Worship and World

Worship and World April 13, 2005

More lecture notes.


Modern life can be characterized in many ways, but one of the central themes of modernity is that it is a revolt against ritual. This is particularly true of modern Christianity. As Hennig Graf Reventlow showed in his study of the rise of modern biblical interpretation, modern theology arises from a Marcionite viewpoint that rejects the Old Testament and denigrates ritual and sacraments. Christianity, for both liberal and evangelical forms of modern Christianity, is a simple, ceremony-less faith, a matter of the heart.

To put it another way, at the heart of modernity is the separation of worship and world. Worship, piety, prayer, and religious ceremony is over here on this side of some divide, and real life ?Ethe world of economics, science, baking bread, politics, and piano playing ?Eis on that side. Religious ceremonies might make the pious feel more pious, but they have no real effect on how the world goes.

This is not the perspective of Scripture. Scripture teaches that worship transforms people. Psalm 115 teaches that we become like the gods we worship. If we worship lifeless gods, we will shape the world into a culture of death. If we worship savage gods, we will be savage people. When we worship the Triune God who is Love, we are formed into a people who pursue love and mercy. Yet, it?s important to note that religious and ceremonies do not operate in a vacuum. Mindless or hypocritical performance of religious ritual does not have any transforming effect on people or the world. Scripture is very clear that going through the motions of religious ceremony without faith and faithfulness is abominable (among others, cf. Isaiah 1:10-17).

From a sociological angle, Rodney Stark has showed in detail that the correlation of religious belief and moral life is vastly stronger than the correction between participation in religious ceremony and moral life. Stark admits that participation in religious ceremony strengthens the solidarity within a group, whether it is a religious group or otherwise. He points out how this principle is applied in military settings: ?It is well known that it requires months of constant drill and practice maneuvers to produce reliable and effective military units. Drill not only accustoms troops to acting together in immediate response to orders; more importantly, it affords the circumstances for linking the individual soldiers to one another by strong bonds of trust and friendship. It is these bonds, not idealism, that enable soldiers to face death ?Ethe role of idealism is to shape the expectations they impose in judging one another.?E A key goal in military training is to form friendships among the troops, since, as S.L.A. Marshall put it, ?it is the man who . . . is well known to his fellows?Ewho survives. Stark concludes, ?Participation in religious rituals is a form of drill that is well suited to foster strong bonds. Moreover, the bonds formed among participants include bonds to the divine being to whom the rituals are oriented. Just as drills may not be important for troops who will never be sent into battle, so too participation in religious ?drills?Emay not be needed to sustain uncontested faiths. But they are vital for the persistence of embattled minorities.?E

Yet, Stark also argues that ?ritual participation does not contribute to conformity to group norms unless such conformity is explicitly linked to their conception of God.?E In other words, ?a crucial element of solidarity is commitment to the central ideas and ideals of the group. And what religious social rituals produce is agreement about the value of religious ideas and ideals.?E This highlights, once again, the significance of preaching and reading of Scripture in Christian ?ritual.?E We are not only being drilled in proper table etiquette and community manners; we are being taught certain truths about God and the world. Through our common hearing of the preaching and reading of God?s Word, we are formed into a particular kind of people. As I have written elsewhere, worship is history class and language class. But worship drills us in history and language only when we believe what we hear.

But, when the drill is performed by believers, then the drill transforms us, both individually and together. Trained by worship, we become like troops trained together for battle. We develop solidarity, and readiness to give aid and support.

The modern bifurcation of worship and world, of ceremony and life, is false on the face of it. The world appears in worship in many different ways. We can think through this by considering the elements of a typical liturgical service. What is brought into worship? Everything. Worship is a microcosm, or, as Jordan puts it, a ?microchron.?E

Our sins. Christian worship is not based on the pretense that the world is fine, bright, and thoroughly cheery. Near the very beginning of most historical liturgies, there is an acknowledgement that we, together with the world, are desperately twisted and enslaved by sin and death. Not only is there a call to confession and a confession of sin, but certain forms of the Kyrie, because they offer prayer for peace on earth, assume a world that is not at peace.

Music, and often arts of other kinds. Even the lowest of low church worship includes singing, and in many traditions the singing is accompanied by instrumental music in varying degrees. Many traditions of Christian worship also incorporate visual arts and architecture into worship by incorporating them into the place of worship. The world of music and art is not alien to worship.

History. Scripture is read and preached in worship, and Scripture is largely an account of history. The history recorded in Scripture is obviously not some kind of ?religious?Etributary detached form the main flow of history. Scripture talks about man?s beginnings and calling, and the living creatures created alongside man; the source of man?s sinfulness; fratricide, the origins of civic life, and the development of arts and sciences; the diversity of languages and intra-family squabbles; empires rising and falling, kings with their glories and failures, battles and political intrigues and wars. Cornelius Van Til liked to say that Scripture ?talks about everything,?Eand this is not true simply in some ?philosophical?Esense that Scripture implies a certain kind of ?metaphysics.?E Scripture speaks quite explicitly about human experience in all its dimensions.

Bread and Wine. Bread is the basic staple of human life in many cultures, and the production of bread (as Leon Kass points out in his wonderful book, The Hungry Soul ) assumes some degree of developed agriculture, the technology of milling flour and baking, and an exchange system that enables the bread to arrive at the Table. One could make similar points about the presence of wine, but wine bears not only agricultural, economic, and technological baggage, but also includes festival associations. When we bring bread and wine into the liturgy, we are bringing this whole complex world along with it.

Money. Some Christians believe that it is impious to collect money during a worship service. It makes the pastor look mercenary, and somehow defiles the holy event of worship with profane mammon. In the OT, though, worship was fundamentally about bringing wealth into the house of God to offer it to him. Every animal offered on the altar represented and was wealth, and there were occasions when monetary payments could substitute for animal sacrifice. Plus, tithes on income were to be brought into the sanctuary to offer to the Lord.

Language. Most of Christian worship takes place through the medium of language. The minister speaks and the congregation responds; we sing and offer prayers; the minister reads and preaches; even when we do the Supper, we are conscious of performing the ?words of ins
titution.?E There is a place for silence in Christian worship, but the silences of worship, like the silences in music, should be the pregnant and expectant silences between two sounds.

A particular world. All this is terribly general and abstract. No real church worships using ?language.?E All churches worship in English, Persian, Portuguese, or Mandarin. All particular churches confess particular sins particularly. The music and arts that are brought into the worship service share a great deal with the music and arts of the civilization in which the church exists. So, we don?t just bring ?the world?Einto worship; we bring ?a world, our world.?E

There?s no doubt more to say, and perhaps better ways to say it. But the point should be clear: Worship is not an escape from the world, from its sadnesses and evils, from the follies and violence of history, from the world of work and production. The whole world follows on our heels right into church, and is put front and center. If someone is trying to find a religious experience that will provide respite from the challenges of life, he should find another experience than that of Christianity.

When the world is brought into the liturgy, it is not left alone. Alexander Schmemann is right that this world is the ?matter?Eof the kingdom. God?s kingdom is not made from some pure ?stuff,?Ebut is this world purified and translated from glory to glory. That is anticipated and enacted in the liturgy. Our language is brought into worship, but by shaping our language to tell the story of Scripture, our language is burst at the seams. Bread and wine are brought into the liturgy, and they remain, physically speaking, ordinary bread and wine; but these ordinary elements become an extraordinary means for communicating Christ to us through the Spirit. Money is offered in worship, but it becomes devoted to the uses of God?s kingdom. The world is brought into the kingdom, but it is brought into the kingdom to be judged and transformed. The liturgy is a sign of the future of the world, once it?s transformed into the kingdom. Let?s try to think about this more concretely:

We come into worship ourselves and are immediately reminded that we are sinners, who cannot draw near to God except through confession and cleansing. Our self-image that we bring from the world ?Ewe aren?t such bad folk ?Eis judged, and we are made new through the absolution. We?re not merely informed that we are sinners, but that we are forgiven sinners, and we are reminded that our identity is in Christ, and that therefore we are righteous.

Music comes into its own in worship, reaches its created purpose. Music is not a natural phenomenon or artistic form that just happens to be used in worship. Worship displays to us that music was created by God to give expression to praise. We are voiced instruments that voice the praises of creation, and when we use instruments to make music, we are even more directly giving voice to creation. The use of music and other arts in worship immediately judges the notion that art exists for self-indulgence, or merely for the delight of human beings. Worship shows that art is ultimately designed to be an act of worship.

The history read and preached in worship judges the way the world tells the story of the world. History is not a closed, immanent process, but is entirely the result of a sovereign, just, and holy God, who is an actor in the drama that He has written. For individuals, this means that the story of my life is also not a closed cause-and-effect process.

Bread and wine are brought to the Lord?s table to be means of communion with God, to be shared among a community of believers. This radically judges the way we normally think about our labors and technologies and systems of production and exchange. Labor and exchange and production are not ends in itself, nor means toward the end of unlimited wealth creation or upward mobility or the acquisition of tokens of status. The end of all our labors is festivity in the presence of God; we make bread so we can eat it, and wine to drink it. And this festivity in the presence of God includes charity and generosity to our neighbors.

We often use language to hide, manipulate, deceive, exercise power, hurt. Our language often has a loose fit with the realities of ourselves and the world. This is perhaps most obvious in our cultural euphemisms, designed to screen us from seeing the true horrors of our culture: ?termination of pregnancy,?E?removing the feeding tube,?E?partial-birth abortion,?Eand so on. But these euphemisms are of a piece with everyday misuse and manipulation of language. Worship should tell us the truth, call a spade a spade and a sin a sin. Worship judges our misuses of language and trains us in speaking and thinking of the world rightly.

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