Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ignorant Worship

To counter objections to my thesis from the outset, I readily admit Paul’s maxim “knowledge puffeth up.” Privileged to spend a lifetime of study and learning, I am often nudged by the Spirit to remember two things, “If a man thinks he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know,” and “If a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Socrates also oft admonishes me with his memorable words, “The one respect in which I am wiser than other men is my recognition of my own ignorance.” I also know that love better edifies than knowledge, and that wisdom is better than knowledge (We all know educated fools); but the preeminence of love and wisdom over knowledge does not mean that knowledge should be disdained but rather relegated to its proper sphere, and it certainly does not mean that knowledge should bow and curtsey, blush and blather in the presence of ignorance, which brings me to my topic, ignorant worship.

Jesus Christ Himself spoke of this at Jacob’s well when He said to the Samaritan woman, “You do not know what you worship.” Conversely, Jesus said of Himself and His Ancestors, “We know what we worship.” She worshiped ignorantly; He worshiped knowledgeably, indicating a certain intellectual dimension to worship. The First Commandment also includes this dimension of intellectual and knowledgeable worship, when Yahweh declares that we should worship Him with all our “mind.” Even more poignantly, almost the entire Pauline Corpus exists to correct some ambiguous or blatant intellectual ignorance in favor of precise, intellectual accuracy about the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

A simple glance at the various Christian denominations also proves our point. As a general rule, the more intellectually and educationally sophisticated the pulpit, the more intellectually astute and educated the congregation. At the high end of the spectrum we see the learned Presbyterian, Christian Reformed, Methodist, and Episcopal clerics who appeal to more educated and intellectually astute congregations, arguably a tad high-brow; at the low end of the spectrum we see the fringe lunacy of Pentecostal preachers deceiving the ignorant masses, especially the poor; and in the middle we see the Baptists, Churches of Christ, Nazarenes, et. al., appealing to the moderately educated masses. These various categories of worshipers also fall within obvious socio-economic paradigms: churches with more sophisticated approaches to worship attract the rich, churches with simplistic preaching attract the poor, and churches with a moderately educated clergy attract the middle-class. One could also make the politically incorrect argument that certain theologies and aesthetics appeal to more industrious and productive individuals, while other theologies and aesthetics appeal to those who look to God as a cheap economist and therapist for their self-induced economic and emotional fragility. The major exception to these criteria is the Roman Catholic Church who, arguably, has the best-educated clergy throughout history and yet poor congregants predominate the Roman Catholic church. This indicates that evangelicals, especially reformed evangelicals, have abdicated to the Catholics and Pentecostals the responsibility of reaching the poor, the very people Jesus said should, “have the Gospel preached unto them.”

Intelligence and Ignorance also impact the aesthetics of worship. Again, as a general rule, the more sophisticated the theology of a denomination, the more aesthetically high its worship environment. For instance, just notice the difference architectural styles and interior décor of the Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches as opposed to the architecture and décor of Baptist, Bible, and Pentecostal Churches.

In the last twenty years, the major aesthetic shift in Christendom has been in the aesthetics of music, which also follows the same pattern: the more sophisticated the theology, the more sophisticated the music, both in terms of lyrics and composition. “High Church” and “high theology” breed an ambiance of “high music” that aims to elevate the aesthetic sensibilities of the worshiper, especially his intellectual contemplation of sophisticated lyrics and his emotional meditation upon complex musical scores; “Low church” and “low theology” breed “low music” that aims more at the emotions than the mind, typified by lyrical and compositional simplicity. Plato warned against the latter.

Art in any form, especially musical art that aims primarily for the emotions is, according to Plato, not to be trusted. Plato understood that pathos should never rule logos: emotions should never rule the mind; when the heart gets over the head, tragedy follows. The opposite must be true if art has any value, Plato said; logos should rule pathos, the mind should filter and refine the emotions, and the only way the emotions can be properly filtered and refined is through intellectual rigor that leads to Truth which, in turn leads to Goodness and Beauty. That makes most contemporary Christian music suspect.

The contemporary Christian music scene, and the all to common “ambiance” of typical “praise and worship,” can hardly be indicted for being lyrically and musically complex. To the contrary, three-chord choruses, sung over and over again, with minimal lyrics and simplistic scores, rule the day. We say, “Isn’t that a great song,” not because it is truly “great” but because it so easily touches our mundane and lethargic lyrical and musical sensibilities. We don’t have to think, and we don’t have to strain our voice or our ear. “Easy listening” wins the day in contemporary worship. Ask yourself this question, “What is the greatest influence upon contemporary Christian music?” Christianity, or secular music? The answer is all too obvious. This magnetic pull of the Christian masses to vulgar lyrics and music powerfully corroborates our thesis:

Ignorance, not knowledge, permeates contemporary worship.

Knowledge is never a sure guard against errant theological ideas, religious practices, or even appropriate aesthetic sensibilities, but ignorance is always the enemy of Truth. As for me and my house, I would rather sit in the ornate secular chamber of Mozart and Debussy and gaze beyond their unconscious genius to the deliberate mystery of God, or wrestle with the honest skepticism of Twain and Voltaire, than to subject my ear and mind to an intellectually tepid and emotionally mundane distortion of God Almighty. In Bonhoeffer's day his contemporaries had marked the theology of worship "on sale"; today, we have posted that bargain in our once stained-glass, now broken, windows of aesthetic sensibilities.


The Militant Pacifist said...

wickeder* and dumber...

* yes, it is a real word!


As Alfred Lord Tennyson once said, "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." Unfortunately both are sadly lacking in contemporary worship.

LadyBlueEyes said...

I find your argument sound, Dr. Brunson, well thought out in view of both Scripture and observation, but it leaves me sad to think that only the more complex and intelligent forms of music God would find pleasing and acceptable as worship offered to Him. I consider Negro Spirituals, often deep heart-cries of pain and longing for a world at last fair and just, the Heaven beyond, fraught with simple lyrics as, "Well––a poor Lazarus poor as I, When he died he had a home on high. . .The rich man died and lived so well, when he died he had a home in hell. . . You better get a home in that Rock, don't you see?" And scripturally, I hear Jesus in Matt. 21 answering those who criticized his being praised as the Son of David with the verse in Psalm 8, "Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise." I worship in a reformed presbyterian setting that lauds hymns and shuns modern "praise songs," yet some of the tunes, I am told, originated from "tavern songs". Some of these hymns move me to a place of worship and speak to me, but some leave me cold and wanting. In like, I have been moved to worship God via a secular song on the radio, or lyrics by Bob Dylan or Jars of Clay, the Spirit in me recognizing the heart behind my offering to Him. But do some in our churches think too lightly of what's being sung? Certainly. And yes, everything in the corporate worship setting should be examined, particularly in light of the fruits produced in God's people and by Scripture. Emotionalism is a real danger in the corporate setting. I personally run from it. Yet if God's people are everywhere, dotted in every culture, every land, every economic and educational strata, every age group, does it not stand to reason that each one's musical attempt at worship would be pleasing in His site if done with a pure and Spirit-filled heart? I would think that the simple groanings and puffs into the harmonica of a Down's syndrome man in our congregation would be the sweetest to Him amongst all of us.
Respectfully submitted, LadyBlueEyes

Hal Brunson said...


That's a beautiful commentary, and profoundly touching illustration about the young man with the harmonica. Have you actually witnessed such? In my personal hymn singing, I often sing "low church" hymns, especially Negro spirituals, and I personally experience an aesthetic and spiritual power there comparable to listening to Rachmaninoff. I think the heart's the thing, and that's what God looks upon.

Thank you, LadyBlueEyes, for your input.

LadyBlueEyes said...

Yes! Fred has been in our congregation "forever", a charming soul with Down's who serves us all punch every coffee hour and sprinkles fairy dust on our worship time with his harmonica and simple sweet groanings. I love it. And yes, where God is concerned, the heart is always the thing. " )
Blessings, dear sir. . .

tish said...

Hal, I think I understand what you're saying. I have been in churches where a single lyric sung over and over ignited an emotional reaction that may not have been grounded in a proper view of who God is. The repetition encouraged suspension of a "thinking" mind and allowed participants to respond solely on an emotional level.

I believe your point is not that this kind of expression is always bad but that, when it is always the only (or dominant) expression, it is not good. or at least not best. ??

Very interesting--thank you!

Hippie Fringe said...

I'm not sure I would follow Plato anywhere. This flesh and the highest process of our brains are simply a vehicle. Sometimes the vehicle can get in the way of enjoying the ride or even become a purpose unto itself rather than a utility to help transport us to a destination.
To assess the value of one tool over another by an aesthetic losses sight of their purpose. You may think a Ferrari is superior to a Shelby Cobra or that a Stradivarius is superior to a Stratocaster but these are only tools to transport one and of themselves have no merit. After the first million years or so of soaking in the beauty of point B, even our highest brain functions will seem foreign, backwards and cheap in every aspect other than how they helped or hindered transportation from point A.
Still, I agree; the general level of workmanship is pretty shoddy these days and I love the visual of homeless Ferarrese.