“Being real” is all the rage in Christianity now, and some folks are sure that no one had thought of it before they did. As far as they are concerned, for two millennia Christians have been “playing church” and “hiding behind ceremonies”, and performing “empty rituals”. Consequently, they see it as their goal to expose everything that smacks of pretence, and strip away all accretions and additions of form and ritual, and be left with the pure “real-life Christianity”.
For such people, the idea of the sacred smacks of hocus-pocus and sham. It sounds like incense and mumbled chants, and their goal is to get Christianity to feel like everyday living. That means showing that Sunday is just another day, and treating it as such. It means preachers ought to dress into the pulpit like they would anywhere else, and not indulge in make-believe with robes and suits and ties. It means showing that corporate worship is no more significant than if the same Christians met at McDonalds on Tuesday night. It means showing that the music one hears on the radio (“in real life”) ought to be used in worship. It means showing that if blue jeans work for everyday life, then blue jeans work for worship. It means prayer should be as chatty as if we were talking to one another. This is being real and sincere; this is breaking down all pretence, and destroying religiosity. Such people believe they are debunkers, hoping to burn off the morning fog of mindless ritualism so that the bright noonday sun of pure, real-life Christianity can shine through.
One can understand the antipathy towards pretence and hypocrisy. As long as there are humans there will be hypocrites. As long as there are religions, there will be people posturing and performing. And our Lord left us with no doubt as to how He feels about hypocrites.
However, what the realness police do not understand is what they are tearing away at. They reveal that they do not understand the difference between the sacred and the profane. They reveal that they do not understand the difference between a pursuit of transparency and desecration.
Since Cain and Abel, man has understood that when something is performed or offered or used in an act of worship, it is set apart for that purpose. It is sacred. It is not intrinsically so, it becomes so because it is so dedicated. This applies to animals, altars, human bodies, clothing, spaces, times, even whole days or weeks or entire buildings. In other words, because humans have sensed that we are more than molecules belonging to this world, we have sought to bridge part of that gap between us and the numinous by consecrating ordinary things for worship. Once a common thing or place or time is set apart for worship, it is considered sacred.
The Mosaic Law made this point in hundreds of ways. Ordinary animals, utensils, tents, clothes would be consecrated and re-consecrated through sacrifices and ritual cleansings. When something was not consecrated or ritually cleansed, it was not to be used in worship, with dire penalties for disobedience. God kept explaining that by these acts of separating the ordinary from the sacred, Israel would be taught that God is holy. He is other. And because He is other, He is not known or worshipped by what is purely familiar or common. Common things were to be left in front of the temple (Latin= pro fanum), not brought inside it. To obliterate this distinction between what was specifically given for worship, and what was for use in ordinary life was an act of profaning the name of the Lord. To profane God is to drag God and His worship down to the level of the ordinary.
Few people, in all these millennia, misunderstood the nature of sacred things. Most knew that the wood of the altar is still wood. They knew that anointing oil is still oil, and that the Sabbath is another twenty-four hours like all others. Most did not think that things consecrated had changed in their nature. However, they knew that they had changed in their purpose, and since that purpose was now sacred, the objects or space or time were to be considered such.
Although the New Testament church is no longer restricted to a Tabernacle or Temple, and although it is true that all of our lives are to be offered up as worship, this does not mean that we by this fact lose the distinction between the sacred and the profane, particularly regarding corporate worship. Romans 12:1 is not meant to profane worship; it is meant to consecrate the mundane. The Lord’s Day is still His day. Ministers still ought to dress as if they were handling the most serious message in the world. People still ought to dress as if they were going to appear before God. Prayer still ought to be speech set apart to speak to the Most High. The Bible still ought to be read and heard like no other book. The space we meet in still ought to be treated like a space given over to worship. In various ways, we New Testament believers still ought to show that what we set apart for worship becomes sacred in its purpose, and therefore we treat it as sacred, and no longer common or ordinary.
However, the realness police do not understand this. They believe that since all of life is sacred, the difference between worship and life is precisely what they must eliminate. They must make worship seem as ‘real’ as driving, eating, or walking through the mall. That way, they reason, no pretence exists in worship.
But in fact, such people turn out to be destroyers. Their efforts do not elevate normal life to a state of consecration; instead, they debase everything. Instead of a deep sense of reality permeating worship, they end up with a profound sense of mundaneness. Instead of filling the Christian church with sincerity, they fill it with what is common. Life does not become elevated and consecrated; worship becomes predictable, everyday and ordinary. Awe and reverence is lost, and the small consolation is that “we’re all so real about it.”
The very gap between worship and everyday life is exactly what invests worship with its power and transformative force. The gap between the common and the sacred is what makes worship a numinous and spiritual experience. The sacredness of worship is precisely what engenders the fear of the Lord. When we tear away at form – those things and ways and acts that remind us that this occasion is sacred – we tear away at worship itself. Indeed, we tear away at our own dignity as being made in the image of God, and not mere animals concerned with the material. When we refuse the distinction between the sacred and the common, we are nothing more than what C.S. Lewis called trousered apes.
Do not despise consecration. Do not attribute the setting apart of worship as a sacred experience as a bunch of sham and pretence. Learn to embrace such consecration yourself. Recognize it is part of the way God teaches us that He Himself is holy.
(This post originally appeared at Towards Conservative Christianity)