Authenticity, Truth, and a Good Hospital

Within three days I experienced some good old fashioned Evangelical worship and a Russian Divine Liturgy. I plan to spend some time contemplating both, but since I’ve been trying to avoid five page blogs lately I’ll limit my thoughts here.

As a disclaimer: Throughout this post I will make several assumptions, i.e. “worship” for an Evangelical means singing praise songs of hymns, that the songs sung in Evangelical worship services are worthy of criticism, etc. For the most part I believe these assumptions to be true, just as I did when I was an Evangelical. But rather than whining about the existence of horrible worship songs I think its better to look at why Evangelicals choose to worship God as they do. There are a great deal of Evangelicals who willingly shred their own songs; it’s a conversation I’m rather tired of having. Additionally I think it is helpful to define an Evangelical as one who is not postmodern, especially linguistically. Sure there are unconscious postmodern assumptions in Evangelicalism, but most if not all of the Evangelicals I have met reject articulated postmodernism, so this post will ignore the postmodern objections. Lastly, I don’t know if there is any way of putting my thoughts down without the end result of one-upping the “other guy”. Though I argue that the way that we do things are different there’s no escaping the fact that the goal of robust Christian living is shared by Evangelicals and Orthodox alike, and there’s also no escaping the fact that I think the Orthodox way is more effective and therefore right. I don’t mean to be mean, and I certainly don’t mean to be proud, so forgive me if I sound that way.

It’s always nice to see people orienting themselves toward heaven. From the moment the guitar was picked up and the microphone encouraged people to stand I was reminded of how valuable a spiritual exercise it is to yearn towards Jesus. It certainly wasn’t throughout the crowd, but quite a few people were able to flip a switch and bam! there they were with closed eyes and outstretched hands. There’s a lot of internal movement going on within these people as they sing; this sort of worship is a spiritual exercise. This would be fine, except for the role of the exercise is fundamentally inappropriate. The problem is that the people are trying too hard to fit their entire spiritual life into a form that cannot hold it. It’s as if the genuine spirit of the Evangelical worshiper is trying to rest in the Lord but they can only try it for 15-30 minutes during corporate worship time. While their voices sound out fairly unhelpful words they desperately try to live as a spiritual being in the presence of God. They have nothing else to help themselves along in the spiritual path other than their desire: it is their prayer, their communion, their fellowship, their discipline. The form just cannot withstand the pressure of that expectation. What does it means to live a spiritual life? As valuable an exercise as this worship seemed, it seemed apparent it wasn’t the answer.

I was encouraged and convicted by those around me, but nonetheless I found in myself a spirit of criticism. I don’t mean for the people, but for the experience. I realized that if I had to tell people what I thought of the service they would be hurt and probably angry. But why would they be so defensive over their worship service when so many freely insult mine? I have heard many Evangelicals declare the wrongs of those who entrust their “salvation” to the Divine Liturgy and Church attendance. But what if I were to say to those standing near me “What is this song saying? It sounds like it’s mostly talking about things it’s going to do (‘going to sing of your love,” going to praise your mercy’) and using strange and confused metaphors. Not to mention the misconception that this song is advancing about who God is!” People would become infuriated very quickly because somehow by criticizing the words they were saying I was criticizing the people themselves, people full of good will and authentic yearning.

Is it right to see my critique of the songs as applying also to the person? One of my fundamental assumptions is that the words that come out of your mouth matter a great deal in worship: they are yours, you are responsible for them, and they have a spiritual affect you. Therefore, in as much as the person is joining with the song the criticism extends to the participant. In this sense the Evangelical worshipers might be justified in taking offense of my criticism.

However, if the words don’t matter as much as the heart and intent do, then they should not be offended when I criticize their words. They will claim that they are worshiping spiritual and meaningfully because of their heart and their intent. To criticize the words of their praise is to criticize the oyster shell for not being edible, it’s expecting value from the wrong thing.

This reveals something very disturbing; it shows that people aren’t very concerned about truth. They care about authenticity, passion, and longing – but the truth of the words that they say to their God seem to be of little importance. Even if a song is infantile in its doctrine they think it is okay, because they see it as more important to affirm the desire in people to sing to God, and to express themselves as they see fit. I have heard people say that you can often worship God better in a poorly written song than in a doctrinally sound hymn, because what matters is your heart. Both the Evangelical and I agree that God does not require fresh and inventive ways of worshiping Him, nor does He require doctrinal complexity. But I claim that He who is Truth must not be worshiped in falsehood, and for a grown adult to remain singing the songs of spiritual infancy is a tragedy for the Church and a victory for the devil.

Right about now come the hypothetical objections about people who don’t know better, or have anything better to sing. Surely we’ve all been stuck in the pew as the worship leader led us in a poor rendition of a song that we would otherwise not sing. For those of us who have an inheritance of spiritual poverty, we are saved with the rest of the saints by the economy of God’s mercy. But to whom much has been given, much is required – and though we ceaselessly rely on God’s economy we absolutely must persevere further into the law of God’s love. The charge I ultimately find myself levying against the Evangelical community is that it perpetuates a climate of spiritual poverty, and this severely damages and impedes the well meaning Christian.

I argued elsewhere that there is a time for expressive worship, but it is not the entirety, or even the majority of what worship is. I argue here that there is a place for the spiritual exercise that takes place in the Evangelical worship service, but exercises a small, isolated section of the whole person. The person begins to like the progress they get in the exercise and continues it without the realization of pressing athletic endeavor, or even worse, they become disheartened as they realize that this one exercise will not help them find victory in the arena. This latter option is what happened to me, and when I realized that a experientially rich worship time wasn’t helping me to overcome any of my sins I blamed it’s poor quality and propriety. As a disheartened and despairing man I saw these times as pointless and fruitless, mostly because of the lack of fruit in my life. Once a worship leader, I became disinterested in worship except on the occasions where I was outright disgusted by it. Ironically it is now that I am Orthodox that I can reaffirm the value and benefit of these worship experiences as part of the gamut of the Christian life.

A spiritual life has to be life in the body of Christ; where you wake up to prayer and fasting, are guided by liturgy and confession, and are energized by the True Bread and Living Water. As part of a spiritual family, I am finding out that there are spiritual PJ’s of a sort – moments that have neither ecstasy nor polish. This is different from the times of worship, praise, and teaching that I have experienced and witnessed in the Evangelical community. Where I am now, the idea of living a Christian life is much more robust, exciting, and daunting. The family fasts because redemption infects every facet of our life, even food. We say the same prayers because we are of one mind. This is cooperate life, and with the Blood in our veins we can make a joyful noise with dizzying moderation and proprietary fervor. There are so many ways for us to be in Christ, the former way seems anemic – and yet it is more lively now that it no longer bears the entirety of the burden corporate life in Christ.

I have discussed elsewhere about the beauty of the liturgy and the importance of its shaping influence on our lives. This is what I needed, and this is what we all need: a spiritual hospital. The reason I write this post, the reason I feel compelled to process these doctrines and experiences is because I need to remind myself of three of truths that constantly threaten to slip away from me. I am sick, I can be healed, and I am in an adequate hospital for my healing. These truths I search out again and again because the moment my discontent is satiated complacency sidles up next to me. I don’t mean to pick on well meaning Evangelicals; I mean to remind myself that my rehabilitation has just begun, and therefore more joyfully approach the day’s tasks.

Let us sing to the Lord a new song, let us sing praises to His name, but not for deepest communion with Him or to provide the horsepower for our spiritual life. Worship, in the sense of overflowing into song or extemporaneous prayer, must be set in the framework of an otherwise robust spiritual life that ceaselessly orbits God. Authenticity is frankness about the state of oneself. In that it is truth, it in anthropocentrically true, not divinely true. A culture that values narcissistic truth over the divine should hear the words of Jesus to the woman at the well: “You worship what you do not know.” But for many it is even worse, for they are “worshiping” what they do not care to know. Contemporary worship has short-circuited: when meaning takes preeminence over truth, man take preeminence over God. May we confidently and earnestly seek God’s mercy as we worship Him in spirit and truth.

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After the Encounter II: Art is Art and maybe Rogerian Therapy

The question I’ve been pursuing in recent weeks has been what do we do following an encounter with God? Previously I argued that what is required of us following an encounter with God is not for us to “express” ourselves. A young boy wakes up and does his chores; and they may be chores and he may hate them, but he does them out of obedience. To perhaps overstate myself, he doesn’t even do them as an expression of obedience – he does it because that’s what he should do. Likewise a soldier who has been given an order doesn’t reply to his superior officer: “I will express my awe and respect for you and your provision for me by flanking them on the Western front at 0230 hours.” The soldier, being a soldier, performs his function by fighting and obeying. This doesn’t sound fun to most people, and I understand… but I think it is reality and it is not void of authentic, divine experience. True romance is impossible without such mundane ordinary-ness, but I’ll argue for that some other time.

Taking an actual encounter with God for granted originally seemed like it would make the discussion simpler, but suddenly it seems to be a mistake since I keep hearing about “experiencing God” as if it’s some cosmic nicety or positive energy. Now I am a firm believer in the energies of God that us humans can participate in, but I am talking here about energia, that is the actions or workings of God. They can come in small doses, but the Orthodox defense of them happens in the discussion of the energies being Uncreated Light. This is not an aesthetic euphoria or anthropological ecstasy; this is the Light that shines in the darkness that wasn’t comprehended. This is the Light of the World, the light so bright that elder Paisios saw it and when he saw the sun he thought it was a dimly shining moon by comparison! This is very different from anything like cosmic energies or karma. That way lies what Fr. Pat Reardon calls “popular monotheism”, or New Age.

The problem of speaking about experiencing God bluntly is that we run the risk of cheapening God and misleading our neighbor. McLaren rightly points out that the “worship industry” has a tendency to cheapen God by making everything look pretty, and therefore being inauthentic. But his proposed solution is for us to make art, because it’s a more honest medium. Life, McLaren argues isn’t always pretty, it’s often about doubt, pain, and hardship; and through art we can sense the desire and longing that is certainly more real then all the petty euphoria of the “worship industry”.

Does the worship industry cheapen God? I certainly think it does, though I have a hard time faulting the joyous believers who keep their radio dialed into the local Christian “safe for the whole family” radio station. They deal with real life too, and if these people can handle life so buoyantly then thank God; the last thing we need are more despairing people in the world.

But I feel understood by McLaren; I am irritated by most Christian music, and especially worship music. I am irritated by it the way I am irritated by the latest pretend punk-rock band or Green Day’s latest attempt at being a multi-million album selling, corporate America bashing, political crusader. That sort of self-assured shallowness is more tragic than Avril Lavigne’s latest teenage rant, because it thinks itself genuinely profound or insightful when in reality it is little more than misunderstood maturity. The mantras and life lessons learned in Smallville are forgivable at 14 and infuriating at 24. I much prefer the yearning of ThirdEyeBlind’s “Good Man” and “Blinded” or the rawness of Counting Crows’ “American Girls” and “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues”. Oh I eat up Ryan Adam’s straight dose of depression in “Dear Chicago” when he sings “I’ve been thinking some of suicide/ but there’s bars out here for miles…”. I feel understood, my melancholy itch satiated, but I don’t think that that cynicism is reality – and I certainly don’t think that it is Christianity.

Art can be honest, but do we meet God through art made by Christians? Just about the best Christian art I can think of is Handel’s Messiah. To be sure it is moving, and to be sure it is instructive. The music is soaring and the words… well the words are straight from Scripture. But as much as I have had intense experiences with the Messiah, would it be fair to say that I’ve had a divine experience? Perhaps I just had an artistic experience, and what I mistook for God was actually a profound beauty. There’s a scene at the end of The English Patient that is burned into my memory; the mere thought of it brings a lump to my throat. This is what art does, it reaches us most tenderly and passionately – it develops and changes us. But it is not the Church and it is not God. And T.S. Eliot was not, strictly speaking, experiencing God when he wrote the Four Quartets. I am pretty certain that God was glorified and pleased, but it was the act of a developed and passionate poet writing. Was God pleased when Mozart wrote his “Requiem” or Plato his “Republic”?

This is not to say that God cannot meet us in art, I’m just saying that it is not where we should go to meet God. God can meet us anywhere: as a friend pointed out, God has shown us that He can speak quite well through a donkey. One might fear that by limiting art I am stealing something from them, that something has been discredited and their strongest and most intimate spiritual experiences made void. This intention of mine, and forgive me if this has caused you to feel despair. I think that limiting art is an honest way of exclaiming the grandeur of God and his merciful economy to those of us who have met Him who is Beauty in the beauty of humanities’ sincere artistic expression.

But this is actually little more than a tangent, because when it comes down to it the passionate McLaren is not offering us advice about worship, he’s offering us an art critique. McLaren is in actually an intelligent, sensitive, caring, art snob who is kindly pointing out that the art of “the worship industry” is bad art, and that if it wants to succeed at doing what it means to do it will have to change into good art. Bad art is that which poorly manipulates people; instead of convincing and moving people by showing them grand glimpses of Truth, it pushes them around dogmatically. McLaren is the unconvinced movie-goer who’s aghast at the naivety of the message and the incompetence to deliver it. His vision isn’t as myopic as most pastors, who envision a well executed and moving musical performance, it is an art show full of a variety of art pieces – democratically assembled while the other artist give unconditional positive regard for the others work. This well meaning vision is commendable for it is kindness and selflessness that propels the manifestation of McLaren’s offering. In many ways I see McLaren as the proverbial drummer boy, offering his only gift to God, and encouraging others to do the same, but McLaren’s gift isn’t music, but taste. The worship leader is banging his drum as best he can and McLaren, wishing to spare people from one form of bad art is encouraging him to beat a yearning dirge while the architect rebuilds the house of God in an effort to accommodate the newest installation pieces.

Commendably McLaren’s love for art is tempered by his love for people, but here he is as much a product of his culture as the mainstream pastors he so lovingly criticizes. McLaren’s pastoral nature is democratic, or to put it technically, humanistic. People are to affirmed, they need to be freed from the excessive bonds placed on them by societal expectations, cultural and sub-cultural norms, and inappropriate guilt and shame. They need to come to grips with themselves, their struggles, their faults, and their feelings – and having done so, express them.

All of this is true; the problem is that it is a commendable half-truth. This is a great diagnosis for much of what ails us, and I would be a much better person than I am now if I could say that I had successfully completed their treatment. But, as modern psychology has found, there is more to healing a person than Rogerian therapy can provide. We need guidance and coaching, not mere encouragement. We need training, and the disciple to fight our fallen nature and guide us to Godliness. And we need the humility that can only come from having before us the end; the humility that comes from knowing that our desires can be fulfilled, but we are not yet there.

The House of the Lord is a house of worship, not a house of expression. The presence of our Lord takes place in the Sacraments, which is not expression but the obedient act of the children of God. This yoke is easy and the burden is light, though it is still a yoke. Christianity is the Sacramental life, by which we behold the Uncreated Light and dwell in the Life of the world – the world we gaze at in wonder through the miracle of good art.

After the Encounter: the Emergent(ing) church’s idea of worship, and a confession

I have heard some good arguments for the Emergent(ing) church. I have seen some good come from those who embrace their flexibility and earnestness. I have talked to the kids who have been saved by the stop-gap of “form surrendering” “expressions of church.” I have read people who can speak about it clearly and winsomely – and I am forced to utter only one response.

They’re wrong.

I don’t say this because they lack “apostolic succession” or because they don’t have the consistent heritage that others do. I don’t have to say this because I think that they are spreading untruths about God, or because they threaten the socio-political agendas I espouse. I find myself forced to say this because of a fundamental disagreement about what the Church is – or more helpfully, what we are to do following an encounter with God?

Whenever one is talking about the Emergent(ing) church one is talking about a movement that loves fuzzy definitions and diverse opinions. It is hard to pin them down on doctrine or practice of any kind, they prefer to define themselves by their headings: Conversational, Missional, Incarnational – all of which have the postmodern linguistic trick of simultaneously meaning many different things. You will see the most contemporary “expressions of church” you could ever imagine and you will see chameleons of the Anglican and Orthodox practices. You won’t even be able to get them to agree of their movement, and some you won’t be able to admit as to having an intentional or organized movement at all. (That’s why I like to refer to them as neither the Emergent nor Emerging Church – so I just combine the two most popular headings.) Despite the disparity between the different kinds of Emergent(ing) churches in existence there is one common doctrine that you can address, and it is this doctrine that is erroneous. It is the belief the response to the encounter with God is an arising or emerging expression of Him and His glory.

The argument is sensible to most of us: we react to the sight of God through expressions of His greatness and splendor. This makes sense of the Emergent(ing) church’s values of creativity and authenticity, for these would be the benchmarks of a meet and right reaction to the glory of God. In valuing “form surrendering” responses to God they claim to be freeing the people of God of insincere worship forms. Our task as Christians is to respond to the sight of Him who has appeared to us, and to follow our natural reaction as strongly as possible.

If this doesn’t seem like a damning or stupendous error I understand; and I understand if people aren’t incensed by it. This half-truth is the tacit belief that many share; both high-church and low-church parishioners alike. I can’t tell you the number of times that people have told me that they like the “liturgical” churches because of how they express a reverence towards God. I’m not going to disagree with them about the reverence, but I have to disagree about the expression. If there is an expression of our love for God it is better seen through our obedience than through our expression. A child who expressed himself by painting or singing when a parent gives him instruction would not be behaving well. In order for expression to be a sign of love, we first must answer the call of obedience.

And we have been given a task; we have the weight of obedience upon us. This easy yoke is to submit to God’s authority, the very House of God, and to worship Him in the manner He describes. This worship doesn’t come from us and the wealth of our emotional and rational response to God; it comes from His revelation to us. A revelation that the Evangelical and Post-Modern Christians have somehow ignored.

Before I had thought about what God had told us to do in worshiping Him I was dissatisfied with what I knew of human worship. Like many others it struck me as disingenuine to respond to God without the actual encounter. It doesn’t take many chapels or worship services to realize that the agenda for the day doesn’t include Teh Apprehension the Creator and Sustainer of our Faith and the Universe. This isn’t so much an argument against the impossibility of the “expressional” model of Christian worship as it is a declaration of the inconsistency of the practice of the model. I have had an deep spiritual encounter and time of praise at a praise rock ‘n roll show – but (as it’s interesting to note now) it started out with repentance, and not with the standard fare of jump-start praise songs.

Secondly I think that formless expressions equal bad art. This critique isn’t applicable to every Emergent(ing) church or Evangelical outpost, but it reaches the core principle tacitly held. The first time you hear a really groovy song you don’t spazz out and consider it good dancing. You practice your dancing over and over again – and that’s how it becomes good art. One might reply by citing the naked dancing of King David (II Sam. 6) in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. Oh that we could be like skillful musician King who danced with all his might for the Lord and not for man. And oh that we could have his humble response when he says “I will be even more undignified than this and will be humble in my own eyes, but to with the maid of whom you have spoken I will be distinguished.” The man after God’s own heart, who embarrassed Michal by exposing the undergarments of his vestments, was concerned with his humility before God (who had already slain one irreverent man in the chapter) and realized (more than I am able to) of the propriety of rejoicing after the fearful coming of the presence of the Lord into the city.

Though the example of David is an interesting narrative it is certainly the exception and not the rule. The rule seems to be that God tells you what to do: build a temple, build an alter, sacrifice some animals, circumcise some men, etc. The New Testament doesn’t make things any less obedience based; yet somehow people are inclined to think that the injunction to love God and your neighbor as yourself is somehow easier than circumcision. Reading the Gospels it doesn’t seem as if Jesus is looking for an artistic expressions of us searching for truth in order to experience Him or do fulfill our life as Christians. It looks like He wants us to give all we have to the poor, to forgive our neighbors, to turn the other cheek, to receive Him as humbly as a child. We may build him an altar, and on the altar we may offer sacrifice. Or we may build a shelter and help the poor – this fits the bill of what is required of us. But what doesn’t quite fit is a painting, or an interpretive dance, or an installation piece, or a golf game expressing our search for truth. This may be done unto God, just like digging a ditch or cleaning your house may – but it does not take the place of rightly following way to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The charge of idolatry is often lobbied against the Orthodox Church, but she is holding fast to what has been passed down – and she would rather kiss the photograph of our Lord than build something new to follow. As a bride the she waits in the shadow of Sinai for the instructions of what to do now; this is not yet the Promised Land! Between the deliverence and the land of milk and honey the Church waits in faith, tying every hope to the Deliverer.

But here in the shadow of the Holy Mountain, in the midst of the longing and restless throng, I see despair and impatience. Men circle around, gathering gold and precious gifts from the families; piecing them together in earnestly collaboration. Eagerly and democratically they design and shape; purpose and passion filling over their hearts, spiriting their hands – and as they work a wail suddenly arises. From who they are and what they have, from their desire and imagination, something has indeed emerged! And lifted on their hopes the golden form of fattened calf stands above them, its radiance only serving to darken the brow the one who descends, his face still burning from his encounter with God.

Expressions of our authentic selves lay all around us, most of them little more than our personal calves. Bold and beautiful, they sit in the dust of the tablets broken over our obstinate hearts. This dust and these tablets we will not see, will not acknowledge if we can help it. But they are there nonetheless, and here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years largely wasted – years stubbornly refusing to obey.

Word and Image: Course Pack Intro

This is the Intro to a course pack that Buddy and I are putting together. It’s for class I am teaching for Torrey Academy Emmaus Forum. We will be watching select movies, reading select texts, and then discussing them for hours. The class should be fun: I know I am looking forward to it. Here’s the first draft…

 

In Defense of Everything Else.

What is the most fundamental element of our human experience: the word or the image? Can we live without either language or the sense of “seeing” something with our mind’s eye? Can we think without language? Can we know something without “seeing” it? Multiple disciplines have found themselves staring at this dilemma, and the answer seems to consistently reiterate the validity of both the Word and the Image. The Bible says that the entirety of creation was made through Jesus Christ and without Him “nothing was made that was made.” This same Jesus, in whom all creation subsists, in whom everything rests for its being, is referred to as “The Word” (John 1) and the “The Image” (Colossians 1). By studying the word and image we will study the means of learning, the modes of communication, content and the presentation of content, and the differences and similarities of various forms of media. We will be studying films and texts that deal with what humanity is, and what it isn’t – and as we want Christ to be pre-immanent in all things we will have in front of us the Archetype of humanity. And having done all, we pray that we may we be granted the mercy to know The Word and The Image Himself, Christ the True God.

Still you may be asking yourself why we are reading Steven Pinker in a “film” class. Isn’t this class concerned with questions about the current state of the media, and how content is relayed? Yes, but these questions take us deeper into these fundamental questions about who we are and what we humans are here for. Today there is a battle being fought for who gets to define “human nature” and it will effect both what we say and how we say it. (Or what we see and how we are to see it.) We are being told contradictory things about what moves us, what’s important in life, and how we differ from our fellow man.

As thinkers like Pinker influence culture, we begin to see the fruits of his influence in important cultural mediums like film and music. More importantly we see the precursive thinkers on whose shoulders the Pinkers, Hawkings, and Dawkins’ of today stand. Men like Nietzsche, Freud, and Shaw whose efforts in the battle for the concept of humanity have shaped the battleground in which we now find ourselves. To engage with the discussion today is to engage with a grander discussion of nearly unparalleled depth and subtlety.

 

And subtlety leads us back to the question: What does this all have to do with film? When you watch a film, when you apprehend an image, when you judge a performance you are not so much critiquing from a cultivated artistic sensibility as you are reacting humanly. How can a scene be poignant if it isn’t imbued with some truth or beauty about humanity? How can we judge a character as being jarring and unconvincing unless we hold it up to our own human senses? In short, how can we rightly and critically engage in the human artistic culture unless we are ourselves, whole and developed humans?

What makes and breaks a good movie is often a small thing: a line or two, the inflection upon delivery, or the lighting in particular shot. What might be well said is that which is not said at all…but hinted at, or juxtaposed visually. What might make a scene frightening is stillness or movement, and what might show the truth behind the lie can be even harder to discern that that. As we engage these images in an effort to see the Good, True, and Beautiful we often take a great step forward by seeing through that which isn’t.

We have quite a task set before us: to examine these words and images, thoughts and feelings, pages and slides, as we hold ourselves up to the light of truth. As humans, and very concretely as Christians, we are in relation the objective Truth that is Good and Beautiful – and as we contemplate, search, and judge, we will ourselves be judged. Our consolation in all of this is not that, at the end of a week, we will defeat Nietzsche, Dawkins, and the rest of those pesky atheists; but rather that we will encounter our need to be fully human, to be in Christ – and we may find our salvation.