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No. 21: Liturgy and the Counter-Cultural Church

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 21
June 1992
Copyright (c) 1992 by Biblical Horizons

The question of whether the Church stands “against” culture, is “of” or “above” culture, or seeks to “transform” culture cannot be answered in abstraction from a particular cultural context. To be sure, in many ways the Church’s message and relation to the world cannot change; the Church must, in season and out of season, proclaim the whole counsel of God and confess that Christ is Lord of all, and seek to bring all into conformity with His will. But in many respects the Church’s relationship to society and culture is not static but fluid; tactically, we might say, her stance toward the world depends in some measure on the condition of the world.

The Church’s relation to contemporary America must, it seems to me, be confrontational. As Herbert Schlossberg argued brilliantly in Idols for Destruction, contemporary America is, like ancient Israel, a land filled with idolatries, rarefied and respectable though they may be. Faced with an idolatrous culture, the Church has no choice but to stake out its ground as a counter-culture. (A friend of mine recently remarked that, since the triumph of “the Sixties,” the Church is more accurately described as a counter-counter-culture.)

A leading aspect of contemporary life is, according to Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the dominance of entertainment and particularly of television. Following Marshall McLuhan, Postman argues that the medium of public discourse molds the content of a culture. A “typographic” culture where the written word is the primary medium of communication encourages certain mental habits, so that “in a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas.” A culture dominated by the flickering image will be one in which ideas are suppressed in favor of entertainment.

Postman makes a powerful case for his conclusion that the symphony of contemporary public discourse is written in an entertainment key. He raises the remarkably obvious question of why news programs begin with dramatic music, and gives the equally obvious answer that television news programs do not intend primarily to give useful information but to entertain. News is not the only victim of the television culture. Politics suffers as well. There is something unnerving about seeing Sen. Paul Tsongas make a brief appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman” a couple of days after winning the New Hampshire primary or watching a putatively serious political journalist like John McLaughlin yuk it up with Jay Leno. Everyone, it seems, has the potential to become a celebrity; that is, to become an entertainer. To do so is to reach the heights of contemporary American culture.

Postman argues that the constraints imposed by the medium of television do not melt away when the television program has a religious content. Instead, television reduces religion to another form of light entertainment. Thus, “most of the religious shows feature sparkling fountains, floral displays, choral groups and elaborate sets.” Celebrities from the entertainment industry make frequent appearances on religious programs (while theologians and serious pastors are seldom seen), and nearly every television preacher has the same blow-dried cheeriness as his secular competitors.

Tasteless as religious programming can be, the more serious threat is the invasion of the television ethos into the Church. Religious celebrity has always competed with the slower rhythms of life in local congregations. Itinerant evangelists have always seemed more vibrant, more exciting, more spiritual than the sinner who preaches Sunday after Sunday to the same faces. The attacks of George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennant on the “unconverted ministers” who populated colonial pulpits are an

extreme example, but the conflict can take more subtle forms as well. During the post-Revolutionary period, for example, countless revivalists drew converts by their entertaining appeals to what Nathan O. Hatch has called the “sovereign audience.” In England, the Methodist Church repudiated the more extreme revivalists, but in America the same revivalists were embraced. The reason, Hatch argues, was that the revivals were successful in drawing new members into the Methodist Church. Successful methods of Church growth were, in turn, imitated by local pastors and the Church was refashioned in the image of the revival. The passive Puritan congregation analyzing the meticulous Ramist discourses of a Princeton-educated clergyman was transformed into a passive revivalist congregation thrilling to the homiletical pyrotechnics of an Oberlin graduate.

The same dynamics are at work today. On the one hand, more ambitious churches try to imitate the exciting atmosphere of televangelism. Alternatively, churches may seek to contextualize their ministry by adopting forms of worship, Church life, and preaching that will appeal to the entertainment-drenched congregation. In either situation, the television culture acts as a solvent of traditional Church life and worship. Thus the passive congregation continues its evolution, moving beyond the revivalist mode by its transformation into an audience at a low-budget religious spectacle.

In this context, it can be seen that a traditional liturgical form of worship is among the most counter-cultural acts that the Church can perform. As a Reformed Protestant, I favor traditional liturgical forms not because they are traditional but because I believe they are the best expression of the Biblical theology of worship. Today, liturgy has the added advantage of fulfilling Paul’s instructions to the Romans: “Be not conformed to the image of this world” (Rom. 12:1). At every point, liturgy swims against the current of contemporary culture. Where the culture celebrates youth and novelty, liturgy honors the wisdom of ancients. Where the culture encourages us to seek pleasure, liturgy forces a congregation to focus on giving pleasure to God. Where the culture insists that freedom means formlessness, liturgy is founded on the principle that there is no freedom without form. Where the culture exalts spontaneity, liturgy trains us in mature habits and responses. Where the culture pitches its appeals to the sovereign audience, liturgy is an appeal to a sovereign God.

It is surely one of the high ironies of the confused state of contemporary Christianity that a Biblically critical reappropriation of tradition should be the cutting edge of counter-cultural radicalism.