The cultural expressions that emerge from any given culture will invariably reflect the strengths and weaknesses of that culture. In other words, every culture will reflect an image of God that consists of a unique combination of fidelities and distortions.The panel discussion embedded below, recorded by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches at its recent Worship of God conference, has opened a conversation about matters related to that thesis. I'm grateful for that conversation, but I'm unconvinced that the present direction of the conversation will be productive.
In my judgment, most of the comments in the panel were ignorant, irrelevant, indefensible, or unsubstantiated. Those arguments that were true and helpful are so tainted by their immersion in and apparent indifference to folly that they've been rather easily dismissed. Again, I haven't read everything, but I've seen enough blog responses, tweets, and reader comments on the blog of one of the participants to see one particular theme emerge: Our cultural differences are inevitable, and that's okay. Except I don't think it is.
In other words, many responses say that as long as God can use a form to advance Christian mission, our cultural preferences are matters of indifference. After all, they're just preferences. One theologian both affirmed and denied that cultural forms are neutral. In the same paragraph. One group says, "Rap is bad because I said so." Another says, "Form doesn't matter. It's all good."
I'm arguing that those approaches—reductionism, shame, misrepresentation, slogans—those approaches are way too easy. I'd like to think we could choose the more demanding, narrow path. That would require us—assuming we could embrace my thesis or something better—to shine a bright light of scrutiny on all our cultural expressions. Dissect Johann Sebastian Bach, Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Mac Lynch, Chris Tomlin, Keith Getty, Scott Aniol, and Shai Linne. Every one of them. Not to mention all the men and women across the centuries and around the globe who likewise deserve to be mentioned.
Each of those individuals produced(es) works of art intended for Christian worship, and each of those works of art emerged from a complex and unique cultural milieu. What's more, each individual artist produced works of varying quality in different phases of their own artistic and spiritual maturity.
So what if old, godly, theologically astute white men from Grand Rapids sat down with young, godly, theologically astute black men from Philadelphia? (And yes, the black men are godly. Godly enough not to impugn the character, courage, and motives of people just because they disagree on musical form.) What if everybody at the table agreed that every culture represented at that table (along with all the rest) both reflects and distorts the image of God? That every culture is better suited to communicate certain aspects of Divine truth than it is others? And that no human culture produces optimal cultural expressions, because no human being or human culture is yet fully conformed to the image of Christ?
What if those old white guys and young black guys really tried to listen to and understand one another, and then—instead of simply singing an ecumenical "kum ba yah"—they helped each other understand the aspects of the other group's culture that are incompatible with Divine truth? (I have in mind more or less how Thabiti Anyabwile and Doug Wilson interacted extensively on slavery, race, and history.) And what if the forms that different cultures find accessible and meaningful were refined as a result, increasingly capable of reflecting the image of Christ? I actually think it'd be a good thing for us white people to hear from some non-whites how our idealized cultural forms might actually undermine aspects of the gospel in ways we'd never have perceived.
My guess is that one of these two groups would welcome a conversation with that purpose and tone. I'm not so sure the other would see any such need, let alone display genuine desire to listen and learn. I'd love to discover that my cynicism is unfounded—merely an illusion created by my culture, or perhaps my own sinful heart.
Will we praise Jesus' name in heaven in a variety of styles reflecting diversity of human culture? Or will the consummation of Christ being formed in us mean that we find a musical center that is accessible and meaningful to all his Church, and worthy of his Name? I don't profess to know. Despite what some say, I'm not persuaded that Revelation 21 is decisive. But I'd like to think we could learn to speak to our brothers and sisters with respect and affection, this side of heaven, even if we aren't yet sanctified enough to sing together.