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T. David Gordon’s Foreword to By the Waters of Babylon

The following is the foreword to By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post Christian Culture by Scott Aniol.

tDavidFThe surprising acrimony that sometimes attended the “worship wars” of the last several decades suggested that we were talking past each other; that what we were talking about was somehow the tip of a larger, undiscussed iceberg beneath the surface. Almost all of us who have written about it have encountered opponents who misrepresented us substantially, if not entirely—not because they intended to do so, but because there are and were blindspots in the conversation, omissions that made it very difficult to hear what people actually were and were not saying. In this volume, Scott Aniol introduces us to the iceberg beneath the surface.

On first glance, some readers will wonder why a book about worship includes a discussion of the distinction between “emerging,” “emergent,” and “missional” churches. But Aniol demonstrates convincingly that behind these labels are different understandings not only of the relative priority of worship and mission, but even more profoundly different understandings of “culture” and cultural forms/norms. The first six chapters discuss these matters clearly, fairly, thoroughly, and judiciously; even readers who resolve some of the matters differently than the author will agree that he has represented their view justly, and has evaluated it dispassionately. The book would be valuable for these six chapters alone; and they would be useful as an introduction to cultural analysis and aesthetics on their own merits.

By the Waters of Babylon Cover 2In these first six chapters, Aniol challenges the notion of cultural neutrality, a notion upon which much of contemporary Christian worship depends. He rightly argues that if individual sinners sometimes do unholy things, groups of such individual sinners also sometimes do unholy things, and what we call “culture” is merely the behavior that characterizessuch groups of individuals. While of course God’s original created order was/is “good,” the works of rebellious sinners are not always good; and therefore God’s works and ours should not be confused: “Wolters fails to distinguish between God’s creation and man’s creation. He often conflates the two categories, equating the intrinsic goodness of God’s handiwork with what mankind produces” (79). In the sixth chapter, Aniol presents a lucid, biblical, alternative to false, secular understandings of culture.

The remaining five chapters present a biblical theology of worship as a gathering/meeting of God’s people in His presence, by His invitation, according to His precepts, through the redemptive work of His Son. These chapters comprehend a survey of the entire biblical understanding of worship—from the original state of innocence to the consummated state in the life to come, indicating both the similarities and differences in the major moments of redemptive history along the way. In these chapters, Aniol presents a cogent argument that mission serves the greater value of worship; not the other way around. He also suggests in these chapters that Christian worship, far from imitating secular/unholy cultures’ supposedly neutral habits, establishes and nurtures a holy culture, that even in its present imperfection anticipates the coming holy culture in its consummated state.

The subtitle of the book—Worship in a Post-Christian Culture—not only concurs in employing what may be a more accurate understanding of our moment than “post-modern”; it also gently suggests that we would be ill-advised to conform our liturgy to any merely human culture, and surely not to one that is post-Christian.

Some Goldilockses will say this book is “too much”: too much discussion of culture and its impact on our assumptions about worship. Other Goldilockses will say it is “too little,” too rapid a survey of both Christian concepts of culture and of Christian worship. I think it’s just right; previous conversations about worship have been less likely to discuss the two in their relations to each other. A significant bibliography (pp. 185–199) and indices will assist those who desire to study either matter at greater length.