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6 things we can learn about worship from the Dark Ages

Yesterday’s post on 9 things worship leaders need to stop doing raised a number of concerns about modern worship practices. But, as I was reflecting on those issues a bit more, I realized how similar some of them are to difficulties that the church has faced before. And, if God’s people have dealt with these challenges before, wouldn’t it make sense to take a look back and see what we can learn?

So, I thought it would be interesting to start a short series on what we can learn as we wrestle with some of the same challenges in a new historical context. Specifically, I want to look at challenges that developed in the church’s worship practices during the early middle ages, particularly as they relate to the Eucharist (communion), and how that can help us understand the difficulties we encounter today.

For those of you who aren’t into church history, I realize this might sound a little abstract. What could we possible learn from the “Dark Ages.” Well, first, “Dark Ages” is a horrible label for this time period. Far from being a time of unrelieved darkness, the early middle ages are a fascinating time of exploration and discovery in the face of tremendous challenges. But, more importantly, regardless of what we call this time period, it’s still a time in which God’s people sought to carry out God’s purposes in God’s world. Unless we want to believe that God abandoned his people during this time (he didn’t), then we should still be able to learn plenty. So, stick with me.

Here’s what I have in mind. As we look at the eucharistic practices of the early medieval church, we’ll find them wrestling with 6 key issues that I think have parallels to today’s worship struggles. I’ll tackle these one at a time over the next week or so and see what we come up with.

  1. The Difficulty of Language
  2. The Problem of Attendance
  3. The Role of the Visual
  4. The Complexity of Worship
  5. The Design of the Churches
  6. The Understanding of the Act

Review: Worship and the Reality of God by John Jefferson Davis

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of John Jefferson Davis’s Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP, 2010).

★★☆☆☆

I had a difficult time assigning a final score to this book. On the one hand, I picked it up ready to be convinced by its basic argument: evangelical worship is often theologically shallow and driven by pragmatism and experientialism.  And, indeed, Davis offers much food for thought in this direction. But, on the other hand, I found many of Davis’s core arguments unconvincing and his criticisms of evangelical worship either unfair or insufficiently explained. So, although the book provided a useful occasion for thinking through what God’s “presence” in worship actually means and why evangelical worship is often frustrating and shallow, I’m not convinced that Davis offers the kind of meaningful engagement necessary to provide a helpful way forward.

Summary

Davis opens the book by laying out his fundamental concern: evangelical worship focuses more on “worshedutainment” (great word!) than on fostering “a vivid awareness of God’s presence as the central reality in worship” (9). This lack constitutes “the growing God-vacuum in modern American evangelical worship” (12).

And, this problem stems from our failure to understand (1) the importance and priority of worship; (2) the nature of worship; (3) the participants of worship; (4)  the elements of worship; (5)  the “ontologies” of modernity and postmodernity and how they undermine true worship; (6) the need to learn new behaviors and new ‘doxological skills’ for the enjoyment of true worship.” Thus, evangelical worship suffers from a terminal shallowness and captivity to non-Christian ways of thinking and acting in the world.

In response to those problems, Davis calls for us to develop churches that are deep, thick, and different:

that is, a deep church that is marked by the depth of its encounter with God in worship and the spiritual disciplines, rather than a church oriented toward numerical growth; a thick church characterized by thick relationships and commitments rather than thin personal relationships of consumerist and postmodern culture; and a different church of ‘resident aliens’ (Hauerwas) that is unashamedly distinct from the culture in its ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior. (32).

Such a church will be very different in its beliefs and practices from any group formed by one of the competing ideologies of the modern world: scientific materialism and digital virtualism. As Davis explains,

The real problem lies at the level of ontology—that is, at the level of a fundamental background theory of the real that is operating in the hearts and the minds of the people, the preacher and the praise band, even before they walk through the door of the church or onto the stage. (14)

So, any real solution to our problem requires that we ground ourselves in ways of thinking and being that orient us around the true ontology – Trinitarian theism.

Each of the four main chapters of the book focuses on helping us accomplish this very task. In chapter two, Davis explains three key problems in evangelical worship: Your ‘God’ is too ‘light’; your vision of the church is too low; your view of your self is too high, and consequently, your worship is too shallow” (38). Instead of being grounded in a robust theology, Davis contends that our worship is pragmatic and shallow:

The personal presence of God in the ecclesia, by virtue of his covenant promises, his Word, sacraments and Spirit, invests the ecclesia with an ontic weight that does not obtain with merely  human organizations and assemblies. In practice, it seems that ordinary evangelical Protestant concepts of the church reflect notions that are more sociological than theological, more functional and pragmatic than ‘mystical’ and ontological, more Pelagian that Pauline and pneumatic—that is, an eviscerated ecclesiology in which the church is viewed as a voluntary human organization gathered for certain activities. (63)

Chapter three focuses more particularly on the question of God’s presence in worship.

Christian churches need to constitute in their practices—especially in their practices of worship—alternative plausibility structures that can embody and experience the presence of the divine in a way that directly challenges the suffocating naturalism of the dominant culture. (83)

Davis argues that the revivalist background of modern evangelicalism often causes us to focus more on bringing the individual to a point of decision than on the centrality of God’s presence in worship, regardless of how Trinitarian or orthodox our theology might be.  So, in place of this individualistic revivalism, Davis calls for and understanding of worship that orients space and time around God and his Kingdom.

With the strong emphasis on God’s presence in worship, it is no surprise that chapter four focuses its attention on the nature of God’s presence in the Eucharist. Davis deals briefly with some of the major perspectives on real presence, but focuses on the reality of God’s special presence in the Eucharist (however it is understood) as the focus for most Christian traditions. So, Eucharist should be a key focus as we seek to retrieve a sense of God’s presence in worship today.

And, the final chapter focuses on identifying some practical applications for the theological and theoretical insights developed throughout the book. So, he focuses in this chapter on offering some specific thoughts for developing churches that recognize and manifest the real presence of God in worship by being deep, thick, and different.

Strengths

Probably my favorite part of the book was his emphasis on how the way that we view ourselves, our churches, and reality as a whole affects worship. To put it another way, ontology matters.

Davis also joined the growing chorus of voices criticizing the evangelical church for an unhealthy focusing on preaching as the almost exclusive focus of the service. Although I think he goes too far in his critique of preaching-centered services, he does do a nice job pointing out the danger of becoming unbalanced in this area. It does seem interesting that seminaries typically requires multiple preaching courses but few classes on worship (if any). Without a robust theology of worship, a “worship” service can easily lose its way and find its focus in some other purpose (e.g. instruction, entertainment, outreach).

I also liked his call for us to think through each aspect of our worship services and wrestle with what these practices really signify in the life of the congregation. I didn’t think his presentation was as theologically nuanced as that offered by James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, but he still presents some interesting ideas worth considering. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on understanding the formative nature of technology:

Such cultural artifacts are real and have ontic weight to the extent that they display internal structures and coherence, embody intentions, meanings and symbolic references, encode information, have stable existence over time, and have the power to shape and influence behaviors and institutions. (109)

I’ll make some more critical comments on this point in the next section, but we do need to realize that such technologies are value-laden.

Weaknesses

One of my greatest frustrations with the book was the fact that Davis repeatedly claimed that evangelical worship lacks an awareness of God’s “presence,” but he makes very little attempt to explain or justify this conclusion. For example, after attending one evangelical service, he comments: “A sense of the presence of the holy in the administration of holy Communion was  obvious that morning” (113). But he offers no justification for this conclusion. He routinely points to liturgical practices as offering a deeper sense of God’s presence and at one point compares American evangelicalism unfavorably to the more Pentecostal worship of the global south. But, in neither place does he explain why these different worship practices necessarily evidence God’s presence better than those he is criticizing. Indeed, he leaves himself open to the charge that it is merely his preference for liturgical worship that causes him to find other forms of worship unsatisfying. (I don’t think this is the case, but the shape of the argument makes it look like it.) So, at the end of the day, his central conclusion – “contemporary evangelical Christians have lost their awareness of the presence of the living and holy God as the central reality of all true worship” (100) – seems unjustified.

Additionally, he failed to provide any explanation for why liturgical acts are better suited for shaping Christian worship and identity. Like many proponents of liturgical worship, Davis claims that such practices shape time/space in particularly Christian ways and are, therefore, more conducive to truly Christian worship. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with this, his failure to provide any meaningful argument for this liturgical perspective seriously undermined the value of the book. If he is going to suggest that liturgical practice is a key part of the solution to the lack of God’s presence in modern worship, I would have liked to see a much stronger  defense of that conclusion.

I also didn’t like the fact that all six of his areas of deficiency were phrased in entirely cognitive ways. I teach for a living, so obviously I think understanding things is important. But, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that the weakness of contemporary worship is simply a failure to understand. I also found the emphasis on cognitive failure rather odd given his similar strong emphasis on liturgical practice as the solution.

His discussions of technology could also be more nuanced. While I appreciated some of his comments (see above), he consistently painted technology in a very negative light, often neglecting even to mention that there are other perspectives. For example, he commented at one point that technology is “altering the nature of human consciousness itself” (15). This is a highly contentious statement that should be defended rather than asserted. And, even if true, it fails to engage the fact that this would be true for all technological development – not just the recent ones. This may seem like a small matter, but since he made technology central to one of this three primary worldviews, digital virtualism, this actually became a real weakness.

As a result of all these weaknesses, his suggestions for practical application remained unconvincing. He concludes that we need to move toward an “ancient-modern blended worship” that highlights: (1) liturgy, tradition and ritual, (2) visual arts; (3) right use of electronic media; (4) promotion of spiritual gifts; (5) ancient-modern musical canon; (6) weekly Eucharist. I’m not against any of these things, but he did not succeed in convincing me that these come from theological conviction rather than personal preference. And, it’s hard to see how we can deepen our worship practices by moving from newer personal preferences to older ones.

Conclusion

Overall, Worship and the Reality of God gave me a lot to think about and some interesting ideas to chew on. But, in the end, I found its basic argument unsatisfying and insufficiently nuanced at key places. It is probably best suited for someone wanting to become more familiar with some of the ideas behind recent criticisms of evangelical worship.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/7)

  • Matthew Flanagan has begun posting a revised version of his argument regarding the genocide of the Canaanites. Today’s post argues that Joshua should be read as hagiography rather than literal history:

Thus Joshua itself appears to be full of ritualistic, stylised, formulaic language. It therefore looks like something other than a mere literal description of what occurred. In light of these facts Wolterstorff argues that Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua is hagiographic history; a highly-stylised, exaggerated account of what occurred, designed to teach theological and moral points rather than to describe in detail what actually happened.

  • iMonk reflects on the significance of the Christian calendar after Epiphany.

But for now, in these days following Epiphany, it is time for one remarkable Jesus-prompted surprise and delight after another! Our minds boggle and heads shake at the insightful words Jesus speaks. Our jaws drop in amazed wonder to see him exercise power over nature, bring wholeness to broken lives, and restore vitality where death once reigned. Fear and dread knot our stomachs as cosmic conflict erupts. But Christ speaks with authority, and all is peace.

  • And, here’s a list of the Top 10 Bizarre Toys for Kids. I have to warn you, some of these are seriously twisted and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to need therapy now. The “God Almighty” toy at the top of this post comes from this list.

N.T. Wright on the worldwide hunger for worship

Here’s an interesting video from N.T. Wright on the tremendous hunger that exists in the world for worship and what we can do about it. Specifically, he calls on us to work on two things:

  1. More regular worship. As he says, “frankly, one day a week ain’t good enough.” We need to educate people on individual and family worship so that worship can become a regular part of their daily lives.
  2. More emphasis on liturgy. Wright argues that liturgy can be very helpful in educating people for worship, especially when they are just learning how to do it. He rightly points out that the “imperative to be spontaneous” can be a terrible burden, constraining people from engaging in individual and family worship.

HT

Desiring the Kingdom 8

Moving into the final chapter of the book, James K. A. Smith deals with the question of what all of this emphasis on “liturgy” has to do with Christian education. He begins by continuing his critique of the traditional “worldview” approach to education. He sees this as trying “to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do, but who do them ‘from a Christian perspective’, and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society” (218).  But, he thinks that this approach leaves their desires untouched. ” So, he asks, “Could it be the case that…while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?” (218).

Instead of this “domestication of Christianity” (220) that does little to disrupt or transform our way of being in the world, he argues that Christian education should have the same goal as Christian worship: “to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being god’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor” (220). Thus, Christian education needs to be seen as “extensions of the mission of the church.”

He then walks through three specific practices that he thinks would help make this happen. First, we need to reconnect “Church, Chapel, and Classroom.” Tapping into his argument that we are shaped by liturgical practices, he sees the chapel as an excellent way to connect the practices of the church with the everyday world of the university, so that Christian teaching is formed by “a Christian social imaginary” (225).

Second, we need to reconnect “Classroom, Dorm Room, and Neighborhood” as providing the proper environment for learning. He argues that residential universities provide unique opportunities for creating “intentional communities” shaped by “full-bodied Christian practices,” which could then be extended into the surrounding community. In this way, what is learned in the classroom stays vitally connected to the lived practices of people in community.

Third, we need to reconnect body and mind. He doesn’t comment on this one very much because it’s really been the argument of the whole book. We don’t learn as disembodied minds, but as embodied persons. A truly Christian education should be shaped by this anthropology.

Desiring the Kingdom 7

Chapter 5 is really the heart of the book. Here Smith walks through the embodied practices of a typical into people whose loves are directed toward the Kingdom of God: the space of worship,  gathering together, greeting one another, singing, reading the law, confession, baptism, reading the Apostles’ Creed, prayer, Scripture and sermon, eucharist, offering, and the sending out

I won’t take the time to walk you through each of the various practices that he discusses. Instead, I’ll mention just a few to give you a sense of how his argument develops.

1. The space of worship.

He begins by talking about how the physical space of worship can itself be used to create a “space of worship” that changes according to the liturgical calendar. In this way, “just the space of worship would tell a story that actually organizes time – an indication that here dwells a people with a unique sense of temporality, who inhabit a time that is out of joint with the regular, mundane ticking of commercial time or the standard shape of the academic year” (156). Such a practice would serve as a “counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture” (157), by shaping us as a people formd by an eschatological imagination.

2. The gathering.

Smith argues that the very act of gathering together for worship is an embodied practice. At the very least, we could be at home doing something else that would be shaping us in very different ways. More importantly, gathering expresses our identity as those who have been called from the world to be constituted as the community that praises God. And, the gathering of the community expresses the conviction that this is the place in which human flourishing truly takes place – we are fully human beings insofar as we are worshipping beings.

3. Greeting one another

One of my favorite parts of the chapter was his section on the greeting as a formative practice. Looked at one way, nothing in the service is more trivial and awkward than the practice of “shaking hands with the person next to you.” But, Smith argues that we should see this is as practice that shapes us into a people that appreciates the importance of the community. We are not here as individual and isolated worshippers, but we are here as the people of God.

4. Baptism

Unsurprisingly, Smith sees this as a critical practice for the church. Indeed, “it is a microcosm of the entirety of Christian worship and the story of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (182). More interesting was his emphasis that because baptism serves as the constitution of the people of God, it also serves as a counter-formation to the “idolization of the family” (186). He thinks that modern, liberal society has placed too much emphasis on the family as the primary locus of human flourishing. And, thus, we’ve placed a burden on the family that it was never meant to handle. Instead, baptism reminds us that the family should be a part of the larger people of God. It thus “opens the home, liberating it from the burden of impossible self-sufficiency, while also opening it to the ‘disruptive friendships’ that are the mark of the kingdom of God” (186-7).

Through each of the different discussions, Smith wants us to understand two things. First, each of these practices serves as a counter-formation to other formative practices, directing us toward true human flourishing in the world. And, second, although it’s good for us to understand the theological significance of these practices, it is not necessary for them to have a formative influence. Indeed, the whole idea of a “practice” as he understands it is that its formative significance is pre-cognitive; it shapes us even if we don’t understand precisely how it does so. And, that’s why he argues that these are formative practices even for children or handicapped individuals who would not otherwise be able to grasp the theology embedded in the practices.

Desiring the Kingdom 7

Chapter 5 is really the heart of the book. Here Smith walks through the embodied practices of a typical into people whose loves are directed toward the Kingdom of God: the space of worship, gathering together, greeting one another, singing, reading the law, confession, baptism, reading the Apostles’ Creed, prayer, Scripture and sermon, eucharist, offering, and the sending out

I won’t take the time to walk you through each of the various practices that he discusses. Instead, I’ll mention just a few to give you a sense of how his argument develops.

1. The space of worship.

He begins by talking about how the physical space of worship can itself be used to create a “space of worship” that changes according to the liturgical calendar. In this way, “just the space of worship would tell a story that actually organizes time – an indication that here dwells a people with a unique sense of temporality, who inhabit a time that is out of joint with the regular, mundane ticking of commercial time or the standard shape of the academic year” (156). Such a practice would serve as a “counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture” (157), by shaping us as a people formd by an eschatological imagination.

2. The gathering.

Smith argues that the very act of gathering together for worship is an embodied practice. At the very least, we could be at home doing something else that would be shaping us in very different ways. More importantly, gathering expresses our identity as those who have been called from the world to be constituted as the community that praises God. And, the gathering of the community expresses the conviction that this is the place in which human flourishing truly takes place – we are fully human beings insofar as we are worshipping beings.

3. Greeting one another

One of my favorite parts of the chapter was his section on the greeting as a formative practice. Looked at one way, nothing in the service is more trivial and awkward than the practice of “shaking hands with the person next to you.” But, Smith argues that we should see this is as practice that shapes us into a people that appreciates the importance of the community. We are not here as individual and isolated worshippers, but we are here as the people of God.

4. Baptism

Unsurprisingly, Smith sees this as a critical practice for the church. Indeed, “it is a microcosm of the entirety of Christian worship and the story of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (182). More interesting was his emphasis that because baptism serves as the constitution of the people of God, it also serves as a counter-formation to the “idolization of the family” (186). He thinks that modern, liberal society has placed too much emphasis on the family as the primary locus of human flourishing. And, thus, we’ve placed a burden on the family that it was never meant to handle. Instead, baptism reminds us that the family should be a part of the larger people of God. It thus “opens the home, liberating it from the burden of impossible self-sufficiency, while also opening it to the ‘disruptive friendships’ that are the mark of the kingdom of God” (186-7).

Through each of the different discussions, Smith wants us to understand two things. First, each of these practices serves as a counter-formation to other formative practices, directing us toward true human flourishing in the world. And, second, although it’s good for us to understand the theological significance of these practices, it is not necessary for them to have a formative influence. Indeed, the whole idea of a “practice” as he understands it is that its formative significance is pre-cognitive; it shapes us even if we don’t understand precisely how it does so. And, that’s why he argues that these are formative practices even for children or handicapped individuals who would not otherwise be able to grasp the theology embedded in the practices.

Desiring the Kingdom 4

Continuing with our series on Desiring the Kingdom, Smith is now ready to move into the heart of his argument. So, he contends in the second chapter that contrary to our common conception of ourselves, the majority of our behavior is driven by our habits rather than our choices. Indeed, he cites research supporting the idea that only 5% of of human behavior flows from conscious choice. And, this means two things. (1) “Automatic” processes exercise tremendous influence in our lives. And, (2) we’re deceiving ourselves if we think these are limited to mundane or routine behaviors. So, we need to consider how these automatic processes are shaped and the impact that this has on us.

Smith recognizes that we need to distinguish between “thin” cultural practices (mundane, everyday actions with less impact on identity) and “thick” cultural practices (habits that shape who we are). To that end, Smith offers the following definitions of certain key terms:

  • A “ritual” is any action performed routinely.
  • A “practice” is any action performed routinely that is directed toward a particular end.
  • A “liturgy” is a “ritual of ultimate concern” (p. 86)

These definitions are clearly sequential with the latter two embedded in the first. That is, something could be a ritual without being a practice, but all practices are necessarily rituals. What makes the difference is that all practices are intentionally directed toward some end. They are not mundane actions with little or no real significance (e.g. tying my shoes in a certain way), but they are actions that are specifically designed to form us in certain ways so that we will desire certain ends. Thus, there can be no neutral practices, they are all “meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely they grab hold of our loves – they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition” (p. 83). Thus, my practice of kissing my wife every morning before I leave for work is a ritual that forms me to be a certain kind of person – i.e. one who desires his wife. And, much of this happens at a pre-conscious level. I’m not aware that my desires are being shaped and reinforced every time that I do this, but they are.

And, for Smith, liturgies go one step further. They are not simply rituals directed toward a particular end, but they are rituals directed toward an ultimate end. In other words, practices designed to form in us a desire for something that should be our ultimate concern. They are “rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (p. 86). So, a Christian worship service is a liturgy because it is designed to make us into beings who desire God above all else. And, we’ll discuss in the next post that going to the mall is also a liturgy in the way that it shapes our identities and ultimate concerns.