Response to Tragic worship

A friend of mine recently posted an article on my wall about worship and tragedy. I wrote a response in the comments section but it got really long and so I thought I’d post it here where I can add some proper formatting to make it more readable. The original article can be found here:

In essence the writer of this article is lamenting that contemporary Christian worship focuses too much on happier subjects and not enough on Tragedy and death. We’ll talk about the excitement of the resurrection but not enough about the terror of the death which fuels why the resurrection is so exciting.

Now for anyone who knows me, they will know that I will love this stuff. I really get into Tragedy. I don’t like happy art. My favourite set of verses are Ecclesiastes 4:2-3. People keep asking me if I’m happy and I say no partly because I’m a follower of Canon Andrew White on Facebook who gives me weekly updates of how many people have died in Iraq.

Tragedy matters because Tragedy is real. Life sucks, death sucks, pain sucks and from extreme events of suffering to simply stubbing your toe. It is in an understanding and appreciation of this I find hope and true beauty in what I see God is ultimately doing with his Kingdom. Seeing glimpses of where God is going behind all this shittiness is both exciting and usually the root of my worship.

However, having said that I have a few points about the article.

  •  Tragedy is important but pop culture gets it
  •  Christian worship does take this into account but the absence of death is more about our culture and I’m sure will be found in his Scottish churches.
  •  Worship is more than just art

Tragedy is important but pop culture gets it

I think it’s kind of interesting but it’s kind of what I’d expect from the Westminster Theological Seminary and anyone who calls themselves Reformed. His understanding of philosophy and the human condition is pretty good but then it is combined with a terrible understanding of popular culture or sociology masked under snobbery and pretentiousness.

He is completely correct about the importance of tragedy but this is something pop culture intimately understands to the point that what he is saying is almost boring.

For example highlighting “the banal idiocy of reality TV” is not counter cultural against pop- culture. It’s the message pop culture says about itself! For example here: Mitchell and Webb: Apprentice  or talking about how some action movies are just about explosions is satirised heavily in South Park. Many people tend to suggest that pop-culture is vacuous but some then go further than this and try and find nothing out about pop-culture as a matter of pride to separate themselves from the banal idiocy. Instead this guy’s problem is that he doesn’t watch enough South Park or It’s only Sunny.

Personally I think those in the reformed tradition would greatly benefit from being influenced more by continental philosophers. You can see plenty of tragedy in film for example by looking at what Zizek has to say about film and popular culture. Also, to really get pop culture, to some degree you have to get in it, you have to watch the stuff, and talk about it with people who like it rather than observe at arm’s length (especially a critical one). One of the most celebrated piece of art venerated by almost all sides of pop culture has been Breaking Bad which definitely counts as tragedy!

In fact he alludes to this near the end when he references Scorsese (although what’s the point of using the word “occasionally”. Scorsese DEFINES pop culture!) especially with Bonhoeffer’s comment. Our popular culture is steeped in the appreciation of tragedy and really if churches want to be “cool” and “with it” and “fit in with the times” they need to move MORE in that direction (not away from pop culture). This is kind of what I think Bonhoeffer is saying.

I think this applies to a wider point many of the Reformed tradition seem to make about the church.  They particularly tend to go on about how popular culture doesn’t like talking about sin and how it likes moral relativism and then they go on to criticise the church for not talking about sin enough. Instead if they really got into popular culture they would find it steeped in an appreciation of sin and moral absolutism, they will just use different words. Jeremy Kyle and the brilliant satire of it in the chase and status video is a perfect example of this.

Christian worship does take this into account but the absence of death is more about our culture and I’m sure  this same absense will be found in his Scottish churches.

I’ll admit that the full tragedy of death is not explicitly talked about in contemporary Christian music enough. However it is there, especially implicitly. For example, in Vicky Beeching’s explanation of her song Deliverer   and Matt Redman’s Blessed be your name  (with “You give and take away” taken from Job).

Now, I think we’ll find in the history of the church many awesome poetic verses that deal with death more effectively that could be used to influence contemporary Christian music. I definitely appreciate that I don’t understand this enough and every so often I encounter hymns that really emphasis how much great stuff there is I don’t know about (especially anything by Charles Wesley). However, I really doubt the churches where those songs/ hymns are actually being sung will be doing very much to achieve the things that Trueman is trying to achieve with them.

The thing is, I think it is a major issue with our culture, specifically British culture (though maybe it is true of “western culture”), our two major taboos are death and sex. Violence in film or explicit displays of sex aren’t ways of getting past this taboo either. Describing in detail a specific sex act you have performed recently can just be a way to avoid having to talk about how sex makes you feel and I think the problem is specifically to do with parents and their kids. Those topics are rarely talked about in the relationship best suited for it so it becomes a taboo throughout our lives and culture. If someone really close to you has died and that makes you sad it is very hard to bring it up in “polite English culture”, especially if you are a man and are crying.

So I think that has probably impacted our churches as well. In contemporary Christian circles where songs are picked based on how popular they are, this will result in those songs that deal with tragedy not getting picked. However in more traditional circles where songs are picked because of their historical significance then I think this will result in the songs being fetishised (I think I’m using this word correctly). Even non-Christians enjoy singing Amazing Grace because that’s just part of our culture. When they sing “a wretch like me” they will probably just enjoy the archaic language of “wretch” rather than actually resonate with the consequences of what that word means. Not because these people are stupid, but because that’s the point.

Carl R Trueman is probably an exception  to this but then he is paid to sit down and think about these things. I believe him that when he hears one of these Psalms he probably resonates strongly with them. But if someone is not part of a culture that cares about death then merely making them sing words such as “I think death is really bad” won’t make them think or feel it the next day. If he wants to challenge the cultural understanding of death he really really needs to learn more from the continental philosophers. Rule 1 is that challenging cultural understandings of things usually requires you to say things implicitly not explicitly. Articles likes the one above are unlikely to make a difference but just make people who already agree with him agree.

(On a side note, I realise that with this article that I’m typing here I’m trying to challenge Trueman’s cultural worldview and I’m doing it using loads of explicit sentences which is kind of hypocritical. However I’d argue that because this article is so long and I’m making so many explicit points. Most people will come away from this not having a clue which point I’m trying to actually make which kind of makes it implicit. Of course I’d argue this just to mask the fact that I’m a terrible writer who can’t be bothered to structure his arguments well and take out the arguments that are a silly and a waste of time :P)

Worship is more than just art

I don’t think I’ll go on about this too much as I think actually the writer would agree with me anyway on this point. But I think worship is more than art anyway.

Art and worship are definitely intertwined. I think quite a bit of what we associate with the word worship is just different forms of artistic expression directed towards God. Liturgy is a mixture of poetry and what you get in football chants, worship music and dance are obvious and in the Orthodox church paintings are a bigger part of worship. Therefore to some degree things that apply to art as a whole apply to worship. Trueman’s point about tragedy is a wider point about art and I think this is why it applies to worship.

But it is that way round.

It’s through this more philosophical route his point makes sense, not really through a theological route. I don’t think the Bible is that prescriptive on the exact ratio of subject material in what we sing. Whilst you’ll find less Tragedy in what people sing in churches on a Sunday compared to the Psalms or Lamentations you’ll find plenty of that in the prayers people write out, especially on anonymous Internet sites (This is what I studied for my dissertation).

For example what if Sunday morning singing time was actually used to be nothing but a distraction? Why is that bad? He says it’s a distraction from mortality or morality but that is rarely the thing most immediately in most people’s minds when they are distracted from everyday life. Instead it’s a distraction from worrying about work, where you’re going to pay bills, what that friend you’re probably about to fall out with thinks of you, etc. If Sunday morning singing was literally there to distract us from those things with vaguely God centred words such that we had a small amount of space. It would probably help us focus on God and bring us to a place of actual worship. With this view the singing is nothing but a distraction, the worship is what we do once we’re distracted.

I do think singing is important. There seems to be a biblical trend that when followers of God meet they tend to  sing his praises. However, there is also an element where this is just singing. I’m no theologian but from my understanding the word worship in the Bible is used to mean something like “bow down/ lie prostrate” or “serve”. Worshipping the LORD was literally an act where you just bowed down. It’s a physical act to demonstrate our surrender to God’s lordship or it is actually serve God through a variety of ways.

With these two broad understandings of what Worship is, almost all actions you perform can come under the banner of worship, as an act demonstrating your surrender to God or as an act that is serving God in achieving his aims. I think worship is really something that has to be done throughout your entire life and through almost all actions rather than just being something that is sung on a Sunday,

The reason why I don’t want to labour this point too much is that it is moving into semantics of me saying “What he says doesn’t matter as much as this point” and these kind of points are a little boring. But I do think using worship time as a place to challenge our cultural worldview around topics such as death is a relatively minor purpose behind worship, even if he is correct that our worldview needs to be challenged.

Besides, if you really need to sing or say something. It seems like you don’t need complex metaphors about death and the human condition that have arisen through hundreds of years of human tradition. It seems merely saying:

“ ‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”

 Works pretty well.