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.