Written by: Carl Trueman
A few years ago I was attending a conference on behalf of the Seminary arranged by an organization which includes in its membership institutions from a wide variety of theological and religious perspectives. As the conference stretched over a weekend, there was a worship service arranged for the Sunday morning. I had wondered whether to attend, not knowing how such a theologically diverse group might come together in such a setting; but I finally decided to do the polite thing and show up; and, I was not disappointed. Indeed, I have been retelling the story at dinner parties ever since.
The service kicked off OK, with a short call to worship. So far so good. Then we sang a hymn. Now, I have a preference for psalms, but the hymn was fine, as far as I remember. It was then that the real fun began. The first Bible reading was from the book of Isaiah. The gentleman apologized at the outset saying that he had been unable to obtain an inclusive language translation of the Bible; but indicated that he would make the necessary changes himself as he read the passage. I confess that, personally, I was quite relieved about that since, for one horrible second, I had imagined I was about to witness the terrifying and distressing marginalization and oppression of over half the people present. But with the necessary substitutions, I was confident that the women around me would feel suitably enfranchised and affirmed.
That’s when it all started to go wrong. I do not know if you have ever tried to `inclusivise,’ `unmarginalise’ or `deoppresionise’ on the fly, so to speak, but it is not that easy, as the gentlemen was about to demonstrate in spades. Indeed, by half way through the passage his attempts had made such an aesthetic and grammatical mess of the passage that he abandoned his laudable, liberating ambitions and returned to oppressing the women present in a really quite unacceptable fashion.
Bad as it was, that was the high point of the service. It was all downhill from then on. Next, instead of a pulpit prayer, we all had to sit and listen to a tape recording of waves crashing on a beach. This was followed by the second scripture reading. Thankfully, this one was not from the oppressive Bible translation used by the previous reader. In fact, it was not from the Bible at all but taken from a collection of poems written by African American slaves. Now, the poem was moving and thoughtfully constructed, a piece of literature; and knowing its original context gave it a certain emotional power; but it was not scripture in any shape or form and had no obvious place within a church service.
Onward we went, and ever downward. Now came the sermon, which was a five minute homily on the end of slavery, full of platitudes about imperialism and oppression, all of which may have been true, and to much of which I was not actually unsympathetic, but God was conspicuous only by his absence, presumably having nothing to say about the subject in hand. And then finally, the pièce de resistance, the moment to which the whole service had been leading, the climactic moment when the congregation was taken to the very gates of heaven: the service ended, not with a benediction or even a prayer, but with another chance to meditate, this time not to waves crashing on a beach but to a recording of Kenny G playing `Amazing Grace.’ Words almost fail me in the narrative at this point. After all, not being a Kenny G fan, I found myself oppressed, marginalized, and excluded all at once. The best I can say is that it was probably a better option than Barry Manilow singing `Copa Cabana.’
The service was, in many ways, a multifaceted microcosm of a lot that is wrong with the church at large today. I remember sitting in the room and looking around at the earnest faces as they concentrated on the crashing waves, or empathized with the linguistic struggles of the spontaneous inclusive language guy, or were carried heavenward by the mellifluous tone of Mr G’s saxophone. Almost all of these people have PhDs, I thought; many have published subtle works from distinguished academic presses; most of them would no doubt despise me and my institution as somehow obscurantist and ignorant; and yet, when push comes to shove, they sit here mesmerized by this garbage. The sophisticated post-Kantian theology for which they stand comes to this — sitting around on a Sunday morning, listening to PC Man mangling the Bible and Kenny G playing Amazing Grace. I mean, give me a break. Kenny G!?! It wasn’t even John Coltrane or Charlie Parker.
Now, despite the embarrassment of scholarly riches at this service, I sat their thinking, I could not bring a non-Christian friend into this. It would be embarrassing for reasons that have nothing to do with the excess of cumulative scholarship represented; rather, for all of the doctorates in the congregation, this service would simply insult the intelligence of the typical non-Christian who, in my experience, assumes a certain correlation between the seriousness of content and the seriousness of form. Further – and ironically — I also found it hard to believe that any of us there really felt included by this liturgical mishmash: a slag heap of subtheological fragments pulled from hither and yon into an incoherent and vacuous fiasco does not end up including everyone in general; more likely it ends up including nobody in particular. But that’s liberal ecumenism for you: sophisticated on paper and in the classroom; moronic and exclusionary in practice. To coin a phrase: “Hey, it’s rubbish. So let’s just call it rubbish, shall we?”
The memory of this service leads me to two further reflections on the culture of theology. First, I have always been amazed at the infatuation of so many orthodox academics with their reputation in the secular universities and liberal departments. A few years back, I edited a book with Paul Helm on the doctrine of scripture. At the time I was on faculty at the University of Aberdeen. One colleague – a friend but one of distinctly liberal leanings -referred matter-of-factly in a public lecture to the upcoming book as representing the tradition of Warfield, of which he himself did not approve; but the comment was not a sneer; rather it was a simple statement of his impression of the book. Within a couple of days I received an email from one of the contributors, asking if this was the case and saying that, if so, he wanted to withdraw from participation. Now, it was not actually the case: the book addressed the issue of scripture from a different direction to the concerns of Warfield; but what puzzled me – no, what disappointed me, for I understood exactly what was going on – was that this person was so terrified of being associated with Warfield. I wonder to this day if he would have been so concerned if he had been invited to contribute to a collection of essays that someone said pointed in a Barthian or Bultmannian direction. Probably not – because those options would not be so embarrassing to mention to friends at cocktail parties in the Senior Common Room or at the next meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature.
Now I worked in secular universities long enough to know that liberal colleagues are bright enough to spot a conservative at five hundred feet. Just because you avoid contributing to certain volumes or using certain words, or because you choose to laugh when certain people to the right of you are mocked, does not win you respect from the secular academy. It is a sad fact but, as far as biblical studies and theology go, only giving up all that is distinctive about the Christian faith will ultimately do that for you. The individual to whom I referred above no doubt liked to think he was taken seriously by mainstream colleagues, but I sat as a junior faculty in enough coffee room discussions to know the real thoughts of liberal colleagues about conservatives who try to fly under the radar. They despise them for their theology; and they despise them for the fact they try to hide or minimize it. A double whammy. Given the choice – and there is always a choice — I’d rather just be despised for being a brazen conservative with looney theology, than a duplicitous conservative with looney theology. That way one can still be of use to the church and still look in the mirror with some degree of self-respect.
But who should really be embarrassed, the liberals or the conservatives, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox? When you attend the churches of liberal colleagues, you will soon realize you have no reason to be ashamed. The embarrassment that is a liberal theological service has to be experienced to be truly believed; and almost any orthodox alternative is a better bet. After all, while I am no Eastern Orthodox, there is no comparison between a service conducted according to the hidebound, unchanged, reactionary, outdated, orthodox, creedal liturgy of St John Chrysostom and a service involving Kenny G, a tape recording of waves, some person stating the obvious about slavery, and a befuddled chap trying to avoid oppressing women by improvising a politically correct paraphrase of the Living Bible.
This, however, brings me to me second point: ironically, not all conservative services are much better than their liberal equivalents. Now, the difference is that liberal theology should inevitably lead to liturgical nonsense in a way that orthodoxy should not. After all, orthodox theology grew out of the worship and liturgy of the ancient church, so it should be no surprise that the collapse of that theology connects to the collapse of worship and liturgy. After all, it is hard to see the musical genius of Kenny G giving birth to the Nicene Creed, or, for that matter, providing an atmosphere in which the same might be sustained. When theology is, after all, merely the projection of human aspirations, church services become merely a collage of human artifacts (though the thought that Kenny G is a projection of humanity’s deepest psychological aspirations is too worrying to contemplate for any length of time). When God is mere man (or woman, or both) writ large, transcendence vanishes and triviality can only be resisted by an immense act of the will.
What are surprising, therefore, are accounts of services where the theology is supposedly orthodox but the content is sheer trivia. If God is awesome, sovereign and holy; if human beings are small, sinful, and lost; if Christ died and rose again by a most miraculous and costly act of grace, then this should impact the way things happen in church. This is not to argue for a one-size-fits-all-my-way-or-the-highway approach to church. Context and culture are important; but what is expressed through the idioms of particular cultural manifestations of the church should be awe, reverence, and, above all seriousness – not a colourless and cold miserable seriousness but a fitting amazement at the greatness of God and his grace.
A church service involving clowns or fancy dress or skits or stand-up comedy does not reflect the seriousness of the gospel; and those who take the gospel seriously should know better. Frankly, it is more appropriate to liberal theology which does not take the gospel, or the God of the gospel, seriously. Serious things demand serious idioms. I heard recently of a church service involving dressing up in costume and music taken from a Tom Cruise movie. Now, if I go for my annual prostate examination, and the doctor comes into the consulting room dressed as Coco the Clown, with `Take my breath away’ from Top Gun playing in the background, guess what? I’m going to take the doctor out with a left hook, flee the surgery, and probably file a complaint with the appropriate professional body. This is serious business; and if he looks like a twit and acts like a twit, then I can only conclude that he is a twit.
You can tell a lot about someone’s theology from what they do in church. Involve Kenny G’s music in your worship service, and I can tell not only that you have no taste in music but also that you have nothing to offer theologically to those who come through the church doors; indeed, what you do have can probably be found better elsewhere. Why certain academics hanker for the approval of the people who, when they leave the lecture theatre also abandon any semblance of adulthood or intelligence, beats me. More seriously, however, why certain orthodox churches strive to look like them, worries me intensely. Look, it’s rubbish. So let’s just call it rubbish, shall we?
Carl Trueman is a Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.