How Slippery is the Normativity Slope?

I listened to a discussion among Asian-American PCA pastors about race and ethnicity and was surprised to hear the use of “white normativity” as frequently as they did. They object strenuously to white normativity in the church. I wonder about that way of putting it since John Frame and I are both white and yet the differences he and I have about worship have little to do explicitly with being white. I do, by the way, like the idea that Frame’s brief for Contemporary Christian Music has as much white culture attached to it as exclusive psalmody since the old canard about so-called traditional Presbyterian worship was that it was too white, male, European, and suburban (even though none of the Westminster Divines had a clue that Levittown was on the horizon of white cultural normativity).

Here is one example of the use of white normativity from one of the interlocutors’ talks/homilies/speeches:

That leads to a deeper and better informed repentance, does it not? One that names with far greater specificity, repenting of specific sins specifically…one that names with far greater specificity the problem of white cultural normativity and supremacy in the church.

If you wanted to know the instances of white normativity in the church, like too much stuff that white people like, you might be surprised to hear that wealth is an instance of white dominance in the church and a way to repent is for whites to pay ecclesiastical reparations to black and people-of-color congregations. But wait, isn’t currency itself a form of white normativity? Can you really make up for it by relying on it in the way you make up?

Aside from that logical speed bump, the real point here is how do you head down the rhetorical path that relies on intersectional ideas like white normativity and turn off before you arrive at heteronormativity. After all, for the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the systemic nature of injustice does not stop with skin color but runs all the way to sexual identity:

We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

This is not some threat about where ideas lead. Some PCA pastors could make a real contribution and explain how to address racial and ethnic inequalities or discrepancies while excluding discussions of sexual orientation, gay marriage, and Christian-family-normativity in general. Since I don’t rely on the arguments that lead someone to detect white normativility and then reject it with contempt, I can’t do the heavy lifting here.

But since the PCA is at a difficult juncture about homosexual identity, some in the communion may want to ponder whether white normativity and heteronormativity tend to pick up speed on the slope of normativity.

Don’t We Pay Pastors to Answer These Questions?

Joseph Franks lists questions that have hounded him throughout eighteen years of ministry:

Does God care about theater seats, stackable chairs, or pews?

What is God’s preference in regards to instrumentation? Are the the organ or piano more excellent and preferable than the guitar and drum?

What about the songs people sing? Are uninspired older songs that we call hymns more holy than uninspired new songs that someday might be called hymns? Some would have us only sing psalms.

Are women and men who sing from the choir loft more preferable to God than men and women who sing from the stage? In God’s eyes, is a choir more sacred than a praise team?

What sort of bowing, kneeling, hand-raising, clapping, and bouncing is allowable in the presence of God? Exactly when does responding with tears or dance become too emotional?

How ought water be applied to worshiping folk? This is an especially problematic question when sprinkling, pouring, and dunking can be found throughout the pages of sacred scripture.

Should believers be concerned over the amount of fermentation found in the fruit of the vine or leaven found in the bread?
Where would one go in Scripture to find the discussion of how the communion elements must be properly covered?

Are all good sermons delivered in the same manner? Does God prefer robed men, suited men, or less formal men? Does God love the wooden pulpit? Does plexiglass really prove the compromising minister? Should the faithful church disapprove of the man delivering his sermon from a seated position?

What would we say to Jesus who often sat while those who listened stood?

Why can some appreciate air-conditioning technology, lighting technology, audio technology, but then look at visual technology as a step down the slippery slope of sin?

Before the worship of God, ought men and women come together in quiet, meditative, somber silence, or should the worship service of God be preceded by festive communion between worshiping friends?

Ought generous New-Covenant worshipers to make a big deal of the percentage and the plate in financial giving?

Who was it in the Presbyterian tradition that declared a young man could be licensed to preach, deliver his sermon, but then not be able to declare the benediction from Jesus to those who just received his message?

Must the pulpit be centrally located in order for the Word of God to be rightly honored?

Such a list might imply that those who ask such questions are trivializing worship. But Franks insists that’s not his purpose:

I am not saying that anything goes; my Bible is full of stories of good-hearted individuals who are judged or disciplined due to their failure to take God’s commands seriously. I would just merely ask them to not confuse the “Traditions of Man” with the “Doctrines of God.” I am not even asking them to let go of their traditions. Some love the worship style passed down from Jerusalem, to Rome, to Geneva, to Scotland, to Westminster Abby, and to our Scots-Irish fathers in the South. But again, allow them to prefer and pass along their traditions without pretending they come from the sacred text.

The missing category here it seems is wisdom. Lots of the answers to these questions are “it depends.” If you are a church plant meeting in a theater, deciding whether to use theater seats is a no-brainer. And if you are an established congregation with a pulpit centered at the front, why would you even countenance a church renovation that moved the pulpit to the side?

After eighteen years, doesn’t a pastor have answers to these questions? Even more pressing, after eighteen years haven’t you had a chance to instruct church members so they can see the difference between the elements, circumstances, and forms of worship? Or is it wise to pile up questions without answers so that believers think most aspects of worship are mere preferences. Franks writes,

Let us not throw away our ancient roots, but at the same time, let us not be bound by the extra-biblical regulations of our fathers that some well-intentioned friends present as the “Doctrine of God.”

Does that apply to heating, plumbing, and speaking in known tongues? Or might some of the aspects of church life that modern people living in the West take for granted be valuable even if not holy? I mean, Franks asks questions the way that John Frame used to about worship. That’s ironic because that defense of contemporary worship included the notion that all of life is worship (which is not from from all of life is sacred) and so the regulative principle should apply to all of life. If that’s the case, then each of the questions Franks asks have holiness and eternity written over every square inch of them. And since he is a minister of God’s word and the Bible speaks to all of life, he’s got the answers.

Praise Militias?

I remember back in the days of the worship wars when the result were still uncertain — maybe 20 years ago. Back then I would hear the people who promoted contemporary worship, complete with praise bands, cites Psalms like 149 for support (which the missus and I read today in family worship — tmi):

Praise the LORD!
Sing to the LORD a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the godly!
Let Israel be glad in his Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre! (Psalm 149:1-3 ESV)

What was downright jaw dropping to see as we read to the psalm’s conclusion, was the call for weapons in worship in addition to instruments:

Let the godly exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their beds.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishments on the peoples,
to bind their kings with chains
and their nobles with fetters of iron,
to execute on them the judgment written!
This is honor for all his godly ones.
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 149:5-9 ESV)

Funny how the P&W advocates didn’t promote militarized along with contemporary worship.

This may also have some bearing on those who oppose Christians singing the imprecatory psalms. Is it really possible to separate praise from jihad so readily in the Psalms. Think of Psalm 136 (which if read aloud in its entirety almost takes on the cadence of rap):

to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 136:17-26 ESV)

I’ve heard that cafeteria Roman Catholicism is a liability. How about cafeteria psalm-singing?

P&W, the Next Generation

At roughly 2:30 of <a href="

“>this video, which is very, very good, the Lutheran Satirist makes reference to Lutheran youth leaving contemporary worship services for Presbyterianism. News alert: God’s frozen chosen have been defrosted ever since the First Pretty Good Awakening inflamed the English-speaking Calvinist soul.

Aside from what this video may say about Presbyterians, it does raise questions about the generational divide of contemporary worship. Steve Thorngate thinks the video’s point about using contemporary music to attract the young misses the point of contemporary worship. First he quotes the creator of the U2charist:

The U2charist is a demonstration of one way that liturgy can bring people together to celebrate what God is doing in the world to bring justice for the poor and reconciliation for the world. It is by no means the only way to do so, or even necessarily the best way for your congregation. If your congregation doesn’t really know or like U2, it may feel forced and awkward to use their music without substantial adaptation in liturgy — and if it feels forced and awkward for you, that’s probably going to come across to anyone who does visit your church for the first time for a U2charist. That probably wouldn’t be the best sort of circumstances in which to try such a service; there’s little that’s cool or fun about a bunch of people doing something that they think is no fun at all because they think it would look cool to others.

Thorngate chimes in:

The people I know who have planned and executed U2charists, etc. aren’t thinking primarily about outreach-to-the-kidz either. Neither are the people I work with in my side job as a church musician, where we do several such events each year.

Now, this is a church where youngish adults are already overrepresented, and where the musical culture is nontraditional and eclectic. This is key: the pop-star-themed services are organically related to what we do every week, not some gimmicky departure from it. The morning service makes enthusiastic use of a wide mix of pop music. A U2charist makes sense there, and they’ve done several. The evening service—the one I help lead—is more invested in folk, roots, and country-rock music. A Dylan-themed service (Bob, not Breuer) makes more sense in our context, and I’ve planned and led a couple. We’ve also talked about doing a Johnny Cash-themed service sometime.

Attendance always goes up for these services. But that isn’t really the point. The point is to proclaim the gospel from a new angle, to engage in a fresh way—by taking something that is already part of what we do and giving it a one-week special focus, as other churches do with any number of things. In a context where popular music styles are the norm, and where we decline to observe a strict separation between the sacred and secular when choosing source material, this is a very natural thing.

Thorngate is probably right. Contemporary contemporary worship is no longer aimed at teens. It is now the accepted form of worship for former teens who have now become adults. And that’s why the worship wars are over. We have crossed the rubicon and entered the world of eclectic liturgy, sort of like the United Colors of Benetton.

Still, the Lutheran Satirist is right that contemporary contemporary worship is still cheesy and that the key to retaining the youth is faithful parenting and faithful preaching. If that happens, young people and adults aren’t gullible about the appeal of U2 or LeCrae or Faure in worship.

How Can We Make the Pagans Conform to Our Rules When We Won’t Play By Our Rules?

I have made this point several times, but I think it bears repeating. Evangelicals and cultural transformers spend a lot (inordinate, in my estimation) telling the wider culture how it needs to follow God’s law. Much of this activity happens during the ordinary days of the week. When James Dobson calls for a Justice Sunday or some such, it also happens on the faithful’s lone holiday.

But when many evangelicals and culture transformers gather for worship (or for church business – namely, ordination, instruction of the youth, Bible studies, etc.) they do not do as they say – they don’t follow God’s word but they follow their own rules. An obvious example is contemporary worship led by non-ordained church members. Another example is the Reformed or Presbyterian congregation that follows the praise & worship methods of charismatics and Pentecostals. Such Reformed Christians are awfully serious about husbands and wives respecting their marriage vows. Do they actually worry about the vows their pastors and elders make to uphold Reformed teaching and practice?

I wrote these paragraphs even before reading a juicy example of this very inconsistency at the blog of the Brothers Bayly. Pastors Tim and David are apparently big fans of contemporary Christian music in public worship. I cannot tell what their services are like entirely but I have seen clips of worship bands in their services and have followed links to the Good Shepherd Band’s page at Myspace. (Church of the Good Shepherd, by the way, is the name of Pastor Tim’s congregation in Bloomington, In.) So readers of their blog naturally receive the sense that services in the Baylys’ congregations is up-tempo.

The Baylys left no one to wonder about their worship preferences when this past week they posted a piece in which they divided the world between the effeminate traditionalists/classicalists and the manly singers and performers of contemporary Christian music. In particular, Tim faults Reformed Protestantism for simply being a stop on the ladder of upward mobility:

The Wesleyan or Southern Baptist moves up to Presbyterian. And there in his new Presbyterian church, our convert finds the accoutrements of his new social class wonderfully reassuring. It’s the church’s zip code, the minister’s Genevan gown or collar, the frequent repetition of those peaceful words ‘providence’ and ‘sovereignty,’ the high priority placed on the education of the congregation’s Covenant children, the preacher’s thoughtful message and splendid vocabulary, and of course the high classical style of music.

Musical style is simply an expression of socio-economic status. Could the Marxists teaching down the road at Indiana University have said it any better? This led to remarks, one part anti-intellectual, one part anti-elitist (and therefore egalitarian), that contrasted the snobbery of Reformed upper-middle classness with the poor and uneducated apostles whom Christ turned into fishers of men. “ Our converts don’t take pride in the foolishness of the Cross,” Tim writes, “so much as the wisdom of Calvin and their senior pastor’s earned doctorate from somewhere across the pond.”

This standard leftist cultural analysis in turn led to a brief on behalf of contemporary Christian music:

Speaking specifically of the music of our worship, Reformed pastors would do well to consider whether it isn’t time to stop despising the musical vernacular of our own day. There may be some congregations where musical archaisms have put down such deep roots that it would split the church to turn the clock forward, embracing the musical vernacular. But I’m betting use of the amplified instruments, tunes, and vocabulary of the common man in worship won’t happen in most of our Reformed churches for the same reason preaching against the heresy of egalitarian feminism doesn’t happen. Elisabeth Elliot put it well some years back when she said the problem with the church today is that “it’s filled with emasculated men who can’t bring themselves to say ‘no’ to a woman.”

Thus, when we set the musical forms and instrumentation of our other six days a week beside the musical forms and instrumentation of our Sunday worship, we find our Sunday worship to be cloyingly feminine, an historic specimen best suited to be trotted out by the curator for occasional museum exhibits.

So important is the fork in the liturgical road prompted by contemporary Christian music that Tim thinks fidelity to the gospel is at stake:

We must stop trying to kill two birds with one stone. Either we seek to make men into disciples of this Jesus Who chose tax collectors and fishermen to be His Apostles, or we make men into disciples of these archaic liturgies and exquisite musical forms that have evolved across centuries of Western culture. Yes, they’re true and good and beautiful. But what is the cost of making them the focus of our churches’ culture?

Somehow, the Baylys think the only alternatives are the praise band or the robed (see, they really are effeminate) four-part choir accompanied by an organ. They don’t seem to know or allow for the cultural idiom between high-brow and mass culture which is folk or common. (Ken Myers is brilliant on this point in his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes.) And if Reformed have a folk culture certainly one part of it psalm singing (another is the high-carb, low ruffage, pot luck supper). As Shaker furniture can well teach us, simplicity and order can reveal treasures of great beauty, and clearly the Reformed are on the side of decency and order and should be seeking simplicity.

But what may be most troubling about the Bayly post is how much they imitate the academic left that they believe has led the culture astray. The Baylys reduce culture to socio-economic and gender categories. They are as egalitarian and radical as the lefties they oppose. And just as these sorts of arguments have ruined the study of the liberal arts in universities and colleges, so they are also responsible for ruining our churches and undermining any credibility about the church as pilgrim people set apart from the world. In fact, if you see the embarrassing antics of worship leaders and praise bands you have all reasons you need for Keller’s arguments for using professional musicians in services. Again, the choice isn’t between the dudes and the pro’s; the psalter or hymnal accompanied by one instrument or sung acapella depends neither on the failed rock star or the conservatory student.

Which leads to the following excerpt from a piece written fifteen years ago that still seems as fresh as it was then pungent:

Why is it, then, that when evangelicals retreat from the public square into their houses of worship they manifest the same hostility to tradition, intellectual standards, and good taste they find so deplorable in their opponents in the culture wars? Anyone familiar with the so-called “Praise & Worship” phenomenon (so named, supposedly, to remind participants of what they are doing) would be hard pressed to identify these believers as the party of memory or the defenders of cultural conservatism. P&W has become the dominant mode of expression within evangelical churches, from conservative Presbyterian denominations to low church independent congregations. What characterizes this “style” of worship is the praise song (“four words, three notes and two hours”) with its mantra-like repetition of phrases from Scripture, displayed on an overhead projector or video monitors (for those churches with bigger budgets), and accompanied by the standard pieces in a rock band.

Gone are the hymnals which keep the faithful in touch with previous generations of saints. They have been abandoned, in many cases, because they are filled with music and texts considered too boring, too doctrinal, and too restrained. What boomers and busters need instead, according to the liturgy of P&W, are a steady diet of religious ballads most of which date from the 1970s, the decade of disco, leisure suits, and long hair. Gone too are the traditional elements of Protestant worship, the invocation,confession of sins, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and the Gloria Patri. Again, these elements are not sufficiently celebrative or “dynamic,” the favorite word used to describe the new worship. And while P&W has retained the talking head in the sermon, probably the most boring element of Protestant worship, the substance of much preaching turns out to be more therapeutic than theological.

Of course, evangelicals are not the only ones guilty of abandoning the treasures of historic Protestant worship. Various churches in the ELCA and Missouri Synod have begun to experiment with contemporary worship. The traditionalists in Reformed circles, if the periodical Reformed Worship, is any indication, have also begun to incorporate P&W in their services. And Roman Catholics, one of the genuine conservative constituencies throughout American history, have contributed to the mix with the now infamous guitar and polka mass. Yet, judging on the basis of worship practices, evangelicals look the most hypocritical. For six days a week they trumpet traditional values and the heritage of the West, but on Sunday they turn out to be the most novel. Indeed, the patterns of worship that prevail in most evangelical congregations suggest that these Protestants are no more interested in tradition than their arch-enemies in the academy.

A variety of factors, many of which stem from developments in post-1960s American popular culture, unite evangelicalism and the cultural left. In both movements, we see a form of anti-elitism that questions any distinction between good and bad (or even not so good), or between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Professors of literature have long been saying that the traditional literary canon was the product, or better, the social construction of a particular period in intellectual life which preserved the hegemony of white men, but which had no intrinsic merit. In other words, because aesthetic and intellectual standards turn out to be means of sustaining power, there is no legitimate criteria for including some works and excluding others.

The same sort of logic can be found across the country at week-night worship planning committee meetings. It is virtually impossible to make the case — without having your hearers go glassy-eyed — that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a better text and tune than “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” and, therefore, that the former is fitting for corporate worship while the latter should remain confined to Christian radio. In the case of evangelicals, the inability to make distinctions between good and bad poetry and music does not stem so much from political ideology (though it ends up abetting the cause) as from the deeply ingrained instinct that worship is simply a matter of evangelism. Thus, in order to reach the unchurched the churched have to use the former’s idiom and style. What is wrong with this picture?

The traditionalists are of no help here. Rather than trying to hold the line on what is appropriate and good in worship, most of those who are devoted full-time to thinking about liturgy and worship, the doorkeepers of the sanctuary as it were, have generally adopted a “united-colors-of-Benetton” approach to the challenge of contemporary worship. For instance, a recent editorial in a Reformed publication says that the old ways — the patterns which used Buxtehude rather than Bill Gaither, “Immortal, Invisible” rather than “Do Lord,” a Genevan gown instead of a polo shirt — have turned out to be too restrictive. Churches need to expand their worship “repertoire.” The older predilection was “white, European, adult, classical, with a strong resonance from the traditional concert hall.” But this was merely a preference and reflection of a specific “education, socio-economic status, ethnic background, and personality.” Heaven forbid that anyone should appear to be so elitist. For the traditional “worship idiom” can become “too refined, cultured, and bloodless. . . too arrogant.” Instead, we need to encourage the rainbow coalition — “of old and young, men and women, red and yellow, black and white, classical and contemporary.” And the reason for this need of diversity? It is simply because worship is the reflection of socio-economic status and culture. Gone is any conviction that one liturgy is better than another because it conforms to revealed truth and the order of creation, or that one order of worship is more appropriate than another for the theology which a congregation or denomination confesses. Worship, like food or clothes, is merely a matter of taste. Thus the logic of multi-culturalism has infected even those concerned to preserve traditional liturgy.

The Baylys would have us believe that 2k and the spirituality of the church are responsible for moving the church in radical and liberal directions. As Tom McGinnis would say, “Are you kidding me!?”