January 14, 2006

Unceasing Worship

     Unceasing Worship by Harold Best is a refreshing look at how we approach worship in our lives and local church bodies. This book is a gem, packed with practical knowledge about how to go about bringing proper and truthful worship into our churches. The author showcases a great extent of wisdom gleaned from years of ministering in music and teaching at Wheaton.
     Every once in a while a really great book comes along and you want to share how it impacted you.  I want to give a sense of how good this book is, so I have quoted from it pretty extensively.  If I were to rate Unceasing Worship, I would give it a exemplary 5 's out of 5, for being informed, well written, and thought provoking on its subject matter.  And also for the fact that the author is an Idahoan:  “When I moved to the Idaho panhandle a few years ago…” (174)

            At the outset, the author makes a case for Continuous Worship.  What does he mean by this?  Rather that whatever we are doing, our actions are worshiping something, and we should be continuously worshipping God in our actions.  He defines worship as: “Worship is the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do and all that I can ever become in light of chosen or choosing god” (18)
            This might be a bit of an over emphasis on worship.  Could it not also be said of Love, or Faith?  Faith being ‘belief in action,’ all our actions are to have faith.  The author even points to how sometimes it is rather tenuous to separate out theological threads: “We may separate faith, hope and love topically if we like, but only for so long, for the depth of one forces the depth of the other.” (34)  Still, he makes an excellent point about how our actions in life do indeed point to either loving and serving God, or loving and serving something else.
            Is there a danger in emphasizing one principle or action that we find in scripture (however good it may be)?  Perhaps… perhaps it also can be illuminating at times.  The ultimate test is to see there the original intent of the author was, and how his audience would of understood him.   “Given these few examples, we realize that the more we contemplate the completeness of continous worship and personal holiness, the more the whole of scripture lights up in a new way.  Everywhere we look continous outpouring is there, implied or explicated, in numberless epiphanies.  Wherever we turn- to commandments, to promises, to principles, to parables, to stories, to concepts, to warnings, and rewards- we are surrounded with this freshening witness cloud, made up of truth itself, urging us onward to personal holiness and continous outpouring  in and to Christ, or warning us away from our futile outpouring when we are away from him.  Each will be consummated in eternal outpouring, the one unto perfect and unclouded joy, the other into clamoring from emptiness unto continual emptiness.” (44)
             While I agree with what is said here, it think perhaps a little over emphasis might be in effect upon the reading of some passages.  It is most important to let the passages speak for themselves.  While systematic theology helps inform exegesis, I would say it is in a tertiary way, and not a primary way.  The primary way being historical grammatical exegesis of a passage to see the meaning that the author intended, without necessarily coloring the passage with a systematic pre-understanding.  Is this possible?  In effect no one can escape all their prejudices in approaching a text, however they can do everything possible to alleviate themselves from them.  When a person initially comes to read the Psalms, especially in the Hebrew, a lot of the figures of speech will not readily have meaning to a modern reader.  However through detailed and enlightening study, we come to know the text better.
            As the prime tenet of the book, I'm dwelling on the emphasis on worship, and in that light, is the book making a mistake here?  No, I think that his definition of worship is philosophically viable.  However while one may see the fruits of that definition bloom out of many passages, it is important not to carry it into the passages.  Systematically it fits together very well.  I think it is an important distinction to realize it is a systematic principle, though.  When people 'worshipped' in the New Testament, that meant they practiced a specific action, usually falling prostrate and exalting something greater than themselves.  There is a danger in making that action meaningless by applying it to everything.

“It is almost always a mistake to begin with a specific subject or area of study and proceed to develop a foundational worldview with that subject primarily in mind.  The danger is apparent: we may tune the worldview to the subject instead of surrendering the subject to the worldview.  And if everyone does this in their respective areas of work, we can easily end up with competing worldviews, which in turn gives critics one more opportunity for saying there is no unifying force in truth.” (112)
             The book is jam packed with good theological insight.  This forces the reader to slow down and interact with the material the author presents.  And the author presents many great points, such as making the mistake of coupling faith to a musical experience (30).  I also really enjoyed how the author portrayed the relationship of Love to the laws and commands of the Old Testament .  Saying essentially that love is seamlessly united in all the commands of the Old Testament, pointed out by Jesus, and by Paul. (33)
            The author also points out how sin has affected the worldview of people.  “It is a clear cut mindedness towards fallenness, a desire to leave the manna and go for the leeks and garlic.  Conformity to the world is conformity to a worldview that, however subtly, reverses the order of Creator and creature and once again places power in the handiwork and perpetuates the confusion of master to slave.” (37)   Best also makes excellent points on the nature of repentance and how this relates to the Imago Dei.  It is interesting to note how the latin phrase of Imago Dei, meaning ‘Image of God’ has had a resurgence in theology of late.  The reason people use that latin is to emphasize that it is a technical term, there is more meaning behind the phrase.  I do find it interesting that the Hebrew is out on this though; tselem  (image).  The author and many others bring out that having the Imago Dei, the divine imprint on ourselves means we have characteristics that reflect God’s person.  The author in this volume makes a strong case for the fact that we have been imbibed with creative powers. (51)
            As the author progresses into the book, he makes a good points about ‘being in the Spirit,’ and being in Christ.  One of many good points is that, as we approach corporate worship that “If we gather together fully outpouring, then nothing taking place in the gathering can ever replace the truth of Christ in us and God already with us.” (61)  The author approaches the trend of anti-intellectualism that has creeped into American churches and ferrets the issues out head on:

“Their minds should be alive to ideas about the Lord, to problem solving in matters of faith and practice, and to the development of their intellects.  Intellect and Intellectual are not snob words; they describe how any mind can be put to work in this sense: an intellectual person who loves ideas, asks good questions and strives toward a wisely working whole.  This is just as true of a seamstress as it is of a philosopher.  It is both comforting and challenging that while we live with the intelligence we are born with and have no right to covet a higher kind, we can regularly pray for an increase of wisdom and it will be given (Jas. 1:5).” (67)

            The author also points out the laxidasical nature that has spread thoughout our camp.  How sometimes churches and churchgoers clamour for the truth and good preaching until it arrives, and they are challenged.  “People want you to lead until you do” (68).  To be fed, and truly fed is not always the ‘fun-est’ thing.  To repent from sin and embrace God’s truth can be very painful to our sin sick lives, and often we would enjoy a sham concoction of dogma smeared into our wounds rather than the healing balm of God’s truth.

“A true experience goes beyond mere feeling.  It takes a wealth of actions in which heart and mind, filled to the full and integrated accordingly, join to bring remarkableness.  Experientialism is narrow and short-lived; it can be addictive and basely profane.  It thrives on feeling.  It is suspicious of the mind and the intellect.  As tempting as it might be to go all-out for an experience, and as prevalent as experientialism is in the contemporary church, true worshippers should turn aside from the both out of spiritual integrity and out of deep hunger for the Lord rather than the experience.” (70-71)

In our hedonistic culture, feeling has become our prime tenet for interpreting and action.  Does it feel good?  Where this is just a fact of human condition, in the past there has been more emphasis on reason and rational thought.  Whereas feelings should perhaps be best understood as symptoms.  They have been pushed forward and our intuitional processes are more feeling based and less thought based.
Best diagnoses the difference between Contemporay and Traditional in an insightful way:

           Tradionalists have much to answer for in their reluctance to understand that tradition does not mean stasis but change.  In their reaction against contemporary styles, they fail to understand that what they have gotten used to was once contemporary and often objectionable.  Contemporists likewise fail to understand how blunted their tastes are when only “their music” seems to do the trick and when what they are doing has, ever so quickly, frozen itself into a tradition.  So we end up with two kinds of shortsightedness, one supposedly old, the other supposedly new, and both wish fulfilling.  The separation of worship into preference groups is everyone’s fault, in that the narrow musical satisfaction has turned out to be more important than style-proof outpouring.  I encourage people of all practices to become intently and intensely curious about each other’s ways.
            The church desperately needs an artistic reformation that accomplishes two things at once: first, it takes music out of the limelight and puts Christ and his Word back into prominence; and second, it strives creatively for a synthesis of new, old and cross cultural styles.  A deep understanding of the arts, coupled with to the understanding that at best the music of corporate worship is simple, humble and variegated, would bring something about that would make all churches into worshipping and witnessing churches that happen to sing. (75)

            Best puts emphasis upon the word of God in out worship, both corporately and individually in the life of the believer.  He draws special attention to the word's primacy:  “The secret lies in the authority, the conviction, the unswerving bluntness of all truth preached, sung and written.” (80)  Furthermore, he calls on Christians to leave their intellectual caves and interact with the word, and the world:  "Part of the reason for this is that we have thought so narrowly about truth, overlooking the countless connections between Truth and everyday circumstance, that our only option is to leverage our ideas about deciding for Christ discontextually, without understanding that all conversation is embedded in living and holds numerous related ideas, any of which can be applied to worshipping upside down or right side up.  If there is no other reason for Christians to be intellectually alive and topically imaginative, this one alone suffices.” (82)
            The author crafts an excellent section on a Christian’s witness, and how true witness is much less a guilt motivated presciption, but an overflowing of continous worship, overheard by others.   “Redemption is the washing clean and re-equipping of the imago Dei and the beginning of a lifelong process of retuning it to think and to imagine, not more smartly or less dumbly, but more completely, more profoundly and wisely, after the manner of truth itself.” (89)  Thus, he points out how the Christian life is a process of sanctification, and this involves a migration toward wisdom, profundity, and truth.
            As the writer progresses more and more into the practical side of the outworkings of his theological insights, he wants to introduce us to a division of theology “policy theology and operations theology” (90).  He terms Policy theology as a vertical theology, being classically God centered.  Operations theology on the other hand, is horizontally aligned.  It is how we interpret and apply our policy theology.  In a sense, this is a similar to the interpretive process of approaching the scriptures.  When one approaches the scriptures, they first must attempt a biblical theology, and after getting their theology out of the books, the proceeds toward a systematic theology, placing the pieces together.  Then when they have a coherent picture, this systematic theology needs to relate to real life, and this in turn leads to practical theology.   This difference, the lack of emphasis on 'biblical theology' (in the process of 'doing theology') is the only major critique I have of the book.  I don't think the author is unbiblical, rather I think there is room for more emphasis on how/where he arrives at his insight from.
            As the Poilicy Theology half of the book draws to a close, the author makes a sterling point, one that I've always enjoyed about prayer, and that being that prayer is all about who God is and what He wants.  Prayer is not about asking for Christmas presents, moreover it is more about aligning our will with the perfect will of God.
             “The burden that the inhabitants of contemporary culture have placed on the pastoral ministry to hold them, to feed them, to pleasure them is a near disgrace.  It is an insult to our Savior, yet certainly no surprise to him, for in his brief ministry he too was under pressure to adjust his teachings to the desires of the crowds and to add pleasurable confirmation to their preconceptions.  He decided against doing so, and despite much talk about how Jesus spoke in the language of the people, his way of doing this not only increased his audiences but often mystified them.” (105)

             Part two of the book is much more applicational and practical.  In one chapter the author presents what he terms a ‘useful matrix of procedural and perceptual connections’ (187)  This is where the practical theology works out.  The author presents such issues as Christian's Lack of quality, shock and awe tactics, etc.  The author gives us the picture that the artist’s work is “action toward God, before God and under God’s protection.”

“Artistic freedom, however, is not artistic license.  There is a twofold danger in what I have said in the preceding paragraph.  First, unwise or giddy Christian artists will be tempted to take up the badge of artistic freedom in itself (a much flawed and idolatrous badge) instead of being thrust forward in the freedom that is in Christ alone.  Also the public, especially the theologically pinched-up kind, will confuse artistic content and the artist’s intenet and arbitrarily accept or reject both art and artist on that ground.  Ultimately the artist must stand before Christ and answer for every artistic action taken.” (113)
“It is being in Christ, in whom all faithful artistic actions cohere, before whom all artistic knees bow and with whom genuine aloneness is no new thing.” (115)
“For the Christian, the issue of quality turns out to be not merely artistic, but theological.” (196)

            Best tackles the issue of quality in our worship head on, “High intent in no way guarantees better content.” (116)  Yet, he keeps a wise and balanced view of the road ahead, “We make and offer art because we worship; we should not make it to lead us into worship.” (119)  He illustrates how our dependance upon music for worship can actually be a negative thing.  “That singular difference applies here as well, for we must guard against the temptation to think that the power of art enlivens- brings substance to- our faith.” (121)
           The author challenges our conception of emotional fuelled experientialism and tears away at our preunderstandings of style and tradition.  “In other words, when I sing or listen to my favorite song and a flood of feeling washes over me, instead of thinking that Jesus is nearer because I am filled with such feeling, I come to understand that it is because the Lord and I love each other so much that I feel this way.” (122)  He illustrates how tradition has become both a force in 'traditional' and 'contemporary' woship, “I am quite sure that the body of Christ could be on a more peacable practitional road if traditionalists understood the tradition as a dynamic, ever-changing phenomenon and if contemporists would understand that a tradition is ready to begin as soon [sic] a new song is repeated even once.” (139)  His prescription for our sacred cows of tradition being real, authentic worship, and a newness that arises out of a life of faith.. “whether the song is borrowed, repeated or upsettingly different, faith alone makes it new.” (145)

“In fact, it is safe to say that until recently sacred classical art has influenced artistic action in general culture in ways that should shame the contemporary church.  For this reason alone, no one should play games with traditionalism, especially when it comes to shutting the door on it in the name of relevance.” (153)

             I really like the general gist of the above quote.  It speaks of the decline of influence of Christian beliefs in our culture.  However, in the past, Christianity had such benefits as being a state sanctioned religion, and our current culture is experiencing a tide away from such heady days and resources.  In the middle ages, the political power of states and the church were intertwined that art and life and existence were bound to them.  True that creativity is bound to the individual, however the larger the community, the more statistically likely the output will be beyond the norm in excellence.  In America in the last fifty years, America’s leisure time expenditure has exploded exponentially, and as a result people are free to pursue their hedonistic desires in a capacity that was not available before.  This has influenced a moral decline that has coupled with the competing worldviews to help push Evanglicalism into a negative light, worldly speaking.  Along with this, the secular worldviews have taken a front seat and have exploded as people play out their philosophical presuppositions.  Experientialism and Existensialism go hand in hand, and today’s post-modern philosophical emphasis has resultantly affected the blended mentality of our worshipping in a trickle down “Francis Shaefer” way.  So, I think it is in a small way a bit unfair to characterize the church’s artistic output in this way.  As far as quality however, it seems that this is should be a stern reminder.  And in some way, our Christian sub cultures have given a thumbs up towards this type of mediocrity.
              The author speaks of differing types of expression, and how some have become rote and lifeless.  One in particular is dance: “They are afraid of allowing dance to simply be dance and allowing the body to celebrate its physical, sensuous self, as if God was embarrassed when he gifted us with physicality and gave us the desires to make our gestures aesthetic.” (156)  There is a danger in sensuality, but I think that the author makes a valid point here.  However, in our sexually laden culture, I think it would be wise to proceed with caution in this area.  We are certainly not in the vein of culture where women are clad from head to toe in veiling robes.
              In speaking of the dangers of elevating arts and methods to places they weren’t intended, Best give the point, “Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun the trek into idol territory.” (166)  This is important, as it helps us keep a realistic and proper place for arts in their relationship to God.  To do otherwise is to functionally put the cart before the horse (though the analogy is very limited).

“The more I think of the nature of continous outpouring, the more I become aware of how spiritually self-indulging the idea of worship (in our current sense) can be- and how evangelism and witness are separated from it.  But witness is about worship, worship is about witness, and both are about the presence or absence of a quest for personal holiness.  Properly understood, a theology of worship should reform, if not re-create, our often isolated ideas about evangelism and mission.” (77)

            There were some interesting parts of the book, mostly things that were ambiguous (I think purposefully so on certain issues), or interestingly worded.  I've quoted (attempting to grab some context) a couple interesting ones below for fun:

“If I were to make God’s being, his doing and his love into one name, God is I am that I love that I act.  God’s being and doing, completely at one, are love outpoured even into the infinity of itself.” (33)
“Of course, mixing believers and unbelievers together in the same gathering means that there is no such thing as the “in crowd.”  It means that we have to quit worrying about how to accommodate the “my style, my worship” believer while providing enough ease and comfort for the nonbeliever to slide into the rhythms and chemistries of the same event.  This softens the content of a corporate gathering two ways at once by being overly sensitive to the “my style, my worship” believer and unready for the unbeliever whose need for the gospel has not only been misinformed by the coddling of the believer but softened by the cover language for sin, atonement, shed blood, repentance, and righteousness.” (65)
"Everyone is diversely working out his and her salvation, and the Holy Spirit is at work making a sum of this diversity.  Christ is at work with him, presenting the combined story, Sunday after Sunday, synergy after synergy, to the Father.  This will not show itself visibly or measurably but authoritatively, powerfully and spiritually.  The power does not lie in sheer numbers, for where two or three are gathered, the synergy is just as real.  The power and the glory of this is inward, in the heart of each worshipper.  If the Holy Spirit chooses to make this outwardly manifest, and should the entire assembly break into unpredicted ecstasy (whether in charged silence of Pentecostal polyphony), so be it.  Our task is to be so spiritually alive that readiness for anything is as normal as lighting the candles or singing a chorus.” (69)

In speaking of the chasm between Charismatics, and non charismatics, he censures the schism, and writes:
“It is something that some of us are not yet able to grasp, this fullness of Christ in us that rises above our doctrinal, cultural, and psychological profiles?  Why do we-the quiet ones and the shouting ones- create God in the image that most quickly conforms to who we are?  Is Jesus so kind, even in these microidolatries, as to adjust to our pyschodoctrinal patterns and to come to us anyway, allowing us to believe, even if for a moment, that the correctness of our opinions makes his presence noticeable?” (71)

“Oh that we would stop creating the menus and let the Lord feed us out of his plentitude of his continous outpouring till we have entered the paradoxical condition of hungering while being filled! That nearly inexplicable hymn line “Feed me till I want no more” can have no other meaning.” (72)
 “This is a culture in which strange fire blends in with Pentecostal fire, a culture in which behavioral mechanisms are disguised as prophetic actions.  It is culture that subsists on leveraging and manipulation, and it makes rampant use of technique and exaggeration to convince and convert, from selling tacos to voting for the next president to (unfortunately) aiding worship.” (120)

             There is also a section about chaos, how it is theological, and how we should use it in our creative process. (130)  Personally, I wouldn't go that far.  There is another interesting place where best relates some of the trumpets of the Old Testament to our modern music.  I think that is a bit of a stretch, also.  As ancient instruments like the shofar were oftentimes used more for announcement and communication that they were for our conception of music, as something to be enjoyed and to give us associative feelings.
             Overall, this book was an excellent read, very insightful, with many, many well thought out points.  If you are in any way interested in worship, or moreover corporate worship, you should give this book a read.   And as a result, hopefully it will draw you towards the God of the Bible, enriching your worship of Him.

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