Weekly Miscellany II: Nietzsche and Nazism, and More on Worship

Weekly Miscellany II: November 11-17, 2013

Key scriptures under contemplation

Exodus 14-15

These chapters detail the humiliation of Pharaoh at the Red (or Reed) Sea. Again, I am familiar enough with the literal-historical aspects of the story that I am mostly interested in a typological examination. Some aspects of the story have obvious parallels: Moses leads Israel through the waters, by faith, Hebrews 11 states, as though on dry land. Water and the sea often stand for death or Hades in Scriptures and in Hebrew culture. Even so, Christ has opened a way for his people through death. Yet I find interesting as well what comes immediately after the Red Sea hymn, even in the same chapter: the cleansing of the waters of Marah. The thirsty Israelites groaned when the spring they found spewed forth undrinkable bitter water; Moses took a branch from a tree and, throwing it into the spring, made the waters sweet. Moses then preaches a God, so recently shown to be a destroyer of the wicked, who is healer of the righteous.

There is an astonishing parallel to this whole sequence of events in 2 Kings 1-2. The first chapter details how divinely-inspired Elijah rebukes the idolatrous king of Samaria by calling fire down on his armies, which have been sent to fetch the prophet. Two of the evil monarch’s captains perish with their soldiers before the angel of YHWH tells Elijah to spare the third captain, who has bowed down to him in reverent fear, and to go to the king. Elijah goes and informs the king, who is wounded and sick, that he is soon to die in his bed, and he does. Shortly thereafter, in chapter 2, Elijah is taken into Heaven by chariots of fire; divine fire, which a chapter before consumed one hundred men, has become Elijah’s gateway to paradise.

But the parallels are far more explicit in the events that follow, which employ water-imagery heavily. Elijah has been carried into Heaven by the chariots of the Almighty; Elisha, using Elijah’s mantle, parts the waters of the Jordan in a manner reminiscent of the Red Sea miracle. I was startled Tuesday when I noticed for the first time that the next thing Elisha does is cleanse the cursed waters of Jericho. The pattern of events in Exodus is followed exactly, despite the different circumstances. While the “sons of the prophets” at Jericho send out men to search for the raptured Elijah, Elisha demonstrates his true prophetic power by rescinding an ancient curse on Jericho (see Joshua 6:26 and 1 Kings 16:34). He does not use a branch, but he fills a new jar with salt and casts the salt into the waters. This cleanses the waters forever and makes the land fertile.

In the Marah story, we see the interaction of two elements: the waters of destruction, and the branch of healing. The Israelites, so recently passed safely through the waters, now find that the bitterness of death is turned to sweetness and nourishment. It is Christ’s wooden cross, the blessed tree, that changes the waters of death into waters of life (the Church Fathers often associated the waters as well with the Law, which the cross makes sweet, but I will not pursue that line of interpretation for now).

The story of Elisha seems at first glance to be about inheritance of power rather than salvation. And indeed, the miracles of parting and cleansing are in the immediate temporal context intended to confirm Elisha’s new status as true, Mosaic prophet of God. Nevertheless, the fact that these first two miracles emulate on a small scale the salvation imagery and sequence of Exodus suggests that there is another layer of meaning. Moses preserves his people through the Red Sea and then satisfied their thirst with sweetness. Elisha crosses safely back over the Jordan, beyond whose waters Elijah was taken from this life, and brings with him the power to transmute cursed water and heal a barren land. Both are ultimately stories of regeneration through death.

Salt is used rather than a tree branch, here. Salt was a symbol of purification; it accompanied every sacrificial offering in the Mosaic law. Christ’s disciples—inheritors of his name and authority—are the salt of the world, and in their earthly works the Father is glorified. In performing these miracles, Elisha did invoke Elijah and trace back a prophetic lineage to Moses, who redeemed his people from slavery and death. Elisha, in passing through the waters and beholding Elijah’s rapture, was a witness of the power of God over death; he brought that power back with him and used it to redeem the land. Even so, we who are in Christ are called to exercise the power of earthly redemption brought spiritually by Christ in his Resurrection, to offer back to God the world wherein we must labor in faith. Both these sequences, in Exodus and Kings, reveal a salvation-pattern that points to the work of Christ; the latter reminds us, too, that we are participants in the work of the Kingdom of God, which is our inheritance. We are put to death with Christ, following him through the waters of baptism and the curtain of death, and find on the other side that the waters have become life and sweetness. It is our task still to show the world that sweetness, as salt and light and sons of the Light, to bring healing and redemption.

(Note: It might be possible to extend this discussion to Elisha’s third miracle, which is briefly described but no less a part of this sequence of prophetic confirmation. That would be the bear-mauling of the “youths” of Bethel (whom some interpreters believe to be servants of the cult center there), who mock Elisha, telling him to “go up” (as he claimed Elijah did; this is oddly reminiscent of the reverse taunt “come down” delivered to a crucified Jesus). The theme here is God’s confrontation with and destruction of the forces of evil, which could perhaps be paralleled with the drowning of the Egyptians. Additionally, there is a rich patristic tradition which associates Joshua’s defeat of Amalek with Christ’s victory on the cross. But I’m trying to limit myself and stick with the more obvious and justifiable typological similarities, for now.)


John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (1980)

Andrew Louth, lecture series, “Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Personal Introduction” (2011)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (works from 1872-1889)

Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric (2000)

A meditation from a Catholic priest and theologian on the relationship between arts and the church. Less focused on theological aesthetics than much of what I’ve been reading, but it contains interesting discussions on the history and theology of the use of various arts in worship and Christian life.

Gregory Wolfe, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Faith, Art and Mystery (2003) FINISHED

A collection of short essays from the editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion, compared by Annie Dillard to Flannery O’Connor’s excellent Mystery and Manners. A lot of good stuff here on Christianity and art and an easy read.


1. Nietzsche and Nazism

I last tried to read Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra while at Belhaven, and I didn’t get far. I now possess a book containing a number of Nietzsche’s philosophical works, and it’s been high on my to-read list for the last couple months. Tuesday night I picked it up again and read the first fifty pages with considerably more interest and attention than before. Thus Spake Zarathustra is framed as a story, a narrative of the oriental hermit Zarathustra, who after ten years in the mountains decides to descend to the people below and bring them the light of his knowledge. He finds to his surprise that they have not yet realized that God is dead, and goes about teaching them a new way of health and power which will allow them to transcend their humanity—the way of the superman.

Nietzsche’s starting-place is the concept of evolution (not necessarily biological) and his perception of the diseased nature of modern society. Mankind, as he sees it, has the opportunity to reach a new point of moral development, effecting so profound a change that the new man, the superman, will look back on humanity as humanity looks back on the ape. What is the disease that holds men back? Christianity is one major feature, for it is a system of values that “preaches death,” denigrates the body, elevates the weak and the sick and holds back the strong. The superman creates his own values, exercises his own will to shape his world. He becomes a liberated self, a god, whom no morality or human weakness can fetter. We must stop trying to make “good men,” and instead set about making the superman.

So Zarathustra, ignored by the crowds, finds an audience only in a dying rope-dancer, fallen from his tightrope. The rope-dancer expresses his fear that the Devil is coming to drag him to Hell; Zarathustra summarily disabuses him of the notion that there is any life after death. His listener then worries that he has been a mere animal “taught to dance by blows and scanty fare,” for whom death is as meaningless as life. On the contrary, Zarathustra asserts, the rope-dancer has chosen a life of danger and died nobly in his calling. Gratified, the rope-dancer dies, and Zarathustra resolves to bury his body. The rope-dancer has become a symbol of the man who boldly dares to cross the abyss in search of the superman’s world; for man, as Zarathustra asserts, is merely a bridge between animal and superman, and despisers of the body (religious folk), want to turn back to the dark, animal ages, where reason meant raving and health meant sickness—rather than creating the “upright man,” they want to perpetuate the “sickly man,” who lives under the pretense of moral absolutes and self-denial.

Quite by coincidence, at Wednesday’s aesthetics class Dr. Hause showed the first forty minutes of a documentary on the Nazis and art dramatically titled Architecture of Doom. The documentary took some time to hone in on Nazi racial ideals. I remember it being emphasized to me in a graduate course that the Nazis must not be seen as merely “against” this or that, but to be fully understood should be evaluated in the light of their positive ideals and goals. In this case, the Nazis were not simply opposed to the Jews or the Gypsies or the homosexuals, but were engaged in a vast program designed to purify the racial and national body of its diseases and hindrances—to create a Nietzschean/Darwinian racial superman to dominate the new age. Euthanasia and sterilization were their tools, doctors and artist and politicians their heroes, the mentally ill and asocial and racially impure their enemies, in this fight to reverse modern national disintegration. The mystery of vast, glorious creative-destructive power, the power of remaking, dominated fascist rhetoric, and it won many believers. Hence the totalitarian state absorbed or cowed virtually all religious and civil institutions; banned ugly, “degenerate” modern art; and contained or massacred undesirables, in order to fulfill a vision of a beautiful, utopian world in which the “new man,” free of genetic and psychological defects, could live in peace and happiness. As historians have pointed out, the face of early Nazism was comprised of respectable intellectuals, aspiring artists, and idealists. Though the party was eventually dominated by violent rogues and corrupt, power-hungry politicians, who alienated the German population, early Nazis offered an attractive vision suggesting solutions to Germany’s problems: racial purification and social Darwinism. The post-capitalist society, free of class conflict, would be founded on a unified national and racial character. Though violence was inherent in their philosophy, as it was in Nietzsche’s, many of them may not have dreamed of the true magnitude of killing that would result in the quest to create the new man and an utopian world in which to house him.

Against this, as we studied in aesthetics, the German Marxists (such as the doomed Walter Benjamin) put forward their arguments. Their vision for the new world, for the revolution, was completely different, for it relied on debunking the mystic gravity the Nazis reveled in, in favor of a pragmatic materialism. The Nazis were predominantly irreligious, though often interested in the occult, and willing to manipulate the liberal German church rather than destroy it; they tried to substitute a national secular/pseudoscientific mystique for religious sentiment. The Marxists, however, would do away with mystique and such dangerous intangibles as genius and creativity and spirituality altogether, as Benjamin openly asserted. Their aggressive social vision, in a way Nazism did not despite a similar militancy and interest in social engineering, alienated the bourgeois and shocked the religious. In the struggle for the future, it was grandiose, fascist-utopian Nazism that defeated the cold, rational world of Marxism.

Nietzsche, of course, was more openly hostile to religion than the Nazis, but his aesthetic and aims were closer to those of the fascists than of the Marxists. The form of Thus Spake Zarathustra confesses as much; despite his materialism, the protagonist (whose name is taken from the legendary founder of Zoroastrianism) is a sort of guru, a spiritual guide who takes and subverts the traditional religious tools of the sermon, the hymn, the parable, and the proverb, in order to preach a new order and a new man. Nietzsche in Ecce Homo explains that Dionysius, the spirit of art, is in opposition to Christ, the spirit of restraint and the antithesis of the purely aesthetic—Dionysius is the Antichrist proper.

Whereas the fascists employed a populist nationalism that placed the German folk at the top of the hierarchy, Nietzsche was not interested in making the masses atheistic supermen—he wished principally to free the genuine philosophers of religious fetters, of Christianity’s infectious neurosis, that they could then use the religion of the masses as a means of control and direction. Egotism and self-interested appropriation would become the positive values of the new free spirits, the supermen, while sympathy and humility would be pushed down as weak and soft and outmoded. Nietzsche virulently decried (in Beyond Good and Evil) the “equalizing” or “mediocrising” tendencies of the democrats and especially the socialists, who would brutally force conformation of the exceptional man to collective identity, and who would rule by the degenerative folly of mere majority rather than the wisdom of the philosophers. Even science, Nietzsche argued, has justly escaped subservience to theology only to in turn conquer philosophy—the field in which great men create values—and reduce it to a “theory of knowledge.” Under the authority of learned men susceptible to the same faults as the ignorant and ignoble, the field of science perpetuates pseudoreligious sentiment and is now used to hold back the exceptional man. But with man’s expanding field of vision, Nietzsche hoped science and philosophy would one day be totally free of conceptions such as “God” and “sin.”

Nietzsche did have a place for art. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche exclaims that “art—and not morality—is set down as the properly metaphysical activity of man; …the existence of the world is justified only as an esthetic phenomenon” (154, emphasis in original). Despite the obvious association between his Dionysian aesthetic and romanticism, he opposed romanticism because of its tendency to world-weary resignation—Nietzsche noted that romanticists often end up in the “metaphysical comforts” of Christianity (think Lewis and his transformative experience of Sehnsucht). Instead, the superman must revel in the chaos of the present world, laugh at it, and dominate it. The interconnectedness between philosophy (worldview) and the aesthetic could not be more in evidence.

Meanwhile, the Fascists combed through art, as they did other parts of life, to eliminate anything outside of or subversive of their vision. Everything had to affirm and be compatible with the new, ideal world they were trying to mold. For Hitler personally, art had to strike him as beautiful, authentically German à la Wagner (Nietzsche thought highly of Wagner in early life, but was disillusioned by the religious undertones of later works such as Parsifal, which the Nazis banned; nevertheless, he would not have liked Nazism’s romantic utopianism or its nationalism). The tender, the weak, the subservient tendencies Nietzsche ascribed to Christianity, were mirrored in metaphor and analogue as morally, even tangibly equivalent to sickness and sensual ugliness. The fascists identified these things with the genetically impure and asocial—the Jews and Slavs and all those who held Aryan Germany back. Art which encouraged such degradedness, both agreed, was to be viewed with suspicion and ultimately eliminated, for it depicted and exalted a warped view of the world.

The aesthetic in Nietzsche was absolute worldly indulgence, a substitute for the ontologically metaphysical; for the Nazis, the genuine aesthetic was not necessarily self-indulgent, but it was worldly, and spoke truly to their vision of the world as it should be. All worldviews must contain at least an appearance of aesthetic coherency to be satisfying; this is, I think, more important even than logical coherency; the Nazi aesthetic was based on the twin pillars of power and purity.

I am reminded of last week’s thoughts on how certain civilizations have used the aesthetic to bring into union the moral/spiritual and physical realms. Nietzsche and the Nazis took advantage of similar currents, though for them the aesthetic was self-sufficient rather than a portal to the transcendent Good. Thus Benjamin and his fellow Marxists wished to radically re-define the aesthetic for the modern age, so as to eliminate all perception (“aura”) of transcendence and uniqueness, whether that be religious transcendence or the fascist cult of the genius and mystical racial body of the nation. For the Marxists there must be neither God nor superman, only the economic dilemma of the worker, to be solved not by beauty or faith but by the coming Revolution. Interestingly, the cost of this radical materialism was all manner of notion of human creativity or hierarchy of experience; art in the machine age, according to Benjamin, finds its grounding not in religious (or pseudoreligious) ritual but in politics. In summary, for premoderns art granted access to or embodied the metaphysical, for Nietzscheans art was the metaphysical, and for the Marxists art had to be extricated from all notion of the metaphysical.

Nietzsche, prophet of the new man, suffered a breakdown and went insane. Nazis, aspiring makers of the new man, stoked the fires of Hell in Europe before the world fully realized their ideal was less than human.

(Bonus: Read G. K. Chesterton’s satire of the Nietzschean “superman” online, at http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/HIFTS.html)

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2. Dewey’s Aesthetics and Right Worship

In this week’s readings from Dewey’s Art as Experience, I was impressed by a series of his observations. His third chapter continues to argue that the aesthetic is a part of regular human functioning. He discusses the concept of “the (singular) experience,” as something distinct from the general term experience. When we speak of having an experience, we are speaking of moments fused by the mind into unity through a shared peculiar quality. These experiences, perceived aesthetically, involve some kind of movement that achieves consummation, or a conclusion.[1] The enemies of the aesthetic are the “humdrum” and conventional, which disrupt the unity of the experience or stagnate it. Experiences are emotional in the sense that emotional movement is the unifying force of the experience, not that experiences contain discrete things called emotions.

The basic structure of an experience, which for Dewey becomes a model for artistic experience, involves interaction between the acting subject and the external world that results in mutual adaptation to one another. Man shapes his world and is shaped by it. Perceiving these connections and relationships within a larger scope is the work of intelligence. Most of our lives are spent bustling from one thing to the next, such that we take no time to appreciate experience, to really understand (see the quote below); good art demands that both artist and receiver pause, reflect, and so truly perceive, which is the essence of the aesthetic. Art-making relies on this, and on the dialogue between artist and material, to intensify experience through a given physical medium. Art-perceiving must involve active engagement, or it is mere recognition, which cuts short development of perception and channels receptivity into a mere falling-back on old mental stereotypes, not allowing the individual to yield himself or herself emotionally, to truly perceive and be changed. The “beholder” of art has a responsibility to work to perceive relationships within the art—the percipient “creates” an experience as much as the maker—or he or she will be unable to fully perceive and at most recognize. “His ‘appreciation’ will be a mixture of scraps of learning with conformity to norms of conventional admiration and with a confused, even if genuine, emotional excitation” (56).

As usual, I find these thoughts very helpful in enriching my view of art and honing my criticisms of modern culture, and also prompting thoughts as to spiritual parallels. It would seem that prayer and contemplation require a similar willingness to slow down, to have “a complete experience”; the Church Fathers, who often discussed the idea of right prayer, argued for a state that resembles that ideal for viewing art: free of distraction, humble, dispassionate (not in the sense of emotionless, for high value was placed on tears, but concentrated and inwardly serene rather than angry or impetuous). Such prayer did not even have to consist of words, or only a few simple words repeated such as “Lord, have mercy.” The emphasis should be on turning the contrite heart to God, and loquacity can be distracting from this aim.

But I also am reminded again of my earlier thoughts on corporate worship. Can we not agree that a worship service ought to be “an experience” as Dewey defines it—a complete movement that rises out of the ordinary stream of life? Should we not attend to the importance of working and taking time to truly perceive? But what does this mean?

There is a lot we take for granted about worship in America today. According to a 2002 Barna poll, 47% of lay respondents considered worship to be chiefly a matter of personal benefit, as opposed to 29% who thought worship was focused mostly on God and about 20% who weren’t sure what the purpose of it was. 30% picked out worship music as the single most important factor in church-shopping, but only 26% of pastors considered worship a ministry priority. On the other hand, this survey makes a surprising discovery: laypeople tend far more than pastors to want time for quiet reflection, private confession, and reciting creeds, whereas pastors rank music much higher.[2] Though I am not sure how much I should trust Barna, and all denominations are collapsed into a single mass, it is suggestive of the confused state of much of American Christianity about the meaning and place of worship. Much has been written by folks on board with the relevance movement how worship is now (and we ought to embrace this development) more about spiritual expression than cognitive engagement, and people (who care at all) generally end up where they feel most connected and passionate.

When employing a large historical-geographical lens, the picture is a bit different. Richard Viladesau in Theology and the Arts notes that early Christianity had an often difficult relationship with the arts, especially music. Many of the Church Fathers believed music, especially instrumental music or popular forms, should not be permitted in church, for one or more of three reasons: (1) it made worship of God too much resemble licentious pagan worship, (2) it served as a distraction from “inner music,” one’s ability to properly contemplate and worship God, and (3) the sung word hindered one’s ability to receive the sacred text. Elaborate Old Testament instrumental worship was an allowance for spiritual immaturity, not a command for the new Church. Many interpreted St. Paul’s instruction to engage in “spiritual songs” as a worship radically different from the noise and jubilation of pagan rites, expressing an inward state only in monophonic singing or chanting that exalted the sacred text. Augustine noted that music, though it could draw people toward God, could nevertheless entrap them in inferior sensory beauty and dissuade a soul from continuing its worshipful ascent to the transcendent beauty of God. Over the centuries, as competition with paganism ceased to be a major issue, strictures relaxed somewhat to allow polyphony and limited complexity. Though he still did not believe in instrumental music in liturgy, Aquinas pushed against traditional stigmas by suggesting that spiritual music could direct the mind to God even if the words were difficult to pick up. However, John Calvin and many of the more iconoclastic Reformers were very conservative, and believed that singing should be Psalms only and unaccompanied. Even Wesley and Spurgeon and many Baptist and Methodist groups opposed instrumental music (or at least thought them dispensable) through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In most churches today, instrumental music is an integral and unquestioned part of worship. As Viladesau points out, however, there are some strong arguments here against music in worship that should not just be dismissed because they are unfashionable. Plenty of non-Christians or nominal Christians show up to various worship services for “an appreciation of its beauty, without commitment to its meaning” (34), something very easy to do if the aesthetic element is carried to an extreme. Hence many of the Church Fathers (and later Reformers) put away “irrational” forms of worship as distracting from doctrine and the presence of the saving Word, which is rational and spiritual rather than aesthetic.

The most obvious reconciliation was the path of Luther and Aquinas, which suggested that beautiful music can be incorporated in worship so long as it is used to serve the sacred text. Assessments even more positive developed after Aquinas, as Aristotelian ideas about the music of the creation took root in the medieval imagination. Luther would call church music, i.e., hymns sung by an enthusiastic congregation, “sonorous preaching.” Theologian Rudolf Otto suggested that music can imitate or serve as an analogy of spiritual experience or modes; the aesthetics of music, though distinct from other forms of experience, can stimulate spiritual experience by analogy. Hence certain kinds of music could be considered appropriate (or inappropriate) for communicating spiritual meaning at a given time, such as that musical form which provides (according to whatever culture) proper reverence or expression during worship. Viladesau suggests we go further than Otto, and look at the possibility of music and the holy being “coexperienced”—that there is in fact a transcendental dimension to music, a “natural revelation” of Divine beauty, which through affirmation of truth and delight in the numinous can lead people toward the mystery which is God.

Nevertheless, the “contemporary Christian music” debate continues. There are good reasons for excluding popular music styles from corporate worship, or at least denying blanket acceptance. If worship music sounds like secular music (and even an inferior version thereof), does that cause problems for cultivating reverence and worshipfulness? Are there spiritual consequences to carelessness about choices in worship music?

Again, though, it would be helpful to push the question away from simply music, which can be a distraction from the larger issue (to which music of whatever form ought to be put to service). The usual manifestation of worship debates in evangelical churches today centers on the question of traditional versus contemporary music styles, with either of those terms encapsulating a variety of modes. I emphatically do not think the solution to shallow worship is to return to dry Victorian hymns, at least not for their own sake. There are contemporary songs (I hope) which might be considered suitable for worship, in the sense that they are theologically sound and aesthetically appropriate (see the discussion above); at any rate, I would consider that a related but separate conversation. So this isn’t about just the music style and “taste.”

What I would point to is the importance of things many contemporary services have marginalized or abandoned in favor of a questionable missionary/retentive paradigm: quiet and contemplation, reverent but joyful acknowledgement of the mysteries, communion, traditional modes tested by time and use, presence of a depth of theological meaning, and space for a complete encounter or discrete “experience” (in the Deweyan sense) of God. This is about the problem of shallow, sentimentalized worship and an anything-goes-if-it-brings-the-crowds attitude toward the church experience.

The reason this has been of greatest importance to me is that effusions of hollow sentimentality are deeply alienating to myself and others who recognize its essential falseness but desire something real. As Gregory Wolfe notes in the quote below, religious sentimentality and willful mediocrity are not harmless, but antithetical to true beauty. These things do matter and are not merely the cosmetics under which true worship can just as well take root. To participate in these things regularly would be to destroy my faith (I firmly believe it has destroyed others’ faith) and go against my conscience. When I attend such worship, I am often torn between the feeling that I am profaning a holy God by trivializing his name, and the feeling that I am simply struggling with standards rooted in my own pride. Though I admit I am indeed too proud for my own good, and I do not question the faith of those who can find this “worship” fulfilling, I no longer blame my sinful heart for my reluctance to engage in worship that is kitschy, pandering to fads, badly-constructed, and (at worst) borderline blasphemous. In many of these churches, there is open hostility to theological depths, intellectual discovery, and true artistry—the maliciousness of mediocrity is thus revealed.

I think many young Christians have woken up to the fact that the fault does not lie with their ability to perceive truth, and, disillusioned, they have left the church, realizing that it is every bit as shallow as its forms of worship and teaching. We need not try to pander to their tastes to woo them back—that approach has failed, as the youth abandon self-styled “relevant” churches—but we need to rethink our concept of the purpose of worship. Rather than try and get crowds through the doors, we should offer something positive and lasting, and truly cultivate the imminent beauty of Christ. Rather than feel compelled to get everyone to repeat a prayer or get enthusiastic about attending church, as if it depended on us, let us give those who truly seek something worth finding, something which can save them. There will be the healthy ground for the burgeoning of a true spirituality.

The problem of a free-speech society (as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has remarked) is that what is true and worth saying can easily be drowned out in ubiquitous trivia and nonsense (to which this blog, like all means of venting the obsessions of the ego, no doubt contributes). Similarly, clouding access to the Word of God through indiscriminate assumption by Christian churches of secular life and a consumerist ethos should be unambiguously condemned. There are gray areas, of course, in the quest for remaining approachable and engaged, and perfect purity is unattainable, but the priority should always be to embody the fullness of truth. Thus when we communicate, we will be communicating something valuable and real, something lived.

One could, of course, stake an argument against ever-fluid, faddish worship on other grounds than its usual mediocrity. C. S. Lewis was strongly in favor of structured, liturgical worship. In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer, Lewis argued that novelty in worship, usually intended to lure people through the doors, has the potential to be highly distracting, because it almost inevitably turns one’s attention away from God or even the service to the “celebrant,” or whomever is doing the leading and innovating, for one is always wondering what’s going to happen next. Lewis (humorously but approvingly) cited the man who noted that Christians come to be fed, not to be experimented upon or taught new tricks. Instead, worship, like dancing, takes practice and repetition. The best worship service is one with which you have become so familiar that you barely notice it, because your soul is used to following the patterns of repentance, supplication, and adoration, and it can focus wholly on God. For him personally, at least, the most meaningful public prayers were those which he also spoke regularly in his bedroom. Worship should develop legitimate forms and then be very conservative about changing them. However, while he believed the service should be orderly and routine, Lewis also believed personal behavior should be free—no one should distract anyone else, and no one should notice what anyone else is doing.

This whole constellation of ideas makes a lot of sense to me. Patient worship becomes, rather than a spontaneous and transient event of the spirit or a manipulative emotional strategy, a lengthy and committed process which gradually and cumulatively turns one’s whole life into a liturgy of glorification. There are dangers to this model, of course, because a lot is placed on the individual will to participate. Some may be tempted to fall into heartless, rote religiosity. But the solution is not necessarily to get pew-sitters all excited with the latest music craze or new worship song. The church’s job is not to manipulate dead hearts or enflame emotions. It is to feed those who come and want to be fed.

Admittedly, some statistics seem to be against me, when one looks at figures (among those who have remained Christians) for church growth and spiritual satisfaction. Contemporary-influenced services tend to grow better and include participants who profess to greater religious involvement and stronger enthusiasm for their faith, though retention is also a bit lower. The movement away from this model (toward the high churches, for instance) seems to be primarily among intellectuals. But with the mass exodus of the youth away from Baby Boomer Christianity, and incessant switching between churches and denominations for issues clearly not doctrinal, the total landscape clearly shows disillusionment and transience. I don’t claim to have the cure, but I don’t think Evangelicalism in general has yet found it either, and I think a serious re-evaluation is necessary.


“There are times when criticizing sentimentality seems like overkill. But it would be wrong simply to dismiss the phenomenon—and the specific instance I’ve been discussing, religious kitsch—as nothing more than examples of harmless mediocrity. The great theologian, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, once wrote: ‘There is nothing more demanding than the taste for mediocrity. Beneath its ever moderate appearance there is nothing more intemperate; nothing surer in its instinct; nothing more pitiless in is refusals. It suffers no greatness, shows beauty no mercy.’

Perhaps, at its best, sentimentality strives for something approximating the theological virtues of hope and love. But in refusing to see the world as it is, sentimentality reduces hope to nostalgia. And in seeking to escape ambiguity and the consequences of the Fall, it denies the heart of love, which is compassion. Unless compassion means the act of suffering with the other in their otherness, it becomes meaningless. Well-intentioned as the purveyors and consumers of sentiment may be, they still want the luxury of an emotion without having to pay the price for it.”

(Gregory Wolfe, “The Painter of Lite”)

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“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that a man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid… [The Christian] puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health.”

(G. K. Chesterton, quoted in Gregory Wolfe, “Shaggy Dog Stories”)

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“Experience is limited by all the causes which interfere with perception of the relations between undergoing and doing. There may be interference because of excess on the side of doing or of excess on the side of receptivity, of undergoing. Unbalance on either side blurs the perception of relations and leaves the experience partial and distorted, with scant or false meaning. Zeal for doing, lust for action, leaves many a person, especially in this hurried and impatient human environment in which we live, with experience of an almost incredible paucity, all on the surface. No one experience has a chance to complete itself because something else is entered upon so speedily. What is called experience becomes so dispersed and miscellaneous as hardly to deserve the name. Resistance is treated as an obstruction to be beaten down, not as an invitation to reflection. An individual comes to seek, unconsciously even more than by deliberate choice, situations in which he can do the most things in the shortest time.

Experiences are also cut short from maturing by excess of receptivity. What is prized is then the mere undergoing of this and that, irrespective of perception of any meaning. The crowding together of as many impressions as possible is thought to be ‘life,’ even though no one of them is more than a flitting and a sipping. The sentimentalist and the day-dreamer have more fancies and impressions pass through their consciousness than has the man who is animated by lust for action. But his experience is equally distorted, because nothing takes root in mind when there is no balance between doing and receiving. Some decisive action is needed in order to establish contact with the realities of the world and in order that impressions may be so related to facts that their value is tested and organized.

Because perception of relationship between what is done and what is undergone constitutes the work of intelligence, and because the artist is controlled in the process of his work by his grasp of the connection between what he has already done and what he is to do next, the idea that the artist does not think as intently and penetratingly as a scientific inquirer is absurd. A painter must consciously undergo the effect of his every brush stroke or he will not be aware of what he is doing and where his work is going. Moreover, he has to see each particular connection of doing and undergoing in relation to the whole that he desires to produce. To apprehend such relations is to think, and is one of the most exacting modes of thought…. As respects the basic quality of pictures, difference depends, indeed, more upon the quality of intelligence brought to bear upon perception of relations than upon anything else—though of course intelligence cannot be separated from direct sensitivity and is connected, though in a more external manner, with skill.

Any idea that ignores the necessary rôle of intelligence in production of works of art is based upon identification of thinking with use of one special kind of material, verbal signs and words. To think effectively in terms of relations of qualities is as severe a demand upon thought as to think in terms of symbols, verbal and mathematical. Indeed, since words are easily manipulated in mechanical ways, the production of a work of genuine art probably demands more intelligence than does most of the so-called thinking that goes on among those who pride themselves on being ‘intellectuals.’”

(John Dewey, Art as Experience)

[1] Dewey suggests that logical thinking, which follows the pattern, has an aesthetic (hence emotional) quality, but its economy is one of signs and symbols with no intrinsic meaning, rather than immediate and tangible (i.e., sensory) qualities, which is why “intellectual art” will never be as popular as music. In fact, all purposeful, conscious activity, good or bad, can contain this aesthetic quality, which does not make it art, but is a sign of meaningful process.

[2] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/85-focus-on-qworship-warsq-hides-the-real-issues-regarding-connection-to-god#.Uoe5MNKsgvM  Something that might account for part of the disparity is the research methodology, which selected from only Protestant pastors but seems to have surveyed Christian laity more broadly. Many Catholics and Anglicans would place greater importance on creed and confession than the average Protestant.


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