Friday, February 24, 2012

Postscript to "An Open Letter to Praise Bands"

So, I guess my little "Open Letter to Praise Bands" generated some interest. I'm glad that it could be a catalyst or foil for some intentional reflection on the how of Christian worship. I won't even attempt to address the array of responses it has generated. I'm content to let some misreadings spin themselves out. So I'm not out to police the ways I've been misunderstood.

However, I do think it's important to name an issue in the background that affects how we can have this conversation: not all Christians share the same theology of worship. Indeed, my concern is that some sectors of North American Christianity don't have much of a theology of worship at all. Many of us--including many congregations--have only an implicit understanding of what worship is, and we have not always made that explicit, nor have we subjected our assumptions to rigorous biblical and theological evaluation.

It is my passion for theological intentionality about worship that generated my book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. It's not fair to ask those who read a blog post to read an entire book, but I would invite those who both agreed and those who disagreed with my "Open Letter" to consider Desiring the Kingdom as a fuller articulation of the theology of worship behind my criticisms.

Many of the negative reactions to my missive stem from a fundamentally different understanding of what worship is. That means we are working from fundamentally different starting points. So when someone thinks that I "misunderstand" what's happening in worship, actually I just disagree with the assumptions behind such worship.

I think this is why some have missed two crucial points in my "Open Letter"--points that were admittedly touched on just briefly. Let me reiterate them here:

1. Worship is not only expressive, it is also formative. It is not only how we express our devotion to God, it is also how the Spirit shapes and forms us to bear God's image to the world. This is why the form of worship needs to be intentional: worship isn't just something that we do; it does something to us. And this is why worship in a congregational setting is a communal practice of a congregation by which the Spirit grabs hold of us. How we worship shapes us, and how we worship collectively is an important way of learning to be the body of Christ. (For a helpful account of how our congregational practice of singing embodies the oneness of the body of Christ, see Steve Guthrie's marvelous chapter, "The Wisdom of Song.")

2. Because worship is formative, and not merely expressive, that means other cultural practices actually function as "competing" liturgies, rivals to Christian worship. In Desiring the Kingdom, I analyze examples of such "secular liturgies," including the mall, the stadium, and the university. The point is that such loaded cultural practices are actually shaping our loves and desires by the very form of the practice, not merely by the "content" they offer. If we aren't aware of this, we can unwittingly adopt what seem to be "neutral" or benign practices without recognizing that they are liturgies that come loaded with a rival vision of "the good life." If we adopt such practices uncritically, it won't matter what "content" we convey by them, the practices themselves are ordered to another kingdom. And insofar as we are immersed in them, we are unwittingly mis-shaped by the practices.

Again, there's much more to be said about this, and a blog isn't the venue. I do invite those who have been prompted to think about these matters to consider Desiring the Kingdom as a way to continue the conversation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

We're All Atheists Now

This TED talk encapsulates the core thesis of Alain de Botton's new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. Anyone who has read Desiring the Kingdom will note obvious overlapping concerns and sensibilities. And while much more deserves to be said (I'll do so in a forthcoming review of the book), here's a question that I think we need to ask ourselves:

Botton is trying to convince atheists and secularists that "religion" has something to teach them. So at the heart of his argument is actually a critique of those versions of atheism/secularism that are dominated by a rationalist anthropology (with a particular focus on the weakness of rationalist models of education). That was Atheism 1.0. As a corrective, he upholds "religion" as a way of life that honors embodiment, recognizes the importance of habituation, appeals to the imagination, etc. If atheism/secularism would adopt these features of religious wisdom and practice, the result would be Atheism 2.0.

But here's the thing: I think many of us located in North American evangelicalism will find that the flattened, stunted "rationalism" of Atheism 1.0 is exactly how we "do" religion. In other words, many of the things that Botton extols about religion are absent from "our" rendition of religion. We might have something to learn from Atheism 2.0.

Monday, February 20, 2012

An Open Letter to Praise Bands

Dear Praise Band,

I so appreciate your willingness and desire to offer up your gifts to God in worship. I appreciate your devotion and celebrate your faithfulness--schlepping to church early, Sunday after Sunday, making time for practice mid-week, learning and writing new songs, and so much more. Like those skilled artists and artisans that God used to create the tabernacle (Exodus 36), you are willing to put your artistic gifts in service to the Triune God.

So please receive this little missive in the spirit it is meant: as an encouragement to reflect on the practice of "leading worship." It seems to me that you are often simply co-opted into a practice without being encouraged to reflect on its rationale, its "reason why." In other words, it seems to me that you are often recruited to "lead worship" without much opportunity to pause and reflect on the nature of "worship" and what it would mean to "lead."

In particular, my concern is that we, the church, have unwittingly encouraged you to simply import musical practices into Christian worship that--while they might be appropriate elsewhere--are detrimental to congregational worship. More pointedly, using language I first employed in Desiring the Kingdom, I sometimes worry that we've unwittingly encouraged you to import certain forms of performance that are, in effect, "secular liturgies" and not just neutral "methods." Without us realizing it, the dominant practices of performance train us to relate to music (and musicians) in a certain way: as something for our pleasure, as entertainment, as a largely passive experience. The function and goal of music in these "secular liturgies" is quite different from the function and goal of music in Christian worship.

So let me offer just a few brief axioms with the hope of encouraging new reflection on the practice of "leading worship":

1. If we, the congregation, can't hear ourselves, it's not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular "form of performance"), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there's nothing wrong with concerts! It's just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice--and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of "performing" the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can't hear ourselves sing--so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become "private," passive worshipers.

2. If we, the congregation, can't sing along, it's not worship. In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and "be creative," offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can't sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.

3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it's not worship. I know it's generally not your fault that we've put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we've encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we've also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity--even with the best of intentions--it's difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as "offerings to God," we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we've adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.

Please consider these points carefully and recognize what I am not saying. This isn't just some plea for "traditional" worship and a critique of "contemporary" worship. Don't mistake this as a defense of pipe organs and a critique of guitars and drums (or banjos and mandolins). My concern isn't with style, but with form: What are we trying to do when we "lead worship?" If we are intentional about worship as a communal, congregational practice that brings us into a dialogical encounter with the living God--that worship is not merely expressive but also formative--then we can do that with cellos or steel guitars, pipe organs or African drums.

Much, much more could be said. But let me stop here, and please receive this as the encouragement it's meant to be. I would love to see you continue to offer your artistic gifts in worship to the Triune God who is teaching us a new song.

Most sincerely,

Update: See the new "Postscript" to this open letter.

Monday, February 13, 2012

C'est fini

Well, I just dropped this off at the offices of Baker Publishing Group: the manuscript for the sequel to Desiring the Kingdom. My working title (we'll see if it survives) is Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.

Now I'm coming up for air. The past two months have been a blur. Deanna has passed along index cards to help me remember the kids' names! There's nothing heroic or virtuous in what I've just done. Indeed, it's like we've lived with a mistress in the house for two months. I'll be using the advance for marital counseling! (Not really--which is in itself a testimony of what an incredibly gracious woman Deanna is.)

From the daily log I kept in my notebook, I see that I created the manuscript file on December 12--the proverbial "blank page" beginning. I ended that day with 829 words. When I finished the book, on February 12, it was just a hair over 95,000. Binge writing at its best/worst. Again, this is not something I recommend.

Now I need to gain some distance from the manuscript for a month or two so that, at the galleys stage, I can come back with a sufficiently critical eye to slash and burn. Right now, while I'm glad to get this off my desk, I have a deep sense of how much the book needs to ferment and mature.

Over the next couple of months I'll sketch some of the core themes and layout the final Table of Contents. Right now it includes a chapter on Merleau-Ponty and another on Bourdieu, trying to marshal their theoretical work as part of a conceptual toolbox to help us think about liturgical formation. They are then enlisted in the second part of the book where I argue for the centrality of the imagination--and hence the aesthetic--in the dynamics of liturgical formation. So while it develops and expands the argument of Desiring the Kingdom, I also hope it finds a new audience amongst those engaged with the arts.

The book is slated to appear in November.

But for now, I'm just glad to bid the manuscript a fond Adieu!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

New College Lectures 2012: JKAS in Australia

I'm honored to announce that I'll be delivering the 2012 New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales in Sydney this coming May. The gracious invitation to give the lectures immediately brought to mind Stanley Hauerwas' powerful little book, After Christendom, as I remembered that it had begun its life as the New College Lectures in 1990. Other previous lecturers have included John Polkinghorne, Elaine Storkey, Oliver O'Donovan, Trevor Hart, Jeremy Begbie, and many others. I'm grateful to be able to contribute to this tradition. And as a Canadian, I'm looking forward to seeing another corner of the Commonwealth.

The theme of my lectures will be Imagining the Kingdom: On Christian Action an will include a one-day conference on Anglican education, picking up and extending themes developed in Desiring the Kingdom. Lectures will be May 23 and 24 with the conference on May 26.

Visit the CASE blog to learn more.

Monday, February 06, 2012

A Discovery: Wilco on Austin City Limits

Late last Saturday night, holed up in a hotel room in Knoxville, working on the final edits for my new book (Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works), providence dealt me a little grace: Wilco was playing on PBS' "Austin City Limits."

While Wilco is a huge part of my music library, I've never seen them in concert. So this little glimpse was a revelation for me. Seeing them perform enabled me to appreciate their sound in a whole new way. It's like they're still very much a "live" band that just happens to record their music. Because once you see some of their more atmospheric "noise" (as my wife not-so-affectionately describes it) actually produced by living musicians on real instruments in the synergy of a band, all of a sudden everything makes sense as it never could without that performative context. I feel like I finally "get" Wilco in ways I've never known before.

And then at the end is a marvelous little interview with Tweedy about the creative process that resonated with exactly what I was working on for Imagining the Kingdom--about the intertwinement of artistic creation, aesthetic appreciation, and our preconscious being-in-the-world. Cool stuff.

Watch Wilco on PBS. See more from Austin City Limits.

"Love me, I'm a liberal"

On the lighter side, in lieu of my blog silence: Jonathan Lofft, one of the students I met last summer at Trinity, pointed me to this fun little ditty from Phil Ochs. It's the sort of thing that will make both George-Grantish-curmudgeons and sophomore revolutionaries chortle, but neither will be quite sure whether Ochs is singing for them.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Mitt Romney's "Faith in America" Revisited

In light of Romney's decisive win in the Florida primary, over at The Twelve blog I've revisited and recontextualized a post from the last Republican nomination contest. Read more there.