Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Aboriginal Christianity

No matter how you analyze worship, the requirements include spiritual involvement and truth, in which understanding is implicit. Involvement in the historic tradition aids both transcendence of the present era and an understanding of doctrines that are based on events in time. To worship is to act out our faith in continuity with a tradition that connects us to the apostles and what they witnessed in the presence of Jesus. Old liturgical forms and music embody the continuity of the church triumphant in the presence of the church militant. And the historic liturgical music of the church is still the most universally understood.

Another interesting thing is how the church occupied and transformed the pagan temples and basilicas of the Roman Empire. One way to understand this is to see it as Christianity infusing more complete meaning into forms that were ancient and beautiful. All beauty is God’s beauty.

Now, apparently, the most moving experiences for many people are rock concerts. There are probably ways that the excitement of these experiences can be salvaged. A lot of good people seem to think so. But it is important to claim the noblest art forms in our culture. These things have been created over many generations.

There is a great old book called "Christianity Rediscovered" by Vincent Donovan that describes seventeen years of mission work in Tanzania. Translation of parables and stories from the Bible into the cultural imagery of indigenous people involved many features of the indigenous culture adapted to communicate Christian doctrine and character ideals to new converts. The difficulty was conveying the original meaning in the forms available in the language and imagery of the people.

Now, advocates of postmodern literary theory argue that there is no authoritative meaning in works of literature and all literature is merely rhetoric in a class struggle. In the church we hear different forms of this argument depending on whether one is involved in a liberal or a conservative church. In liberal churches, it seems the Bible is like any other book and its truths are thought to be culturally relative. In Evangelical churches it is claimed that the gospel must be contextualized to contemporary modes of expression and that artistic form is neutral. Rock music has been in vogue for thirty years, so rock music seems to be the way to communicate the gospel.

The problems of the liberal approach are evident; without moral absolutes, atonement for sin and salvation are nonsense. But there is also a problem communicating the historic tradition of the apostles in art that has no more history than McDonald’s fast-food. The meaning of the gospel is inextricable from the historic church, which is the spiritual body of believers in its teachings and, even more importantly, its witness to the Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. If the apostles had not succeeded in establishing the church, there would be no Bible, and Christianity would be like the religions of ancient Egypt, unknowable except through the artifacts of archeology.

There have been numerous denominations and movements that have tried to get back to original Christianity without the liturgies and organizational frameworks that are connected to the apostolic tradition. Protestant traditions have emphasized the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine called sola scriptura. But as these movements try to extract the pure gospel out of its cultural and historic embodiment, it is more difficult to recognize Christian worship as distinctly Christian. The time interval from fresh upstart movement to oddball sect is usually only a couple of generations. Already we have grey whiskered rock musicians acting like they were nineteen in nostalgia fests among devotees.

The revival era adapted modes of expression in its hymnody that sounded like Victorian era parlor music. CCM churches are rebelling against these old forms to create their equivalent in currently popular music. This seems reasonable enough until you contrast Victorian culture with the libertinism of post 1960s pop culture. In this framework, it’s hard to accept the arguments we hear all the time about cultural forms being neutral—you know, “Arguing over music is like arguing about the color of the carpet.” It’s even more incredible when youths with green hair and nose rings are singing about Jesus. No missioner in Tanzania would dress and dance like an aboriginal Tanzanian to attract a crowd, but postmod Americans are now doing roughly the same thing under the spotlights of mega-church auditoriums.

11 comments:

Ray said...

I think one of the traps we need to avoid is painting with a broad brush. And we all can be guilty of that. It is easy for me to paint liturgical churches with dark colors, dark for evil. Just look at how liberal some of the liturgical organizations have become, acceptance of gays including into the ranks of the clergy, ordaining women, gay women pastors, liberal politics, etc. Roman Catholicism is purely liturgical, but it seems they have more pedophiles in the ranks of their clergy than in any other group. So, I could conclude liturgical churches promote pedophilia. And, I can conclude liturgical churches have lost their way and succumbed to contemporary philosophies.

But, I would be wrong to make such a generalization.

Evangelicals are composed of diverse philosophies and beliefs. Some are characterized by the liberal positions listed above - even Southern Baptists ordain women ministers, but tend to be a little stricter with sexual orientation. Some Evangelical churches are steeped in modern culture making it the focus of their philosophy of worship. Cults often get their members from the Baptist ranks. And as you said, cults often form out of the Evangelical ranks.

Michael Dodaro said...

I've pondered this strange juxtaposition of liturgical dignity and liberal ideology for a long time. It’s true that many of the churches with traditional liturgy are following the trends among the intelligentsia. During our parents’ generation, old-line Protestants were realists. They fought World War II. But clergy educated in the 1960s brought left-leaning ideology from institutions of “higher learning” with them into the churches. Ever since the sixties there has been a split between the rank and file Protestants and their clergy. The people tend to be more conservative than the church aristocracy, and they find the pronouncements of the clergy hard to take. Many conservative Protestants have jumped ship for Orthodoxy or Catholicism. The sex scandal in the Catholic Church is unrelated to liturgy. The Church tried to err on the side of tolerance in the seminaries, and homosexuals, who were understandably interested in celibacy in service to God found themselves in an environment where self control was difficult, to put it mildly.

Ray said...

I agree that the sex scandals are unrelated to liturgy, I was just using a little hyperbole.

We could split Evangelicalism into high church and low church. High church tended toward liberalism while low church remained more conservative. But, even that is not entirely true.

scribe said...

I think the reason why the high church is mostly liberal in politics and theology is because they have been desperate to prove they are relevant to society, and they go with the flow of society and its current mores.

The liberalism that we see today in the Episcopal and Catholic churches began in the 1950s. But for the Catholics, their liberal "tradition" started before the French Revolution, when numerous clergy began to see that the Church had entangled itself too much with the aristocracy and their interests. When secular liberalism movements began to rattle the feudal cage, a number of Catholic priests began to side with what they thought was the winning side. The French priest Lammenais in the early 1800s was a famous Catholic liberal and other younger priest joined his cause.

Lammenais even made a pitch to the papacy that it should no longer ally itself with aristocracy but with the people. Apparently the popes began listening and soon developed the papal cults, papal infallibility, and other things that separated them from the feudal order and made the Catholic Church keep up with the temper of the times, making it, especially the papacy, what it is today.

Michael Dodaro said...

The Protestant equivalent of this was the era of the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and others. Rauschenbusch was a Baptist. http://spider.georgetowncollege.edu/htallant/courses/his338/students/kpotter/

Ray said...

OK Mike, now you're getting personal. Where's Jason, I need help.

Ray said...

Scribe, your first paragraph above is an excellent observation. I guess I assumed that the high church leaned toward liberalism because the members tended to be liberal politically and socially and so a drift toward liberal theology was natural.

In today's church climate I see the Evangelicals who have gone contemporary as liberal and the main reason is for cultural relevancy. So, could we say the contemporary Evangelical church is the philosophical offspring of the liberal high church?

scribe said...

Ray said: "So, could we say the contemporary Evangelical church is the philosophical offspring of the liberal high church? "

I think this is right--cultural relevancy seems to have been the slogan for the last 50 years in all the churches.

The high church, though, was never naturally liberal, even in its membership, which, in Europe, was mostly aristocratic and peasant. The middle classes there were small and tended to have looser ties to the church. Liturgy itself is based on tradition, but over time, the meaning of the tradition got lost and was eventually seen as irrelevant to the life of the culture. The growth of liberal ideas in the high church was very slow, but its culmination was in Vaticn II and an extreme expression of it was liberation theology. Many of these European liberal church ideas were passed on to the American churches.

In Orthodoxy, there was hardly any liberal movements, at least, none on the scale that affected the Western churches. Orthodoxy had too much on its hands to defend itself against Islam, a battle the Greek and Balkan churches eventually lost.

In general, Orthodoxy sees liberal movements as being Western in nature, something completely alien to them. In Russia, the Church struggled in vain against the power of the Czar, while at the same time having to honor his role as an ordained Christian ruler. By the late 19th century, a number of educated Russians (mostly Westernized, former atheists) began a kind of philosophical revival of Orthodoxy, in response to the cultural pressures Russia was facing before the Revolution.

After the Revolution, it was a question of trying to survive the Bosheviks. To do that, the Church had to preserve the liturgy and the conservative theology. Patriarch Tikon (who was killed by the Communists) sent the archbishop of Kiev and others to the West to preserve Russian Orthodoxy, now known as ROCOR. Our church is regarded as the most traditional of the Orthodox churches, except for the old calender Greeks.

Ray said...

Scribe, so do the old calendar Greeks consider you to be liberal?

Seriously, I'm not sure if I posted it here or elsewhere, but in reading about the early American presidents, historians have painted the early high church as pokitically conservative and the low church as politically liberal. The high church also tended to be more Tory during the Revolution. Baptists and are like groups didn't start to become more conservative until the early to mid 20th century with the rise of liberal theology.

scribe said...

Yes, they sort of do. Anything not Greek is suspect. The Russian church does have some Western practices that the Greeks don't have. However, the new calender Greeks (and the Paris school of Russian Orthodoxy) are the ones most involved (entangled) in the modern eucumenical movement.

You are right about the American view of high church/low church. The European Catholic church had to deal with several major revolutions since the French Revolution, which has greatly affected its application of theology. Mike could speak more to the Anglican, but I guess you could say that the English churches are closer to the American high/low church cultures.

Michael Dodaro said...

Early in their history Anglicans tried to blur the lines in the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. The Book of Common Prayer is their only formulation of doctrine other than the Bible. Anglicans have maintained three factors in determination of doctrine and polity: scripture, tradition, and reason. Liturgical form has always been very much like the Catholic Church, but in a hierarchy that is more like the English aristocracy than Constantinian Catholic hierarchy. The church is managed with an authoritarian hand. Priests are appointed by bishops, thus the name Episcopal in the American strain of Anglicanism. The church governing body of a given church cannot hire or fire their minister. They do maintain control of the finances, and they can stop paying their clergyman, or, now, clergywoman if he or she is not satisfactory. Otherwise all matters are subject to veto by the most senior priest in each church, who is called the rector. It's very old world compared to, say, the Baptists.
It’s not hard to speculate as to why Episcopalians are so liberal. They have been for generations richer and more educated than most other denominations. They used to be called the “ruling class at prayer”. Blue bloods, anglophiles, and sophisticates, they have throughout American history been in the middle of trends among the intelligentsia. When the educated and wealthy were Republicans they tended to be Republicans. Now that things have turned, they tend to the left. The one thing they dread more than anything is being identified with fundamentalism and the Religious Right.