Back in the day (OK, it was 1995) I read Marva Dawn’s “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down,” and back a litter further (OK, it was 1990) I read Sallie Morganthaler’s “Worship Evangelism,” and both of these provocative books had their intended effect. That is to say, they seemed to sway the question of Intergenerational Worship away—way, way, far and away—from the ‘Entertain-Me’ inclinations of the infamous Baby Boomer generation. And for the most part, I said “Thank the Lord and Pass the Candles.” Let’s chant ourselves into oblivion, I said, or at least into some level of repentant purgatory, where the first or second person pronouns are shed like the old snakeskins that they are.
Dawn used to write:
“God’s revelation… unmasks our illusions about ourselves. It exposes our pride, our individualism, our self-centeredness – in short, our sin. But worship also offers forgiveness, healing, transformation, motivation, and courage to work in the world for God’s justice and peace – in short, salvation in its largest sense…”
And then, loaded for bear, I’d go around my newly forming congregations and eviscerate all references to “I just wanna praise you, Jesus” from the lyric sheets. Moreover, if the “We are’s” got too thick on the tongue — as in “We are your servants/children/blobs of clay/pruned vines – an unharnessed gag-reflex would overtake even the most ardent hand-raisers in the crowd. Why all this chatter about us? And why all this infatuation for this assortment of autonomous “I’s” and “me’s”, when that person may simply be a persona, a mere mask, playing a role…?
Of course — back, back, back in the day, the crowd itself became the idol-du-jour, and we couldn’t get enough. Never mind if some came in the front door and exited in droves in the direction of the next hipster experience down the street; and not to worry if the theological topics on the worship-calendar might produce a faith community that hydroplanes on the mile-wide and inch-deep layer of religious kitsch; we relished any dynamic that would meet the so-called “felt-needs.” Leaders flamed out or sold out. Skits went sideways. Functions malfunctioned. Denominational entities dysfunctioned. Glory got merchandized. Social justice initiatives suffered a compassion-fatigue to beat the band. And small groups became venting-sessions for those whose felt-needs had festered with inattention.
Blah, blah, blah… until, as of 2007, when even Morganthaler confessed to the following:
“For all the money, time, and effort we’ve spent on cultural relevance—and that includes culturally relevant worship—it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers, proliferation of megachurches and all.”
And so, in the words of President Bill Clinton, do you feel my pain? (Or perhaps the collective angst of a crumbling Christendom?—do you feel that?). Well, our foray into the way-back hasn’t been all that pleasant (or faithful) after all; and when nostalgia wreaks of bitter irony—in spite of the sanguine sweetness—it may be time to jettison the cargo of “relevance” and recover, by excavation, that primordial experience—through text or circumstance—which inspired every hymn, hallelujah and hiccup in the name of the Most High.
What I say now, after 30 years of ordained ministry, regarding those vacuous high-jinx is that the clergy-guild drove us to them with a rationale that adheres closely to this analogy: Consider a swimmer, wading into the vast ocean of being, and she begins to flounder. She flounders because she’s been taught to memorize a formula for the rough action of the surf, and the actual experience of the waves is too much for her. Another person stands amid the dunes, along the shore and spies the floundering soul. This one (let’s also make her female) runs and leaps into the foment to the rescue. Both of them then drag one another to an impromptu shelter, constructed of driftwood and old beach umbrellas. And where do they go wrong? They go wrong, when the ego-driven giant of industry happens to be vacationing along this very picturesque spit of sand—and when he suggests that they form an association of life-guards and that they engage in the pretense of saving others from the struggle against the riptide—and when they erect a marquee to that pious effect—and when they draft blueprints for life-guard edifice, and construct a lounge for the life-guards with a barista on-hand to wipe up triple-skinny-lattes—and when they’re so pre-occupied with the upkeep and maintenance of their campus that the oceanic chaos nearby is utterly neglected—and when they codify their liturgy or sing their self-glorifying songs… yes! Can I get an Amen? This is precisely where the entire sanctimonious-life-saving apparatus goes wrong. Just imagine the repercussions, if the tsunami strikes!
Alas, forgive me. I’ve been carried away on my own metaphorical rant.
But now, cutting to the chase (again for that unfathomable and unruly ocean), my contention, as a struggling attractional-model addict, is this: Poetry. “Finally Comes the Poet“ is a book by Walter Brueggemann, who takes his title from a series of lines by Walt Whitman, who presages the (post)modern age better than any George Barna demographer:
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist,
the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
The songs, you see, are not really the issue. What’s at issue, I believe, with worship modes or with styles that attract and repel persons of differing birth years is the danger/fear of pulling back the curtain on doctrine and dogma. (Caveat: I love me some good, sound doctrine, and you (dear reader) should be clear on that as my thesis builds to a crescendo.) It’s a daunting enterprise to believe… Even an agnostic—believing “I don’t know”—knows that very well. We fear that our plausibility-structures are hanging by a thread and we don’t dare look because the God of our Institutions may resemble the imposter of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle.” In other words, the “One” whom we laud may have been domesticated by the hegemonic mob long ago. I mean, way—way—way back. And to beef up my allusion to the Chronicles of Narnia, we may be dressing up a donkey in the outfit of a Ferocious Lion and calling the whole worship experience good: “Aren’t you so Good, God? Aren’t you…? Yes, You are… all the time!”
I really don’t mean to be offensive.
I do mean to deconstruct and start over—and to begin again this time would be to acknowledge the vast amounts of mysterium tremendum et fascinans that wrap around our ankles when our feet hit the floor every morning. Let’s be clear: way – way – way – back – back – back, Moses only got to encounter God’s backside. See Exodus 33:34 for details; it’s salacious, and sacred stuff!
Moreover, the Bible is replete with many (sometimes contradictory) voices who speak as well as postures who listen (sometimes clumsily) for a mytho-poetic approach to the Divine. This is not business-as-usual. Despite the popular push for religion to either serve as a vendor of spiritual goods and services … OR … as a moral megaphone to rouse a slumbering political party, there’s an alternative which Brueggemann claims begins in candor: “It begins with what God notices and how God responds. What God notices, and we notice in God’s presence, is that life so often is lived sideways, in violation of Torah, in violation of every real possibility of community and communion.”
Of course, the only way to give genuine expression to such candor—both God’s and ours—is to remain as close as possible to the original phenomena that induces a community and an individual to worship in the first place. The mythic stories of the day in film can sometimes do that, and so can that plethora of musical artists that we stream into our headphones. And yet, what happens when narratives crash and burn into the non-narrative, seemingly random events of one’s lived experience? Then, I argue, only free-verse or a formal poem will linger around the emotional vicissitudes and the intellectual conundrums that continue to make mockery of our systems and institutions.
“Without a sympathetic culture that reflects the poetic sense of life,” writes James S. Taylor in “Poetic Knowledge; the Recovery of Education,””teachers who work in the poetic mode have very little to point to for present examples; we prove our position often in the negative [as I have in the above diatribe], by the absence of poetry. Yet, the close of the twentieth century also forces us to look more closely, for there is still a nature, and a human nature, that can respond to reality and to the permanent things. It is simply more difficult now…”
My sadness, as a 54-year-old father of two millennial young men, and as a nutty professor to many running-start students at Eastern Washington, is that we forget the possibility of an Eternal Now, or a set of meaningful relationships, that Taylor describes, as neither progressing, nor regressing, but are. Whether one practices Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Bahai Faith or the Spaghetti-Monster satire of faith—it would seem to me that we crave authenticity, and perhaps would be charmed by an authentic conversation about the variety of truth-claims at stake in the world and how those claims cohere (or not) with so-called “reality.” Moreover, notwithstanding one’s year of birth, would every man, woman and child—every Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer person—ascribe worth to the potential of a “reality” so acknowledged and met face-to-face? I think it’s a no-brainer.
Andrew Shanks has a phrase for what I’m advocating here. In “What is Truth? Towards a Theological Poetics,” he calls for “the pathos of shakenness” — which he contrasts with “the pathos of glory.”
He argues that glory, as it’s conceptualized by a human being, cannot help but submit to reduction. We reduce, for example, the Glory of God to an image of light, or to a phantasm of ecstasy. But if God is truly glorious—derived from doxa in the Greek and kabod in Hebrew—then our apprehension of reality is only a drop in the ocean. By contrast, between you and I and the lamppost, we comprehend the art of shakenness without blinking. Shakenness is not manipulative. It tries neither to persuade, nor to proselytize. Instead, we embrace the ways by which we are shaken; we hold onto our questions—the questions we have for institutions, ecclesial authority, sacred scriptures and more; and yet, we remain at the proverbial table with anyone who will give us the room to ask them.
‘What is truth?’
At the most primordial level, I have argued—at the level where it is still a pre-theoretic solicitation of the will — it is an impulse primarily rendered articulate in the interplay between fine art, at its best, and public liturgy, at its best.
My hope in all this, and any discussion to follow, revolves around the sheer possibility of re-entry. We believe. We doubt. We believe again (but in a different way). Admitting the disingenuous tendencies of every establishment under the sun, we go, much in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth sent his forlorn disciples back to Galilee. Way — way, way, way — Back—back, back, back to the Mytho-Poetic, Baby!
Join SpokaneFāVS for a Coffee Talk on the “Intergenerational Worship” on 10 a.m., Feb. 3 at Saranac Commons, 19 W. Main Ave. Kinder-Pyle is a panelist.
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