by Chris Bodenner
A reader writes:
I've found the recent debate about spiritual music fascinating, but I have to take issue with a comment a reader recently made:I could see these pieces in a "Christian coffeehouse." But if the "hip" emergent church or the megachurches have begun using this sort of material for "worship," then they have departed even further than I realized from thousands of years of Judeo-Christian tradition for gathered celebration and supplication. And in that case, the answer to your question would be, it may be hip, it may be Christian, but it's not church, because it's not worship, any more than listening to a reading of John Donne's or T.S. Eliot's lyrics - admirable Christian poetry - would be worship.
I often find that people who invoke thousands of years of Judeo-Christian teaching generally have no idea what they are talking about. This seems to me similar to the approach to history of NOM, who blithely assert that the institution of Judeo-Christian marriage has remained unchanged for thousands of years. It's only true if you adopt very loose standards about changes.
I can't speak to the Judeo part of the equation, but as a student of medieval history, I feel pretty confident in saying that our ideas about what constitutes worship have changed in some pretty significant ways over the past two thousand years.
I'm not entirely sure that I understand the objection to contemplation of John Donne as an act of worship. How, exactly, does it differ from the contemplation and reading of Psalms, which are again poems written by individuals contemplating the nature of the divine? For that matter, who says that worship must be communal? I don't disagree that it is often communal (the bit about "wherever two or more are gathered in my name" springs to mind), but there is a rich history of solitary worship in the Christian tradition. Many early saints, such as Cuthbert and Guthlac, were hermits, and while they would certainly pray with those who visited them, I can't imagine that many would dispute that their solitary rites constitute a form of worship. Early traditions in Ireland, England, Egypt, and many other places often placed a strong emphasis on monastic traditions that involved a withdrawal from the world, with community expressed through shared experiences of individual contemplation.
I'm also not sure what the reader's objection to these songs are. What makes one piece of music appropriate for "gathered celebration and supplication" and another not? Why are Donne's "Holy Sonnets" different from Psalms or modern hymns like "Amazing Grace" and "Be Thou My Vision", or even contemporary praise and worship songs? If everyone read Donne together, would it be worship?
The problem here seems to be that the reader is attributing qualities to the word worship which it simply does not have. The OED definition: "Reverence or veneration paid to a being or power regarded as supernatural or divine; the action or practice of displaying this by appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies" seems pretty spot on to me. Over time the appropriate acts, rites, and ceremonies have changed quite a bit. We've seen this happen at an institutional level with the reforms of Vatican II.