Friday, December 09, 2005

The Two Minds of Christianity Today

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time for about a week to visit Europe when the Christian culture was at its height, just to see how virile Christianity had been in the arts, culture and ordinary living, what a wholistic life as a Christian really had been. In our times, it seems that to be a Christian or even any seriously religious person is something that modern cultures will not accommodate, relegating as it does religion to the realm of spiritual hobbyists or potentially unmanageable political entities. Because our culture is so secularized, I think Christians today (probably 99%) are necessarily a strange blend between secularists and Christians, and with these two minds within ourselves, I wonder how long we can continue to carry this dichotomy within while our culture lurches into an increasingly hostile, anti-Christian future.

The so-called Dark and Middle Ages were a culturally fertile time for Christianity, but the pagan forces it gradually supplanted never really went away. It lived on in pagan folk practices (which lasted well into the 19th century), alchemy, witchcraft, and later in the resurgence of the ancient Greek pagan philosophies. The French Revolution heralded in the first secularizing mass movements as well as the beginnings of both fascism and communism, forces that are as strong today as ever. Even the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini have simply transplanted themselves around the world, morphing into whatever shape it needs to in order to regain ascendancy. Worse yet, the forces of fascism and communism seems to be re-merging in ways, subtle and overt, far more successfully than during the very brief pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939-40. It only points up what author Eric Hoffer said decades in his book "The True Believer" that fascists and communists are merely two sides of the same coin.

Since the French Revolution of 1789, utopian movements have been the greatest threat to Christianity and civilization generally. It is the chief trial of our times, and a war of belief, ideas and flesh and blood that will have to be fought over again and again.

Some interesting articles along this line:
The multiculturalism agenda hits Russia. A call to ban Christian symbols in Russia. As if they need this after 80 years of Communism which largely destroyed Christianity in Russia (compared to what its culture had been before the Revolution).

Two interesting articles from the traditionalist Orthodox point of view on trends in our culture.
Orthodox view of globalization, the West, and extremism

Orthodox view of true culture and civilization


Ray said...

My first thought after reading this post is, separation of church and state. I believe the concept of a state church so prevalent at one time did a great disservice to Christianity. In some countries every citizen was automatically a member of the church and the state collected tithes to support the church just as if another tax. I've read those countries often had/have the lowest participation rates in their churches. No incentive to evangelize.

So the US was founded on the principle of religious freedom. Well, not immediately, but eventually that became accepted. So, now we to the opposite extreme. As a society we set up the dichotomy of church being separate from the state with a gulf between them. They are two realms of our existence. Much like we don't mix science and religion. As Nancy Pearcy points out, that philosophy comes straight from Plato, it is not biblical.

Anonymous said...

I think state-run churches have really done very great damage to Christianity in Europe, and though the cathedrals are empty of worshippers, still everyone pays a church tax. That's unfair.

In Russia, since the time of Peter the Great, the state authorities also censored the sermons. When the Menshevik Revolution occurred in March 1917, the patriarchy there was finally freed from the Czar, but the later Bolshevik Revolution in October then set out to destroy the Church. Stalin resurrected it in 1943 for his own purposes and the Moscow Patriarchate (as it became known as) remained a KGB stooge until the fall of Communism.

I felt some trepidation upon the recent canonization of Czar Nicholas II and his family. They weren't exactly the best of Christians (quite undiscerning especially regarding Rasputin). There's still some talk about restoring the Czar, but if that ever happens (highly unlikely), I hope that the Church can remain separate from the government. It's a typically Eastern concept to merge the kingship with religion, and to invest the king with a divine aura. It didn't help the Orthodox church when Byzantium fell; nor did it help the French Church when Louis XVI fell. Both went into decline and never recovered.

But kings and czars are not the issue today, instead it's aggressive secularism and the utopian movements that have swept over the world. Since several generations have grown up in this kind of culture, it's now hard to imagine a culture that was both homogeneous and very different from our materialist, pluralistic one.

For example, we now have a huge choice of books to read, whereas formerly there were only a few religious books and maybe a Bible. Before the printing of the Bible, the Christian culture and teachings were conveyed by images, sermons and music. Nowadays, we're innudated by choice. Mostly that is good, but the down side is we can be very easily distracted from comtemplation of the sacred.

So I wonder how we can regain a wholistically Christian attitude within our culture. I suppose we must look at ourselves as the ancient Christians did who were surrounded by the pagan Romans. Christians were in a minority then, but then they represented a new idea. Do we represent to the world an old, outmoded idea or is it still capable of conveying its essential newness without conforming to our continually mutating times? Too many churches today are running to catch up with the world, but we shouldn't be trying to conform to it in order to survive.

Ray said...

Scribe, I'm much less familiar with Russian history and specifically the Orthodox church. I've enjoyed your posts, very enlightening. When I posted above I was thinking of England, France and Spain. Of course England's state church is Anglican and France and Spain are Roman Catholic. Another downside is many people living there when asked will say they are Christian without ever being involved in the church or having any concept of what Christian is. They are Christian in their minds by virtue of the fact they were baptized as infants and automatically became church members.

Relative to the secularization of society, Nancy Pearcey traces it back to Darwinism. Up until Darwin science was under the wing of the church, there was not the separation there is today. Darwinism provided an alternative to a biblical worldview.

I think your last sentence sums up our argument below with Jason against contemporary music. Churches are conforming to the world rather than providing an alternative to secular thought.

Anonymous said...

But Darwinism is a view that has its roots going back to the Renaissance, when the study of man became more important than the study of God.

Darwinism didn't signal the beginnings of secularism - it was only one of the fruits of a long, ongoing process.

Some of our theologians say you can see the beginnings of this change of viewpoint in Western art from the early Middle Ages, such as the paintings of 12th century artists Giotto and Cimabue, who first began to use perspective. Perspective projection was not unknown in the ancient Roman world, but it fell out of favor in the later Roman Empire, especially after Christian themes began to replace pagan ones. If you look at Christian art before Giotto, you see it has reversed perspective, that is, the vanishing point is located somewhere just behind the viewer. That's why the furniture in such paintings look odd. In Giotto's paintings and nearly all realist paintings afterwards, the vanishing point is located in the painting itself, giving the impression that the view is from the observer or man's eye level. In the reversed perspective of the early Christian art, the viewpoint, coming from within the painting, was from God's eye level.

In art history classes (I've taken a few), this perspective change is always touted as being a great artistic break-through, a progressive, innovative movement. But this progressiveness really represents a lurch into man-centered secularism, which eventually pushed God out of the picture.

By the 19th century, our arts began to show the strain of so much man-centeredness. Imagery, music, etc began to fall apart physically into a kind of irrationality. During the 20th century, the faith in man's ability to control himself (and by extension his world) fell into very serious doubt to be replaced by the cynicism of modernism/post-modernism. These movements have a strangle-hold on intellectual and emotional life today, and also damaging the life of faith of the Church.

One would think that since modern secular Man has largely come to the end of his illusions, he must be in a similar position to that of a burnt-out ancient Roman who no longer believes in his hearth gods. You would think modern man might be ripe for faith in Christ instead (as his ancient Roman counterpart was), but at this overripe time in history, man seems only to have the wherewithall to feed his cynicism. He will only consider religion if he can invent it on his own terms, so his perspective remains the same--the big picture is at his eye level and he can move the element of it how he likes. In some ways, that is very comforting, much like sucking one's thumb.

The Church generally is hardly the bright and shining city on the hill. It seems it is mostly tired and confused about its tenets of belief, its theologians quarrelsome, duplicitous and too politic, leaving too many within or without the Church cynical.

My question is: how can Christianity today change the man-center perspective to a God-centered one? We can't turn back the clock, so what can we do next that does not pander to the spirit of this age?

Ray said...

Join the Amish?

God has always maintained a body of believers down through the centuries even when the church strayed far from God's plan. I don't have a serious answer to your question, but God does. Sometimes I wonder if we aren't relying too much on our own initiatives to effect change.

Jason Silver said...

I LOVE YOUR COMMENTS, SCRIBE. Amazing insight and bang-on. Really, you've left me breathless and eager to help make change.

Though I'm not certain how this would effect my worship leading, my ministry, my choice of music, I do struggle regularly with the entertainment mentality of so many worshipping Christians who want their emotions stirred in worship. Worship for them is good or bad based on how they feel about it, not based on the timeless truths of God.

Truthfully, I've often played with the idea of returning to liturgy in an attempt to counteract this disturbing trend.

Thank you so much for your post.

Anonymous said...

Jason! You're back! Great!

So Jason, what ideas have you been playing with to help believers to worship not with their emotions only, but to adhere to the timeless truths of God. Liturgy is a good thing to help counteract the entertainment trends, but on the other hand the congregation can't just go through the liturgical motions with their head and hearts at the ball game.

I still wonder how Christianity must deal with post-Christianity, if you all get my meaning. It's not the same atmosphere as when the ancient world struggled with pagan beliefs and Christianity (that the intellectual pagans of the time accused of being atheistic). Now the scene is all upside-down. Any thoughts or ideas?

Ray said...

Jason, glad to see you came back. Also glad to see you have some of the same questions the rest of us have.

In my circles, liturgy is criticized because it can become rote, people go through the motions. Obviously, that is not true for everyone who worships liturgically. But, as I observe our non-liturgical congregation, we can be the same way. There are some who will not participate in the congregational singing. They will not get involved. Seems they attend Sunday morning service more out of duty.

I notice I get the most compliments from some of the congregation for the most dynamic choir pieces. Makes me wonder if it isn't really just entertainment. I introduced a piece to the choir recently that has an amazing text, but the music doesn't have the typical elements that would make it emotional. If one listens closely to the text and sings the music accordingly, it can be a highly emotional song. I wonder how much people really listen to the words.

Michael Dodaro said...

Holy cow! I take a weekend away from the computer to go to church and sing a couple of concerts, and it seems I’m completely lost to much of what has transpired in this conversation. Now Jason is considering liturgical worship, and in light of the comments and posts I’m reading, it seems that two out of three of the musical occasions to which I contributed over the past weekend, all classical music on sacred texts, were mainly entertainment. My wife and I sang a concert of Christmas music--Bach, Gounod, Schubert, etc. on Saturday evening, and on Sunday afternoon the Christmas section of Handel’s Messiah. My, not unfamiliar, perplexity is increased by the church service I sang yesterday morning. The usual Episcopal liturgical formalities came off in conjunction with the election of new members to the vestry for the coming year. Vestry, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the church of Henry the Eighth, is the governing board of churches in the Anglican tradition. I’ve served on the vestry for three years, and now, as my term ends, I am astonished to find that all four of the newly elected members are homosexuals. Nice people, I must say, but so much for the connection I’ve often argued between historic traditional liturgy and traditional morality. So, Jason, let’s talk this over. Before you defect from CCM for Russian Orthodoxy, consider how I might have to hold out alone for Bach and Mozart against ancient liturgical chant and Ray who now sounds like his Baptist choir might be better if they sang without instrumental accompaniment.

Jason Silver said...

See my post today at

Michael Dodaro said...

And another thing: I remember the comments of a screen writer at the Northwest Christian Writers Conference some years ago. The screen writer was Greek. Another member of the discussion stood up to challenge him about his involvement in the movies. The challenge was blunt: “Why are you in this business?” The confronter went on to argue that the only legitimate way to communicate theological truths is in writing. God has revealed Himself in law and in scripture, he maintained. Images, whether stone or cinematic, are idolatry! The screen writer replied out of his experience in the Greek Orthodox tradition. He said that when he was a child in church, the icons were his instruction in the faith. He compared his experience to that of young people now going to the movies. What are you going to do with this, Scribe? Seems like an argument that could be adapted to make CCM acceptable to the Orthodox mindset.

Jason Silver said...

Even John acknowledges that words are not enough when he shows that "The Word became Flesh." Words are not enough. :)

Ray said...

Mike, you speak of Holy Cows. Are you also Hindu?

No, no, no.... I will keep instrumental accompaniment. In fact I wish my choir were bigger so I could include some brass, which I have done on a couple of ocassions. But, like Jason I do change my appearance and now sport an Amish beard, trimmed short though. Can't play the bone with a mustashe. But, maybe I'll take up the serpent and pretend my choir is Rennaisance Catholic.

Ray said...

Jason, in your post above, are you referring to a blog entry from 12/10 about a new song you've written describing how you wrote it to be singable?

Ray said...

Oh, and Mike, I have had my choir sing Bach, Mozart, Handel, Gounod, and others. Would love to do more.

Michael Dodaro said...

No, Ray, I’m not a Hindu, but in our area we have an Episcopal Church where American Indian drumming is regularly a part of worship. The choir director used to have a classical music calendar that was the envy of musicians all around the greater Seattle area. He told me recently he now feels obliged to “open the door as wide as possible” to all cultural perspectives. Given that there a many East Indian families in Redmond, Bellevue and environs, thanks to Microsoft, he will probably soon have Hindu chant or something equivalent. :-)

Ray said...

Well, I picked up a Native American flute in a trip to AZ a couple years ago. Maybe I could participate too.

BTW, welcome back to your blog. Scribe and I have had a good time keeping it going in your absence.

Jason Silver said...

I was referring to a post I just saved 10 seconds ago. :) Sorry for the confusion.

Ray said...

Jason, excellent article. You obviously are struggling with some of the same questions many of us struggle with also. I have questioned if I am not just imposing my own biases on my choir when I choose music for them to sing. I wonder if we are turning people off with our conservative music. I wonder if the truth is somewhere in the middle.

We Baptists, though as I've already said, are not Protestants, are very diverse. I suspect you'd feel out of place in my church, but you'd probably fit right in with other Baptist churches. We're all on a journey, a journey of discovery. Maybe we'll all help each other find the answers we seek.

Michael Dodaro said...

I'm still trying to get re-acquainted with my blog. So where is Jason's article again?

Ray said...

Clink on the link he provided and go to blog. So simple and HR guy can do it.

Ray said...

We were discussing serpents, the musical variety, and Scribe asked to describe their sound. Here's a link to the 1812 Overture played on 26 serpents. Don't know why, but it was done. It's more for amusement than seriousness. But, check it out.

Anonymous said...


You said "I remember the comments of a screen writer at the Northwest Christian Writers Conference some years ago. The screen writer was Greek. Another member of the discussion stood up to challenge him about his involvement in the movies. The challenge was blunt: “Why are you in this business?” The confronter went on to argue that the only legitimate way to communicate theological truths is in writing. God has revealed Himself in law and in scripture, he maintained. Images, whether stone or cinematic, are idolatry! The screen writer replied out of his experience in the Greek Orthodox tradition. He said that when he was a child in church, the icons were his instruction in the faith. He compared his experience to that of young people now going to the movies. What are you going to do with this, Scribe?"

I'm going to agree with the Greek fellow. Imagery has long been used in the Christian church to convey the theology and stories of the Bible. This is a time-honored tradition that was especially pertinent in pre-literate socieities. In Orthodoxy, there was a hundred year civil war fought over images, where one side (the iconoclasts) took the Jewish/muslim view (the iconoclasts were influenced by Jews and muslims) that no imagery was permissible because it was idolatrous. The iconodules made the contention that because Christ had appeared in the flesh, taking on the image of man, it was permissible to depict Christ. After the Iconoclasm war, strict rules were enacted to regulate the making and use of icons so as to faithfully illustrate the stories of the Bible and not to lead to idolatrous practices. The iconographer of the Eastern church still follow these rules, but the Western church does not, which has lead to some abuse of imagery and the eventual degradation of Christian visual art in the West.

As for this Greek fellow being involved in the movies, I say that he is simply carrying on a long traditioon of the use of Christian imagery in another visual medium. What is the cinema but a series of images progressing in time to make a story? These days, as in pre-literate times, more people get their information from the cinema and TV than from printed media, and the secular world has been very quick to use it to full effect, which sometimes could lead to the uplifting of a people or their further corruption. It's time the Christians got into movie-making and take over this artform, as we had dominated the visual arts in ages past.

As for music, I still must say that Mozart, Bach and soft rock cannot compare to the beauties of Orthodox or early Western Church music. This music fits with the liturgies seamlessly and doesn't lend itself easily to entertainment. However, I will say that in pre-revolutionary Russia, one could find in the newspapers announcements of what singers were singing the Cherubic Hymn or other favorites at certain parishes on a given Sunday. So even in Orthodoxy, one could still make a bit of a show. Just goes to show you that it's hard to keep vanity in check.

I do not have any objection to songs (in nearly any style) that have a Christian theme and sung for a concert. Nothing wrong with that kind of creativity, which can be edifying to an audience. But for church music, Orthodox composers must compose for the liturgy, not for an audience.

Any Orthodox virtuoso will tell you he or she can never sing the liturgy perfectly. It never seems to happen, whereas they can sing any other music perfectly, but not the liturgy. They interpret this phenomenon as God's way of keeping them humble when it comes to singing God's music.

As for Hindu chant, well, Mike there's a possibility there, provided you Christianize the words. Most chant and hymns, no matter what its origin, has certain similarities that convey a quiet, worshipful attitude. I have been studying Sanskrit for the past two years with an Indian study group. They are Hindu, but we don't discuss religion (we're trying to get used to each other before we try that.) They told me about a Sanskrit movie made some years ago. The title is "Adi Shankaracharya" and I got a DVD of it to help me get a feel for the language. You can get it on and it's well worth seeing.

In this movie, there is a lot of singing of ancient hymns and chanting (it's emphatically not Bollywood stuff). The hymns, in particular, are soaringly beautiful, and sung by a solo tenor.

There is a book that collected Christian writings in Sanskrit "The Indian Christobad" the words of which could possibly be merged with Hindu melodies. This book is out-of-print, but I'm sure you can find it online.

Ray said...

"Any Orthodox virtuoso will tell you he or she can never sing the liturgy perfectly."

I find that statement interesting. I would love to know what makes it less than perfect. When I play the trombone in church, I never consider my "performance" to be perfect, even if I hit every note and in tune. There is always room for interpretive improvement - those nuances that better interpret the music thus telling a clearer story.

Michael Dodaro said...

I've now read Jason's blog. Good reading. His conclusion that he's going to be investigating more formality in worship is intriguing. One thing that historic churches usually have is a procession, usually during the singing of the first hymn. In Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches an acolyte or priest holds up the cross and another carrys the book from which the lessons will be read. Putting a procession into any service can add solemnity to the opening of worship. Jason, try to figure out a way to get a procession into some of your services and see what happens. Obviously, the music will have an integral connection to the mood of your procession.

Anonymous said...

The lack of perfection is not considered to be a matter of working towards interpretive improvement. I've heard it is simply singing mistakes, like a missed note or timing, mistake in pronunciation, or being slightly off-key.

Ray said...

"Obviously, the music will have an integral connection to the mood of your procession."

Try some John Philip Sousa. Sorry, I just couldn't resist - we have been so serious. I'm just in one of those moods today - must be the meds.

Michael Dodaro said...

Don't take any more pills, Ray!

Ray said...

Scribe, I have fought stage fright for years. At this point, it is much less of a problem. It would be frustrating, when practicing I could play something mistake-free, but in front of people inevitably something would go wrong. I always assumed it was God keeping me humble. Similar to what you are saying.

Anonymous said...

In Byzantine days, the procession began outside the church and wound its way throughout the city or village to collect the congregation, singing all the way. The Russians still do this. Then when the procession reached the threshhold of the church, the priest or bishop would pray before the doors, blessing them, chanting and then everyone would enter the church and continue the procession to the nave and altar. We still do this old custom (limiting the procession to the church grounds) at Pascha.

The Ensemble for Early Music (director Frederick Renz) uses processions in their medieval musical dramas to great effect. In fact, they perform in cathedrals and use all the cathedral space, just like it was used for morality plays in medieval times. If this group ever comes to your location, you MUST go see them. They are famous for performing "Daniel and the Lion" and "Herod and the Innocents" among other period plays--all in Latin chant and song. Their work is also on CD.

Anonymous said...


I read your essay that you posted on your blogsite. I liked it very much. Why don't you post something over here, too?

If you are interested in Celtic Christianity, here is a good site from England to check out. They're English Orthodox, their Orthodoxy being re-constituted (after a lapse for 1200 years) under the Russian jurisdiction, but this church is dedicated to reviving the Celtic Christian history (which was originally Orthodox which is what the Church was before the split in 1054. Read in this the preachings of the Celtic saints and revel in your heritage.

As for your objection to the veneration of the saints and Mary, the queen of Heaven. Veneration is not the same as worship. Veneration is respect, not adoration. The saints are venerated because they are still a part of the Church--they are our history, the great cloud of witnesses to the glory of God. You ask your friends to pray for you, and you intercede in prayer for your friends. So will the saints of all the ages, who are not referred to as dead, but asleep in the Lord, for God is not the God of the dead but of the living.

Mary is not the Queen of Heaven (that's a Catholic concept--they just about made her the 4th person of the Trinity), but she is the foremost among the saints, the one who provided a bodily temple for Christ to dwell in before he was born. She is the image of what we all should strive to be--God bearers. In fact, that is her official title--Theotokos, which is Greek for God-Bearer.

Michael Dodaro said...

Here is an important idea from an article by Marva Dawn: Worship to Form a Missional Community
...any alternative way of life that is substantively different from the larger society around it, that wants to maintain itself, needs a language, customs, habits, rituals, institutions, procedures, practices that uphold and nurture a clear vision of how it is different and why that matters. Are we as Christians committed to the alternative way of life described in the Scriptures and incarnated in Christ, so that we are willing to invest ourselves diligently in order to transmit this valued way of life to our children and neighbors? If so, our worship cannot be too much like the surrounding culture or it will be impossible to teach altar-nativity."
Altar- Natvity is play on words that emphasizes the dual nature of Christian ministry and worship.
"We need both the words 'alternative' and 'parallel' for describing the Church. To be parallel will deter us from being so alternative that we do not relate to our neighbors; to be alternative prevents our parallelism from moving closer and closer to modes of life alien to the kingdom of God."

Ray said...

Harold Best, professor and dean emeritus at Wheaton College in Illinois has this to say:

"The issue is not whether the music has merit or power, but whether worshipers are making an offering. If they can't worship until the right music comes by, then they are essentially preferring the gift to the giver, or making god's presence contingent on the quality or effect of the gift."

"Being emotionally moved by music is not the same as being spiritually or morally shaped by it."

These quotes are from Best's book, "Music - Through the Eyes of Faith". He mirrors Marva Dawn philosophically.

Jason Silver said...

There are two conversations going on here. Very confusing.

Anyway, you guys are so prolific! I can't keep up with all my other blogs!

Mike, I don't think I can post to your blog.

Scribe, my main problem is with Mary being called Queen of Heaven. I have no problem with her being called Mother of God, because that says more about who Jesus was, than who she was. But Queen of Heaven equates her, even supercedes her over Christ himself... would that make him her prince?? Scary stuff.


Anonymous said...

The Orthodox don't call her that--just the Theotokos. The Queen of Heaven business is a Catholic thing.

And no, she's not equated with Christ or supercedes Him.