Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Pagans, Charismatics, and the Transformation of Worship

I've found J. Matthew Pinson's introduction to his edited volume, Perspectives on Christian Worship, to be quite helpful. He supplies a concise, provocative analysis of the transformation of Christian worship over the past 20 centuries and a single-paragraph summary of the five views represented in the book.

When I say provocative, I'm talking about two passages in particular. First, a description of how and why formal liturgy took hold:
Most of the liturgical change in the fourth century [coinciding with the rule of Constantine and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion] resulted from pagan influences on the church, both secular and religious. Pagan society had less impact on Christian worship and practice prior to the fourth century, owing to the resolve of the early Christians to mark themselves off as distinct from the pagan world around them.

Calvin R. Stapert shows, for example, how the church fathers uniformly opposed most pagan music in both form and content. Clement of Alexandria, for instance, eschewed pagan music, the "old song," which he described as "licentious, voluptuous, frenzied, frantic, inebriating, titillating, scurrilous, turbulent, immodest, and meretricious" (A New Song for an Old World, 54). Instead, he argued, the church should set itself apart from the world's music, singing the "new song," which Clement believed reflects the "melodious order" and "harmonious arrangement" of the universe and is "sober, pure, decorous, modest, temperate, grave, and soothing. Clement wished to "banish [pagan music] far away, and let our songs be hymns to God. . . . For temperate harmonies are to be admitted" (3-4).
And second, from the back end of the story of the Church:
Contemporary evangelical worship emerged from the Pentecostal-charismatic end of the post-Reformation worship spectrum. For example, the vast majority of publishers of the contemporary praise-and-worship genre from the last two decades of the twentieth century had charismatic roots. . . . Thus, the radical end of the spectrum, embodied in the Pentecostal-charismatic strain of evangelicalism, became mainstream in the contemporary worship movement, influencing large segments of evangelicalism beyond Pentecostals and charismatics (12).
These two nuggets from history strike at the heart of the questions Christian leaders are wrestling with (or aren't but should be) today:
  1. How do we communicate the gospel to people in contemporary culture in terms they can understand without polluting the gospel by importing the pagan affections that are intrinsic to contemporary culture?
  2. To what degree (even assuming sound lyrics) can we employ musical forms that emerge from a theological tradition that identifies the presence of the Spirit with a subjective experience, and attempts to create forms which conjure that experience. (For that matter, how do we know when a particular form makes that attempt?)

5 comments:

tim said...

Ben

Wow, the questions you ask are like trying to trace your church's heritage back to John the Baptist. It's sure fun watching someone try though.

ben said...

Tim,

I think I'm supposed to feel bad about something. But if you want me to know why, I'll need you to explain more.

tim said...

Ben

I don't want you to feel bad. :) I would never want to inflict suffering. The synopsis question you asked, "To what degree (even assuming sound lyrics) can we employ musical forms that emerge from a theological tradition that identifies the presence of the Spirit with a subjective experience, and attempts to create forms which conjure that experience. (For that matter, how do we know when a particular form makes that attempt?)"
seems like an impossible quest.

James Kime said...

I may be guilty of reading motive here, but the way you worded that question Ben makes me think it is leading into a discussion of music that has typically been okay with fundamentalists: music which was probably associated with Finney theology.

ben said...

Tim,

Maybe so, but maybe sometimes we need to grapple with questions we can't entirely answer.

James,

You give me too much credit, but I certainly wouldn't argue.