This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.” .
We affirm that inordinate expressions of worship often arise from hearts that are entangled in disordered loves. We affirm that expressions of orthopathy are grounded in harmony with God’s ultimate perception of truth, goodness, and beauty as revealed in Scripture and observed in the created order. We also affirm that the expressions of ordinate love to God have varied between ages and civilizations. We further affirm that these different expressions are nonetheless equivalent, representing the same orthopathy.
We deny that inordinate expressions toward God, although inconsistent with true Christian love, always or necessarily betray inordinate affections. We also deny that harmony with the created order will lead either to complete uniformity of expression, or to a lack of variety. We further deny that the variability of cultural expressions makes these expressions without meaning, and therefore without morality.
Preference is a favorite word in debates about worship. It is deployed as an alkali to neutralize the acidity of sharp critiques against particular expressions of worship. Often, preference is used to suggest that no absolute value can be assigned to expressions of worship, that we can only evaluate how much one person prefers one expression over another, or that we can only compare one person’s preferences to another person’s preferences. In the end, this emphasis upon preference leads to the conclusion that critics are moralizing over inconsequential matters of taste.
We disagree with this conclusion, though we certainly affirm that believers may prefer one poem or musical composition over another. Within the range of what pleases God, believers may have their favorites. Nevertheless, we deny that the worship wars are childish or short-sighted disputes over the liturgical equivalent of one’s taste in ice cream. Our belief is based upon a conviction that art, which is a principal techne of worship, is grounded in realities that transcend the created order. Truth, goodness, and beauty, while present in creation, are also above and anterior to it. When humans arrange the raw materials of creation, be they sand and cement for architecture, syllables for poems, or sounds for music, the result has the power either to explain or to distort God’s intended order.
When distortion occurs, it often arises from hearts that are disordered in their loves. Romans 1 describes the process by which humanity has elevated creation above the Creator, thereby dooming itself to folly. From the foolishness of that disordered relationship come further activities that reveal the now-depraved human heart. We readily grant that some distortions may not arise from a deliberate intent to falsify or desecrate, but distortions remain distortions in spite of the intentions that give rise to them.
This focus on ordinate expression is not a covert attempt to absolutize the music, poetry, or other expressions of some past era or culture. We deny that those who argue for intrinsic beauty are doomed to a narrow selection of art, or that they are characterized by a demand for uniformity in worship expressions. Most of all, we deny that the recognition of ordinate expression constitutes an attempt to enforce our preference upon others.
We affirm that God’s variegated creation provides an endless variety of beautiful expressions of worship. Delightful, artistic expressions or ordinate worship (i.e., expressions in harmony with transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty as manifested in God’s good creation) can, in principle, be developed in any society where common grace is present. Where special grace is also present, the possibility of such delights abounds yet more. We understand that different expressions will arise across time and geographical space. We do not expect that reverent joy will look and sound the same in African civilizations as it does in European ones, even if both develop under the Gospel. We do not expect trembling admiration to look and sound precisely the same to us as it did to Augustine. Nevertheless, we expect that ordinate expressions will be equivalent, though the forms of expression may be unfamiliar.
On the other hand, this delightful variety must not be exploited as a rationale for aesthetic agnosticism. Both ordinate and inordinate expressions exist in great variety. Truth can be communicated in hundreds of languages, but so can lies.
The scene in Revelation 5:9 brings joy to us because of its obvious meaning: God delights to redeem all peoples. Nevertheless, God’s delight in many nations is not a biblical sanction for multiculturalism, the teaching that regards all cultural expressions as equal in value (and therefore eliminates the need for both criticism and discernment). Our evaluation of expressions of worship must concede nothing either to a false multiculturalism or to a cultural imperialism. Rather, the expressions of every place and era must be tested for their harmony with transcendent reality and with God’s created order.