Why Worship Should be Uncomfortable

How do you package assembling in the presence of a holy and righteous God? For Roman Catholics, the way to retain the seriousness of worship requires spaces that elevate the senses to an awareness of divine presence (somehow a cathedral with beautiful stained glass and the stations of the cross is still here on planet earth):

Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that exuded Catholic belief visually, to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters.

Some places ran with the theater aspect. Worship transformed to entertainment. What I got out of it became much more important than what I put into it.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is little wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. It has been heartening to see a rise in Eucharistic Adoration.

Regulative principle type Protestants might be tempted to make a similar complain about the megachurch and the praise band. It all seems to reinforce the genius of revivalists like Billy Sunday, which according to H. L. Mencken, was to take the mystifying and make it ordinary:

His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Sunday’s revivals may not have inspired reverence, but what if worship is transcendent without the bells and whistles of images, statues, and transubstantiation. What if simply reading the Bible is spooky? It is God’s word after all, and if God spoke to any of us in a burning bush I’m betting we might not sleep for a couple nights.

Isn’t reverence the key to setting worship apart from ordinary experience? A while back Steve Tipton refuted the idea that the problem of diversity in Presbyterian worship services was a failure to follow the regulative principle and concoct an order of service that everyone follows. He was against “liturgical sameness” and had a point. But why can’t we have “atmospheric” or “feng shui” sameness? Why, in other words, can’t a service be reverent no matter what the order of service? Incense could promote reverence until the snowflakes start complaining about second-hand smoke. Singing psalms only could also accomplish a unique experience, at least to push back against the Gettys. But what about praise bands or jazz quartets? Do they cultivate reverence? How about lots of Scripture? The Old Testament narratives sure are mystifying.

One of the most important features of Reformed Protestantism was its capacity to adapt to different settings. No single book of prayer or liturgy or edition of Scripture became required for membership in the club. But in all settings worship was reverent. People gathered with a fear of offending God. As the author to the Hebrews wrote, Christians do not come to Sinai but to Zion. But even there God is a “consuming fire.” (There’s that burning bush again.)

Maybe the way to recapture transcendence and reverence is to begin with a reading of the law and a reminder that we should not attempt to make God conform to our image of him. You can do that even in a storefront church.

Would You Rather Be Honorable or Moral?

After reading H. L. Mencken and seeing the John Stott quote that Tim Challies turned into an infographic (yowza!), put me on the side of honor. I’ve seen too many obedience boys and girls who show not the slightest interest in being human when sanctity is the ultimate aim. But plenty of parents know they can’t apply high standards of conduct all the time. Sometimes you let the down the guard so you can win another day. Life is not a court of law. It’s a pilgrimage and honor aids dignity and relationships that may down the road help holiness prevail.

That’s why Mencken yet again shows uncanny insight:

In the face of so exalted a moral passion it would be absurd to look for that urbane habit which seeks the well—being of one’s self and the other fellow, not in exact obedience to harsh statutes, but in ease, dignity and the more delicate sort of self—respect. That is to say, it would be absurd to ask a thoroughly moral man to be also a man of honour. The two, in fact, are eternal enemies; their endless struggle achieves that happy mean of philosophies which we call civilization. The man of morals keeps order in the world, regimenting its lawless hordes and organizing its governments; the man of honour mellows and embellishes what is thus achieved, giving to duty the aspect of a privilege and making human intercourse a thing of fine faiths and understandings. We trust the former to do what is righteous; we trust the latter to do what is seemly. It is seldom that a man can do both. The man of honour inevitably exalts the punctilio above the law of God; one may trust him, if he has eaten one’s salt, to respect one’s daughter as he would his own, but if he happens to be under no such special obligation it may be hazardous to trust him with even one’s charwoman or one’s mother—in—law. And the man of morals, confronted by a moral situation, is usually wholly without honour. Put him on the stand to testify against a woman, and he will tell all he knows about her, even including what he has learned in the purple privacy of her boudoir. More, he will not tell it reluctantly, shame—facedly, apologetically, but proudly and willingly, in response to his high sense of moral duty. It is simply impossible for such a man to lie like a gentleman. He lies, of course, like all of us, and perhaps more often than most of us on the other side, but he does it, not to protect sinners from the moral law, but to make their punishment under the moral law more certain, swift, facile and spectacular.

By the way, honor is even key to the way Christians should regard the civil magistrate. Paul recommends honor in Romans 13, and Calvin agrees. But if you really want morality, say hello to the religious right and the permissive left.

Black Lives Matter and Evangelicals Together

H. L. Mencken explains the wonder-working power of morality:

Moralists, I respectfully submit, are not shrinking violets. They do not go “quietly about their business.” They are not avoiders of controversy. On the contrary, their eager seeking of controversy is one of their salient characters, and their gross abuse of opponents is another. The Lord’s Day Alliance and the Anti-Saloon League devote themselves almost exclusively to excoriation. Their one permanent theme is the villainy of their antagonists. And the vice crusade, for all its pious pretenses, puts nine-tenths of its faith in the policeman’s club. Its patron saints are Anthony Comstock and Tomas de Torquemada. Its central doctrine is that all men who question the efficacy of its moral bile means—for example, Brand Whitlock and Havelock Ellis–are heretics, atheists, voluptuaries and scoundrels.

So You Want Christian Law but Not Shari’a?

Don’t forge that Christians can be as threatening to non-Christians as Muslims to Christians (and we’re barely talking about Old Testament law):

So with all other great movements in malignant morals. For example, that of the Lord’s Day Alliance. There are plenty of members of the alliance, I venture to opine, who devote at least a part of Sunday to recreation–perhaps automobiling, or piano-playing, or gastronomy, or novel-reading, or the beating of children. But that doesn’t take anything from their noble passion to destroy and prohibit the recreations of the common people. That doesn’t detract from their gallant effort to make the average man’s Sunday a day of tedium and horror, of sullenness and gloom. That doesn’t make the less laudable their vicious and violent attack upon the poor fellows who go to Back River on their one day of rest to sit under the trees and drink a few bottles of beer and hear a happy song or two and get a breath of fresh air.

The Anti-Cigarette League follows the examples of these elder lodges of chemical purity. It does not ask its members to stop smoking themselves; it merely asks them to advocate laws putting heavy penalties upon smoking by others. Its funds will be divided fairly into two parts. One part I shall keep myself, as a modest recompense for my laborious shaking down of the pious. The other part will be devoted to the propaganda. Rabble-rousers will be supplied to Sunday-schools and Chautauquas. Horrible examples will be exhibited to trembling children. Eminent cigarette manufacturers will be denounced by name. Candidates for public office will be browbeaten into line. Literature will be distributed showing that the cigarette is the mother and father of crime, that every cigarette smoker is a potential pirate and murderer, that all the sorrows of the world are caused by the abhorrent coffin-nail.

Where Reformed Protestants and New Calvinists Part Ways

New Calvinists believe:

Behind every great man there’s a great woman. Like most maxims, it is generally true, even if not universally true.

Reformed Protestants know (thanks to Stan Evans):

Behind every great man is a surprised mother-in-law.

Postscript: Conscience, a mother-in-law who never leaves. (H. L. Mencken)

1776 and 1861

Brexit is more or less hardwired into the American outlook. But somehow we fought a war that cost close to 700,000 lives to preserve not a federation but a union, not a republic but a nation. That’s what makes America great (many suppose).

But H. L. Mencken thought otherwise. He saw that the Brexit of 1776 also implied the Secexit of 1861:

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i. e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege. H. L. Mencken, “Five Men at Random” 1922

Sacrilege? If you think the U.S. is holy. If it’s just one more liberal society, on the order of Canada or Switzerland, you might agree with Mencken.

Female Lives Mattered

Looks like the Suffragettes were the opening act for Black Lives Matter:

The Maryland Suffrage News on the bogus sufferings of the suffragettes in Washington:

The Marylanders, rudely pushed and jostled, thought of the way the Baltimore police had protected them from a conventoin crowd, said to be quite as rough as an inauguration crowd, and longed for a squad of Marshal Farnan’s finest to clear the way for them.

Can it be that these are the same “finest” who have been so often accused, by suffragists and their vice-crusading allies, of conspiring to nullify the laws, of making corrupt bargains with law-breakers, of sharing in the profits of prostitution? Can it be that a cop is an archangel when he is with them, as he is an abominable rogue and hell-hound when he is against them?

…Cease, dear girls! Hold your crocodile tears! Stay your whoops for gore! The more you yell, the more you will convince the country that your parade was a clown show, that you yourself are silly cry-babies, that you are not fit for the crash and slambang of politics! Don’t you hear the antis laughing? Don’t you see the motive behind their sympathy? Have you no humor, no courage, no sportsmanship, no sense?