Gottesdienst
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Gottesblog

A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Contemporary Worship, the Anabaptists, and the Hindus

This article appeared in the Michaelmas 2011 print edition of Gottesdienst.  As promised in the most recent edition, it is being posted here for perusal, in response to a request in the Letters section.

I guess Father Braaten was right. Our development officer—no, really, we have one—has been telling us that what our readers are likely most interested in is the provision of some clarity in theological thought and basis for our incessant objections to contemporary worship. So I dutifully proceeded to attempt to put some meat on the bones of our insistence that when the style of one’s worship is not traditional, something is amiss. In the Trinity 2011 issue, I sought to demonstrate that contemporary worship was fundamentally Arminian in nature, and that the drumbeats of its praise bands sought to excite what for Jacob Arminius would be the natural will’s innate capacity to make the right choice and follow Jesus. And almost before the ink was dry, we started receiving a good number of positive replies, in accord with Father Braaten’s expectations.

And we also seem to have struck a nerve—again—among those who object. Somehow or other, we always manage rather unexpectedly to attract the attention even of people in the middle, people who themselves tend to eschew the crooning of the likes of “Christian music” artists Laura Story, or the Sidewalk Prophets, or countless other singers of praise songs, but who on the other hand wouldn’t want to charge those who like that kind of thing with false doctrine. We Gottesdiensters are the convenient straw men of extremism, easy targets for reproach among people who might be inclined to transform the currency of their “moderating” influence into coins of their own popularity. Without alleging that anyone in particular is actually guilty of that kind of thing—for we wouldn’t want to be judgmental or anything—I’d rather simply ask that our readers be aware that there is no shortage of caricatures of what we’ve been saying.

You’ve probably heard the canard: The Gottesdienster is a Nazi: a hard-nosed, self-congratulatory, self-assuredly pompous narcissist, in whose universe weakness is not tolerated, and certainly love is nowhere to be found. He’s incorrigible. You can’t reason with him, because his mind is made up. The Gottesdienster will bravely rush into a burning church to save the vestments before it occurs to him that there might be children or widows in there. Why doesn’t he just go to Rome, then, where he’d be much happier?

The truth is, the Gottesdienster is not really like that at all. Rome is not right for him either. The Gottesdienster cannot tolerate Rome’s mingling of love with faith before God any more than he can tolerate praise bands. The Gottesdienster really only wants one thing, though you’d never know it if you listen only to his opponents. All he wants is Jesus.

I’m reminded of the parenthetical remark, when Miriam and Aaron opposed Moses, that “Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3 KJV). Their objection, “Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?” (v. 2) reads like a who-does-he-think-he-is? kind of objection. So here’s Moses, spokesman for God, and getting all kinds of grief for it; Moses, who had in the first place been a bit on the incorrigible side when the Israelites had done their golden calf dance routine. Was Moses a Gottesdienster? Seems so. I always wonder, when I get to the part about Moses’ meekness, about the fact that it was Moses himself who had written that, which therefore makes it come off a little as though he’s defending himself. This in turn might give me a little encouragement to defend the Gottesdienster, though it still seems treacherous at best, and unseemly at worst, to do so. Moses can get away with saying that, after all, since it is the Word of God that he’s writing; but in our case, it’s rather like saying, “No, no, we’re not arrogant, really we’re not.”

Then again, Moses wasn’t really boasting of his humility; he was defending his office. In calling himself meek (Hebrew, ענו: bowed down, afflicted, poor, humble, meek), Moses was—whether he knew it or not—indicating the Christological character of his office. Christ Himself was accused of arrogance (“By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” St. Matt. 21:23 KJV), and yet was very meek: “he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8 KJV).

I can already see the eyes rolling: “You’re making yourself out to be Jesus now?” And in reply I’d say that as Moses did, we must defend our office. It is incumbent upon the preachers of the Gospel that they bear with patience the accusations against their person, while defending with vigilance their ministry against its accusers. After all, we’re just as sinful as anyone in our person, so go ahead and complain about the fact that we’re sinful: you won’t be telling us anything we don’t know. But it is our duty to proclaim Christ and His Gospel, and this sometimes means defending the Office.

So we are constrained, in submission to the office we bear, to speak out when Israel is tempted to dance around a golden calf. We’ll leave to others the question whether this means those who want to do the dancing are apostate—and no, we are not really saying that ourselves—we’re only pointing out what should be obvious. The dance itself is not compatible with pure faith.

Those who fashioned for themselves a golden calf did so because they grew tired of waiting for Moses’ return. Those who fashion new ways of worship do so because they have grown weary of waiting on God. They will object that this is what their heart is telling them to do, and we will reply that this is just the problem. And really, you must have a look at some of the videos of praise worship that our guys at Gottesdienst Online have chronicled, if you want to do some liturgical observing of your own, though of course it’s quite a stretch to call it liturgical. Their hearts are telling them to worship this way, to emote, to swoon over Jesus, to get carried away with the pleasure of the encounter. Luther’s German for a fanatic is Schwärmer, which also means one who rhapsodizes. Today’s Schwärmer close their eyes, they raise their hands, they sway, they carry on, they feel.

But their feelings are not telling them the truth. The truth is that Jesus does not approach you through the experiences of your heart, but through the office of Moses, through the ministry of the Gospel,

because we know that God approves this ministry, and is present in the ministry [that God will preach and work through men and those who have been chosen by men]. And it is of advantage, so far as can be done, to adorn the ministry of the Word with every kind of praise against fanatical men, who dream that the Holy Ghost is given not through the Word, but because of certain preparations of their own, if they sit unoccupied and silent in obscure places, waiting for illumination, as the Enthusiasts formerly taught, and the Anabaptists now teach. (Apol XIII, 12-13, Trig, 311, italics added)

See there? Melanchthon (author of that quote, from the Apology to the Augsburg Confession) was a Gottesdienster too. I guess we’re in good company.

More importantly, the Apology recognizes that it is false and pernicious to suppose that emotive worship experiences are what kindle and stoke faith. The whole purpose of the praise band genre is not to serve the Word of God, but to serve the heart. This is undoubtedly why its lyrics are so often banal and trivial, tending toward the personalization of faith experiences rather than the objective truths of the faith.

Consider, for example, these lyrics from the Sidewalk Prophets:

Three in the morning,
And I’m still awake,
So I picked up a pen and a page,
And I started writing,
Just what I’d say,
If we were face to face,
I’d tell you just what you mean to me,
I’d tell you these simple truths,

Be strong in the Lord and,
Never give up hope,
You’re going to do great things,
I already know,
God’s got His hand on you so,
Don’t live life in fear,
Forgive and forget,
But don’t forget why you’re here,
Take your time and pray,
These are the words I would say . . .

Space does not permit a more exhaustive demonstration; suffice it to say these lyrics are typical. They can be interpreted to be edifying and helpful in some sense, and they certainly aren’t in themselves harmful. No false doctrine here, certainly. But not much else, either; especially, that is, when the music is stripped away. If standing alone, the lyrics suffer; they need the support of the music to make their listeners appreciate them. And that, it turns out, is just the nature of the kind of music to which they always tend to wed themselves. The music is beyond Romantic. It elicits emotion like an Italian opera might, although an entirely different genre: if you don’t know the language, it may not matter.

What matters to these practitioners is participation in a kind of reaching out, of feeling the Lord’s touch, in a very nonsacramental way. What matters is the encounter, the moment of illumination, unoccupied with doctrine, wrapped in the relative obscurity that is common to many popular lyrics.

As in much popular song, the meaning of the lyrics is made intentionally somewhat obscure to the hearer. I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’s brilliant offhand quip, in the movie You’ve Got Mail, about the sixties folk song “Both Sides Now”: “I could never be with someone who likes Joni Mitchell. ‘It’s cloud illusions I recall/I really don’t know clouds at all.’ What does that mean? Is she a pilot? Is she taking flying lessons? It’s probably a metaphor for something, but I don’t know what.” Obscurity in the lyrics of popular songs became fashionable in the sixties and seventies, about the same time Contemporary Christian music was born.
Although praise lyrics are generally not nearly so obscure, their lack of specificity regarding specifically Christian truth makes them just as suitable as vehicles of the emotional surge they seek to elicit in their hearers. Most of them could as easily be sung by Buddhists or Muslims. Consider, for example, these Laura Story lyrics, from “There Is Nothing”:

Lord I come before You
To honor and adore You
For who You are and all that You have done
Lord I am not worthy
My heart is dark and dirty
Still somehow You bid for me to come

So clothe me in humility
Remind me, that I come before a King

And there is nothing
There is nothing
More precious, more worthy
May I gaze deeper
May I stand longer
May I press onward to know You Lord

Such nonspecificity might be fine when you’re listening to, say, “Quitting Time” by the Roches, who make no pretentions about being anything other than entertainers. When this is employed as an ostensible vehicle for the faith, however, it becomes a problem. It becomes the fruits of the Anabaptist who dreams that the Holy Ghost is given not through the Word, but because of certain preparations of his own.

Remember the old George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord”? Consider these lyrics:

I really want to know you
Really want to go with you
Really want to show you lord
That it won’t take long, my lord (hallelujah)

My sweet lord (hallelujah)
Hm, my lord (hallelujah)
My sweet lord (hallelujah)

Anything objectionable there? Of course not, in fact it sounds rather indistinguishable from the kind of thing you might hear from a praise band. Unless, that is, you happen to know about the background singers’ prayer that comes in later in the song: “hare Krishna, hare Krishna, krishna Krishna, hare hare, Gurur Brahma, Gurur Vishnu, Gurur Devo, Maheshwara, Gurur Sakshaat, Parabrahma, Tasmayi Shree, Guruve Namah, Hare Rama, hare Krishna . . .”

And that, dear friends, comes from the Bhagavad-Gita, a seminal poem that forms the basis of Hinduism. Repetition of the mantra is said to be the “sublime method for reviving our Krishna consciousness” (www.krishna.com). Here’s the explanation of the mantra from Krishna.com:

As living spiritual souls we are all originally Krishna conscious entities, but due to our association with matter from time immemorial, our consciousness is now polluted by material atmosphere. In this polluted concept of life, we are all trying to exploit the resources of material nature, but actually we are becoming more and more entangled in her complexities. This illusion is called maya, or hard struggle for existence for winning over the stringent laws of material nature. This illusory struggle against the material nature can at once be stopped by revival of our Krishna consciousness.  (http://www.krishna.com/content/transcendental-vibration)

No Christian should have any difficulty recognizing the odious character of that kind of thinking, but how many would recognize it for what it is if it’s left in the background, untranslated, while the banal English lyrics are made the heart of this popular song? In fact, Gospel singer BeBe Winans took this very song and removed the Krishna references and added in their place, “You’re the Mighty One, You’re the Prince of Peace, You’re the First and the Last, You’re the Great I AM, and the Precious Lamb,” as though that would somehow baptize this song for use among Christians. And for many, that sort of thing works just fine, because it’s all really about the mood anyhow, about making the experiential connection with Jesus.
And this provides opportunity to address again a central failure of the contemporary worship mentality to understand that the means of grace are not the experiences of the Christian, but the words of the Holy Gospel.

This gets to the heart of that quotation from the Apology about fanatical men who dream that the Holy Ghost comes to them if they sit and wait for illumination. “Fanatics” have the theological problem of failing to recognize that the real point of contact that a Christian has with God is only the Word of God, and of replacing that link with personal experience. And when personal experience, particularly when that experience is tied to emotion, becomes the driving force in determining the legitimacy of one’s views, it can be a very dangerous thing indeed. The self-control of which the apostle Paul speaks is particularly the control of one’s emotions: the Greek enkrateia (ἐγ + κράτεια) is derived from krateia: strength. Self-mastery has to do with keeping oneself constrained; that is, with keeping the emotive drives in check.

This is not to say that emotion has no place in worship; on the contrary, worship of the noblest kind can be very emotional, since the comfort of the Gospel is bound to have an effect on the depths of one’s soul; and hence it is all the more necessary to take great care to distinguish worship centered in the Gospel itself from worship centered in the emotions. The latter kind, when called Christian, is nothing more than a Trojan horse in which enters the mischief of a false faith rooted in something other than the Word of God.

So then, not only is true faith at odds with the natural will (as this column sought to demonstrate in the previous issue), it is also inseparably bound to the Word of God. Christian faith is dependent upon the Gospel not only at its inception, but for its sustenance. The Gospel itself must form the heart and nucleus of all Christian worship, and therefore nebulous or simplistic emotional “encounters” cannot be allowed as replacements. Nor, then, can the kind of music that lends itself so easily to the repetition of Hindu mantras ever become compatible with what is truly Christian.

And maybe the reason Gottesdiensters tend to come off as so incorrigible is simply that we know this. And ironically, we know it instinctively: we recoil when we hear music that purports to be Christian but has that encounter-driven feel to it, or perhaps even if it has to much feel to it at all. We know the incompatibility from experience as well as from an awareness that the Word of God and faith must be wedded together. But what we have experienced is the fact that our own experiences are cheap imitations and poor substitutes for the riches of the Holy Gospel.

Hence we must not only insist on right worship—orthodox worship, that is—but on the Gospel. After all, we would be no happier with a dignified and well-ordered kind of worship than with a contemporary kind if both were devoid of the Gospel.  And heaven knows there are plenty of dignified worship forms that are devoid of the Gospel. In fact, this is the reason we don’t just go to Rome, or to Canterbury, or anywhere else. It’s because we want the Gospel in its purity, and the dignity of worship and form that such places afford is not really what we’re after. Where the Gospel is watered down by merits or personal satisfactions, it is as bad for us as where it is watered down by emotive vessels that belie its heart, which is always the mercy of Christ for unworthy sinners.

Yes, we want it all. We want right doctrine, and we want right worship. We want Lutheran substance and Lutheran style too. But in this, we do object to being called selfish, for we really only want what Jesus Himself wants us to want, which is Himself. Contemporary worship’s music is bound to the emotions; we’d prefer to be bound to the Gospel. We object because we understand what’s wrong with the Anabaptists (the fanatics, that is), namely, their divorce of faith from the Gospel. This is what leads them to replace that void with the emotions, and encounters; and this in turn is what leads them to prefer—unwittingly, of course—music that mimics the mantras of the Bhagavad-Gita. From this preserve us, Heavenly Father.