Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Over the summer, our church had an adult Sunday school series featuring videos by Marva Dawn, author of Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, A Royal "Waste" of Time, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly and other works on church and worship.

Now, once you got past some of her off-putting statements, the most annoying of which is her delusion that she is in fact a pastor in God's church (raised in the LCMS, she heard some bogus "call" and was "ordained" in the ELCA), there was quite a lot of good material in the series. Perhaps the best point was her repeated emphasis that worship is not evangelism. Worship is what we say to God, not what we say to each other. Worship forms us as evangelists, but it is a great error of the "seeker-sensitive" service idea, which she respectfully but firmly rejected, to think that in worship we are addressing other people. She also emphasized that personal taste and style should not be the issue; when the worship wars focus on musical style, they are ignoring more fundamental questions of whether the music is in fact correct for that type of service. Similarly, she had a good walk-through of the liturgy and the church year. The series is in fact primarily addressed to "post-modern" revivalist evangelicals who want to rebuild what they tore down (Gal. 2:18) and bring back into the revivalist tradition the liturgy they once excluded.

But at the last few sessions, I began to put together a number of aspects that seriously bothered me, and I think for reasons that go beyond style or mannerisms. The part that rang false about her presentation was the self-consciousness, the tendency in much of it to observe yourself and your actions and feelings, not to observe the facts of God's work. In short, I would say she commits in a more subtle form much the same error of the "seeker-sensitive" service: really talking about one thing (herself, ourselves) when she was supposedly talking about another (God).

Let me unpack this:

1) Marva Dawn focused quite a bit on "community". The "search for community" and "building community" were common buzz words. One of her guidelines for music in worship is "Is the music appropriate for building community in this place?" Now, the substance of her comments on this topic were not bad: if music alienates the elderly or youth that's bad, etc. But I hate and abhor the "search for community" because community, in itself, is not a good thing. Community is the natural outcome of two things, common belief and common obedience, working on time spent together. When people believe the same thing and spent their time together with a common loyalty to the same person(s), they will form a community. If on the other hand, they don't have common belief and don't share the same loyalties, then "community" can only be a kind of social pressure not to "rock the boat," not to "be difficult," and instead to "get along by going along." The issue of community is "what is the right belief?" and "who are the person(s) worthy of my allegiance and obedience?" Get these questions right -- and the first is confessionalism, while the second is concerned successively with allegiance to Christ, allegiance to His church, the pastor, and the natural internal structure of the church as a society, especially the deference of young men and women to the older men and women of the church -- and community will take care of itself. The Pastoral Epistles, not "communitarianism" are what is needed here.

2) Marva Dawn frequently described "the world" outside the church in terms which, while common enough in church discourse, are really a disgraceful example of obscurantism and dishonesty. When some one says (as she did, in paraphrase): "What's the world telling us? It tells us to get as much as we can and don't care who you step on in the process. It tells us that the purpose of our lives is to consume the things we see advertised on TV, etc." they are, on any reasonable definition of "the world" lying through their teeth in ways that are obvious to anyone who thinks. Now, "the world" here must be taken as, those who do not confess Christ the son of God and their savior. OK, now I happen to know quite a bit about such people, having been raised by one, my mother. And I know for a fact, that she never told me that success was the only thing. She never told me to measure my worth in things. And going around the world, looking at my colleagues and friends, I see that some do (more or less) act as Marva Dawn says "the world" does. But I see that many, indeed probably the majority, abhor careerism and materialism quite as much as Marva Dawn. So this message of "careerism is bad," "materialism is bad," "competitiveness is bad" cannot be what distinguishes the world from the church.

It is very bad to pretend that it is, for three reasons: a) Because it's just plain wrong, and a slander on many non-Christians. We cannot give false testimony against our neighbors, even if it does make us feel good about ourselves. b) I'm not sure that it would be good for the church if we all conformed to Marva Dawn's obviously favored particular personality type (frumpy, bookish but not ambitious, risk averse, terribly afraid to give offense). I am not sure that my daughter, for example, would feel comfortable in an environment dominated by Marva Dawn's idea of church. c) And finally, this vision of church reeks of works righteousness, of a new monkery. What makes the church different from the world is not some anti-capitalist version of civic righteousness (any more than it is a capitalist version of it), it is the forgiveness of sins on account of the death of Christ. There is no "kill your TV, give to Katrina victims" righteousness which the world cannot do as well as (or better than) the church. But the world cannot proclaim the full and free pardon given in the church because the world doesn't believe in it (there's that confessionalism rearing its ugly head once more).

3) And finally this focus on the liturgy as a performance raises the specter of theatricality in the church's work. One thing that struck me about Dix's Shape of the Liturgy was his high appreciation of the uniquely focused nature of the Roman liturgy, above that of the East. The Roman liturgy in the first millennium was the most conservative, yes, but more importantly the most focused on the issue at hand: the work of Christ coming to us. The liturgical actions were done without any description of how we feel about them, only with a recitation of the works of God in Christ within which our actions make sense. By contrast too often in the East, especially after that great showman Cyril of Jerusalem, the liturgy was something made to impress the people as a performance. So it was with many of the suggestions Marva Dawn made. For example, reading the Gospel from the center of the church shows that the Gospel is among us. Oh it does, does it? What is annoying here is both the crudeness of the symbolism, as well as the focus on outward show and pomp, which even in the eyes of those advocating them, have no independent power. What Christ instituted in the church was not rituals, but sacraments, things that have true power regardless of what we think about them, and yet are the more amazing the more we think about them. Yet the theatrical imagination constantly wishes to bury them under rituals that have meaning only when "seen through" as man-made symbols.

One unfortunate innovation adopted in our church's liturgy after the series illustrates the problem with theatricality. It's not a big deal, only one line in an otherwise Christian and reverent service, but before we recite the Creed, the pastor or his assistant states: "We boldly confess our faith." Boldly, huh? Sometimes it sounds that way, but sometimes it's more like "anemically" or "absent-mindedly." But apart from any such comic juxtaposition, it is the distinctive feature of Lutheran spirituality to focus on the facts. Thank God, we reduce moral exhortation to the will to the minimum -- because the will is, absent the facts of the Gospel, bound and gagged. If one understands the Creed, as the Gospel deliverance from the Law, one will be bold. If we are not bold, then it is because we have not understood, or more likely temporarily forgotten, the Creed. So don't tell us to be bold -- instead tell us the Creed! These facts are more powerful than any exhortation to the will to "Come on, get with the program and be bold!" Liturgy is Lutheran when it rightly proclaims the facts, in the confidence that these facts, proclaimed with the Spirit, are enough to change anyone's attitude. This sober, Roman aversion to theatricality and excess gestures expresses well the Lutheran theological aversion to asking for self-consciously manufactured feelings apart from the facts that motivate them spontaneously.

UPDATE: I had a snarky comment about Marva Dawn's "mannerisms" but as Bob Waters pointed out in the comment, she is in severe pain from cancer. Thank you, Bob, for telling me that; my bad.