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Pap and It’s Enemies

January 11, 2006

It’s been over 3 years since I was a regular worship leader at the First
Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. This is the first part of what I hope
becomes a series of reflections on the current state of contemporary
worship. I’m calling it "Burned-Out Worship Leader", or BOWL.

Although it seems like we are an increasingly divided nation, I sometimes wonder about the reality of the liberal/conservative divide. To me, that distinction often seems inappropriate and unhelpful, especially when applied to individuals I know personally. Sometimes I have this inkling that lines are indeed being drawn across our hearts, but by a shadowy hand unknown to us. Our society is in the process of learning what this new division is.

This division – so strongly felt, so hard to define, is not just limited to Politics. Take the matter of Christian "worship wars", which pits traditional hymns and liturgy against modern music and amorphous, concert-like church services. Who’s the Conservatives? Who’s the Liberals? Is it even an appropriate question? Hard to say. Conservative Evangelical churches tend to go modern in their worship, while Liberal/Mainline churches often tend to be much more traditional. And the Evangelicals are growing, and the Liberal churches are declining.

Thus it was a surprise to me to read this Post by Virginia Postrel, author of "The Future and It’s Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress". Postrel is a libertarian and "not a Christian, let alone an evangelical." Yet she has this to say about Evangelical worship:

If mega-churches want to play bad-to-mediocre rock instead of great hymns, that’s their business. But the spread of Christian pap does have spillovers, not the least of which is that devout Christian faith no longer brings with it a deep familiarity with what’s actually in the Bible, as opposed to a few verses from the preacher’s PowerPoint. Unless the person is over a certain age, Biblical literacy, when you do find it, rarely means acquaintance with great English. Forget theological or philosophical sophistication. I’d settle for the ability to comprehend complex sentences.

Throughout American history, Christian (largely Protestant) devotion has stretched people’s minds and given them reason to think, if only within a closed system of belief. Religious practice has taught people to read, write, and speak. The rhythms and rhetoric of the Bible have given America its greatest political rhetoric, from Abraham Lincoln’s to Martin Luther King’s. Today’s Christianity produces…George W. Bush.

She also laments that it’s great spiritual book is "The Purpose-Driven Life".

As a Libertarian and advocate of "creativity, enterprise and progress", I would expect her to be all for the mega-church experience. But as she says:

Yes, all of the above could be considered an extended criticism of market-based competition. In the U.S., after all, religion is the freest market. But I’m not against the system; I’m all for it. As institutional responses to modern life, I find mega churches fascinating and productive… But the most successful product is not necessarily the best on all dimensions–or on the ones I care about. And criticism is also part of the system.

The dimensions she cares about? Not the ones most conservative Evangelical churches care about: "complex, beautiful English". Not the dumbed-down, mass-market, power-point, emotionally manipulative pap that passes for worship in all too many successful churches. If there is any area of evangelism I have felt called to, it is to the people who are repelled by this essentially market-driven aesthetic. I’m all for markets. But something is missing.

Coming soon: Unpacking Postrel’s look at mega-church architecture and Christian Porn!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob Prichard permalink
    January 13, 2006 12:24 am

    Here is an excerpt from George W. Bush’s speech on 9/11 of 2001:

    “America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism. Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.’
    This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

    I guess Virginia Postrel would have been highly impressed with this speech if Bush had quoted Psalm 23 using the King James translation: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” Ahh, that makes ALL the difference.

    To me an even more powerful speech was delivered on September 20 (, just a week and a half later. As I re-read this speech my eyes water. I do not know if “the rhythms and rhetoric of the Bible [which] have given America its greatest political rhetoric” did influence this speech, but I think it has an effective rhythm and a powerful rhetorical impact. Here is an excerpt:
    “On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars — but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war — but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks — but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day — and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.”
    Also in that speech is a passage that I consider to be as good as rhetoric gets:

    “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

    That line about justice I would compare to any of the great Winston Churchill lines of World War II. Here are some more of President Bush’s words in that address:

    “The advance of human freedom — the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time — now depends on us. Our nation — this generation — will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail. …The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.

    “Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice — assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America.”

    It is a speech that is worth revisiting, just as it is necessary to occasionally re-view the video of the Twin Towers…to remind us, as a remembrance, so that we will not forget the threat to our civilization.

    Really, if Postrel thinks that the antiquated style of English as used at the time of King James is that effective, I wonder why her article wasn’t written in that style. Now, if it has had such an impact on her as she claims, she would easily be able to reproduce it to communicate her own ideas. I would suggest that her early exposure to the Bible has had less impact on her than its writer intended.

    Regarding her criticism of the church…How does a PowerPoint presentation “dumb-down” the Bible? I bet Postrel would be ecstatic if pastors gave up on trying to communicate Biblical Truth in a simple to understand format. If she could make it harder to understand then maybe fewer people would be into Christianity, or as she describes it—this “closed system of belief”

    Frankly I don’t give much credence to a non-Christian pecking away at Christianity, criticizing its predominant style. Why would she care at all about the style of something that she has rejected at its core? This criticism of style is just a ruse, the enemy again trying to denigrate what is good in any way possible.

    It has its parallel in liberal attacks on President Bush. They don’t like the core of what he stands for, so they think everything he says sounds stupid.

  2. Tim C permalink
    January 13, 2006 6:16 pm

    “Frankly I don’t give much credence to a non-Christian pecking away at Christianity, criticizing its predominant style…This criticism of style is just a ruse, the enemy again trying to denigrate what is good in any way possible.”

    Hey Rob,

    I’d suggest giving it more thought, for 3 reasons:

    A. As the Church is called to be a part of God’s Mission to the world, we very much should be caring what people *in* the world — especially those not part of the Christian family — see in us, including their critcisms….

    B. In trying to make the Church more Holy, more perfect, being able to listen to corrections (Proverbs 19:20 kinda thing) — seems wise to me — especially from outsiders, who may see things that we miss because we are “too close” to it to see them.

    C. When we show that we listen — even to criticsms, even to outside “minority reports” — we might help change the bias that people like Virginia have that evangelicals are stuck in a “closed system of belief.”

    Lastly, just an observation:

    As criticisms of the Church go this one was pretty constructive…As I read it she was calling us to think deeper, appreciate poetic Scriptural bueaty more, and to grow up to greater “theological sophistication” with a more “deep familiarity with what’s actually in the Bible.”


    Timmy C

  3. Rob Prichard permalink
    January 18, 2006 11:27 pm

    Timmy C,

    I have been giving it more thought, and I agree that I should consider criticism. Thank you for citing Proverbs 19:20. Here is how I see it: If a person owns a house that is sliding down a hill, and that person comes to me to criticize my house and says, “Your house needs a new paint job,” or “You have a loose board on your front step,” then I should be open to the fact that even though their house is on the brink of destruction I can still improve my own home by listening to their criticism.

    Virginia Postrel identifies herself as “not a Christian,” so her house is close to destruction. I guess since I don’t know her personally, I shouldn’t have ascribed to her an attitude I am familiar with. The attitude is similar to one of sour grapes, and goes like this: “Since I am opposed to the very core of your religion, I will mock and criticize any peripheral part of it that may become apparent; in fact I prefer to deal with peripheral issues (style, perceptions, prominent individuals, history) because I don’t want to face the core issue (forgiveness of sins).” This criticizing the style of something one “has rejected at its core” is, in fact, the short part of my comment that you deleted in favor of ellipses. Still, none of this proves that my house does not need a new paint job.

    Let me continue the house analogy further. What if I decide that I want to improve the accessibility of my house, so I alter the front of my building by adding a wheelchair ramp? My neighbor may come to me and complain about how I have ruined the aesthetics of the facade. I would answer that the aesthetic is secondary to accessibility. The house is still the same inside; I have just made it easier to get into.

    That is the KJV issue that Postrel brings up. But I say that making the Bible more accessible does not make it “dumbed down.” It is just a matter of putting it into language that people can understand. If someone came to you and said that the Bible in Latin is the ideal aesthetic, would you denigrate someone for using a version that is “theologically less sophisticated” because it was written in English? Is a Spanish translation yet less sophisticated? What is the BEST language that the Bible can possibly be in? What language can help people to gain a “deep familiarity with what’s actually in the Bible?”

    You said, “she was calling us to think deeper, appreciate poetic Scriptural beauty more, and to grow up to greater ‘theological sophistication’.” I am with you on the think deeper and appreciate poetic beauty parts, but I think you give her too much credit on that last part. Either she considers herself to be not theologically sophisticated, or to her theological sophistication is rejection of the gospel.

    I will also respond to the issue of “the bias that people like Virginia have that evangelicals are stuck in a ‘closed system of belief’.” I would not try to disprove that Christianity is a “closed system of belief.” It claims to be Truth, and therefore excludes falsehood (see John 14:6). I just don’t connect the negative connotations to that phrase that those who are politically correct do.

    Thanks for helping me think,
    Rob Prichard

    P.S. What is FF?
    Fond farewell? Freedom Fighter? Friends forever? Foo fighter?

  4. Rob Prichard permalink
    January 19, 2006 11:26 am

    Doh! I guess I’m not that bright: FF = FecesFlinger.


  5. FecesFlinger (Timmy C) permalink
    January 19, 2006 3:40 pm

    Hey Rob:

    Yep, I’m semi-embarassed to say that FF stands for “FecesFlinger” — which is one of the two descriptions the Count put for Democrats on his blogroll. I adopted that psuedonym to “get into the monkey-related spirit” of the site. ;>

    (and because my other choice would have been “ChimpyHater” which I’m not)

    Glad I gave you food for thought.

    I am very sympathetic to all the points you make here, and I’m glad the Proverbs reference connected to you. Much of Proverbs it strikes me is about remaining teachable by God and correctable. I think that means to wherever we hear wisdom, even from critics. Maybe especially from cirtics, for the reasons I posted above.

    And you said you had more thoughts on what being part of a Christianity as a “closed system of belief” means. Love to hear more of what you think on that.

    For this post, I’ll just sign off as Tim,



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