Archive for the ‘Culture & Arts’ Category

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.


Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

December 21, 2012

by C. S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

October 26, 2012

The common grace of God is His acts of love to all men, whether those men be good or evil (Mat 5:43-45). This common grace includes giving mankind men who see more clearly than most what is true, good, and beautiful, even if they are not His children. Indeed, sometimes the children of this generation are more shrewd than the children of light (Lk 16:8).

One such man, who lived 24 years beyond our allotted fourscore, was Jacques Barzun, who died yesterday. Barzun’s magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, was written when he was 92. For an encyclopaedic account of the collapse of Western culture, this may want to be your first choice. His account of the dissolution of Western society (especially when read alongside Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea), will give any Christian leader a strong sense of the history and consequences of ideas.

It was several years ago that I picked up The Culture We Deserve, and found myself underlining paragraphs, and asterisking whole sections. Barzun is like an updated Matthew Arnold: seeing the importance and virtue of high culture for preserving a consensus of the good and the beautiful. Barzun was not afraid to call it as he saw it: the West has been disintegrating, not progressing, in its cultural life. The Use and Abuse of Art, I’ve been told, is another gem.

His book on writing, Simple and Direct, made me feel as if I had done nothing but write in clichés my whole life. I still think this book is superior to Zinsser’s On Writing Well and, in some respects, Weaver’s Rhetoric and Composition.

Barzun, though he made no profession of faith in Christ, taught me more about thinking clearly, writing well, and loving the good, than many of those I found within the household of God. And I, for one, am thankful to God for His common grace in giving our generation such men.

From Palestrina to Pino

October 19, 2012

I think you should watch these. Set aside a few hours, and enjoy.


If you hunt, you might find most or parts of the eight episodes online. Or you might simply splurge and give the BBC some more filthy lucre, for the two series on DVD. You won’t be disappointed.

If for no other reason, watch them to hear The Sixteen sing some of the most beautiful vocal music written for the human voice, and to hear Harry Christopher’s explanations of what the composers were doing in those works.

On the other hand, if you’re in the mood to be jarred or upset, ask this question: from Gregorian, to Palestrina, to Byrd, to Bach, to Brahms, to Pärt and Rutter, how did we get to this?

From each of the composers profiled in the Sacred Music programs to one another, you can draw a nearly straight line. As you progress in time, they build on each other, and develop from one another. Our last example, however, is not just the latest in a natural progression, it is a break altogether. It does not represent an ‘updated style’; it represents an altogether foreign view of what is good, what is beautiful, what God deserves, and how His people respond to Him. Allegri, Tallis, Luther, Bruckner, and Gorecki are different to one another but equivalent in their sentiment. Our sock-waving friends have no correlation to historic Christian sentiment.

So how did we come to this? It is not as if the rolling on of the years brought this naturally, like your child’s height chart. Nor does one go from Allegri’s Miserere to “You Spin Me Right ‘Round Jesus” passively, like sun-bleached paint on the outside of the church. Humans made deliberate choices, and the results of the choices we made are right in front of us on YouTube.

If we are to change matters, we would do well to ask: What was rejected, and why? What was preferred and loved and promoted? What is still being rejected and preferred? Forget about the sock-waving worship-leader; ask, why is there a supposedly Christian audience for this stuff? What did the parents and pastors of those children do (or not do) so that the people in that clip had a strong liking for that music, and considered it worship?

Here’s the trick. Instead of beginning your answers with “They…” or “Some people…”, begin the answers with “We…”

The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works.

The Exception, Not the Rule

October 16, 2012

I know a young lady who helps illustrate something about modern Christianity. I won’t divulge her identity except to say she exercised exquisite taste in choosing a spouse.


When she was around fourteen, she began babysitting other people’s, er, little darlings, to earn extra money. She also took the ability she had on the piano and began teaching lessons. She wanted to play the violin, and she worked to save enough to buy a violin and take lessons. When she finished high school, she did not go to the obligatory Bible college, but instead taught piano for several hours a day. She did this to earn enough money, not to buy Francine Rivers books, or to stock up on Chris Tomlin or Casting Crowns CDs, but to afford violin lessons with the concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, who was herself a pupil of Itzhak Perlman.

Taking lessons with a serious musician is no jolly jaunt. To little praise from her unyielding teacher, this young lady spent around four or five hours a day with her neck crooked over her violin. Chiropractors here in Johannesburg are still blessing her violin teacher, and wondering how to break further into the potentially lucrative market of dedicated violinists.

A few weeks ago, I sat next to this young lady as Joshua Bell performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D not fifteen metres away from us. A thing of beauty exquisitely expressed like that left me speechless; I wondered what it was for one who knows something of the skill required to make a violin sing as he did.

She will never be a Joshua Bell – she has taken up higher callings – but she will always be a competent musician. She is so not because she was hit by a lightning bolt of musical skill, or because she possessed the ‘musical gene’. She is proficient on more than one instrument because she poured herself into gaining competence, with her parents’ help and encouragement. All of which leads me to these questions about modern Christianity:

Considering that

– Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-19 make musical worship a requirement for every believer,
– for us to worship meaningfully, we must be competent enough to judge between beautiful and ugly,
– we are responsible to teach our children to worship,

why is this young lady’s story the exception, and not the rule? Tell me about modern Christianity’s loves and desires, if most of our children will pour themselves into sports, computer games, and reading Rivers and Peretti, and will remain musically illiterate? What does the modern church love, if we do not love the commanded means for worship?

Contextualising in Blaséburg

October 12, 2012

Picture being called to live out your Christian life in Blaséburg. Blaséburg is a materialist’s paradise. Food is abundant and cheap, clothing and housing affordable, and labour-saving devices and gadgets fill up the empty spaces in most houses, large as they are. Blaséburg is cushioned from the brevity and harshness of life of many other places in the world by several social, economic and military realities, most of which the average citizen of Blaséburg will never know about. After all, his thoughts are occupied with matters such as who will drive the children to the next recreational event, which DVD to rent or buy for Friday night, and how to pay the various service providers that will maintain his creature comforts.

The most conspicuous difference between Blaséburg and other places is that, for several historical reasons, the citizens use only two adjectives, one positive and one negative. “Nice” is used to express all manner of admiration, pleasure, excellence, as well as every possible positive emotion or experience. Whether the idea be one of awe, or one of fun, nice is the catch-all word. “Nasty” is the only word used to describe all that is negative, and comprehends such different ideas as terrifying and irritating, tasteless and threatening, horrifying and inferior.

Given the average experience of the people of Blaséburg, and given their vocabulary, here are some questions to consider:

  1. How will you explain the Gospel to them, using their vocabulary, and their experience?
  2. How will you explain Christian discipleship to them, using their vocabulary, and their experience?
  3. How will you teach them to worship, using their vocabulary, and their experience?

Or to use the fashionable jargon, how will you contextualise Christianity for these people?

Does Christ Redeem Cultural Expressions?

June 22, 2012

We have studied some statements by Shai Linne and boiled them down to four propositions.
1) Rap is a medium.
2) Media are morally neutral until informed by content.
3) Christ’s act of redemption means that even media formerly used for evil can now be used for God’s glory.
4) This is what Shai Linne is doing with rap.

We have considered the first two, and now we turn our attention to the last two. Linne’s statements about redemption are fairly common views in this debate. In essence, such views see Christ as redeeming sinners and their ways, meaning that those now-redeemed sinners can turn those redeemed ways toward Christ and His glory.

What does Scripture say about our redemption? First Peter 1:18-19 is probably one of our clearest answers:

1 Peter 1:18-19 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.

Notice who or what is redeemed. Believers are redeemed. What are they redeemed from? They are bought out of their former futile ways or behavior. If culture is in fact an expression of a belief system, then culture would be the conduct that emerges from that collective view of ultimate reality. Peter says that Christ redeems us from this very thing: from the culture that emerged from the futile and aimless views, propagated from one generation to another. Christians are in the process of progressively being changed from this old way of thinking and acting into a new way.

Here’s the key question: Does Christ redeem the futile ways themselves? Does He redeem the ways in which we expressed our ungodliness, so that they may now be enlisted in His service? Or to carry the logic through, does He redeem the cultural artifacts that were used to express ungodliness? Here we do not mean, does Christ redeem the computer that was used for pornography, or does Christ redeem the sound system that was used for raucous parties. It is nonsense to speak of a redeemed computer or a redeemed boom-box. What we mean is, are there cultural expressions, such as music genres, certain leisure activities or forms of recreation, that Christ redeems and transforms?

First, we note that this would be an argument from silence, because the Scripture only speaks of believers being redeemed. Second, if Christ redeems us from futile ways, what will the implications be for those cultural artifacts that propagated those ways? A man who was a nudist and owned a nudist colony can be redeemed, and he is therefore redeemed from the futile way of nudity. What will that do to the cultural artifact of the nudist colony that propagated this sinful behavior? Well, put simply, it does not redeem it. The nudist colony ceases to exist, and the land it was on is now used for something God-glorifying. But it does not become a Christian nudist colony, for no such thing can exist. The cultural artifact of a nudist colony could not be redeemed or transformed. It could only be abandoned. It was itself a sinful expression of sinful hearts, and sinful behavior is not what Christ redeems. He redeems people from sinful behavior.
[To pre-empt my friendly objectors: Yes, I have chosen nudity as an example because we’d all agree that people need to be redeemed from nudism, and nudism has a vehicle that promotes it – the nudist colony. If you feel that this is an unfair comparison to rap, will you not concede that people need to be redeemed from what 99% of rap propagates? Won’t you agree that rap is usually used as a vehicle for these ungodly values? Is there no way that the shoe fits – that the form was developed because it suits the content?]

If rap emerged from a worldview that did not have Christ at its center, and was used to express values and beliefs that were hostile to Christ, then the form itself is linked to its original worldview and purpose. Christ did not come to redeem arrogance, pride, murder, fornication, greed, rape, rebellion, illegal drug-use, gangsterism, hatred, and so forth. He came to redeem people from those things. To then say that Christ redeems the form that emerged from futile ways is to misunderstand what form is, and to misunderstand what redemption does and for whom.

Form is not a placeholder; it is an expression. If expressions are sinful, Christ does not redeem them. Redemption is not a hard-scrubbing of sinful barnacles off a neutral object. Redemption is Christ’s buying humans out of sinful ways so that they may glorify God.

Despite accusations to the contrary, I hope my readers understand that I bear no hostility to rappers like Linne. Like Paul, I am thankful whenever the gospel is preached, even if the method or motive when doing so is not commendable (Phil 1:18). However, it’s some of the responses to these articles and other recent similar ones that are very telling, and curiously disproportionate, if this matter is indeed the non-issue and matter of preference that such responses usually say it is.

Regardless of how bystanders interpret my motives, my understanding of the Christian imagination and the affections leads me to see that matters like this are not peripheral, stylistic matters of personal preference. They go to the heart of how we imagine God, which is foundational and fundamental. We don’t want to be idolaters. That’s my agenda.

Why Church Feels The Way It Does

November 25, 2011

All cultures and subcultures move through stages, and evangelicalism is, among other things, a distinct subculture of Christianity. In cultural terms, a classical period is a time when all the parts of a community’s life seem to hang together, mutually reinforce each other, and make intuitive sense. By contrast, a decadent period is marked by dissolution of all the most important unities, a sense that whatever initial force gave impetus and meaningful form to the culture has pretty much spent its power. Decadence is a falling off, a falling apart from a previous unity.

Inhabitants of a decadent culture feel themselves to be living among the scraps and fragments of something that must have made sense to a previous generation but which now seem more like a pile of unrelated items. Decadent cultures feel unable to articulate the reasons for connecting things to each other. They spend a lot of time staring at isolated fragments, unable to combine them into meaningful wholes. They start all their important speeches by quoting Yeats’s overused line, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Decadents either fetishize their tribal and party distinctions or mix absolutely everything together in one sloppy combination. Not everybody in a decadent culture even feels a need to work toward articulating unities, but those who do make the attempt face a baffling challenge. At best, the experience is somewhat like working a jigsaw puzzle without the guidance of the finished image from the box top; at worst, it is like undertaking that task while fighting back the slow horror of realization that what you have in front of you are pieces that come from several different puzzles, none of them complete or related. Evangelicalism in our lifetime seems to be in a decadent period. In some sectors of the evangelical subculture, there is not even a living cultural memory of a classical period or golden age; what we experience is decadence all the way back.

Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 109.

The Church: A New Culture?

July 29, 2010

Not too long ago, I sat listening to a fairly well-known conservative evangelical pastor speak to the matter of race within the church. His text was Ephesians 2:11-18, and the sermon was, in the main, excellent. His points regarding Christ humbling and disarming rival ethnic groups through the gospel were edifying and God-glorifying. He was right to state that current views on race have much more of a secular (Darwinian?) feel to them than a biblical one. He helped believers see that the gospel contains all the racial reconciliation man needs.

Where I began to register a sense of discomfort was when he began to suggest that the new man of Ephesians 2 is actually a brand new culture. The logic was: There was a Jewish culture, there was a Gentile culture, but since Christ has torn down the wall of partition and made both groups into one new man in the church, we as Christian churches have a new culture.

Now certainly there is such a thing as Christian culture. (Some might put that last sentence in the past tense.) Certainly Christian culture is a new kind of culture, relative to pagan kinds. It is true that the church is in many respects a new entity, distinct from Israel, and from ancient pagan culture. And it is true that within churches, a worldview and a set of loves and values increasingly take shape. Churches are largely responsible for receiving and communicating the culture that is Christian. But this is not the same thing as saying every local church is an instance of a new culture.

This notion would appear to be a rather glib and naïve view of culture. On the surface, it seemed as if the speaker believed that every local church can develop its own culture from scratch, independent of, and without reference to, the past. It seemed as if he believed that culture is rather like a kind of editorial process: something that can be put together rather eclectically, so long as the guiding norm is the Bible. And in fact, as I observe from a distance, it seems his ministry philosophy bears that suspicion out. Hymns, gospel rap, expository preaching, gospel hip-hop concerts, and sound doctrine are all blended together, in the name of new culture. It is as if some evangelicals believe that by declaring your church to be a new culture, you make it so. They seem to believe that culture is something that can be assembled at will, like a machine or a meal. They imply that they possess the power to filter out or co-opt cultural elements as if they are perfectly immune to their effects and meanings, simply because they are Christians. To this view, I’d suggest two corrective thoughts.

First, there is no such thing as a culture completely distinct from, and immune to, the cultures surrounding it. A local church does not begin its life with a blank sheet of paper, culturally speaking. A church is made up of people. These people come with decades of cultural influence. They have been influenced by the wider popular culture. They possibly have ethnic  cultural influences. If they come from other churches, they have been shaped by the views and tastes and values within those churches and their denominations and associations. In an electronic age, they have probably picked up some brand of Christian culture. Finally, they come with all the beliefs and sensibilities and loves imparted to them by their immediate and near families. The blend of people within your local church is made up of all this. You can no more insist that your church is a completely new culture than you can claim that all your people have precisely the same accent.

As much as the church is meant to re-shape and re-form the beliefs, views, loves, tastes and moral imagination of its members, it is naïve to think that one does this so successfully and completely as to constitute a completely brand new culture within the church. The past is not overcome in a day. Nor can one seal your people off from the wider culture, even if that were desirable. The local church is meant to be the messenger and purveyor of a worldview and set of affections that is thoroughly Christian, but it exists as a relatively small house in the shadow of a mountainous wider culture. For pastors to lead effectively, they need to acknowledge that their churches are not hermetically sealed off from the world merely because the gospel has made us into one new man. Pop culture, remnants of folk culture, evangelical or fundamentalist culture are in our churches, because our churches have people. They make up our church cultures.

Second, every culture builds with what it has been handed. A culture is never created from scratch. Every culture takes something of what it has received, and modifies, develops and changes the form to suit its worldview. (Indeed, the church built on very Jewish forms of worship and gathering). To illustrate this point, try to think up a new cultural form to use in church worship. You won’t be able to think of one, you will only be able to think of ways of modifying what already exists: music, poetry, the spoken word.

No church invents its culture. In other words, every church has a tradition. Every church takes some form of existing material, and chooses whether to use it as it is, or modify it, or omit it altogether. And this is where the church-as-new-culture idea gets dangerous. Being a new man in Christ does not mean that each church is starting the whole process of cultural formation anew, as if we are baking a new cake with every local church.

A right view of culture is going to understand that the process of receiving, modifying and preserving forms consonant with Christianity took many centuries. The sensibilities, tastes and affections of thousands of Spirit-controlled believers were involved in producing hymns, music, prayers, architecture, and ministry methods that seemed to best represent and preserve a Christian understanding of God, the world and ourselves.

Since we do not invent cultural forms, but are handed them, humility ought to ask questions like, “Why was this kind of hymn treasured by the church for centuries?” “Why did the process of the church’s growing understanding result in this kind of music, but not that kind of music?” “Why has the church resisted that approach to ministry, but pursued this approach?”

If we think of each of our local churches as new cultures, we might think that we have carte blanche to reject what we have been handed, as if we bear no responsibility to the church of the past. We might be tempted to act like we are authorities over the church of the past, since we are a new man. We might think that since we are supposedly beginning again with each church, we can cherry-pick hymns, music and other things to make up our new culture. This is naïve, and ultimately, untrue.

In this sense, I do not want to think of my church as a new culture, because it isn’t one. While the church is made of new creations, they come to us very connected to the old man, old world and old ways. And while we seek to preserve and communicate a culture that is Christian, we recognise that we are a very small drop in a very large ocean.

Instead, I want to think of my church as seeking to connect with a very old culture: Christian culture. While the church is a new thing, it has a very ancient pedigree.Churches are not independent new cultures. They ought to be oases, where the thirsty believer, traversing the desert of popular culture, can stop and drink in some of what makes up the very old and tried and tested Christian culture.

The Character of Worship – 2

April 6, 2010

Where or what is the breeding ground for these ordinate affections?

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)

When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest…Reason alone fails to justify itself. Not without cause has the devil been called the prince of lawyers, and not by accident are Shakespeare’s villains good reasoners. If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good…It appears, then, that culture is originally a matter of yea-saying, and thus we can understand why its most splendid flourishing stands often in proximity with the primitive phase of a people, in which there are powerful feelings of “oughtness” directed toward the world, and before the failure of nerve has begun. (Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences)

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.  When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.  In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her. (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man)

A culture, which is the expression of a religion, is where these sentiments are formed. Culture is a life-long classroom of developing loves, tastes, sensibilities and judgements. Most of these are caught by example and exposure, rather than through didactic lessons. Habits of feeling are developed. Likes and dislikes are formed. Judgements about value become internalised and ultimately, unquestioned. A sense of “oughtness” takes shape in a human being as he lives within a culture. This is how things are done. This is how things ought to be. This is the scale of values.

Which culture will today form these correct sentiments? Folk culture? Properly speaking, it doesn’t exist any more. High culture? It has been disconnected from education, religion and mainstream thought, and is now a badge of refinement instead of a source of refinement, though it can still be properly used by the one who knows how. Mass culture? It is a harlot; it has no scruples as to what sentiments it will shape in you, so long as you can be sold to the advertisers.

So where do we turn? T.S. Eliot said it best, “The primary channel of transmission of culture is the family: no man wholly escapes from the kind, or wholly surpasses the degree, of culture which he acquired from his early environment. It would not do to suggest that this can be the only channel of transmission: in a society of any complexity it is supplemented and continued by other conduits of tradition…But by far the most important channel of transmission of culture remains the family: and when family life fails to play its part, we must expect the culture to deteriorate.” (Notes Toward The Definition of Culture pp41-42, 1949)

When culture at large fails to develop correct sentiments, it falls to the family and the local church to do so. The responsibility of parents and pastors is to grow people with ‘chests’, people whose sentiments are shaped correctly, and who come to the Scriptures with a correct understanding of what God means by decency, reverence, joy, and seriousness.

Our problem is that even our family cultures and church cultures do not exist in a vacuum. We live our lives among the banality of modern pop culture. Our churches come from particular traditions (cultures), and remain influenced by the culture of modern evangelicals, particularly perpetuated through the media. We cannot sit down and invent a perfectly biblical culture from scratch, perfectly pure from all tradition and influence around us. I’m afraid that’s just not how it works.

To criticize the Orthodox Jews or the Amish for their extreme separatism is easy. But what we often miss is that they have recognised something: it is impossible to develop the kind of culture you want within the family and the religious institution if the barrier between those things and the wider culture, which contains things you don’t want, is completely porous. The Hassidic Jew and the Mennonite is giving it his best shot, at least grant him that. What are most evangelical Christians doing, besides bleating “we’re in the world but not of the world”? Some kind of separatism is called for, if the wider cultural atmosphere is typically hostile to ordinate affection. If we are to grow a right habit of feeling, we have to think carefully about when, where, and how we will erect walls between family and the wider culture, between church and the wider Christian world, between church and family and the mass culture around us.