γενήσομαι «ge-ney-soh-mey : i am becoming»
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
The other night for bedtime Bible reading, I read to the kids the story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet in John 12.
The story, as told in this particular kids study Bible, focused on Jesus' quotation of Deuteronomy 15:11—which states, 'There will always be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, you will open wide your hand generously to your brother, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.'
The question posed to us after the reading was, 'How might we show Jesus our love by how we treat people in need? By our songs and our worship?'
I appreciated the sarcastic rhetoric.
Do we show our love for Jesus by our songs and our worship?
It's a valid question.
Something many of you may remember is that I used to listen to a lot of Third Day. I had all their current albums, and I even got to see them live—I still have a poster in my office with their signatures on it. To this day I have a certain fondness for them—largely for their earlier work—but I probably haven't listened to them in a few years.
What initially drew me to their music—other than that southern rock sound—was the poetic quality of their lyrics. There was a creativity to them. They successfully portrayed their message largely with imagery and story. Of course they threw in the more overtly 'Christian' song, but they didn't heavily rely on those Christianese tropes. At least not in their first few albums.
As their careers progressed, and after a failed attempt to break into the 'mainstream,' Third Day's music became more and more typical of what we commonly know as 'worship music.' What made them Third Day, in my mind, slowly slipped away.
I react to 'worship music.' It.... kind of bothers me.
Those who know me well know that I take issue with the 'worship' part of Sunday morning services—I find the theology of the vast majority of the songs sung suspect at best. And this to me is important because, as J Richard Middleton states in his book, A New Heaven and a New Earth, that it is 'from what they sing that those in the pew (or auditorium) typically learn their theology.'1 He even goes so far as to say—and it's something with which I whole-heartedly agree—that the theology we find in the Bible is actually and often 'blatantly contradicted by many traditional hymns (and contemporary praise songs).'2
In my mind, contemporary worship emphasises God's actions over ours—it appeals to a theology of 'divine intervention' as opposed to a theology of 'human participation.' Or at least it proposes a human participation that is merely praising while God sort of does everything for us—it subtly focuses on our spiritual and emotional lives instead of our embodied, lived out lives.
The majority of worship music also focuses on abstract glory which fosters an attitude of 'spiritual gratification.' The individual congregant becomes an empty vessel whose purpose is to spew a praise of God's attributes, of God's actions, of God's... 'Godness.' Moments of wonder and awe shouldn't be overlooked, neglected, or minimised, but should they be coerced or manipulated? And should they be made the focus of worship and thereby perhaps giving the impression that they are the focus of our lives outside of the sanctuary? Should praise outweigh behaviour?
To put it differently, in my mind, worship music is too focused on the internal experience.
Sunday morning worship is, whether consciously or not, geared toward sentimental engagement—it pulls you into an emotional response. I understand that is somewhat the point: our hearts should, perhaps, be tapped when we sing of God's grace and love. However, this, I feel, places too much emphasis on the individual, and more than that it frames our relationship with God in an abstract, internal realm—it fosters an attitude that looks to what God is doing for me and how I feel about God.
Christianity has a history of focusing on and stressing the idea of a 'personal relationship with Jesus.' This trend has led to the internalisation of faith—of the privatisation and hyper-spiritualisation of Christianity. We make the crux of our faith to be 'where we're at with God' and what our 'status' of salvation is, and this shifts our focus inward, to ourselves. And this then shifts our focus to our so-called 'souls' and to the 'spiritual realm.'
Contemporary worship then, as I see it, has the danger of making the individual congregant out to be a passive, compartmentalised vessel and it thereby pushes the onus of actionable faith on to the institution of the 'church' that's supposed to somehow act on all our behalf. But the church instead becomes a myopic and solipsistic entity that focuses on nurturing the individual congregant's 'soul' at the expense of the church's vocational mandate—which is to be a new creation that serves the interests of God.3
In my mind, worship music may be exposing an overly-spiritualised Christian system that overlooks the behaviours of its members in favour of an internal assent to particular beliefs—exposing a church system which feeds a form of disconnected spirituality that is much more concerned with a person's 'spiritual state' than their well-being.
Do we show our love for Jesus by our songs and our worship?
I think the answer to that is a no—particularly if by 'worship' we mean singing songs of praise.
For me, a song like Thrice's Deeper Wells fits the bill of what a worship song should be more than most contemporary worship songs sung at church. In it, the lyrics urge—perhaps even dare—the listener to action, and it is the action of extending love and care for your neighbour and not living by the code of hate or fear.
The chorus shouts,
'We keep building bigger fences,
building bigger fences—
we keep building bigger fences when we should be digging deeper wells.
So I wanna see your hands,
I wanna see your hands—
I wanna see your hands cracked from crawling through the filth.'
Worship in the Bible was not merely stating what one believed about God and how one felt about it. No, biblically, worship was enacted, it was lived.
There are plethora cases throughout Scripture where the way one behaved was what was important, not one's beliefs—because how someone acts directly reflects what in fact they believe.
Singing songs of praise really in the end is for us—the songs should remind us of the God we follow, of the King God's raised, and of the Kingdom God wants established. The songs should be anthems declaring the alternate reality that God has called us to embody in the world4—they should be a revolutionary challenge to the powers-that-be and not lovey feely ballads. And the songs should remind us of what is expected from us—to remove the fences and instead dig wells.
To do justice and to love mercy.5
To do good and correct oppression.6
To open wide your hand generously to the needy and to the poor.
To not just sing about our feelings, but to live out what we believe.
Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian from the 19th century, asked in one of his early writings what good truth is if it has 'no deeper meaning for me and for my life?'7 Indeed, if truth or adherence to belief makes no difference to the way you live, what good is it really?
Faith after all—as it says in James 2:17—is by itself dead. ✤
1. J Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014).
3. Andrew Perriman, 'What is the Essence of Christianity?,' P.OST (https://www.postost.net/2021/10/what-essence-christianity).
4. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001).
5. Micah 6:8.
6. Isaiah 1:17.
7. Søren Kierkegaard, The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. by Howard V Hong and Edna H Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8.