that he is acting like a goofball and a duffer.

Great danger looms here, however. Scripture warns us against the reckless scoffer and the careless mocker. Ridicule is a tool like fire. The trained fireman actually knows a constructive use for fire. He knows the importance of destroying for the sake of conservation: creating fire-breaks to prevent further damage, razing a condemned structure to prevent further injury or death, allowing fires to burn themselves out, lest they persist and spread. The eight-year-old boy is simply thrilled to see something burn. Scorn and contempt in the hands of a youth or a novice usually does little but harm.

Before we take up the flame-thrower of ridicule, we must be deeply committed to conserving the faith. We would not want to destroy anything true, good and beautiful while torching something else. We should demonstrate our deep love for what God loves, and display how much we cherish, the true, the pure, the just, the noble, the lovely, and the virtuous. Let those careful communicators who know what is to be kept, and what is to be incinerated, use the flame of ridicule to create love for what God loves.

Mind Your Manners – 3 – Manners and Meaning

April 5, 2013

What do widely varying manners tell us about ordinate affection? Some reason this way: since some cultures regard eye-contact as respectful, and others regard eye-contact as impudent, these opposite understandings of reverence show the relative and subjective nature of manners. These outward expressions are adiaphora – indifferent, neutral things. The morality lies in the person giving or withholding eye-contact: the person is either seeking to be respectful or not, and this is what gives morality to the action.

No argument that one’s intention to be respectful is a major part of the meaning of the manner in question. But is that all that is needed? If a young Zulu man decides that eye-contact ought to be regarded as respectfulness by his elders, should his sincerity count as reverence in a Zulu culture? However much sincerity the man may have, he still has to grapple with the meaning of eye-contact in his culture at the time.

The fact that one culture regards eye-contact with a superior as rude, and another regards a lack of eye-contact as dishonest evasiveness does not make these gestures amoral or meaningless. It simply means that the meaning of these gestures in different cultures comes about in different ways. Some of it will be stipulative: at some point a particular gesture is simply designated to have a meaning, which the members of the culture will observe. Sometimes meaning comes about through associations and through use: the obscene hand and finger signals are quite different between cultures, but they have come to have a conventional meaning in each culture. In the case of some gestures, something is intrinsic to the meaning of the motion. For example, there is no culture in which bowing or kneeling before someone is a sign of dominance, aggression or suggested superiority.

These various influences shape the meaning of manners, so that their applications can look very different, and even opposite, between cultures. What we cannot miss is what all the cultures hold in common: expressions of reverence, courtesy, and appropriate love. All cultures have manners: and the manners of some cultures have been more influenced by Christian thinking than others. Every culture has its code of gestures, tones, and responses that incarnate its idea of appropriate responses.

This all puts the lie to the idea that in the current melting pot of cultures, any and all responses to God count as reverent, so long as the worshiper feels it is so. Though we are confronted with differing cultures and their manners like never before, these each have meaning. The challenge (and it is a large one) is to understand the meaning of certain tones, gestures, terms of address, surroundings, technologies, musical forms in the culture you worship in. What is their meaning? The meaning may well be in dispute, which should come as no surprise in a world which uses meaninglessness as a cover for its sin. This does not absolve us from the responsibility to find out. If something has obtained a meaning through association or use, what is that meaning? If the meaning is shifting, how is it changing and in what direction? Is it consonant with reverence and respect? If the meaning has come about through its created form, what is that meaning? Among those who believe in meaning, what is the consensus regarding its meaning?

Certainly, the post-mods will want to assign meaning arbitrarily: it means what I want it to mean. But if the Zulu father will not accept the young man’s revision of eye-contact merely because of his sincerity, is it altogether implausible that God may not regard certain actions as reverent, however much we may wish it to be so? Certainly God is omniscient, and not confined to the meaning found in one culture only. He understands and knows the meaning of all things, whether that meaning has come about by use, association or naturally. He knows how meanings change in a given culture. He knows if that meaning is understood by all, most, some, or hardly any in a culture. He understands how sincere a person’s heart is, and He understands how diligent a person has been to understand the meaning of his offered worship. Which brings us to our last question: if a person does not understand the meaning of what he is doing, is he culpable for that action? If he sincerely means something one way, but it means another, which meaning prevails, in God’s eyes? Or to summarise: is it possible to be unintentionally irreverent towards God?

Protected: Proposed

April 3, 2013

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below: