The ubiquitous authority of “they” is the bane of every pastor and leader. “They say” are the two words that are expected to give force to the soon-to-follow argument or criticism. And, unfortunately, it is the habit of sincere church members (the transmitters) to employ the “they say” argument without any real consideration of its negative impact. (more…)
Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.
The life, culture, education, and school chapels of the professing Christian ought to be a passionate demonstration of a yearning to see the glorious name of God sanctified, hallowed, in the hearts and minds of all people who claim to worship the God of the Bible. While visiting an evangelical school program recently, I was reminded why I prefer that my daughter be in a Lutheran school.
One is the form of everything they do in chapel, including the congregational recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. “Hallowed be thy name” is a prayer that is also highlighted as a big deal by the forms that we choose.
Each week I attend chapel with my daughter and 300 children between the ages of k5 and 5th grade and I see the same thing everytime. On cue they all hush as the two designated acolytes (candle lighters) under the watchful eye of their teacher light the candles. The cross is then carried to the front of the sanctuary and the the three children reverently bow and with that routine symbolism chapel begins. Once after the routine of school chapel with my daughter I was visiting an area Christian school and was treated to children jumping and jiving on stage declaring to feel the Spirit in their toes and in their noses. The trite, vacuous, banal, and irreverent familiarity with the God of the Universe could not have been more stark.
“The problem with you Evangelicals is that you don’t think we Lutherans are Christian” opined the executive director of an area parochial school to me when he became aware of the fact that I was a Baptist pastor. This is an accurate analysis of the evangelical understanding of Lutherans and it shows a remarkable ignorance of all things Lutheran. Yet his assumption (if indeed it was) that all Lutherans are Christian is equally erroneous. I told him that it was truly egregious that a sweeping judgment of all Lutherans as not being in the fold was assumed by Evangelicals, particularly since I knew for a fact from my vantage point as a Baptist reverend that only some Baptists are actually Christian. And, clearly, that would also be the case for Evangelicals as well. And Lutherans.
However, if one were to juxtapose the Lutheran chapel that I observe weekly and the Evangelical so-called “worship and praise” that is drummed into the psyche of evangelical children week after week one could not blame a Lutheran for thinking that Evangelicals are mindless cultural grubs that think that drivel is proof of adoption as sons. Few of the songs used in many Evangelical Christian School chapels neither lyrically nor musically would occasion the response of a hushed bow. It’s the crass familiarity of uninhibited farting. The only symbolism that occurs in the Evangelical Christian School chapel is the closed eyes and bowed head during the opening and closing prayer.
But it’s a formality. And, of course, this is the pitfall of the formality in the Lutheran school chapel. I highly doubt that anyone is actually thinking of the symbolism of the candles and the cross. Probably the Baptist minister sitting near the back with his fourth grade daughter is actually pondering on it more than anyone else in the room, including those who have spent their entire lives in the confines of Lutheran formalism. Liturgical formalism is deadening and those of us in the tradition of “free worship” rightfully worry about the consequences of formalism.
But have we adequately worried about the consequence of no form and no symbolism? Or the bad formalism of our mindless forms?
Lest we hastily assert that we are formless and symbol-free, let me remind us that bowing our heads and closing our eyes is both form and symbol. Standing for prayer = form.
It is not formalism to insist on form even though people may not understand it. We must insist on certain forms not only even if people may not understand them, but particularly because people do not have enough understanding. Now, please do not read this as an apologetic for the use of candles in the service. That is not my point at all. I am merely appreciating the form as a message bearer to the children. They do not understand all the symbolism, but they do get a key part of the message conveyed through the form. The form is a simple message that they get: the service has started and this service is different than the pep rally. I don’t think that it is wrong that the acolytes and the children watching the lighting of the candles do not fully understand the reasons behind what they are doing, but you hear no shushing from teachers and, amazingly, nearly 300 hundred pairs of eyes are watching the candle-lighting.
Formalism is the sin of thinking that the form itself, minus heart and thought, is pleasing to God and a substitute for real devotion. But you cannot have devotion without form, especially corporate devotion. Music is a legitimate tool in worship because it is a form. Listen to a congregation read a Psalm out loud together. We do this in our church from time to time and some of our people are disturbed by it because they find the out-of-sync reading of several hundred voices to be distracting. Enter music as a form and instantly every word is perfectly in sync.
But the form is not just the carrier of the message. It is part of the message. It compliments it or detracts from it. It clarifies are obfuscates. Evangelicals want to elevate the worship so they add lofty words to banal forms. Poetically and musically and logically it’s the “praise and worship” rendition of a ring in a pig’s snout.
For good and for bad, I see evangelical influence in the Lutheran culture. On the good part, I see that they have learned from us the richness of a kind of grass-roots expression of praise. On the down side, too many of them are buying into the pop-culture idealization of worship as giddy tripe that makes kids jump up and down, and I roll my eyes and sigh when I see the real Christians introduce new slop from the Evangelical camp because they think that the answer to dead formalism is froth.
I put my daughter in a Lutheran school, not because I want her to become Lutheran, but because I want her to be less confused about what Christian is. I love the fact that they are distinctly Lutheran. At least I can peg who they are and we can understand ourselves more clearly. However, I have no idea what I will find in most Evangelical/Baptist schools. I’m not going to drop her in the the hodge-podge hobo’s soup of evangelicalism that is in our Christian schools where everything and anything that names Christ is called Christian. And I certainly don’t want her to be saturated in American evangelicalism that has so trivialized worship that even little children seem to subconsciously sense is ridiculously banal. The children who hush when the cross is carried in sense something far more lofty than the children who jump to the drumming beat and exclaim that they feel the Spirit in their noses.
Sadly, formalism has invaded the Evangelicals too. Their formalism is called “praise and worship” and looks more spontaneous and free. They feel that since their bodies have proved faithful to them by responding to the rhythm and that they have sung “God is greater, God is greater, God is greater” fifty times with intensifying passion that they have had worship. But since the form is so much like the forms of pop-culture, I can’t help but think while they’re chanting, “Who exactly is their god?”
Forms and symbols do mean something. And, yes, in the Lutheran chapel there are some forms and symbols that we don’t see in Baptist churches. But the very fact of their separateness from pop-culture makes them more effective and more meaningful. On the one side you have the lighting of candles and the silent bow. On the other you have the jarring twang of the electric guitar and the soto voce of the worship leader crooning that worship has begun. Both forms symbolize a beginning of worship. Both could be authentic; both could be mere formalism. The first, however, has the singular advantage of conveying that God and everything about God is actually bigger, transcendent, and serious.
So, that’s one reason I don’t have my daughter in the evangelical schools around here. Perhaps, in another post, I’ll explain why I don’t have her in the fundamental Baptist schools. Or, the Catholic parochial schools. Or, why we have chosen not to homeschool. But for now I’ll just say that we choose to risk exposing her to the formalism that is more serious versus the formalism that is trite, artistically evanescent, and flippant.
*This post written some time ago was one of the most popular from my old blog. I’m still rejoicing in salvation!
My wife sleeps hard.
Yesterday I was trying to teach my class of 9th graders the effect of the objective and the subjective in counseling. In order to do it we came up with our own religion: floorology.
Floorology, as you might suspect, is about floors. The Grand Masters of this Religion decided on some axioms that would govern our understanding of floors and represent Floorology. A few were as follows:
The floor is foundational. You can stand on it.
The floor is solid.
The floor is beneath us. If you are standing on the floor you cannot be under it.
I then proceed to seek their counsel as a person who strongly feels that the floor is going to fall from beneath me. Hanging on to the white board for dear life I told them that the floor was falling beneath me and that I would not let go of the board. When I was told that this simply was not true, I became angry and accused them of calling me a liar. I accused my 9th graders of calling me a liar because they told me that the objective facts of floorology should govern my thinking and it simply was not true that I needed to be afraid and hang onto the whiteboard. But I insisted that I was not lying.
Only one immediately grasped the problem. I was rejecting the truth of their claims because of the trueness of my feelings.I was accusing them of accusing me of lying when, in fact, they were not accusing me a any such thing. They were only accusing me of being wrong. I indeed was telling the truth about my feelings, but my feelings were not representing the truth. My feelings were true (in that they were real) but they were not truth. The Wise 9th Grade Floorologist said, “Your feelings may be real about the floor caving in, but you’re crazy!”
Too many Christians cannot distinguish the difference between “My feelings are true” and “My feelings are truth.” Thus they get offended when they are told that they have misplaced feelings. They feeling like their character is being maligned. But they imagine more than actually is. We are not saying that they are lying. We are saying they are wrong. They cannot distinguish between the reality of what they feel and truth. Some Floorologist counselors that are NANC certified try to deal with the problem by saying, “You’re feelings are a lie. The only reality is the reality of objective truth.” The problem however is that both the Objective and the Subjective are real. Only the Objective can be Truth. The Subjective can be either true to Truth or true to a lie. But it’s still true.
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Let’s pretend for a second that I believe that there is a God and Jesus is the Son of God. I think I can speak for Jesus – religious people speak for Jesus all the time – when I say he doesn’t need or want this brief summary of his resurrection displayed in plastic letters on a sign in front of a fast-food joint. I mean, the poor man was beaten nearly to a pulp, nailed painfully on a wooden cross, died there to save the souls of all mankind, and then miraculously arose from the dead. Is it really appropriate to put on a commercial sign, “Christ is Risen” just under the part of the sign that says “Try our Pick Up Window”?
When we consider art, music, and speech we also consider form. What is form? There are many experts on aesthetics, music, culture, and form; but we regular folk, well, we need it put simply. So, here’s a simple discussion on form for dummies like me.
Oversimplified Definition: Form is the container that holds whatever message I wish to communicate through my speech, art, and music.
(It’s more than that, but that’s enough for starters. If you want a more sophisticated sounding word try medium.)
With this in mind, I would like for all of us who are non-philosophical and just your basic, average-Joe American to see if we can agree on some basic principles which, for the sake of sounding really smart, I shall call “laws.”
Law #1: There is no human being in the world who is message-less.
Now, before we go further, we need to understand that human beings (which includes dummies like you and me) are hopelessly communicative. We cannot NOT communicate. Impossible. If you decide to not communicate to me any message whatsoever you have just communicated to me that I am not worth the time of day to you. You can not help but send a message. We all communicate. To be sure, most of us don’t communicate well, but no one ever lived that doesn’t have a message. We all have a message; and we can’t help but communicate it.
Many times the message that we communicate is not what we’d like, but we nonetheless send a message. The message may be
- I’m an idiot.
- I’m dull.
- I’m thoughtful.
- I’m a God worshiper.
- I’m a pagan.
- I’m dirty.
- I’m clean.
- I’m white.
- I’m black.
- I’m American.
- I’m French.
This leads to the next law (and those of you that are already having your intelligence assaulted, please bear with us or move on):
Law #2: Every human being in the world is a form.
By virtue of being a human being you are not only irresistibly communicative, but you are irresistibly the form (the container, the medium) of a message or many messages. We’ll talk about this some more in just a moment, but let me give another law that we must understand:
Law #3: Every form is also a message.
Here’s the tricky part. It is impossible to separate the message from the form in such a way that the message is not in the least affected. This is because form itself is a message. The container is a message. You may, indeed, be able to serve fine wine from a milk jug and argue that the wine tastes just as good as it does coming from a bottle. But you cannot undo the irreversible message you conveyed by your choice of a container. Now, hold on, because the last sentence assumed another law that we need to add to our list:
Law #4: There is no communication if there is no living receiver.
Only living things receive messages. A book as a form can communicate a message, but because it is not living it cannot receive a message. Only living things receive messages. Indeed, living things cannot help but receive messages. Thus,
Law #5: Human beings are dyed-in-the-wool message receivers. They cannot help it.
For a message to be communicated there is another actor that we need to put on the stage to further this dramatic study: the receiver. A book says nothing until a receiver walks into its presence and then the irresistible and inevitable happens. It cannot be avoided. Communication happens! Consider this drama (pull out a hand kerchief!):
Thick Book and Thin Book lie haplessly in bare room. They are lifeless and therefore cannot receive any communication from one another, but they are quite communicative if a capable receiver, a living creature, walks in. Suddenly, Living Receiver walks in and communication takes place irresistibly and instantaneously.
Thick Book and Thin Book in unison: We are sitting on this desk!
Living Receiver: Who cares?
End of drama.
Now, I could have written a long drama about how Thick Book and Thin Book conveyed messages about themselves even before Living Receiver cracked them open. Thick Book said, “I’m thick and therefore have more to say.” Thin Book would probably say, “I’m thin and quicker to read.” Thick Book might communicate, “I’m serious.” Thin Book might communicate, “I’m efficient.” My imagination could really make a long drama out of the communication that took place between the non-living forms and the Living Receiver even before one syllable of the message within those two non-living forms was read!
But not only are human beings helplessly communicative (there are no message-less humans), and not only are they helplessly receivers (Law #5), but they are also in and of themselves forms!
Law #6: Because humans are irresistibly message, form, and receiver they cannot help but interpreting the container’s message even before they actually receive the message in the container!
Have your tears dried from the drama of the Thick Book and Thin Book? Do you recall how the Living Receiver could not avoid receiving messages from the forms about the books even before he opened them? No human being in the world can NOT receive messages. Now, with just these six laws, let’s ponder some Scripture before moving on.
Human beings, being part of God’s creation, cannot help the fact that they are containers of a message because creation is a message. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). David said of his body, “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Psalm 139:14). His body was a container (form) with a message. And the message was “wonderful are your works.” The body with its amazing complexity is a masterful form, along with all creation, to communicate the message of the glory of God. That goes for even the body of an atheist who may disdain the fact, but his body is in and of itself a message.
Law #7: The container (form, medium) can be misunderstood, manipulated, and misapplied, but it cannot be rendered message-less. This is because of the following law:
Law #8: It is the Living Receiver that makes any form a message and inevitably affects the message.
The human being cannot help but receive a message and yet the message is unavoidably affected by the Living Receiver. Sometimes it is misunderstood. Sometimes it is deliberately manipulated. (Have you ever had anyone take an email of yours and, using your exact words, receive through that form a tone and spirit that you never intended to communicate? And did you think they were doing it because they had no intention of giving you the benefit of the doubt?)
Law #9: Not all forms are equal.
Some containers are better than others for the thing or message that it is carrying. It is true that a plastic jug is capable of carrying fine wine, but an artfully crafted glass bottle is a much better container for conveying the message that fine wine is better than tepid milk. Because no human being in the world can help but interpreting the container’s message before they actually receive the message in the container, it seems like basic logic that Christians of all people might consider not only the content, but the container, of their message.
Law #10: The messenger has the primary responsibility of considering the container for his message even though he is not responsible for the ignorance or hostility of the receiver.
It is true that some messages will never be received, no matter how perfectly appropriate the form. Creation itself is a perfectly adequate form to convey the glory of God (Romans 1), but it is being rejected. Nonetheless, as image bearers of the Communicating God, we ought to agree that there should be a least a minimal consideration of the medium/form/container of our message!
The self-described atheist in the poorly written and poorly maintained blog thinks that declaring the message “Christ is Risen” through the plastic, fast-food sign form is incongruous. Living in the so-called “Bible Belt,” he seems to be amazed at the silliness of American Christians who seem unable to grasp the idea that their supposedly sublime message is trivialized by their provincial kitsch. He shows two pictures:
Then he asks:
Which do you think better pays homage to the resurrection of the Savior of All Mankind? Isn’t there a better place for this lame display of religiosity than on a fast-food sign?
My point here is not to determine whether the fast-food sign is an appropriate form or not. In another post I want to share why I think Evangelical Christians produce religious music that is less artful than other religious artists. There is one main reason that is both good and bad. However, for now suffice it to say that the Wendy’s sign as a container and the Cologne Cathedral as a container by themselves convey conflicting messages that share their shared intentional message, “Christ is Risen.” They both say the glorious truth that Jesus is alive. But only with one of them is anyone tempted to say,