You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege. The animosity directed toward NFL players kneeling at the anthem, protesting police brutality and structural racism, is the sort of acrimony we reserve for infidels….
This response to the kneeling controversy tells us something about the state of American civil religion and the way it accommodates — and then deforms — traditional religious communities.
The tropes of “God and country” or “faith and the flag” are almost always instances where country and flag domesticate faith in God. Or, to put this in terms that religious folk should understand: These liturgies of civil religion are covert modes of idolatry. The rank and priority are reversed; our political identities trump all others.
This is how stadiums became temples of nationalism. When the Constitution functions like Scripture, and the pledge serves as our creed, and the flag is revered like the cross, and the national anthem becomes our hymn, and the hand over heart is a sacred expression like the sign of the cross, then a swelling patriotism becomes our religion and dissenters are heretics.
This thought struck me today: Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?
Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?
I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.
Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.
It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.
I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:
And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).
Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.
And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or 136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).
So I’m wondering. Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?
Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?
How much art hangs in your worship space? If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.
Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?
Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?
Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?
Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us.
This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing.
If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”
We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.
And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it. Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.
I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.
^ I appreciated this post because it sets in front of us a difficult question regarding male-female roles in the conservative Church.
I fully understand why leadership positions are reserved for men in most Evangelical churches. It’s a long discussion, so if that idea is new to you, I’ll have to refer you elsewhere rather than giving all of that context here. This link offers a fair statement of the viewpoint I’ve heard from pulpits my entire life, though this author is more emphatic about a woman’s role in the home than most pastors I’ve sat under.
But I think there’s a failure here to consider the whole counsel of Scripture, the illustrations of women in leadership, and (especially) the negative effects of a myopic, one-gendered viewpoint when it comes to corporate decisions.
(It was Dr Mark Minnick, in one of the pinnacle churches of Fundamentalism, who hammered home the point that I Cor 11 clearly assumes a woman is involved in verbal public ministry when it takes up the question of wearing head coverings. “If a woman prays or prophesies …..” I’ve rarely heard anyone else bring this up.)
This is a difficult question, and one that many others have tackled recently. So I’m not going to reinvent the proverbial wheel.
I guess I’m just here to wish that conservative Christians would revisit exactly what they think Scripture prohibits, not set up fences to make sure there’s no possibility of crossing a line.
Many women in our churches do the work of deacons (even wielding considerable de facto authority) but are stripped of the title, salary, recognition, or respect for their work.
And the question of whether women can be pastors is not at all the same as discussing the extent to which women should be active teachers and participants in the ministry to the Body as a whole — as adult Sunday School teachers, in worship, and in guiding the direction of the assembly.
Maybe let’s start there?
Want to jump on the bandwagon of bashing modern worship music? This post will make your day…. except not. (Enjoy ALL the hyperlinks.)
from Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, by James K. A. Smith:
Such a rationalist response is inadequate and mistargeted because it continues to assume a flawed anthropology*.
*Smith would explain that this “flawed anthropology” is our tendency in Christian circles to define people as thinkers or believers (thus ministers try to change beliefs and worldviews) instead of recognizing that humans are, at heart, lovers and desirers and worshipers. What we LOVE determines what we believe and how we act.
Smith’s thesis is that our desires are “trained” by our practices, not by our beliefs. We live (subconsciously) according to our notion of “the good life” — we bend everything toward achieving that life for ourselves, and how we define “the good life” depends entirely on what we love.