Monday, March 24, 2008

Unmasking The Pressure For Informality

---by N.T. Wright

My first point is that we must unmask the present pressure towards informality for what it is. It has virtually nothing to do with the Christian gospel and virtually everything to do with the spirit of the age. This is not of course to say that informal worship in all sorts of contexts is not right, proper, and honoring to God. But when informality becomes the rule it becomes just as dangerous as the wrong sort of formality. Let me tell you what I think has happened.

The Reformers protested, rightly in my view, against the way in which the mediaeval church had turned liturgy, and much else besides, into a quasi-pagan system of magic ritual, which enhanced the power of those who operated it and did little or nothing to let the true gospel shine out. And the Reformers used Paul's attack on the so-called "Judaizers" to make their point. Since the Reformation, however, three great cultural movements have occurred, none of them owing much directly to the Bible or the gospel, but all of them in various ways providing a new spin for how we hear the Reformers, and hence, alas, Paul, today.

First, the Enlightenment, with its ugly ditch between ideas and facts, the eternal truths of reason and the contingent events of history. The split of religion and real life grows from this, giving the clear impression that what matters in religion is the ideas you have in your head rather than the things that happen, including the things that you do, to and through your body. Luther's antithesis of faith and works suddenly becomes the antithesis between internal faith and external events, allied to the Enlightenment's subtle pressures towards privatization of faith and hence its removal from the public arena—which, as we have seen, constitutes a direct challenge to the New Testament. There is a great deal of Enlightenment rhetoric, hiding under Reformation language, in the church today.

Second, the Romantic movement: what matters now is feeling rather than form, the heart rather than the head or the body. Of course this plugs right in to the New Testament's language—which is there in Judaism as well, not least in the Scrolls and some of the Rabbis—about the necessity for the heart to be in tune with God, rather than going through outward form. That goes back at least to Amos and Isaiah, and is reinforced by Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and others. But what the Romantic movement was saying was subtly different from what the New Testament had said: it invited you to look within, to see what feelings you had, and to make them the center of your world, rather than seeing the love of the heart for the true God as the gift of God through gospel, word, and spirit. The trouble with the Romantic movement is that it never took account of Jeremiah's warning, repeated in the New Testament, that the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.

Third, the existentialist movements of the twentieth century have taken us back to gnosticism. Each of us has inside ourselves a true self which, though long buried, is now to be discovered and enabled to flourish. This, ironically, is actually a form of Pelagianism: what you need, if you are an existentialist or a gnostic, is not to be confronted by the gospel and redeemed from your present state, but to be helped to discover "who you really are." Huge swathes of our contemporary culture are built on this premise, and churches both liberal and conservative have bought it hook line and sinker.

(Perhaps I might add as an aside that one of the great triumphs of the film The Lord of the Rings is that it takes precisely the opposite line, urging us to find our true selves by following and staying loyal to the vocation that comes from outside, challenging us to do and be what otherwise we would not have.) But the snare of existentialism is that, as in the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, it appears before us wearing the robes of a sixteenth-century Reformer, telling us that all pressures from the outside are "Law," which must be abolished if we are to attain authentic existence.

The Enlightenment, the Romantic movement, and existentialism have all thus used the rhetoric of the Reformation to press their own quite different agendas. And the result is that today in many churches, not least those within evangelical Christianity in its broadest senses, we find in all kinds of ways a complex of agendas which owe everything to these three cuckoos in the nest, especially the last two, almost nothing to the Reformation, and nothing at all to the New Testament.

Let it be said loud and clear that there is nothing in set forms of worship which is of itself opposed to the gospel; that abolishing robes, liturgies, ministerial offices, and the like has nothing to do with getting back to New Testament worship; that spontaneity and lack of preparation, though God can use them powerfully, can just as easily be marks of laziness and captivity to spurious philosophies.

Iconography can lead to idolatry; but iconoclasm can easily be a sign of dualism, of an anti-creational emphasis that is actually opposed to the creator God and the redemption of the world in Jesus Christ. We need to think through the cultural and sociological roots of what we do in church, lest we suppose ourselves to be advancing the gospel while instead merely turning the church into a sub-branch of the world.

There is another danger here which I just mention in passing. Protestantism, in protesting against magic, has often tried to do away with mystery as well. Liturgy of all sorts can often open up the mystery of God and the gospel like nothing else; and sometimes this can reveal and release powerful emotions, doing so within a safe and God-given context. Sometimes those who do their best to subvert liturgy, not least through chopping services about, adding and subtracting bits here and there, do so precisely in order to keep the mystery at bay and thus to hold the emotions in check. Sometimes when people protest against "bare rituals" which go on without the heart being involved (how do they know that, by the way?), they are in fact criticizing the exact opposite: the God-given ritual of worship through which the heart is precisely involved, with its wounds being exposed to the healing love of God. Within some Protestant circles today there is a rejection both of the sacraments and of spiritual gifts, a rejection which springs, in my judgment, not from a genuine Reformation insight, still less a Pauline one, but rather from the desire to control the emotions, and indeed the congregation, to protect them from the gospel rather than allow them to be exposed to it.

To insist on a free-flowing succession of worship songs at the whim of one leader is not to strike a blow against ritualism, but to put that leader precisely in the place where the Reformers saw the mediaeval priest, coming between the worshipers and God. Good liturgy preserves us from personality cults whether Catholic or Protestant.

Nor is it a matter of working out "what this congregation will be comfortable with." Who says you ought always to be comfortable in the presence of Almighty God? But, nor should one simply ask "what does this congregation need to wake them up?"; who says it is your place to shock and startle the people of God? There will be shocks, of course, and there also will be the deep comfort of the familiar. Good liturgy, planned carefully week by week and year by year, will bring the two together so that they complement and reinforce each other and, most importantly, build up the worshipers in the knowledge and love of God and send them out refreshed for their kingdom-tasks in the world.

We must, then, resist the culture-driven pressures to informality. Informality has its place, but it is not the be-all and end-all, and of itself has nothing specific to do with the gospel.

1 comment:

ScottH said...

"Free flowing succession of worship songs?" "Medieval priest?" Hmm,I recollect seeing that somewhere. Any of you guys remember where?