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How Can We Conserve Biblical Worship? Part 4

Conservative Christians will be committed to worship forms that have been nurtured within the community of faith.

Such discernment is difficult, however, because all of us are products of our culture. If a distinction between religious affections and physical appetites has been lost in our culture, then it is not surprising that we have a difficult time being able to distinguish between worship forms that nurture ordinate affection and worship forms that merely create physical impulses.

Conservative Christianity has a solution to this dilemma. Conservative Christians will be committed to worship forms that have been nurtured within the historic Body of Christ.

Comparing Cultures

It is common today to insist that all cultures are equal. To assume otherwise is elitist. Instead, we are lead to believe that culture is simply neutral, cultural expression simply being conventionally shared preferences of a given society. With this kind of thinking, to claim that something like hip hop culture or rap is sinful is an elitist attitude not fitting for a Christian.

There are two problems with this view, however. The first is that all cultural expressions are products of human creation and therefore expressions of human values. Nothing that humans create is neutral, especially art forms. What we create expresses our values and worldviews.

It is for this reason that culture is a visible expression of worldview. It is religion externalized. T. S. Elliot provides a helpful explanation:

We may go further and ask whether what we call the culture, and what we call the religion, of a people are not essentially aspects of the same thing: the culture being, essentially, the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people.1

But even beyond that, such a view that cultures are neutral assumes that cultures are somehow created in a vacuum separate from any external influences or historical development. On the contrary, the very term “culture” illustrates the long-term, progressive cultivation of something over time, influenced and nurtured by the environment in which it grows. A culture is the natural product of the environment in which it was nurtured.

All cultural forms, then, are expressions of value systems. This leads to two conclusions. First, whatever we create in our time and our culture is always built upon something that has come before. There is no such thing as inventing a new cultural form ex nihilo. Such a prospect is impossible. We create using materials that have already been developed and nurtured. This does not mean that cultures cannot or should not progress and change over time. They do and they should. But everything we create starts somewhere, within already existing value systems.

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Second, it is also impossible to take a cultural form that was nurtured within one value system to express its values and somehow reconstitute it to express contrary values. The whole contemporary notion of “cultural redemption” is fundamentally flawed in this respect; it assumes that culture itself is neutral and only the use of cultural forms determines their worth.

I believe in cultural redemption. I believe that all avenues of cultural expression including literature, visual art, music, and architecture can and should be used for God’s glory. Christ is Lord of all. But there is a vast difference between saying that we want to redeem culture and saying that we want to redeem particular cultures or cultural expressions. A cultural expression is like a facial expression or tone of voice—it means what it means; you can’t change its meaning in order to use it for something else. That’s like saying I can redeem a proud look into something good. I can’t. I can redeem my “look,” but to redeem a proud look would be to completely transform it into a different form.

The same is true for cultural expression. Cultures are developed within value systems for the purpose of expressing those values. Therefore the values cannot be divorced from the expressions themselves.

Nurturing the Church’s Culture

So where does this leave us in our quest for cultural forms to use in the worship of God? Well, we cannot just “invent” a new form to use. That is impossible. We have no alternative but to build upon cultural material that has come before us as we create new expressions. The question before us is, upon what shall we build?

A conservative Christian will recognize that we have at our fingertips a rich heritage of cultural forms that have grown within what we might call the historic Christian Church—forms that were cultivated with the goal of expressing transcendent values—and he will choose to conserve those forms as he considers the present and looks to the future. He will repudiate novelty for its own sake or cultural forms nurtured within paganism for the purpose of expressing pagan values to pagans. Instead, he will choose forms that have been cultivated within the community of faith for the purpose of expressing transcendent values of truth, goodness, and beauty.

What are such cultural forms? Since the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity was the dominating cultural influence in Western society.2 All of the cultural forms that come out of that period were nurtured in an environment of transcendent values. This is not to say that it was all sacred or even that it was all good. But all of the forms were created to express transcendent values. When the Church was dethroned by Reason as the dominant cultural influence in the 18th century, human autonomy and secularism took over as the environments within which culture was nurtured. Later commercialism, made possible by the invention of mass media, created the additional environment in which pop culture was born.

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This is not to imply that everything that has developed within the historic Church is good or that everything created outside is bad. But there are some fundamental factors that lead conservative Christians to gravitate toward the former and suspect the latter. First, the historic Church was conscious of the transcendent, the absolute, and the eternal while pop culture revels in the immanent, the relative, and the immediate. Second, the historic Church had a sense of community and accountability while pop culture serves individualism and autonomy. The culture nurtured in the historic Church had as its goal the taking of a person from where he is to where he ought to be. Pop culture aims at motivating the consumer to want more and more of what he already has.

Now once again this is not only about evangelicals who are willing to use contemporary pop forms in their worship. Culture devoid of the accountability, community, and noble values of Christianity began far before the Rock Age. It for this reason that I believe there is a great difference between being “anti-contemporary” and truly conservative. There are many people today who do not want to use contemporary pop forms because they express sexuality or rebellion or unbridled rage, and yet they cling to older, outdated pop forms that express values no less fitting for worship such as sentimentalism, triviality, and romanticism. They believe that they are conservative because they are defending a certain tradition, yet it is a tradition that is different only by degree from contemporary pop culture; it is not different in kind. Somewhere along the way good churches lost their cultural connection to historic Christianity, and when that happens the default mode is to create using the dominant cultural language of the day.

This is also why I squirm as I observe well-intentioned believers today who really want to produce doctrinally-rich, God-centered hymnody. I am thankful for the motivation of these folks in what has been called the modern hymn movement, but since they have not immersed themselves in the musical forms that were nurtured in the historic church, their natural default is to write using the clichés and techniques of today’s popular culture. It is impossible to simply decide that you are going to produce something as good as what has come before without first writing in the language of what has come before.

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I always insist that a defense of conservatism is not about old vs. new, but practically that is what it has become only because virtually no one in the last 100 years has written from within the tradition of the historic Church. There have been plenty who have borrowed from it, to be sure. But most have written in the language of Stephen Foster, Vaudeville, Broadway, Disney, Hollywood, and worse. Again, that does not mean that nothing good has been written. But certainly cultural forms worthy of Christian worship have not been cultivated to any significant degree, and what good there is can only be described as the best of what could be a whole lot worse.

In our conservation of biblical worship, we cannot just start out of nothing. We must be committed to conserving those worship forms that were nurtured within the accountability and transcendent value system of Christian community. It is only when we commit to this that maybe our children will be able to continue in cultivating those forms.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children.



Endnotes:

  1. T. S. Elliot, “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” in Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1949), p. 100. []
  2. I acknowledge the potential difficulty of this discussion when we begin to apply it to indigenous church planting in the distant regions of the world. However, we do not have such difficulties when discussing Western civilization. []

14 Responses to How Can We Conserve Biblical Worship? Part 4

  1. Good stuff. The contemporary vs. traditional line of argument becomes something of a smokescreen to divert the discussion from the intrinsic merits or quality of a piece of music.

  2. Scott, when you write . . .

    "Since the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity was the dominating cultural influence in Western society."

    . . . are you using the term "Christianity" in the same sense that the Manhattan Declaration does? As in, "that faith community which understands itself to be Christian" as opposed to "that which represents genuine, biblical Christianity"? Or do you mean that genuine, biblical Christianity genuinely was the dominating cultural influence from the 4th – 18th centuries.

    Also, could you define what you mean by the "historic Church"?

    Thanks.

  3. Thanks, David.

    Ben, my line of thought builds off of the presupposition that cultures are imbedded with values. So I am suggesting that we should utilize and build from cultural forms that were nurtured within systems that carry values most compatible with Christian affections. So by "Christianity" and the "historic Church," I mean that strain of cultural influence that has held transcendent values.

    Then a further point is that some times that strain has had very little influence in the broader culture. In those instances, it has been difficult for the Church to actually nurture and cultivate new forms. But at other times in history Christian values have strongly influenced broader culture. Such is the case, I am arguing, with Western civilization between Constantine and the Enlightenment. So in that case I would argue that forms developed in the "secular" culture were nonetheless so heavily influenced by transcendent values that we can find good use for (some of) them for sacred purposes.

  4. I make no quarrel with your first two sentences.

    I'm not at all sure what you mean by "that strain of cultural influence that has held transcendent values." Two questions: 1) Are you saying that only Christianity holds transcendent values, or is it possible that transcendent values were non- or anti-Christian? 2) What is that strain of cultural influence that has held these values? I'm trying not to be pedantic. I just don't see that you have been clear where or in whom or what this strain was located.

    Your second paragraph appears to me to assert that the mainstream of "Christianity" from the 4th – 18th centuries was fostering biblical values or Christian affections. nI'm no authority on the history of that era, but if that's really what you're saying, then I think you're the first fundamentalist and the first Baptist I've ever heard make that case.

    I really do think it would be helpful for you to clarify whether you're using "Christianity" in the historically Christian/Manhattan Declaration sense, or in the authentically, biblically Christian sense. Or do you see the two as the same?

  5. Hi Scott. Really fascinating series. I'm sure you would include poetic style and form as cultural expressions/human expressions developed within a culture. I find it hard, though, to make the same judgements of the type I am quite comfortable making regarding, say, musical styles about the freight of meaning carried by these various poetic forms (with the possible exception of the limerick). For instance I have read poems in both metered and free verse, with and without strict end rhyme that has sought to express the transcendent (of one sort or another). Similarly, there are bawdy or huministic or [you name it] sonnets, villanelles, etc. Thoughts there?

  6. Ben,

    I'm using "Christianity" in the broadest sense possible in this case. The biblical values I have in mind are not critically important issues concerning Christ, the gospel, atonement, etc. What I am referring to are essentially beliefs in transcendent, absolute truth, beauty, and goodness. Essentially, I am highlighting what Bauder has referred to as the Pre-modern imagination in his current Nick series.

    In this I am not at all minimizing the important of some gospel truths that were indeed hidden during the dark ages, for example. However, I still believe that the dominant cultural influence during that time was more "Christian" than the dominant cultural influence of our time. That's my primary point.

    d4v34x,

    Yes, I would include poetic form certainly. Particular poetic forms, I believe, are more suited as vehicles for expressing certain truths and values than others.

  7. But the manifestations of the metaphysical dream Bauder discusses ranged from firm Biblicism to mystical to pagan. It sounds like you're saying that the acknowledgement of the numinous and absolute truth together with some minimum coefficient of Biblical influence keeps culture Christian.

  8. I didn't say it keeps culture Christian. But it does present the Christian with material fitting to create Christian worship forms. This is in direct opposition to the material our current culture presents us with; material that most church music is based on today.

  9. But one can embrace the notions of the numinous and absolute truth, etc, be influenced by Biblical thought, and, using the forms nurtured in that environment, communicate paganism to pagans. In fact, it's been done rather famously in Western History (i.e. Robert Herrick). Does this cause your assertion problems? or is your assertion a more "one way" sort if thing wherein "lofiter" forms may be used at times to communicate subjects rather too common for said forms without rendering them useless as vehicles for legitimate praise to God?

  10. I must not being clear; I apologize for that.

    I'm in no way saying that (a) forms rooted in transcendent values cannot express sinful messages, nor am I saying that (b) there are no other possible forms appropriate for sacred purposes than those nurtured in Western civilization. I'm NOT saying either of these things.

    What I am [attempting!] to argue is that (a) cultures nurtured in societies with transcendent value systems will more likely produce forms compatible with expressing biblical truth and (b) since 4th-17th century Western civilization was dominated by transcendent values (because of the Church's dominance over culture), cultural forms cultivated during that period are more likely to be able to express biblical truth than forms cultivated during the last couple centuries.

    This is not to say that nothing good has been written recently (I explicitly make this point in the post). But what good that has been written has used and developed forms that were nurtured within the community of faith, not without.

    On the other hand, MOST of what evangelicalism and fundamentalism has produced in terms of worship music in the last 150 years has utilized forms that have been cultivated in a mass culture driven by commercialism and worse.

  11. No, you were being mostly clear; conversely, I hope I am not coming across as obtuse. What clarifications I needed are in the third paragraph of your response above.
    To further clarify, when you say "able to express," do I rightly understand you to mean a given medium has the capacity to fully "contain" and express a God exalting message without any aspect of the medium distorting/contradicting that message?

  12. Scott,

    Thanks for the clarifications. I do think you too closely associate Christianity with transcendent values. Here's an example from the original post:

    "Since the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity was the dominating cultural influence in Western society. All of the cultural forms that come out of that period were nurtured in an environment of transcendent values. This is not to say that it was all sacred or even that it was all good. But all of the forms were created to express transcendent values."

    Though I see your caveats, it seems to me that they do not sufficiently account for the fact that the historic "Church" in the period you describe was in many times and places sub-Christian, even pagan, even though it embraced transcendence.

    I don't mean at all to discard your main argument, but it makes me wonder whether the distinctions between forms nurtured within and without the community of faith are as stark as you suggest.

    As a corollary, if you're planting a church in a premodern, non-western community (pick your geography and culture), I'd assume you would not introduce Western medieval religious musical forms to your Christian worship. I'd also assume you'd work to understand that culture to identify which indigenous musical forms are best suited to communicate Christian truth. True? I could certainly be wrong. And I'd assume you'd do your best to avoid forms tied to animism, even if that community of faith has some understanding of transcendence.

    So what would you do? Have I missed my guesses?

  13. I see your point, Ben.

    Regarding missions: I mention in footnote 2 that I recognize the added difficulty of non-Western civilizations. However, I've also presented here that I would not simply transplant Western music uncritically into a non-Western culture.

    What I would probably suggest is to start with plain chant; not Gregorian chant, but earlier than that. The reason I would suggest starting there is that plain chant is about as a-cultural as you can get. It's just one step removed from natural human vocal intonation. It's simply intoning texts (I would start with the Psalms) in a natural melodic progression. It's naturally modal (i.e. not major or minor), yet has a tonal center, which is natural for all cultures.

    In other words, I would suggest starting with the basics. Start there, and then as people come to Christ and a Christian culture develops, the musical forms can develop as well. Who knows; Zimbambwe could produce the next J. S. Bach! :)

    In other words, my suggestion is that if you find yourself in a cultural environment devoid of Christian influence, the solution is to go back as far as you need to in order to build off of forms that express transcendent, noble values. You have to start somewhere; you have to build with something. And I'm suggesting that we build with material that has stood the tests of time as appropriate vehicles for expressing biblical truth.

    In some cultures, "going back" might mean all the way back to natural human intonation. I don't think we have that problem with Western culture. We have a heritage upon which we can build. We just need to re-familiarize ourselves with it.

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