Sunday, September 2, 2007

Lark News Satirizes "Orthodox Lite" Worship

The new edition of Lark News takes a shot at--what?--blended worship? Lark is The Onion of evangelical Protestantism--a humor and satire site devoted to evangelical foibles. Its latest effort talks about evangelical churches offering "Orthodox lite" services, complete with "candles, non-specific iconography ... other religious-looking items ... generic vestments and ... a more somber manner."

The piece was supposed to be funny, but I find the phenomenon it was satirizing to be sad. So if you read it and chuckle, that's fine. But since satire is supposed to have a point, let me comment on what I take to be the barb in the Lark's "news item."

According to the fictional EV Free pastor featured in the item,

"It’s the same sermon, same worship songs in many cases, just done in a more liturgical style," Fitzgerald says. "I don’t mind changing the packaging for people. It freshens it up for them and for me."

There's the rub. As long it's about "packaging," adding liturgical elements to a service is pretty empty.

"I like the reverence and the mood," says one girl, 16. "It feels more spiritual."

"I like the candles," her friend chimes in.
"Packaging" or "feel" or "mood" are all about marketing. But liturgical worship is about other things:

  • It is about doing what the people of God have done for nearly two millennia: Word and Sacrament. (Candles and incense really are optional.) The round of Scripture reading and sacramental practices shape us and mold us--keep us from being squeezed into the world's mold (Rom. 12:2).
  • It is about worshiping as embodied souls. Physical acts (kneeling, singing, bowing, lifting our hands) and the use of physical substances (bread, wine, oil, water, incense, salt) remind us that we are not just here to learn, but to participate. The life of a Jesus follower is about believing and doing. And worship needs to order both our thoughts and actions.
  • It is about objectivity (the opposite of "feel" and "mood"). Ritual actions are designed to help us praise God whether or not we "feel like it." And they are about opening us to God's action in our lives, about placing ourselves at his disposal, rather than creating a subjective, emotional response.
  • It is about setting aside our own "creativity" and opening ourselves to God's re-creating grace. This is the "sabbath" nature of worship. We've been doing all week. With long to-do lists in hand, we've been responsible for making things happen in our homes and our workplaces. On the Sabbath, we don't need to engage in a lot of innovation. Worship doesn't depend on us. The saints are already casting their crowns before the throne and crying alleluia. The pressure on us to be original, creative, and subjective is off. All we have to do is join the chorus.
  • It is about making sure that we proclaim God's story. Non-liturgical worship can easily become oriented to felt needs or therapeutic self-help discourse: How to be a good parent. How to manage your finances Christianly. How to deal with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. All good topics, but they are not of the substance of worship. Liturgical worship ensures that we read the full range of the scriptural story and walk through the cycle of Jesus' story every year. And within that context, we will be shaped as parents and financial stewards.
  • Okay, okay, it is about mood and atmosphere, but only to the extent that it signals a break from a world that tells us stories other than God's story. In the world's stories, you are an individual who is a consumer (your worth is in what you own) or an achiever (your worth is in what you or your family accomplish) or a cool person (your worth is in your ability to keep up with trends in music, clothing, coffee, electronics, and so forth). But when you come to worship, the narration of all those stories is put on "pause," and you listen once more the God's story and how you are part of a called-out and redeemed community destined to play a role in the restoration of creation.

I could go on. But my point is made. The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future says we should have "
public worship that sings, preaches and enacts God's story" and and we must "recover the historic substance of worship of Word and Table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God's saving acts." This is about liturgical worship as substance, not as surface. The things we do in liturgy "shape our lives and signify the meaning of the world."

Now, I'm all for blending historic liturgical elements into worship services that also feature contemporary song and drama and elements from the non-liturgical traditions. But we must do the blending with an eye to telling God's story comprehensively to people who are daily squeezed into the world's mold, and who need instead a vision of God's way and God's future.

So, was the Lark News item funny? Well, I did laugh at the very end, when "the Bartel family of suburban Cleveland, Ohio, tried the local Orthodox church for a month, but 'couldn’t make the cultural shift long-term' ... When they walked back into an evangelical service, 'the drums and guitars sounded pretty good for once.' "

Liturgy takes work and commitment and even "cultural shift." But it doesn't exclude drums and guitars.

* * *

Lark News updates its satirical news items the first of every month. In addition to humor, you can find religious artifacts for the cynical, including tee-shirts that say "Homeschooled & Wild," "Heard You Got into That Christian College. Bummer," and "Jesus Loves You! Then again he loves everybody."


Brad Nassif said...

David, this has been one of my concerns with post-modern evangelicalism and its occassional dive into the Orthodox pool: They fail to keep the "Great Tradition" connected with the "Great Church". It's a pick and choose mentality that adversly affects the "catholicity" of the Church. I hope evangelicals will ponder this inseparable link when they look to Christian antiquity for their modern forms of worship.

Mark said...

re: objectivity.

I see your point, but I would argue that that Orthodox worship isn't objective. Instead, I like the way Nicolas Berdaeyv puts it in "Slavery and Freedom":

personality is not formulated by the world of objects but by subjectivity, in which is hidden the power of the image of God. Human personality is theandric existence. Theologians will reply in alarm that Jesus Christ alone was God-man, and that man is a created being and cannot be God-man. But this way of arguing remains within the confines of theological rationalism. Granted man is not God-man in the sense is which Christ is God-man, the unique One; yet there is a divine element in man.

Ok, perhaps I'm missing the point of both of you completely and just looking for an excuse to share my the work of favorite Orthodox philosopher.

spud tooley said...

nice post. good points. helps to show legitimate reasons behind liturgy.

everything's on a pendulum, i suppose. we swing too far one way and we try to bring it back, until we realize we've swung too far to the other, and retrace our steps.

maybe we avoid the middle because we equate it too much with being "lukewarm". or non-commital. or "relative", ie, no way is better or truer than another, and all paths lead to god.

we also tend to fear too much any "slippery slope" that we might not recover from. perhaps that's one reason for the inerrancy battles. show someone that matthew says jesus rode into jerusalem on two animals, and mark says he rode in on one, and they will redefine "inerrancy" instead of allowing any chance that the bible is inerrant.

thanks for the post.

Amy said...

Thank you for reminding us of the basics of liturgy; what it is, what it accomplishes for the church. You say so simply what I struggle to explain to friends and parishioners on an almost weekly basis. Grace and peace!

Steve Hayes said...

The trouble is, it's not really satire. There really are people like that. The example may be fictitious, but it's not a-typical.

Joel Scandrett said...

Simon Chan's Liturgical Theology (InterVarsity Press) is a good take on this set of issues from an evangelical perspective and develops Brad's concern very well. There is a coherent, intentional form and meaning in the ancient pattern of Christian liturgy. When we pick and choose from it in eclectic fashion, we reduce its meaning to mere aestheticism in service to experientialism.

Not that I feel strongly about it . . .

Unknown said...

RE: mah's post -

As an Orthodox Christian, I just want to make it clear that Berdyaev was about as Orthodox as my neighbor's tabby cat. Please do not look to him to learn about Orthodoxy.

As far as the satirical piece, that was pretty good. I will not be one bit surprised if eventually that becomes a reality, as some Protestant denominations continue to try desperately to market to every possible niche.

Chris Monroe said...

I think I understand the concerns over the "divide" between the Great Tradition and the Great Church -- I repeatedly hear these concerns from Anglican and Orthodox leaders in particular. I don't, however, see the catholicity of the Church threatened by what has been satirically labeled as "Orthodox Lite". Quite to the contrary, I see many evangelicals in particular stepping out in positive directions, with changes they would never have remotely considered a decade or two ago. I don't see such changes as the destination, but rather as fresh wind along the way.

Btw, love your blog, David.


Chris Monroe