If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn. For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:
Her present chapter is entitled “Discovering Our Place in the Story,” which looks at the practical dimensions of liturgy, worship and art.
Dawn argues that performance is the outcome when God is no longer the subject of worship. She borrows from C.S. Lewis in saying that the best liturgy is one that we are not aware of. We are to “dance without having to count steps.” The concern is that the church’s penchant for novelty (in an effort to appeal to consumers) relegates the worship of the church to mere entertainment.
THE VALUE OF AESTHETICS AND CHARACTER FORMATION
Since the time of the enlightenment, there has been a movement away from the majesty of the cathedral to the simplicity of the chapel. The revivalism of the centuries that followed provided us with the ascendancy of showmanship even amidst two divergent theological contexts. The seeker-friendly movement of the last few decades is the natural outcome of this, where the Church has blended the artistic expressions of popular culture with those of historic Christianity. Even the architecture was meant to reflect that of the culture that surrounded it, resulting in churches that looked more like shopping malls, business centers and warehouses than the cathedrals of old.
Churches were motivated by pragmatism and utility. The need for a “multi-purpose room” outweighed the need for a sanctuary. And not without reason: the rise of children’s and youth programs with a concomitantly diminishing budget often necessitates such flexibility in building use.
But the end result was the loss of both beauty and sacred space. Part of the issue we now face is that each successive generation, while deeply shaped by the generation that preceded it, wants to escape the trappings and stale traditions they grew up in.
For the boomer generation, this meant exchanging the stale traditions they had grown up in for the contemporary expressions that have now become normative within the megachurch/church growth world. We don’t need a sanctuary, they insisted, we need a place that looks just like our jobs and offices. But the postmodern generations of today are doing the same thing: shirking the traditions of the previous generation in favor of new directions, which, ironically, resemble the traditions their parents had worked to escape from.
And because of this, rising generations place value in such things as beauty and transcendence – often because such things capture or at least contribute to the experiential, emotion-driven faith systems that they possess.
Dawn writes that beauty is inherently valuable, because
“Our increasingly ugly world makes it all the more imperative for worship to remind us of God’s beauty. Psychologists and sociologists (and even architects) comment on the fact that fewer and fewer people are able to enjoy the beauties of creation. Poverty leads to city squalor and overcrowding; busyness prevents many from taking time for the beautiful; and modern art often turns to grotesque and violent forms. Beautiful worship will foster in our character genuine humility and awe at the beauty of forgiveness, and profound thanksgiving that God invites us to share in the heavenly beauty of which we get glimpses while here on earth.” (p. 249)
The problem of course is that “beauty” is often mistaken to rest in the eye of the beholder rather than in the character of God. The reasons for this are manifold, some of which are cultural, and some of which are religious (pietism, for instance, has taught us to eschew all symbols in favor of strong, personal devotion). This combined with the penchant for “attractional” worship often leads us to the commodification of beauty. Beauty is therefore both subjective, in that audiences determine what is beautiful, and beauty is useful, in that it is a tool for attracting people. While philosophers throughout history have often been guilty of reducing beauty to the point of abstraction, contemporary culture has reduced beauty to the level of fashion.
Dawn therefore cautions that
“Out of concern for character formation, churches must think very carefully in planning the liturgy. We must not ask, Is this liturgy attractive? but always, What kind of character does this nurture? Does our liturgy focus on feelings rather than on God’s character, which evokes these feelings? If so, we will nurture a faith that depends on emotions rather than a faith that can cling to who God is in spite of human experiences of sorrow or estrangement. Does liturgy focus on the self and lead to pride, or does it focus on God and lead to humility, awe and thanksgiving, and petition?” (p. 249)
In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards spoke of God as either being a bonum utile or a bonum formosum, Latin phrases meaning “a useful good” or “goodness and beauty in itself.” Today’s world renders beauty into a bonum utile – beauty only has value if it attracts people to our church. But God created beauty to be a bonum formosum – to be enjoyed because it demonstrates God’s significance. The merchant sold all he had to purchase the pearl of great price. Jesus tells this story not so that readers would pity such a man, but understand that beauty (specifically, found in God’s revealed character in His kingdom) cannot be measured by standards of utility.
What Dawn is seeking to capture is that worship is beautiful inasmuch as it reflects the beauty of its object. Worship draws deep emotion not by cultivating emotion itself, but by directing our gaze toward the attributes of God which themselves elicit emotion. This distinction may seem subtle, but makes all the difference in the world with regard to character development and genuine community, because only such an approach makes much of the character of God rather than merely pandering to the contemporary, fashionable preferences of the world.
ISOLATION AND COMMUNITY
Dawn next articulates the way that isolationism has influenced the way we do community. She suggests that some are more comfortable in liturgical settings, where ritual does not demand that they be exposed before the scrutiny of others, though the rituals are themselves training them toward community and intimacy.
Her chapter continues in describing various aspects of worship such as the use of Psalms, creeds, traditional faith expressions and even silence as vehicles for genuine worship.
Beauty is one key to reaching the rising generations. As we discussed in an earlier post, one of the key problems facing the Church is that in the rejection of tradition and symbol, we have lost our ability to pass on our faith to both rising generations as well as outsiders. But recovering beauty and symbol can be a vital way of reaching others as well as uniting the Church.
Here I am not speaking of resurrecting stale traditions simply for tradition’s sake. Instead, I am speaking of the value of the Lord’s Table.
In theology, beauty is encapsulated in the framework of God’s redemptive story. Story matters to people in significant ways. Consider the following two quotations on the meaning and significance of story:
“As the biblical story unfolds, it does so in stories and poetry. In fact, approximately seventy-five percent of scripture consists of narrative, fifteen percent is expressed in poetic forms and only ten percent is propositional and overtly instructional in nature. In our retelling of the same story, we have reverses this biblical pattern. Today an estimated ten percent of our communication is designed to capture the imagination of the listener, while ninety percent is purely instructive.” (Colin Harbinson, “Restoring the Arts to the Church: The Role of Creativity in the Expression of Truth,” Lausanne World Pulse Magazine (online), July 2006)
“The new conversations, on which our very lives depend, require a poet not a moralist. Because finally church people are like other people; we are not changed by new rules. The deep places in our lives – places of resistance and embrace – are not ultimately reached by instruction. Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from fear or hurt.” (David Fitch, “The Myth of Expository Preaching (Part 2): Proclamation That Inspires the Imagination,” Out of Ur (conversations hosted by the editors of Leadership Journal), Christianity Today blog, posted July 25, 2006))
The Lord’s Table is important because it connects us to God’s story using the common language of the bread and cup. We are simultaneously reminded of God’s past faithfulness to His people in Egypt, reminded of the significance of Christ’s redemptive work at Calvary, and are joined together to celebrate the coming work of Christ that is yet future. Postmodern generations may find immense value in such symbols, and they themselves can be tools to make the old traditions and stories new again, reviving not only tradition and doctrine, but the very hearts of the believing community.
In Dawn’s next section, she explains how worship can be used as a tool for reaching our culture.