Liturgy, Part 1: Against Liturgy-Bashing

The first of several planned papers on liturgical matters, “Against Liturgy-Bashing” attempts to clear away the nonsense that plagues our thinking in many American churches. To bring it closer to home: our local church is in desperate need of liturgical reform, and we cannot even begin to build a God-honoring liturgy until we have cleared away the underbrush of the pagan ideas that harden our necks and soften our heads. To that end, this paper addresses several common objections to liturgical worship. Two excerpts:

Does the leading of the Spirit require spontaneity rather than planning? Again, we can return to the commands to sing in order to see the fallacy here. Imagine if we all just got together, and on the count of three, all began to sing whatever words happened to pop into our heads, set to whatever made-up tune we could each individually concoct at that very moment. Makes your ears hurt just thinking about it, doesn’t it? If everyone simply does his own thing, the result is chaos, just as it was in Corinth, and “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”

For a group to sing a song together, the individuals in the group have to know the words and the tune; in other words, they have to have a plan for what they’re going to sing. Singing the song together is just executing the plan. Now the Spirit, speaking through Scripture, requires us to sing, and therefore requires us to have such a plan. It is only by having such a plan that we can obey the Spirit’s voice. Far from quenching the Spirit, then, planning is a necessary part of following the Spirit’s leading.

Some people will try to say that actually, in a properly unplanned service everyone wouldn’t be doing his own thing, but spontaneously following the Spirit’s leading. According to this argument, the service comes together as a symphonic whole, with the Spirit conducting the orchestra, as it were. But in Corinth, as in modern churches who take this position, that’s not what actually happens.

What actually happens is chaos, and this should not surprise us. 1 Corinthians, particularly chapters 11-14, were written for just such a situation. Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians, “Stop doing your own thing and let the Spirit lead you.” Rather, Paul gives them explicit instructions about how to conduct their church services—a set of liturgical guidelines to be handed down as part of the tradition. Of course, hypothetically, the Spirit could direct every part of the worship service spontaneously so that the result was a symphonic whole without any human planning—but Paul shows us that the Spirit doesn’t choose to work like that. Rather, the Spirit gives guidance through Scripture ahead of time, and this guidance must become part of the planning for the service.

“Perhaps it’s true that some planning is essential,” someone might say, “but how can you be authentic when you’re just following a script?” Observe the question closely: what is the underlying premise? Spontaneity is authentic; planning is not authentic. Let’s test that premise by applying it to a wedding ceremony. By that standard, the most authentic weddings are spur-of-the-moment, liquor-soaked Las Vegas nuptials officiated by the bartender. Of course, we all know better. A wedding is a thoroughly orchestrated affair, and the specialness of the occasion is expressed in the careful planning and attention to detail.

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And yet, somehow, the notion of acquiring traditions and having to learn and teach them rankles our individualistic American hearts. We’re very attached to the idea of spontaneity in our worship. Why is this?

The easy answer is laziness. It’s just easier to walk in, sit down, and let whatever happens wash over us with no particular preparation on our part. No doubt that accounts for some of the resistance, but I don’t think this is all of it.

A second, and nastier, answer comes from our history. Until very recently in history, people thought of themselves more as members of a group than as distinct individuals. As this began to change—one fruit of the philosophical and artistic movement known as Romanticism—an opposition was set up between civilization, on one hand, and the “authentic” individual, on the other. In its extreme form, this view manifested itself in the notion that people are essentially good, but social pressures and forces habituate them to all kinds of evil.

Cultivation, on this view, is at best phony and at worst the root of all evil; it is only the spontaneous self that is good and wholesome. No doubt this pagan idea sounds familiar; most people in our culture today believe it in one form or another—including us. When we object to all the planning that goes into a “liturgical” service because it ruins the authenticity of our worship, we have fallen prey to this error.

The Romantic error, in turn, is a weakened form of a much more robustly pagan sin, the worship of chaos. Pagans (ancient and modern) view chaos as the generative force which brings all life, and the ancient pagan societies oscillated endlessly between the order of home and city, which preserved life, and the chaos of wilderness, drunkenness, and debauchery, which renewed and created life afresh. Either of these poles, left to itself, would destroy all life, the one by stifling it under a flood of obligations and restrictions, and the other in an explosion of random violence. Hence the oscillation, which was built right into the calendar, so that government and order prevailed during most of the year, but during certain festivals chaos was invited in to rejuvenate the society. South America’s Carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras are remnants of such pagan chaos festivals.

Whole societies also oscillate from order to chaos over time. The Romantics were reacting against an imbalance toward order, and in their revolt they gloried in all things uncultivated, uncivilized, and chaotic. It is out of their love for the uncultivated self that our present ethic of “authentic” spontaneity is born.

You can find the whole thing here, and to read the preceding papers, see the Position Paper page.

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