Tell Me I'm Wrong: An exchange of letters

November, 1994

Dear Harry,

I read, quite sympathetically, your editorial in Reformed Worship 34 (December, 1994) this week—sympathetically because I know the heart that created it longs to be gracious and inclusive, not to hurt. There is nothing unrighteous about such goals.

But I read it with some sadness, too, because after more than a decade on liturgy committees in two different congregations, I recognized my own place around the committee table in your sentiments. Your desire to be all things to all people so often leads to the kind of quailing that hesitates drawing any lines whatsoever, so badly do we want to accommodate all the voices. One of the results is the kind of chaos some of us frequently feel today when we talk about liturgy or the manner by which we corporately talk with God. What's woven into the fabric of your editorial is the perception that we have no communal voice and we have no common vision. We have, as the post-modernists have asserted, only competing voices of varying pitches and agendas, that create a sound often more like Sesame Street than Handel.

The fact is, Harry, nobody in our more progressive churches knows anymore what's right in liturgy—nor even what's in good taste. We have no common mind. And while some might argue that lack of unity is liberating, sometimes I wonder. A recent editorial in The Banner rather boldly asserted that it would be a good thing for all Christian Reformed churches to have three separate services—one seeker, one traditional, one pentecostal. But am I wrong to assume that what three separate services really means is three different churches? Isn't such diversity its own kind of schism?

We've come to this kind of position, I think, for at least two different reasons: (1) our heartfelt desire to be accommodating and multicultural; and (2) our own deep-seated mistrust of ourselves and our heritage, which is essentially a kind of self-loathing.

On the day I read your editorial, I also ran across "End Game," a brash and brutal essay by Pete Hamill in the latest copy of Esquire, a piece that lays bare the lack of grace and dignity in American culture. Hamill locates several reasons for the "in your face" gesticulations of pop culture. What follows is what he labels the "most obvious" cause of the mess all around us:

Almost a hundred years after the last great immigration wave changed the face of American society, a vast number of Americans—including, sadly, the best-educated—are again being taught to identify themselves with the qualifying adjectives of race, religion, ethnicity, and gender. The idea of the melting pot is dismissed as cultural genocide, replaced by a social worker's version of predestination. American identities, state the clerics of the new dogma, are not shaped by will, choice, reason, intelligence, and desire, but by membership in groups. They are not individuals but components of categories, those slots and pigeonholes beloved of sociologists, pollsters, and the U.S. Census Bureau. And such categories, they believe, are destiny.

When you repent for your own sadly provincial attitudes as simply a matter of "education, ethnicity tradition, and temperament," Harry, you—and I— are falling into the same kind of mindset, aren't we? In the paragraph in your essay in which you try to draw a check on this direction toward accommodation of most anything, your argument, it seems to me is ultimately powerless:

Do my suggestions mean that worship patterns are only a matter of "taste" and that there are no norm and standards? That's too simple a conclusion, and it makes communal worship too individualistic. 'Neither does the "each according to her own taste" recognize that each one's "taste" may be influenced by factors that are not edifying.

And in your liturgy committee, in your church, Harry are you going to be the one to identify whose desire—for music, for dance, for drama, for slides, for videos, for New Year's Eve noisemakers—is not "edifying"? We've come to a place in our culture, as well as in the culture of our churches, where no one (except the conservative right) dares to say what's good, what's right, what's "edifying." You go on to say "Questions of fittingness, of excellence, of the difference between Christian concert and congregational worship—these we have to continue to ask." Sure, but what Hamill would call our "most educated"—people who think and write about liturgy and worship—have no responses except to jeer at those who think they do, calling them elitists or bigots or, simply, conservatives.

To want to be inclusive is certainly not wrong. But to move to the extreme of American culture here, to see all cultural expression as of equal value, is to believe, as I read recently, that putting a man on the moon is no greater a cultural achievement than putting a bone through one's nose. In our churches, the Pentecostals among us, the high-church folks, the praise-and-worship crowd, the hand-raisers, the psalters-and-white-shirts-only-tribe—all of these folks are at war, just as they are in culture. And our major task in saving the effort to worship together, as one body, is in trying to find some common ground, a place to stand, a core of values and tastes, a common language and genre by which we talk with God on Sunday mornings. Or is it simply giving everyone their own ten minutes on the podium?

Am I being reactionary or bigoted when I say that what we need, sometimes, in our most progressive congregations, is not more diversity but more unity? What we need, more than anything, it seems to me, is the will to be obedient to that which is unenforceable—a set of commonly held assumptions about what it is exactly we do when we come before God Almighty, some consensus about how that God wants to be worshiped. Or when I say that am I merely someone who is the product of "education, ethnicity, tradition, and temperament"?

I don't know, Harry.

And there lies, I believe, our own most affecting contemporary malaise: I don't know. Neither does Harry Boonstra. Neither does anyone. It's not only the emperor who has no clothes; it's the whole royal court, all of us who are busy doing liturgy.

There are no rules. Tell me I'm wrong, Harry. I'd love to hear it.

Respectfully,
Jim Schaap

December, 1994

Dear Jim,

Thanks very much for your missive. I had I hoped that my editorial would call forth ' response, and your letter (which is both spirited and dispirited) is certainly one that will foster further discussion.

Allow me a few comments and questions.

I think it is true that the definition of "Reformed worship" is currently not clear. The traditional "no hymns, no accompaniment, no vestments, no colors, no rituals or ceremonies, only-the-sermon-counts" (although still practiced by some conservative Presbyterians) can no longer be seen as the only Reformed worship mode. Neither biblical nor theological criteria demand such restriction. It may be that we are currently in a period of searching for a proper communal worship genre. (Perhaps we have not even determined whether a common theology and shared kingdom vision demands uniform worship. Look at the Episcopal Church—uniform worship, but incredibly diverse theology).

You and others experience this time as chaotic and rudderless. You describe the current situation in Presbyterian and Reformed churches as "cacophony," "schismatic," "relativistic." At times the liturgical situation may seem chaotic, but just as often I see it as enriching.

Also, are we sure that cultural, educational criteria of excellence must be applied to worship? I'm willing to say that the organ is a more sophisticated instrument than the accordion, and that the philosophy professor has achieved a "higher" cultural place than the untutored maid. But I'm not willing to say that the professor singing "Te Deum Laudamus" in her church choir is engaged in more fitting worship than the maid singing "Are You Coming Home, Ye Wand'rers" with accordion accompaniment. You're importing educational and cultural standards into our worship life. I see nothing in Scripture that supports the notion that cultured, refined worship is the most appropriate. And again, is the "common" culture that you crave primarily a Western European culture? (I trust that asking that question does not mark me as a "post-modernist.") Missionaries had to learn that importing Lutheran chorales or Genevan tunes into African churches was often not appropriate. What about importing those into Appalachian or Hispanic churches?

I still think that the kind of cultured worship you seem to hold out for is to a great degree dependent on the social status of the financially advantaged. To appreciate Bach and Tallis takes education and training. Education and training take time and money. Do people have to conform to an educated worship idiom in order to be the best worshipers they can be? I have a hunch that the loss of the laboring class to the church in Great Britain may be partly due to the highly cultured worship style of the Anglican Church.

No doubt personal experience colors our attitude. I am blessed with being a member of a congregation that has deliberately chosen an "eclectic" mode of worship. Organ, piano, and drums are all used (but no canned music—we have our standards!). We have a Bach to Buxtehude singing group and a Praise and Worship choir. During February we have a gospel choir, and during October a 60-plus choir that prefers anthems popular in the 1950s. Some of our worship leaders teach us praise choruses, others black gospel, others Psalm chanting. Yes, we have our occasional worship skirmishes. But more often we experience a rich diversity of worship expression. Of course, I have strong preferences, and I'll take Rutter over Gaither any time—but I'm willing to leave the difference at that—a "preference." (If you still don't think that much of our discussion is in the area of taste and culture, see the December 7, 1994 issue of Christian Century, where one church musician calls John Rutter a "court composer," and another puts him in the class with Norman Rockwell.)

Again, thanks for your response. We'll keep talking.

With cordial greeting,
Harry Boonstra

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.