Friday, November 26, 2004
As a Christian man, I often find it hard to identify with the form of piety that many evangelical churches try to inculcate. Much of the time it just doesn’t seem to connect with me. This is not to say that I am impious; rather, the form of piety that I aspire to is, in many respects, far removed from the form of piety promoted in the average evangelical church. I believe that one of the best places to go in order to gauge the form of piety promoted by a particular church is to the hymnal. As I look through the hymns and choruses sung by most evangelical churches it seems to me that the majority of the songs that are sung play on a form of piety where the predominant focus on one’s personal love-relationship with Jesus. The emphasis on one’s personal love-relationship with Jesus can be expressed in increasingly eroticized forms. I confess to being revulsed by some of the more extreme forms that this can take. Singing about the ‘sweetness of Christ to my soul’ and my ‘melting to tears’ at the ‘kiss’ that God gives me at the cross to soft lilting tunes may have its place, but it seems to have far exceeded it in many evangelical churches. Perhaps I am just a spiritual diabetic, but such expressions often strike me as mawkish and saccharine sentimentalism and provoke a negative reaction in me. The cross was certainly an expression of God’s love. However, God’s love is not to be confused with the romantic love prized by our culture. For one, God’s love is a jealous love, a love of total unyielding commitment. Such a love is far removed from the fleeting flush of youthful passion. There is a tendency to subjectivize the cross and resurrection in many Christian circles. For some liberals the cross is reduced to little more than the toothless smile of a hand-wringing deity over the rotting corpse of the human race; god may be impotent, but at least he loves us. Evangelicals may rightly resist such gross aberrations. However, we are not immune from the general trend. The doctrine of the atonement propagated by many Arminian evangelicals is one which lacks any concrete issue until the autonomous individual chooses to accept Christ. The focus gradually shifts from the death of Christ in the first century AD to my personal response of love in the existential moment, from the bodily resurrection of Christ to the fact that ‘He lives within my heart’, from the historical ascension of Christ to the fact that I have enthroned Him in my life. The Christ proclaimed is often passive, whether in His mother’s arms, or on those of the cross. He is also largely passive in many evangelical understandings of salvation. The ‘punch lines’ of the resurrection and the ascension, so prominent in apostolic preaching, are considerably downplayed. The Lord’s Supper is recast as a ‘pity-party’, where we meditate on how terrible it must have been for Jesus. Rather than memorializing the cross as the great victory of Christ over the powers, we engage in morbid heart-searching. Christ is not present, giving us His flesh to eat; rather, Christ is at a distance. Look through the hymns on the death of Christ in most evangelical hymnals and you will observe that the focus is generally not upon the cross as the place of Christ’s glorious triumph over the forces of the old world order, but upon the cross as the place where Christ passively suffers as an expression of His personal love for me. The hymns are clearly crafted primarily to provoke an emotional heart response, in a manner that often seems to downplay such virtues as courageous and steadfast faithfulness. Of course, it is extremely important that we see the cross as the supreme expression of love. Nevertheless, God’s love is His unswerving commitment to His covenant people and purposes; such love calls for an answering commitment that is far more than mere emotion. I read my Bible and the teaching on the cross powerfully resonates with me. The cross is the place of love, but this love is not sentimentalized, romanticized or eroticized. God’s love is emotional, without giving an inch to a distasteful emotionalism. Our response of love should take the form of loyalty, faithful obedience and total self-giving commitment. The love of Christ calls us to obediently follow Him, not merely to cultivate a romantic love-relationship with Him. Having cast our relationship with Jesus as a personal love-relationship, rather than as a structured covenant commitment, faith is confused with affection. I have argued in the past that we should be far more prepared to challenge the definitions of ‘faith’ presupposed by many evangelicals. Faith should not be reduced to feelings in the heart. Faith carries the senses of allegiance, steadfastness and courageous faithfulness. Such virtues are far more public — and dare I say ‘masculine’ — than those commonly emphasized by evangelicals. If our relationship with Jesus is merely a personal and emotional love-relationship, informality will tend to be prized in worship. Considered liturgies with formal rites, set prayers, recitations of creeds and carefully structured services present faith as a far more public reality. It is important to recognize that these forms do not preclude emotion; rather, properly used, they serve to evoke, channel and shape emotion in various ways. However, they show that emotion is not the primary thing. The important role of the Lord’s service is not its ability to move and replenish my emotions. Rather, the Lord’s service is covenant renewal. I do not believe that being moved up emotionally is to be regarded as a sine qua non of true participation in the service of covenant renewal. Our relationship with God is not limited to the realm of emotions. If faith is really emotional at heart, teaching sermons and sermons that call people to steadfast commitment will be rejected in favour of sermons that whip up our emotions. Insubstantial sermons will be used with the clear purpose of stirring up people’s emotions, quite apart from any desire to bring them into a deeper knowledge of who Jesus Christ really is. Once the congregation are whipped up into a frenzy of emotion the preacher begins to use those emotions like a puppeteer. I have sat through such sermons in the past and have had the distinct impression that the preacher was trying to emotionally rape me. I have had my heart ‘moved’ and ‘warmed’ by many sermons that have brought me no closer to Jesus Christ. Such worship is all too often anthropocentric. We presume that our feeling good or having strong emotions is the same thing as worship. As Marva Dawn has observed, the correct response to someone’s complaint that they didn’t like a particular part of the service is to point the utter irrelevance of such an objection and respond: ‘so what, we weren’t worshipping you!’ How we feel about worship is not the be-all and end-all. Growing up in various evangelical youth groups, I encountered a form of faith that was often infantile, unwilling to progress beyond a gooey affection for Jesus. The intense focus on an emotional relationship and ‘asking Jesus into your heart’ led to a suspicion of theology and careful Bible study. Thought-provoking questions were often defused with trite and insubstantial platitudes. Peter Pan Christianity was the order of the day. The gospel had little to say about the real world. We were more concerned with going to spiritual Neverland when we died. I do not doubt for a moment that this experience has served to stunt my spiritual growth in a number of respects. I still struggle with its legacy in my life. The feminized and infantilized piety that predominates in many evangelical churches proclaims an effete Jesus and an insipid Christianity. The role of the pastor is seen primarily as that of stirring up the emotions of his congregation, thereby recharging their individual spiritual batteries, rather than that of acting as the symbol of the Bridegroom’s (and the Father’s) authority over the Bride and representing the Bride to the Father in the renewal of covenant. People live out of their own individual experience, rather than living out of Jesus Christ; people live out of their own individual bodies, rather than out of the body of Christ. An unqualified focus on unmediated emotional relationship with Christ often leads to the individual being identified as the Bride of Christ, rather than the Church. Marital fellowship with Christ is situated primarily in the individual soul, rather than in the Eucharistic assembly. Once such an understanding is generally accepted, the Church will soon become domesticated. The faith that is central to the Church’s life is no longer the public reality of the faith of Jesus Christ, which we are drawn into within the visible Church, but the personal ‘emotional’ faith that lodges in the bosom of the individual. The Church is removed from the public, communal and ecclesiastical sphere and resituated in the domestic, private and familial sphere. The Church becomes preoccupied with the internal realities of the human heart, to the neglect of the public sphere. A feminized and emasculated Church should not be surprised to find itself impotent. Many of the hymns that now dominate evangelical churches were formerly restricted to the domestic sphere (as Ann Douglas and James Jordan have pointed out). Only by means of the domestication of the Church itself could such hymns have taken root. When I look through the Psalter I am struck by how far removed its sentiments are from those of most of the sappy hymns and choruses sung by evangelicals. The piety expressed is one that no man should feel uncomfortable expressing. There are such things as imprecatory psalms (how often have you sung an imprecatory hymn?). I have no problem with hymns per se. However, I find many modern hymns and choruses puerile and pansified. I often find myself looking through evangelical hymnbooks in order to find hymns that adequately express the theological convictions and faith in Jesus Christ that I am held by. The few that I find were generally penned before the 18th century, most before the Reformation. Whilst evangelicals have written many great hymns, the individualistic piety of evangelicalism has afflicted the Church with countless hymns that have dangerously distorted the piety of the Church — hymns that do not belong outside of the context of the home (though many of them do not belong even there). Hymns shape our theology more than we realize. Evangelicalism’s focus on heaven over the resurrection of the dead and the new heavens and the new earth is largely a product of distorted and sentimentalized Victorian piety mediated by predominately female hymn writers. Individualistic evangelical piety has also lead to an attenuation of the doctrine of the Trinity, as the mediation of our worship is not given due attention. If we are to address the serious problems of misshapen piety within the evangelical Church, we must recover an understanding of the Church as the Church. This will, I believe, involve such harsh measures as banishing the hymns of Fanny Crosby and her ilk from the gathered assembly of God’s people and reinstating the singing of psalms as the backbone of our worship in song (I am not, however, psalm-singing only). Our worship services should begin to look more military-like and less informal (of course, formal and military worship can be incredibly lively). The casual and relaxed way in which many modern evangelicals approach Divine worship appals me. The lazy and infantile anti-intellectualism needs to be addressed. The necessity of masculinity (and not just men) in leadership needs to reasserted. I don’t think that I am the only person who feels this way about evangelical piety. I am sure that there are a number of thoughtful young men within evangelicalism who believe much the same as I do. If such issues are not addressed, such young men (who might well lead evangelical churches in the future) will quickly become disillusioned and believe that the feminized and infantilized piety of evangelicalism is an insult to their masculinity and that the evangelical church is really only for women and children. The piety of modern evangelicals seems so far removed from that of the apostles. I simply cannot imagine the apostle Paul going around telling people about the great plan that God has for their lives and wondering if they would like to ask Jesus into their hearts, because He really wants to be their friend. I don’t want a romantic love-relationship with Jesus; I want to learn how to be His disciple.