Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, May 04, 2007

Pluralism and worship

The following is an interesting quote from Peter L. Berger:

Every human society has its own corpus of officially accredited wisdom, the beliefs and values that most people take for granted as self-evidently true. Every human society has institutions and functionaries whose task it is to represent this putative truth, to transmit it to each new generation, to engage in rituals that reaffirm it, and sometimes to deal (at least in words) with those who are benighted or wicked enough to deny it. In most societies in history this has been a relatively easy matter, because there was only one set of beliefs and values, a unified and coherent worldview that everybody knew and that almost everybody took for granted. Modern societies, however, share with the Hellenistic world the complicating factor of pluralism: There are competing beliefs and values, there is more than one worldview. This pluralistic situation usually forces on people a certain degree of tolerance, but it also sharpens the cognitive dissonances and therefore introduces an element of fanaticism into the quarrel. This co-existence of tolerance and fanaticism is an important characteristic of contemporary America…. The point is that the various efforts by Christians to accommodate to the "wisdom of the world" in this situation become a difficult, frantic, and more than a little ridiculous affair: Each time that one has, after an enormous effort, managed to adjust the faith to the prevailing culture, that culture turns around and changes. W. R. Inge, the Anglican theologian, put it thus: "He who would marry the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower." Recent Christian theology is well populated with bewildered and understandably resentful widowers. (A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity, pp.9-10)

What is more interesting is how the average Christian responds when he or she reads a quote like this. It is our tendency at this point to run this quote, like everything else, through the grid of our minds, and to filter out anything that doesn't make sense. For most of us (that is, those of us that haven't studied Cultural Anthropology), this means that the part about "engaging in rituals" gets filtered out and chucked in the garbage. After all, we don't engage in rituals – or so we think. Rituals are things done by occultists and primitive, indigenous people groups. But this thinking is the remaining result of Rationalistic Modern thinking. Every culture has rituals, whether or not it recognizes it. And every religious group has rituals as well. While we wouldn't tend to refer to them as such (there again, that's the Modern mind at work), all acts of worship involve rituals. Even those groups that try to steer clear of any sort of ordered worship (such as the Plymouth Brethren, the Quakers, and the various Pentecostal and Charismatic groups) end up creating some measure of ritual. To reference Father Alexander Schmemann again, man is a liturgical creature, and this is just another way of saying that he is a creature that tends to create and follow rituals. In this, he is simply following his Creator, Who from the beginning of the world reveals Himself as a Being Who likes rituals.

This brings up a couple of thoughts in light of Berger's quote. For one thing, what we do in worship matters. If rituals themselves (and not just the words we speak during them) communicate truth claims, then what we do in worship should be shaped by the truth – specifically, by Holy Scripture. And therefore any sort of argument that says that what we do in worship is arbitrary is entirely false.

Secondly, the issue of Antithesis is important here. Simply put, there is no such thing as "neutral ground". There are things that are true, thing that are false, and nothing in between. Similarly, there are things that are suitable for worship, things that are not, and nothing in between. This is not to say that there is no place for preference, or cultural considerations. God created a world of variety, and songs that may be fit for one cultural setting might be out of place in another. But the question here isn't whether or not the song is appropriate. The question is whether or not we're able to handle it. One day Christians born and raised in North Carolina will understand and be able to appreciate those songs that are appropriate for worship and are used for worship in Africa. But that day is a long distance ahead. The church as a whole just hasn't matured to that point yet.

And thirdly, it is inappropriate to shape worship according to the transitory fascinations of a culture not shaped by a Christian worldview. Ungodly culture is constantly changing, running back and forth from one extreme to another, a manifestation of the unbeliever's search to find peace anywhere but in Christ. Culture shaped by mature, Christ-worshipping people, is characterized by change as well, but it is typically a slow, thoughtful, and deliberate change. This is not to say that Christians should never make any sharp turns. But sharp turns are out of the ordinary, and should only take place when one is about to drive off a cliff. In other words, drastic changes influenced as such by Christians only come about in a culture when the culture has so departed from the ways of God that drastic changes are the only things that will save it. The key thing to remember here is that we who know Christ are no transitory people, but are the meek who will inherit the earth.

So what does this mean for Christian worship? The main thing to consider here, I think, is the question of worship music. More and more churches are, in the struggle to keep people in the pews, doing away with the old hymns in favor of "Contemporary Worship Music" (CWM). (Of course, they're also doing away with hymnals and pews, but that's another matter that, though related, I'll leave to the side for now.) But CWM, aside from being a great commercial ploy (I see overturned tables in my mind), is shaped on forms of music that are transitory in nature. One need only go back and listen to some Maranatha Praise albums from the 1980's to realize how temporal CWM is. As an illustration of Berger's point, this is a point where the pop culture-intoxicated church is struggling to keep up. And no matter how hard we try, we can't "keep up", because as long as pop culture sets the agenda, it will keep changing, and we'll never catch up to it.

So what is the answer? The answer is that we cease to be the world's slaves. We are Christ's representatives in the world, and He is working through us to establish His kingdom in its fullness. So as his representatives, we, the church, set the agenda. The world won't follow, you say? Some will follow. But for those who don't, that is their loss. We follow Christ. Those who will not will be left to the fate they have chosen.

On a more practical note, we need to seek out more permanent forms of music for the church's worship. The church has a vast history of hymnody to draw from if we will only seek it out. There are lots of really bad hymns, which somehow have been the popular ones over the past hundred or so years. These need to be disposed of and replaced with better hymns. And there is a place for the writing of new music as well. But the new music worth praising God with will be written in a way that shows it was informed and shaped by more historic forms of music.

Many books have been written in recent years on these subjects, and my brief thoughts couldn't possibly solve any problems. I hope, though, that you, the reader, will be inspired to think more carefully about how you approach worship, as well as what kind of church you attend. God is honored when we meet Him where we are. Let us still seek to give Him the best we can. But also, worship shapes us. Let us seek to worship God in the situation that will most make us like Christ.


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