Friday, September 14, 2007

Pitfalls of romanticizing worship

[It's been a busy week, and I haven't had much time for original blogging. So what follows below are some of my thoughts from an e-mail discussion a few months ago regarding the topic of worship and love and to what extent worship songs and services should image a love relationship between us and God.]

Let me chip in with an observation about my own ambivalence about love being the primary lens or metaphor for worship - not because it's unbiblical, but because most of us late-modern/postmodern North Americans view that love primarily through the notion of romantic love, not a more holistic, agapic, communal, cosmic, sacrificial love. It's usually filtered through the grid of individualistic romantic comedies and overly personalizes the worship experience into a "Jesus & me" experience, losing the corporate sense of the worshipping community. Hence the "Jesus as idealized perfect boyfriend" type worship ballads.

Yet another concern with romanticizing worship is that it's a relatively recent and particularly Western and North American construct. As I've argued in Singles at the Crossroads and was just reading in Thomas Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages, the vast majority of human history did not have a romantic understanding of love - romantic love is a development of the late middle ages and then heightened by 18th-century Romanticism and then 20th-century Hollywood. So I resonate with Bob Webber's concerns [about romanticized worship songs]. Culturally, I think that when we Christianize romantic motifs in our worship, we often merely substitute one idolatry for another, rather than challenging the very validity of romantic love as a controlling narrative in our culture.

So if we are to recover a more biblical, contextually Jewish and Trinitarian Christian understanding of worship as expression of love, we need worship songs that more faithfully reflect love as it would have been understood historically by God's people. What was the Israelite understanding of love as lived and practiced in the OT and second temple Judaism? What was the Christian understanding of love as lived and practiced in the early church? It seems to me that their notion of love in worship was often wedded to care for the widow and orphan, welcoming the stranger and the alien, rescuing the abandoned, poor and marginalized. This is borne out in Isaiah and the minor prophets as well as Acts and patristic literature. In other words, love of neighbor was the primary understanding of love, not the romantic/erotic love of a lover. And if acceptable worship was understood in love terms, it was this larger corporate love of others, not an individualistic notion of romantic love.

I suppose this might be too broad a brush - Hosea of course uses the marital metaphor (with the emphasis on God's faithfulness in the face of human infidelity - how often do we have worship songs proclaim, "We have been unfaithful adulterers, O Lover of my soul"?). But of course there corporate Israel is the beloved, not isolated individuals. And bride of Christ language is also intended to be corporate.

I realize I'm addressing several topics at once - romanticism and individualism - which overlap and are often fused. And I suspect that depending on one's tradition and context, some churches tip too much toward rationalism while others veer too much toward romanticism, and likewise some emphasize individualism too much while others emphasize collectivism. So depending on your location, you'll have different dangers to beware of. I suppose much depends on local leadership being able to diagnose their own congregations' health. Mark Labberton, author of The Dangerous Act of Worship, mentioned to me that his church has pretty much replaced all "I, me, my" language with corporate "we, us, our" language in all their worship and liturgy. That's their way of resisting the radical individualism of their cultural context (Berkeley), and I suspect it also reduces overly romanticizing the worship experience.

Anyway, these discussions have been going on for centuries - if I recall correctly, John Wesley was concerned that his brother Charles was getting too romantic and sappy in his hymnody. So how can the church be contextual and countercultural in such a time as this? In an age of American Idol, should we resist solo performances? In an age of over-privatization, should we not do podcasts? I don't know. But there's obviously plenty for us here to think about for years to come.


elderj said...

good post.. i think i'll quote you

Anonymous said...

Albert -- Thanks for sharing your insights. These are some of the most meaningful thoughts I have seen in this particular discussion. Like elderj, I have quoted you over at my site :)