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The power of worship to sanctify the imagination

I’m going to say more soon about James K. A. Smith’s book, Imagining the Kingdom–I don’t agree with all of how he frames the conversation, but his general thesis and applications are outstanding–but here’s a bit just to whet your appetite:

Christian liturgical practices and spiritual disciplines are not just means of personal renewal; they remake the world because they transform the perception of the people of God who not only inhabit the world differently but inhabit a different world, and world constituted as God’s creation.

As I’ve tried to emphasize, Christian worship does this on an aesthetic register: the sanctification of perception is a renewal and restor(y)ing of the imagination, which means that worship is more art than science, more on the order of a poem than a PowerPoint distillation of “the data.” However, the (trans)formative possibilities afforded by Christian worship practices are simply not true of all that describes itself as “worship.” In other words, not all self-described “Christian worship” will afford the sort of sanctification of perception that I’ve described above. Here we need to raise a critical, and perhaps uncomfortable, point: form matters–not because of any traditionalism or conservative preservation of the status quo, but precisely because . . . there is a logic to a practice that is unarticulated but nonetheless has a coherent “sense” about it. Form matters because it is the form of worship that tells the Story (or better, enacts the Story).

Wide swaths of contemporary Christianity have bought into a specious form/content distinction: we have assumed that Christianity is primarily a “message” and is thus defined by a “content” that is distillable from historical forms. Along with this distinction comes the assumption that forms are basically just neutral containers for the message, selected on the basis of taste, preference, or cultural relevance. With that distinction in place (perhaps unwittingly), we then treat the historical, received forms of Christian worship as a kind of disposable husk that can be shucked (and chucked!) as long as we keep the kernel of the gospel “message.” When this distinction and attitude are wedded to our late modern penchant for novelty, we begin to approach Christian worship as an event for disseminating the message and thus look for forms that will be fresh, attractive, relevant, accessible, and so on. In fact, since on this account it is the content/”message” that matters, and since forms are neutral “containers” for the message, we might actually adopt forms that are more familiar and less strange for contemporary “audiences.” For example, we might distill the “message” of the gospel and then place it in a “mall” container, or a “coffee shop” container, or a “rock concert” container, or a “rave” container, or what have you. In doing so, we believe that we have in a sense sanctified these forms–taken them up in service to the gospel, all with a “missional” intent. . . .

Because such “relevant” paradigms are unwittingly intellectualist [Smith’s term for those who discount the importance of imagination in Christianity], they fail to appreciate that we are liturgical animals shaped by practices that work on our cognitive unconscious. And so they also fail to appreciate that these forms are not netural; the forms of the mall or coffee shop are not just benign containers that can carry any content. These forms are already “aimed and loaded”: they carry their own teleological orientation and come loaded with a complex of rituals and practices that carry a vision of the good life. So while we might think that reconfiguring worship to feel the mall is a way of making Jesus relevant and accessible, in fact we are unwittingly teaching worshipers and seekers to treat Jesus like any other commodity they encounter in the mall, because the very form of the mall’s (“secular”) liturgy unconsciously trains us to relate to the world as consumers.

The point isn’t that both form and content matter. The point is more radical than that: in some significant sense we need to eschew the form/content distinction. Because worship is not just the dissemination of some content or the expression of an “inner” feeling, the very form of worship tells the Story. The form of worship is the logic of the practice; as such, it has a coherence that is fundamentally narrative, not deductive. The narrative arc of Christian worship is how it “makes sense,” and it is through our immersion in the implicit narrative logic of the practice that the “practical sense” of the Christian Story soaks into our imagination and becomes part of our constituting background, the Story that governs our habitus (as “structured structures” and “structuring structures”!). (167-69)

I argued something very similar in my dissertation. Here’s how I put it:

The argument to this point has been that communicating the truth must include not only the expression of right doctrine but also the expression of right imagination. The imagination is shaped and cultivated through aesthetic forms. The focus has been most specifically on literary forms since this is what exists in the Bible, but all art forms shape the imagination in some way. This leads to the next point of the argument, namely, that rightly ordered worship is essential to the preservation and communication of truth, for it is in worship that the imagination is most powerfully cultivated.

What art forms are chosen in worship is of utmost importance since they present to the congregation not just theological facts, but those facts imagined in certain ways. . . .

Most evangelicals today, including missional advocates, view worship forms as simply pretty packaging for truth or at best a way to “energize” the truth. Music is just a way to make truth interesting and engaging in worship. Stetzer reflects this when he suggests that the purpose of music in the context of worship is simply to “relieve anxiety and create interest for unbelievers who have not attended church for years.” But imaginative forms are not incidental to truth—they are essential to the truth, as Spiegel explains: “At its best, liturgical art is not merely consistent with sound doctrine but serves positively to illuminate biblical teaching, making imaginative expression or application of biblical truth.”

Therefore, worship forms help to express the imaginative aspect of truth in ways that propositional statements alone cannot; they communicate not just the what of biblical content, but also how that content is imagined. . . .

And the kinds of imaginative forms God chose to communicate his truth should inform churches’ worship forms today. Art in worship is more than incidental; it is God-ordained because of its power to express rightly imagined truth: “Surely the fact that God himself chose an artistic medium as his primary vehicle of special revelation ought by itself to persuade us to place a special premium on the arts.”

Aesthetic form shapes propositional content; just like a liquid takes the shape of its container, doctrinal facts take the shape of the aesthetic form in which they are carried. This is accomplished in worship music through poetic devices and structural elements that work together to shape the content, such as cadences, tonality, tempo, meter, rhythm, dynamics, density, timbre, register, texture, and motivic development. The problem is that since missional advocates understand truth to be only right knowledge of right facts, they view worship as a time to impart only right facts with some enjoyable music to make such transmission interesting or engaging. Yet while theological facts must be transmitted in worship, this misses the whole point of worship . . .

Thus most theologically conservative missional worship services are filled with good doctrinal teaching but worship forms that may not express an imagination of that truth that rightly reflects biblical imagination. They view the purpose of worship music as making truth “engaging” rather than its deeper purpose of shaping imagination in profound ways. With this view, it matters not what kind of music a church uses as long as it is “passionate” and resonates with the worshipers as “authentic.”

Worship choices, then, are not merely about what is pleasing, authentic, or engaging; what forms churches choose for worship must be based on the criterion of whether or not they are true—whether or not they correspond to God’s reality as it is communicated aesthetically in his Word.

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 Cutlure, 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 three children.

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