Monday, April 21, 2014

East window, St Peter's, Yaxley, Ninian Comper (1949)

In 1949 Ninian Comper was 85 years old. He had been producing stained glass and church furnishings since the late 1880s and the artisans associated with his practice had largely been replaced by inferior successors. The east window of Yaxley church is better than some, but still representative of his late work with its harsh colours and scenes reproduced from much-earlier drawings. Still, in its context the window is effective, glistening above a bright gilded and coloured reredos installed three years previous in 1946.



Monday, April 14, 2014

An excerpt from 'The Emotional Life of our Lord' by B.B. Warfield

… What John tells us, in point of fact, is that Jesus approached the grave of Lazarus, in a state, not of uncontrollable grief, but of irrepressible anger. He did respond to the spectacle of human sorrow abandoning itself to its unrestrained expression, with quiet, sympathetic tears: "Jesus wept." But the emotion which tore his breast and clamored for utterance was just rage. The expression even of this rage, however, was strongly curbed. The term which John employs to describe it is, as we have seen, a definitely external term. "He raged." But John modifies its external sense by annexed qualifications: "He raged in spirit," "raging in himself" He thus interiorizes the term and gives us to understand that the ebullition of Jesus’ anger expended itself within him. Not that there was no manifestation of it: it must have been observable to be observed and recorded; it formed a marked feature of the occurrence as seen and heard. But John gives us to understand that the external expression of our Lord’s fury was markedly restrained: its manifestation fell far short of its real intensity. He even traces for us the movements of his inward struggle: "Jesus, therefore, when he saw her wailing, and the Jews that had come with her wailing, was enraged in spirit and troubled himself" … and wept. His inwardly restrained fury produced a profound agitation of his whole being, one of the manifestations of which was tears.

Why did the sight of the wailing of Mary and her companions enrage Jesus? Certainly not because of the extreme violence of its expression; and even more certainly not because it argued unbelief-  unwillingness to submit to God’s providential ordering or distrust of Jesus’ power to save. He himself wept, if with less violence yet in true sympathy with the grief of which he was witness. The intensity of his exasperation, moreover, would be disproportionate to such a cause; and the importance attached to it in the account bids us seek its ground in something less incidental to the main drift of the narrative. It is mentioned twice, and is obviously emphasized as an indispensable element in the development of the story, on which, in its due place and degree, the lesson of the incident hangs. The spectacle of the distress of Mary and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought poignantly home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its “violent tyranny” as Calvin (on verse 38) phrases it. In Mary’s grief, he "contemplates"-  still to adopt Calvin’s words (on verse 33), -  "the general misery of the whole human race" and burns with rage against the oppressor of men. Inextinguishable fury seizes upon him; his whole being is discomposed and perturbed; and his heart, if not his lips, cries out, -

"For the innumerable dead
Is my soul disquieted."

It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words again, "as a champion who prepares for conflict." The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but-  as indeed it is presented throughout the whole narrative- a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus' conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought out our redemption…

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Come, for the Feast is Spread, Henry Burton (1929)

Come, for the feast is spread; Hark to the call!
Come to the Living Bread, Offer'd to all;
Come to His house of wine,
Low on His breast recline,
All that He hath is thine;
Come, sinner, come.

Come where the fountain flows-- River of life--
Healing for all thy woes, Doubting and strife;
Millions have been supplied,
No one was e'er denied;
Come to the crimson tide,
Come, sinner, come.

Come to the throne of grace, Boldly draw near;
He who would win the race Must tarry here;
Whate'er thy want may be,
Here is the grace for thee,
Jesus thy only plea,
Come, Christian, come.

Come to the Better Land, Pilgrim, make haste!
Earth is a foreign strand-- Wilderness waste!
Here are the harps of gold,
Here are the joys untold--
Crowns for the young and old;
Come, pilgrim, come.

Jesus, we come to Thee, Oh, take us in!
Set Thou our spirits free; Cleanse us from sin!
Then, in yon land of light,
Clothed in our robes of white
Resting not day nor night,
Thee will we sing.

The Last Supper
centre panel of the
Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament
Dieric Bouts
(1464-67)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 

--- Romans 5:1-11 

My sermon this morning is about knowing the score, about having all the facts straight. That’s how God is with us, you know. He’s straight. He doesn’t tiptoe around trying not to offend. He tells it like it is because that’s what it means to love. Love doesn’t hide the truth for fear of causing offense. Love doesn’t let someone drink poison. Love doesn’t let someone walk off a cliff. Love takes away the poisoned cup. Love cries out, “Stop!” Love preserves from danger.

Knowing the score. That’s what our second lesson is all about and, let me be clear, knowing the score is essential to understanding God’s love. This passage from Romans 5 is very simple. It tells us five things. I’ll give them to you in a nice, tidy order.

First: Mankind’s condition.
Second: The problem that results from that condition.
Third: God’s solution to the problem.
Fourth: The result of God’s solution.
Fifth: Our response to God’s solution.

These are the fundamental facts of our existence and God, speaking to us by the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul, reveals them to us because He loves us.

First: Mankind’s condition- where we all are by nature. Verse 6: weak, ungodly. Verses 7 and 8: unrighteous, sinners.

This isn’t Paul being an mean old grump. This is Paul, as his fellow apostle Peter acknowledges, recording God’s word- scripture. And he’s doing it for our benefit. God wants us to know where we stand. We are all by nature dead in trespasses and sins, children of wrath. And why? The history goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, doesn’t it? It’s written later in this chapter: “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men...” All people naturally born of the union of a man and a woman are dead in sin and deserving of God’s judgment.

We next have the problem here in the text. Verse 9: we deserve God’s wrath. Verse 10: we are enemies of God.

Our nature from birth fixes a great gulf between us and God- God who is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong”, who “hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” We- ourselves, everything about us- we are the problem. We are at enmity with God and cannot please him.

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up... Above him stood the seraphim... And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook... and the house was filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!””

Isaiah’s response is the only honest one when confronted with the Holy God, the Lord of Heaven and earth. “Woe is me, for I am lost!” 

Are any of you offended by this? I hope so. That our self-righteousness and pride naturally swell against these words proves that they are true. God’s law is written on the conscience and, as John reminds us, sin is lawlessness.

We don’t like being reminded of what we are by nature. It’s not nice. It’s not pleasant. It’s not easy. But love isn’t concerned with nice and easy, with smoothness and flattery. Love doesn’t cry ‘Peace!’ when there is no peace. Love is concerned with truth. Love wounds the conscience that it may heal the soul. 

Thus we see God’s loving solution to the problem, God’s solution to us, to our ugly, rebellious nature. Verse 6: at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Verse 8: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

There we stood, fallen in Adam, sinful by virtue of natural generation, enemies of God from our very birth- not to mention our own daily sin. And God- God most gracious, most merciful- looked upon us with pity and with kindness and with love and sent His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ to die for us. “One will scarcely die for a righteous person- though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die...” says Paul. Think about it. Ask yourself, ‘would I die for someone who was good? Would I lay down my life for another, better than I?’ You might answer yes. But now ask, ‘Would I die for someone who was a murderer? a rebel? my enemy?’

Jesus, infinitely holy and good and beautiful, answers ‘Yes! Yes, I will gladly go and suffer and die so that those I love- despite their sin, their ugliness, their wicked rebellion- may escape the wrath they deserve. I will take all their sin and just punishment upon myself.’ As Eusebius says, “The Lamb of God... was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.” 

Hilary of Poitiers agrees, “[Christ was] Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse... might be removed.”

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief,” says Isaiah. This is God’s solution: that the death of one may secure the life of many. Paul, caught up in the Spirit writes, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” Jesus the Saviour was born, not of natural generation but of supernatural- conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and free from sin. Jesus, who is Himself God, lived the life we could not, a life of perfect obedience to the Father, a life- not of rebellion- but of peace. And then He died, willingly, His infinite nature giving to his finite suffering infinite value. “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” says John. God’s solution to the problem: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”

And what is the result of God’s solution- the death of Jesus Christ in our place? Verse 10 gives one result, though there are many: We are reconciled to God. We are no longer separated from Him by our sin. We are no more rebels, but children; no longer enemies, but friends. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ...” The blood of Jesus has opened a “new and living way... through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” into the holy places, the very throne room of God in heaven.

This is the score: man has sinned and the Son has suffered. God the Father has struck the rock of His Son’s flesh and blood and water have poured out for the healing of the nations. Our debt to God’s justice has been paid by God’s own loving sacrifice of the Holy Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Now, if we receive the benefit of Jesus’ death by faith, we have access to God through that blood. If we, by faith, become Christ’s brothers and sisters, God is our father and not our judge. Our past is wiped away and our future is secure. If we place our trust in Jesus alone, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I hope you’re no longer feeling offended. It is the nature of first knowing the score which brings offense. It is love that offends. But the love of God here revealed in the scriptures also brings us relief. God hasn’t given us only the unpleasant part of the story. In the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross we see the only hope in the darkness, the only way of salvation, the only gate of life opening into heaven. God’s love has provided a way of escape, a way of reconciliation, of transformation.

And this is our response when we know that love for ourselves. Verse 11: We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. God has done what we could not do for ourselves. He has reached down from heaven and taken that poisoned cup into his own hands; he has plucked us from the edge of the cliff. He has preserved us from the danger of eternal death. What response can we give but praise? What response but love to the one who loved us “and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”?

A very wise young man once said, “For every look at self take ten looks at Christ.” We know the score now and the danger can be to get stuck in the fact of our natural birth. But remember, if you believe in Jesus that’s not where you are anymore. Born again of water and the Spirit you have nothing to fear about the future. Christ’s blood has washed you and you will always be with Him, safe and secure, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

If you don’t know the joy of being one of God’s children, adopted by faith in Jesus’ blood, you need to consider your station. Know the score. Know that you’re in danger. Love sees you lifting that poisoned cup to your lips. Love sees you walking on the precipice. Know also that love cries out for you to come to Jesus. Hear the call and in return come to Him; come to Jesus, the only one whose life and death is sufficient to save you. Come to Jesus, in whose arms once outstretched on the cross you may at long last rest secure. In him you will find peace, freedom from guilt and shame, and an ever-faithful friend and advocate. Come and join the multitude of the redeemed who rejoice to say,

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee, 
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee, 
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

New Spirit in Church Architecture, The Literary Digest, September 13, 1913

The one most quotable and most quoted legacy of Milton- that line about "dim religious light," does not appear to suit the modern idea of churchliness. The modern church "should appear to welcome the passerby, not repel them by its cloistral and secluded quality," declares Mr. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who is one of the foremost of our younger ecclesiastical architects. The new St. Thomas's Church in New York, now nearing completion, is one of his designs. So also is the better known chapel at West Point, the Trinity Pro-Cathedral in Havana, and the chapel of the Intercession. In each of these Mr. Goodhue has exprest his conviction that "the church of to-day much extend its arms invitingly to the public," not, however, with the complete sense of modifying its sanctuary as a place apart. In The Churchman (New York) he gives this expression to his views:

"Sometimes, of course, the cloistral effect is needed- in a monastery, for instance. And the church must always have solemnity, but not coldness. I have tried in my work to express this quality of invitation, together with sanctity and a degree of magnificence quite undreamed of in my craftsman days."

He turns a backward eye over the comparatively short period of his own work to note the change that has come over the spirit of church-designing in this country:

"It is not so very many years since I started work, but the period has witnessed a great renaissance, not only in ecclesiastical architecture, but in all the arts connected with the Church. And that means in all the arts, for Mother Church takes all the arts under her fostering care.

This development is quite apart from the question of doctrine. The time when organ music was regarded as an instrument of evil is gone by. Only in rare cases do we find a still lingering prejudice against gold and color as 'un-Protestant.'

In Pittsburgh recently I completed a Baptist place of worship that proved to be one of my most interesting commissions. I was met with no demand to produce a meeting-house. Quite the contrary! A very cultured member of the committee said, 'Anything good enough for the Episcopalians is none too good for us!'

And, as a result, the building has a 'chancel' with a quality almost sacerdotal. The organ, to be sure, a blaze of gold and color, is the principal feature that strikes the eye. But below is the arrangement of pulpit, reading desk, communion table, and baptistry, with its 'dossal' of green and gold, produces, I like to think, something of the reverential spirit one gets in so much greater volume in the medieval shrines abroad."

First Baptist Church, Pittsburgh, PA
(completed 1912)

Monday, February 24, 2014

'Evangelicals on the Durham Trail' - D.G. Hart on the innovation of 'Praise and Worship', published in Calvin Theological Journal, Nov. 1995, vol. 30, no. 2

What do Billy Graham and Stanley Fish have in common? According to most assessments of the ongoing culture wars the answer would be an emphatic "not much!" With the exception of a few demographic details — both are older white men living in North Carolina — little seems to unite these two figures or the movements for which they have become figureheads. Graham is, of course, the patron saint of America evangelicalism, the one who as an object of admiration or scorn determines what it means to be an evangelical. And Fish, professor of English at Duke University of deconstructionist, post-modernist fame, has become one of the principle cheerleaders for efforts within the academy to make the literary canon specifically, and the humanities more generally, more inclusive and less oppressive. Identified in this way, the constituencies to which Graham and Fish speak would appear to be about as far apart as Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton.

James Davison Hunter, for instance, argues that evangelicals are a large part of the orthodox constituency which defends the traditional family, opposes political correctness and multi-culturalism in the academy, and supports efforts to cut federal funding for objectionable art. This explains why they have lined up in bookstores across the land to buy and read to their children William Bennett's Book of Virtues. Thus, evangelicalism, at least in the common configuration of the ongoing culture wars, is the antithesis of the cultural left.

Why is it, then, that when evangelicals retreat from the public square into their houses of worship they manifest the same hostility to tradition, intellectual standards, and good taste they find so deplorable in their opponents in the culture wars? Anyone familiar with the so-called "Praise & Worship" phenomenon (so named, supposedly, to remind participants of what they are doing) would be hard pressed to identify these believers as the party of memory or the defenders of cultural conservatism. P&W has become the dominant mode of expression within evangelical churches, from conservative Presbyterian denominations to low church independent congregations. What characterizes this "style" of worship is the praise song ("four words, three notes and two hours") with its mantra-like repetition of phrases from Scripture, displayed on an overhead projector or video monitors (for those churches with bigger budgets), and accompanied by the standard pieces in a rock band.

Gone are the hymnals which keep the faithful in touch with previous generations of saints. They have been abandoned, in many cases, because they are filled with music and texts considered too boring, too doctrinal, and too restrained. What boomers and busters need instead, according to the liturgy of P&W, are a steady diet of religious ballads most of which date from the 1970s, the decade of disco, leisure suits, and long hair. Gone too are the traditional elements of Protestant worship, the invocation,confession of sins, the creed, the Lord's Prayer, the doxology, and the Gloria Patri. Again, these elements are not sufficiently celebrative or "dynamic," the favorite word used to describe the new worship. And while P&W has retained the talking head in the sermon, probably the most boring element of Protestant worship, the substance of much preaching turns out to be more therapeutic than theological.

Of course, evangelicals are not the only ones guilty of abandoning the treasures of historic Protestant worship. Various churches in the ELCA and Missouri Synod have begun to experiment with contemporary worship. The traditionalists in Reformed circles, if the periodical Reformed Worship, is any indication, have also begun to incorporate P&W in their services. And Roman Catholics, one of the genuine conservative constituencies throughout American history, have contributed to the mix with the now infamous guitar and polka mass. Yet, judging on the basis of worship practices, evangelicals look the most hypocritical. For six days a week they trumpet traditional values and the heritage of the West, but on Sunday they turn out to be the most novel. Indeed, the patterns of worship that prevail in most evangelical congregations suggest that these Protestants are no more interested in tradition than their arch-enemies in the academy.

A variety of factors, many of which stem from developments in post-1960s American popular culture, unite evangelicalism and the cultural left. In both movements, we see a form of anti-elitism that questions any distinction between good and bad (or even not so good), or between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Professors of literature have long been saying that the traditional literary canon was the product, or better, the social construction of a particular period in intellectual life which preserved the hegemony of white men, but which had no intrinsic merit. In other words, because aesthetic and intellectual standards turn out to be means of sustaining power, there is no legitimate criteria for including some works and excluding others.

The same sort of logic can be found across the country at week-night worship planning committee meetings. It is virtually impossible to make the case — without having your hearers go glassy-eyed — that "Of the Father's Love Begotten" is a better text and tune than "Shine, Jesus, Shine," and, therefore, that the former is fitting for corporate worship while the latter should remain confined to Christian radio. In the case of evangelicals, the inability to make distinctions between good and bad poetry and music does not stem so much from political ideology (though it ends up abetting the cause) as from the deeply ingrained instinct that worship is simply a matter of evangelism. Thus, in order to reach the unchurched the churched have to use the former's idiom and style. What is wrong with this picture?

The traditionalists are of no help here. Rather than trying to hold the line on what is appropriate and good in worship, most of those who are devoted full-time to thinking about liturgy and worship, the doorkeepers of the sanctuary as it were, have generally adopted a "united-colors-of-Benetton" approach to the challenge of contemporary worship. For instance, a recent editorial in a Reformed publication says that the old ways — the patterns which used Buxtehude rather than Bill Gaither, "Immortal, Invisible" rather than "Do Lord," a Genevan gown instead of a polo shirt — have turned out to be too restrictive. Churches need to expand their worship "repertoire." The older predilection was "white, European, adult, classical, with a strong resonance from the traditional concert hall." But this was merely a preference and reflection of a specific "education, socio-economic status, ethnic background, and personality." Heaven forbid that anyone should appear to be so elitist. For the traditional "worship idiom" can become "too refined, cultured, and bloodless. . . too arrogant." Instead, we need to encourage the rainbow coalition — "of old and young, men and women, red and yellow, black and white, classical and contemporary." And the reason for this need of diversity? It is simply because worship is the reflection of socio-economic status and culture. Gone is any conviction that one liturgy is better than another because it conforms to revealed truth and the order of creation, or that one order of worship is more appropriate than another for the theology which a congregation or denomination confesses. Worship, like food or clothes, is merely a matter of taste. Thus the logic of multi-culturalism has infected even those concerned to preserve traditional liturgy.

Yet when one looks for genuine diversity in worship, multi-culturalism — again, the great leveler of tradition and cultural standards — offers up a very thin band of liturgical expression. Advocates of diversity don't seem to be very interested in the way "the people" have worshipped in the past. Is there, for instance, any real effort among the various experiments in worship to recover the psalm singing of the Puritans, the simple and spontaneous meetings of Quakers, the hymnody of German pietism, the folk traditions of the Amish, the revival songs of Ira Sankey and Dwight L. Moody, or the spirituals of African-American Protestants? The answer, of course, is no. For these expressions of Protestant piety, even though originating from some groups which would hardly qualify as elites, are no better than the liturgies from the Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed establishments. What the P&W crowd really want is a very narrow range of musical and lyrical expression, one which conforms to their admittedly limited worship "repertoire."

Indeed, contemporary worship — and church life for that matter — depends increasingly on the products of popular culture, from its musical mode of expression, the liturgical skits which ape TV sit-coms, and the informal style of ministers which follows the antics of late night TV talks show hosts. Thus, just as the academic left advocates including Madonna and "Leave it to Beaver" in the canon, so the evangelical champions of contemporary worship turn to popular culture — primarily contemporary music and television programming — for the content and order of worship. This is remarkable for a Christian tradition which once found its identity in avoiding all forms of worldliness and which continues to rail against the products of Hollywood and the excesses of the popular music industry. Yet, as in the case of the cultural left, we are seeing a generation which grew up on TV and top-40 radio stations now assuming positions of leadership in the churches. And what they want to surround themselves with in worship, as in the classroom, is what is familiar and easily accessible. Rather than growing up and adopting the broader range of experience which characterizes adulthood, evangelicals and the academic left want to recover and perpetuate the experiences of adolescence.

In fact, what stands out about P&W is the aura of teenage piety. Anyone who has endured a week at one of the evangelical summer youth camps that dot the landscape will be struck by the similarity between P&W and the services in which adolescents participate while out of their parents' hair. The parallels are so close that one is tempted to call P&W the liturgy of the youth rally. For in the meetings of Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, or Bible camp are all the elements of P&W: the evangelical choruses, the skit, and the long talk by the youthful speaker calling for dedication and commitment to Christ. While these youth ministries are effective in evoking the mountain-top or campfire-side experience, they rarely provide the sustenance upon which a life of sacrifice and discipline depends. Yet, P&W is attractive precisely because it appears to offer weekly the spiritual recharge which before came only once a year. Consequently, many megachurches which follow the P&W format thrive because they help many people recover or sustain the religious experience of youth.

Some may wonder what is wrong with assisting adults to perpetuate the emotions and memories which sustain religious devotion. The problem is that such experiences and the worship from which it springs is concerned primarily with affect. One searches in vain through the praise songs, the liturgical dramas, or the sermon/inspirational talk for an adequate expression of the historic truths of the faith. It is as if the content of worship or the object which elicits the religious experience does not really matter. As long as people are lifting up and swaying their arms, tilting back their heads and closing their eyes then the Spirit must be present and the worship genuine.

What is ironic about contemporary worship is that its form is almost always the same even while claiming that older worship is too repetitive. Another standard complaint about "traditional" worship is that it is too formal. Evangelicals believe that God is never limited by outward means. Believers who rely upon set liturgies or who repeat written prayers, some criticize, are merely "going through the motions." Real faith and worship can not be prescribed. Yet, for all of the attempts by the practitioners of P&W to avoid routine and habit, hence boredom, contemporary worship never seems to escape its own pop culture formula. Again, the songs are basically the same in musical structure and lyrical composition, the order of the service — while much less formal — rarely changes, and the way in which people express their experience demonstrates remarkable unity (e.g., the arms, the head, the eyes). This hostility to form and the inability to think about the ways in which certain habits of expression are more or less appropriate for specific settings or purposes is what finally puts evangelicalism and the academic left on the same side in the culture war. For the idea that the autonomous individual must find his own meaning or experience of reality for himself ends up making such individuals unwilling to follow and submit to the forms, habits and standards which have guided a community or culture. Besides the fact that the radical individualism of modern culture has bred as much conformity as human history has ever known, evangelicals and the academic left continue to buck tradition in the hope of finding the true self capable of experiencing religion or life at its most genuine or authentic.

What evangelicals who prefer P&W to older liturgies share with academics who teach Louis L'Amour instead of Shakespeare is an inability to see the value of restraint, habit, and form. Evangelicals and the academic left believe that we need to be liberated from the past, from formalism, and from existing structures in order to come into a more intimate relationship with life or the divine. This is really quite astounding in the case of evangelicals whose public reputation depends upon defending traditional morality. Yet, the effort to remove all barriers to the expression and experience of the individual self is unmistakably present in the efforts to make worship more expressive and spontaneous. This impulse in evangelical worship repudiates the wisdom of various Christian traditions which, rather than trying to liberate the self in order to experience greater intimacy with God, hold that individuals, because of a tendency to sin and commit idolatry, need to conform to revealed and ordered patterns of faith and practice. The traditions which Presbyterians follow, for instance, are not done to throttle religious experience but rather as the prescribed means of communing with God and his people. These means were not arbitrarily chosen by John Calvin and John Knox. Rather Presbyterians have conducted public and family worship in specific ways because they believe worship should conform to God's revealed truth. But just as the academic left has abandoned the great works of Western civilization because of a desire for relevance in higher education, so evangelicals have rejected the various elements and forms which have historically informed Protestant worship, again, because they are boring to today's youth.

Anti-formalism also explains the stress upon novelty and freshness so often found in P&W. The leader of worship planning at one of the dominant megachurches says, for instance, on a video documenting a P&W service, that she is always looking for new ways to order the mid-week believer's service so that church members won't fall into a rut. She goes on to say that people are often tired, having worked all day (an argument for worshipping on Sunday) and need something which will arrest their attention and put them in a proper frame of mind. This perspective, however, fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between form and worship. C. S. Lewis had it right when he said that a worship service "'works' best when, through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it." "The perfect church service," he added, "would be the one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. . . . 'Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.' A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant." But this is precisely what has happened in P&W where the service and elements are designed to attract attention themselves rather than functioning as vehicles for expressing adoration to God. Lewis knew that repetition and habit were better guides to the character of worship than novelty and manipulation. In fact, one doesn't need to be a professor of liturgics to sense that the idiom of Valley Girls is far less fitting for a believer to express love for God than the language of the Book of Common Prayer. Such an instinct only confirms the wise comment of the Reformed theologian, Cornelius VanTil, who while preferring Presbyterian liturgy, still remarked that "at least in an Episcopalian service no one says anything silly."

But even to criticize contemporary worship, to accuse it of bad taste or triviality is almost as wicked as smoking in public. Arguments against P&W are usually taken personally, becoming an affront to the feelings of contemporary worshippers. Which is to say that the triumph of P&W, like the ascendancy of the cultural left in the academy, is firmly rooted in our therapeutic culture. The most widely used reason for contemporary worship is that it is what the people want and what makes them feel good. Again, just as there are no intellectual standards for expanding the literary canon to include romance novels, so there are no theological criteria for practicing P&W. But there are plenty of reasons which say that if we give people what they are familiar with, whether sitcoms in the classroom or soft rock in church, they will feel comfortable and come back for more. As David Rieff has noted, the connections between the therapeutic and the market are formidable. So if we can expand our worship or academic repertoire to include the diversity of the culture we will no doubt increase our audience.

This is why P&W services are also called "seeker-sensitive." They are part of a self-conscious effort to attract a larger market for the church. Yet, while evangelicalism may have a large market share, its consumer satisfaction may also be low, especially if it deceives people into thinking they have really worshipped God when they have actually been worshipping their emotions. Thus, once again, evangelical worship turns out to be as deceptive as the academic left which tells students that the study of Batman comics is just as valuable as the study of Henry James.

Of course, anyone who knows the history of American evangelicalism should not be surprised by P&W. In fact, Billy Graham's recent inclusion of Christian Hip Hop and Rap bands in his crusades is of a piece with evangelical history more generally. (It also differs little from his efforts in the 1970s, seldom remembered, to appeal to the Jesus People. With lengthy locks, an inch over the shirt collar, and long sideburns, Graham said, playing off Timothy Leary's famous psychedelic slogan, "Tune in to God, then turn on. . . drop out — of the materialistic world. The experience of Jesus Christ is the greatest trip you can take.") As R. Laurence Moore argues in Selling God, since the arrival of Boy George in the American colonies, George Whitefield that is, evangelicals have been unusually adept at packaging and marketing Christianity in the forms of popular culture. The intention of Protestant revivalism was "to save souls, but in a brassy way that threw religion into a free-for-all competition for people's attention." Revivalism, in fact, according to Moore, "shoved American religion into the marketplace of culture" and became "entangled in controversies over commercial entertainments which they both imitated and influenced."

Seldom have evangelicals recognized that this commitment to making the gospel accessible deforms and trivializes Christianity, making it no better than any other commodity exchanged on the market. As H. L. Mencken perceptively pointed out about Billy Sunday, evangelicalism "quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of the barroom." Mencken went on to remark that evangelicalism is marked "by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying" and reduces "all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenious) self-evident propositions," making of religion "a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern." Thus, the pattern of evangelical practice shows a long history of being hostile to the more profound liturgies, prayers and hymns which God's people have expressed throughout the ages.

The reason for this hostility, of course, is that these traditional forms of expressing devotion to God are not sufficiently intelligible to outsiders. But in an effort to reach the unchurched, just as the university has abandoned its mission in order to reach the uneducated, evangelicals have reversed the relationship between the church and the world. Rather than educating outsiders or seekers so they may join God's people in worship, or rather than educating the illiterate so may join the conversation of the West, we now have the church and the academy employing as its language the idiom of the unchurched and undereducated. In effect, through P&W the church is becoming dumber at the same time that multi-culturalism is dumbing down the university. In the case of P&W the church, by embracing the elements and logic of contemporary worship, has abandoned its task of catechesis. Rather than converting and discipling the seeker, the church now uses the very language and methods of the world. So rather than educating the unbaptized in the language of the household of faith, the church now teaches communicants the language of the world.

Hughes Oliphant Old in his fine study of worship concludes with a reflection about mainline Presbyterian worship that applies well to what has transpired in contemporary evangelical churches. "In our evangelistic zeal," he writes, "we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have to put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead." Such is the state of affairs in contemporary evangelical worship. The thin and artificial juice of popular culture has replaced the finely aged and well-crafted drink of the church through the ages. Aside from the merits of the instant drink, it is hardly what you would expect defenders of tradition and the family to choose to serve at a wedding, or at the banquet supper of our Lord. And yet, just as evangelicals in the nineteenth century substituted Welches for red wine, so a century later they have exchanged the superficial and trivial for the rich forms and elements of historic Protestant worship.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Kingdom of God

"As religion is essentially spiritual, an inward state, the kingdom of Christ as consisting of the truly regenerated, is not a visible body, except so far as goodness renders itself visible by the outward manifestations. Nevertheless as Christ has enjoined upon his people duties which render it necessary that they should organize themselves in an external society, it follows that there is and must be a visible kingdom of Christ in the world. Christians are required to associate for public worship, for the admission and exclusion of members, for the administration of the sacraments, for the maintenance and propagation of the truth. They therefore form themselves into churches, and collectively constitute the visible kingdom of Christ on earth, consisting of all who profess the true religion, together with their children…

[T]he kingdom of Christ is not a democracy, nor an aristocracy, but truly a kingdom of which Christ is absolute sovereign. This involves the denial, --
1. That the State has any authority to make laws to determine the faith, to regulate the worship, or to administer the discipline of the Church. It can neither appoint nor depose its officers.
2. It denies that any civil officer as such, or in virtue of his office, has any authority in the kingdom of Christ; much less can any such officer be the head of the Church.
3. It denies that Church power vests ultimately in the people, or in the clergy. All their power is purely ministerial. It is derived from Christ, and it exercised by others in his name, and according to the rules laid down in his Word...

As Christ is the only head of the Church it follows that its allegiance is to Him, and that whenever those out of the Church undertake to regulate its affairs or to curtail its liberties, its members are bound to obey Him rather than men. They are bound by all legitimate means to resist such usurpations, and to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free. They are under equal obligation to resist all undue assumption of authority by those within the Church, whether it be by the brotherhood or by individual officers, or by Church councils or courts. The allegiance of the people terminates on Christ. They are bound to obey others only so far as obedience to them is obedience to Him."

--- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology