On the Value of (Most?) Internet Discussions

One day, the owner of a disreputable inn, The Dog-Fighter, approached a preacher. “Come and preach at my inn. I think your message is important and should be heard by more people.”

The preacher hesitated. “I am not sure. From what I have seen, the patrons of your establishment seem interested only in conflict, for the mere sake of it.”

“Forget about that. A message like yours is rare and hardly heard these days. Don’t dark places need light? It’s important that they hear it,” said the inn-keeper.

“But I have preached those messages to people prepared to hear, in more appropriate venues. I am uncertain if your audience will hear it.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic. Listen, just come and preach one of the sermons on how we should worship God and behave in this world. My patrons need to hear it.” The preacher reluctantly agreed.

On the appointed day, the preacher arrived and went to the mess hall where the patrons were seated around tables, mugs of mead in hand. The room was dimly lit only by a fireplace and by wax candles in wine bottles on each table. The barely visible floor was sticky, and the reek was momentarily overpowering to the preacher. As he made his way to the centre, where a space had been made for him, he felt the cynical gaze of the patrons and heard rough chortles that led to wheezy coughs.

He began his sermon. He kept his remarks short and pointed, and for a time, not much was heard except his voice. Upon the sermon’s completion, the preacher remained in place to see if there would be questions or responses.

The silence was finally interrupted by a large, disheveled man, who slowly stood up, mug in hand, and growled to the group, “Gentlefolk, and noble patrons of The Dog-Fighter, this man has just insulted us. He is here to exalt himself, and belittle us.” Nods and grunts of agreement began.

“Thatsh right! Nothing but scorn and contempt for peoples like us!” said another. A chorus of approval went up.

“He shouldn’t be allowed to preach!” screamed a third. A unanimous, drunken roar of resentment was now filling the inn.

By this time, pieces of food were beginning to be thrown at the preacher. When his arm blocked the first bottle, he decided it was time to go. Before he could reach the door, he had been jostled, punched, and dowsed with some mead. There was laughter and back-slapping all round, and songs with obscene lyrics were now being bawled in unison by patrons swaying with their arms around one another.

As he reached the door, he saw the inn-keeper leaning against the wall, dishtowel hung over his folded arms. He looked pleased.
“I thought you said your patrons needed to hear this!” said the preacher.
“They do,” smiled the innkeeper. “But this is The Dog-Fighter, you know.”

Relevance and Notoriety

One of the powerful spells cast over the modern world is the charm of celebrity. One quipped that a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous, but few stop to notice that. Celebrity culture is the true opiate of the masses, and if it were not so, the word paparazzi would never have become an English noun.

Celebrity culture assaults us everywhere: advertisements using celebrities to hawk their products, reality talent-shows with the ‘prize’ of becoming a “pop idol”, magazines unashamedly titled “Vanity Fair”, and click-bait links to online tabloid-gossip. Most mainstream news sites have an entire section devoted to the habits and happenings of celebrities, just to be able to compete with other news outlets.

Fame is an unquestioned good in our society. In pre-modern times, fame was accorded for outstanding accomplishments: the Roman general, the philosopher, the inventor. Today, you can become famous for being famous.

Added to this soul-sickness is the idea that everyone can and should seek fame. Self-promotion is no longer frowned on as vanity; it’s become a quite acceptable, and even required, social behaviour. The preposterous poses of many a Facebook profile display the utter shamelessness and unselfconscious egotism of a person in “I’m a celebrity too” mode. All that posing and lip-pouting is just tongue-in-cheek, of course; except that it’s not. Just a few decades ago, such peacock-strutting would have been considered pathological.

Much of this is the fear of anonymity. Ironically, the Internet has not created a ‘global community’, as much as it has intensified the sense that you are just one soul among seven billion strangers. Perhaps like never before, a sense of significance is only achieved when some kind of notoriety is gained. Becoming a celebrity, even if for a few moments, lends some meaning to the chaos, and some weight to an otherwise weightless life. To avoid the pain of anonymity, you need to be someone (as if you are not, until many other people know you). Everyone understands that to “be someone“, you must become notorious.

A church captive to the culture is just as charmed by celebrity. This is hardly a new development. Tozer wrote this over fifty years ago: “We swoon over celebrity. Whatever they say, we accept as the important word for the day, even if it goes contrary to plain biblical teaching. St. Ignatius said, ‘Apart from Him, let nothing dazzle you.’ But we allow everything but ‘Him’ to dazzle us these days. We have become rather bored with God and the truths of Scripture.”

Christians are just as interested in the antics of the famous godless. Witness how sweaty-palmed Christians become if a famous sportsman, actor, tycoon, or media personality openly admits some kind of faint affinity to Christianity. A near stampede breaks out to have the celebrity come and ‘give his testimony’ in church. Why the raised pulses and baited breath? Because if a famous person endorses Christianity, that will surely show how “relevant” it is to the average man.

Of course, when we can’t entice or pay an unbelieving celebrity to patronise Christianity, the next best thing is to create our own, right? Evangelicals are happy to then create their own superstars: usually pastors of large churches, with their own TV shows, podcasts, syndicated radio shows, thousands of Twitter followers, and plenty of book deals. Let’s not forget our musicians: if pagans can have rock stars, so can we. And what do we do with our celebrities? Conferences, of course. We use their names and faces on the posters, draw the crowd, and celebrate our celebration. That way, we’re displaying our ‘relevance’, particularly to the youth. (Hard not to laugh at the consternation of the Christian hooked on celebrityism when he moves out his ghetto for a day, and finds most people have never heard of his stars. “John who? Who’s he?”)

What has relevance to do with celebrity? Nothing at all, rightly defined. Something’s importance and practical value is not determined by how popular or well-known it is. Seasons in Israel’s history show that truth is sometimes a minority report. Church history shows the same. Scripture even seems to suggest that mass appeal may be a sign of error and looming destruction (Lk 6:26; Mt 7:13). Confusing relevance with celebrity would be confusing widespread evangelism with mass influence or political clout. It’s assuming that what is well-known among the populace will have moral traction and influence upon them. Therefore, to this thinking, Christians must become celebrities, or find celebrities who will endorse them. Evangelicalism has being doing this since the days of Billy Sunday.

Christianity is no less relevant if it goes into near-eclipse. Christianity remains relevant whether it is in season, or out of season. Christianity is relevant if all the world rejects it, yea, Athanasius contra mundum. Christianity will be relevant if God continues to call people who don’t qualify as celebrities:

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called (1 Cor 1:26).

Relevance and Intelligibility

Modern Christian champions of relevance mean many things by the term. One use is the concept of intelligibility. When calling for the church to be relevant to this generation, they mean that its message must be understandable, clear, and intelligible.

Thus far, no objection. No command exists to make the Gospel obscure or arcane. If the Christian message is to be applied to anyone’s life, it’s necessary that it be intelligible.

But it’s at this point, as Christians think about not only communicating accurately but successfully, that many a Christian takes his eye off the ball, and the meaning of relevant shifts from intelligible to plausible.

Intelligibility and plausibility are related, but quite distinct. When something is intelligible, it can be understood by the average, rational human. When a matter is intelligible, nothing is incoherent, garbled, or indecipherable to an average intelligence. Plausibility refers to how likely something is to be true. It describes something qualitative: how believable something seems to a person. Why something is plausible to a given mind has to do with many things, not all of which are related to its intelligibility: the presuppositions or worldview in place, the inclination of the heart, and the often unrecognised motives and desires. We find something plausible both because of what we think could be true, and because of what we desire would be true (or untrue, as the case may be).

When churches do not make this distinction, they can make critical errors in evangelism, missions, and discipleship. Making the Christian message intelligible is a question of good communication. Making the Christian message plausible to an unbeliever is a question of moral persuasion. The Christian message is relevant, so therefore it ought to be made intelligible. But its relevance does not always mean it will be plausible.

Christians should seek to persuade. Paul certainly did. At the same time, Paul made it clear that certain forms of persuasion were morally unacceptable.

But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2)

For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. (2 Cor. 2:17)

“Craftiness” “deceit”, and peddling, all speak of methods of persuasion that are manipulative, deceptive, or subversive to the Gospel.

Manipulative techniques get one to decide in favour of the message through the introduction of other motives: fear, guilt, carnal lusts, are the bait. Manipulative altar calls, appeals to self-preservation, or desires for wealth and comfort may be persuasive, but they fail as Christian forms of communication.

Similar to manipulation is deception. The idea that the Gospel message can be hidden, or smuggled in, while masquerading as another message is deceptive. Clothing the Gospel in popular entertainments, games, amusements, and other pleasures, so as to insinuate its message, is deceit. Paul refused to persuade through deception, and insisted on being open with his motives for preaching the Gospel.

Finally, if the message is subversive, it undermines the meaning of the Gospel while simultaneously claiming to promote it. By appealing to sinful desires, endorsing worldly attitudes, or encouraging what the Gospel saves us from, such a presentation subverts the entire message of the Gospel.

When some Christians say the Gospel must be relevant, they mean using “staged wrestling matches, pie-fights, special-effects systems that can produce smoke, fire, sparks, and laser lights in the auditorium, punk-rockers, ventriloquists’ dummies, dancers, weight-lifters, professional wrestlers, knife-throwers, body-builders, comedians, clowns, jugglers, rapmasters, show-business celebrities, reduced length of sermons, restaurants, ballrooms, roller-skating rinks, and more.” (MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel)

None of this will make the Gospel relevant. In a twisted way, it will make the Gospel seem more plausible to those for whom it is foolishness. But the irony is, by trying to make the Gospel plausible to those for whom it is foolishness, the church must use, yes, you guessed it – foolishness. Which in turn, makes the users of foolishness…fools. Paul chose rather to be a fool in the world’s eyes by preaching the wisdom of God, than a fool in God’s eyes for preaching the wisdom of this world.

Relevance and Importance

When some people speak of “making Christianity relevant”, they are referring to demonstrating Christianity’s importance and applicability. They fret over the fact that unbelievers and the wider culture dismiss Christianity and religion so easily. Secularism provides people with enough food, shelter, conveniences, comforts and sufficient diversionary amusements to keep them morally anesthetised from the pain of contemplating ultimate questions. Today’s secularist finds it all too easy to ignore questions of eternity and Christ, an attitude which was less common to previous generations who felt their mortality more acutely. When noticing the disturbing ease with which unbelievers ignore God, some Christians feel that ‘the church has become largely irrelevant’ and that it must ‘establish its credibility and demonstrate its relevance to unbelievers’.

Here is a jumble of truth and error. On the one hand, it is clearly true that few ages in world history have possessed such irreligious attitudes. Today, you can grow up in a secular culture and live most of your life feeling that religion is a strange practice performed by strange people. It’s undeniable that the average secular unbeliever does not see how church, Scripture, or worship is germane to his life. In that sense, the things of God indeed seem irrelevant to him.

On the other hand, the Bible explains this phenomenon. It does not say that the fault is with the church for failing to contextualise the Gospel adequately by adopting every available cultural form to clothe the Gospel in. Instead, it describes human beings as intractably set against the lordship of God. Romans 1:19 explains that the knowledge of God is part of created human nature. John Calvin put it this way, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.”

What does man do with this knowledge? Verse 18 tells us. He suppresses it. What dictators do with bad press is what the human heart does with continual evidence that God is, and God is a judge. Secularism just makes it easier for people to do what they have always preferred to do: ignore God.

In other words, the problem is not that an unbeliever cannot see how Christianity is relevant to him, because of some inadequacy in Christianity or its evangelism. The problem is that a man cannot see Christianity’s relevance after deciding that he will not see its relevance. This is a willful overlooking (2 Pet 3:5), a chosen rejection, and a blindness by shutting one’s eyes. And if this natural, stubborn blindness isn’t enough, Satan compounds this with added blindness (2 Cor 4:4).

When a man is blind, we don’t speak of making potentially dangerous obstacles in his path relevant to him. They are relevant to him! Given his propensity to injure himself by walking into them, nothing could be more germane, important, applicable or relevant to him than those obstacles. A neighbourly thing to do would be to tell the blind man what he’s about to walk into.

Christianity does not have to be made relevant. It is relevant. Nothing is more relevant to a creature made in God’s image than his standing before his Creator. Matters of life, death, eternity, goodness, evil, justice, and the soul are relevant to every man. Christians cannot make these things more relevant to a man than they are. We can only speak of them clearly, and live soberly and righteously in this present age. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can change one’s perception of the message from foolishness to wisdom (1 Cor 1:18).

Having said that, there are ways that the church can make the message of the Gospel seem less relevant. When it clothes its message in trendy slogans and commercial schtick, it appears as if it is one more product being marketed. When it uses entertainments and amusements to create interest, it appears as if its message is weak and in need of marketing props. When it tries to appear wise and noble in the world’s eyes (or cool, hip, trendy, sick, whatever the word), it appears as if it is a sycophant of the world, limping between two loyalties. All of this shouts louder than words can say, “Yes, unbeliever, your dismissal of God is justified and normal! We, too, are bored with the plain Gospel! But look! We have some shiny attractions which we’ll give you, if you deign to patronise us with your attention!” Instead of confronting the believer with his moral rejection of God, we treat his sin as natural and normal, and beg him to come for other reasons. Christianity does not become less relevant when Christians act this way, but it does compound the problem by giving unbelievers even more hardness to their hard hearts.  The unbeliever intuits, “The Christian doth protest too much.” Such ways and words do not sound much like Paul:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (Rom. 1:16)

Relevant or Current?

When some people speak of the importance of relevance, they don’t mean relevance at all. After all, relevant, strictly speaking, merely means ‘pertinent to the matter at hand’. Relevance needs an object: relevant to whom or what matter?, we may ask.

The fact that some people use the word relevant as a quality not requiring modification demonstrates that they really mean something else by it. One particular usage is perhaps the most common: describing whatever is current as ‘relevant’. If something is current, it could have several qualities. It could be something currently in use. It could mean it is a new development. It could mean it is fashionable, trendy, en vogue. It could mean it has been adopted by the youth, the trend-setters, the celebrities (those famous for being famous). Yet all of these share one unquestioned value in the minds of the relevance-devotees: novelty is good.

Ours is a world where “new!” on the product’s packaging boosts sales. “Brand new season” is supposed to invite wide-eyed excitement. “Never before seen” is a moniker of greatness. We check our phones for updates hourly. This is the age where the new is true, and the true is new. Only the recent is decent.

We shouldn’t be surprised. If Darwinism is true, then the latest development is always the most advanced. If science is man’s saviour, then the newest gadget is necessarily the best. In such a world, you are permitted to say these words with a sneering disdain: old, tradition, custom.

Actually, the logic behind equating relevant with current contains three premises.
1) We need to bring practical value to this world.
2) What is of practical value to this generation must be current.
3) We are only relevant to the degree we are current.

With some qualification, the first premise is hardly objectionable. The second is the most problematic, but it represents the spirit of the age. Our culture practises chronological snobbery, a term coined by C.S. Lewis and defined by him as, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Lewis goes on: “You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

The Christian view of reality has no partiality toward the current age. The fifth commandment itself, in commanding reverence and obedience to parents, is implicitly demanding respect for the past: honouring the accumulated wisdom of one’s parents gained in the decades they are in advance of you. And to be sure, their wisdom was not self-taught, but came from their parents, who received some from theirs, so that we find the command to honour one’s immediate parents is really a command to honour one’s ancestors. God’s people were even to honour ancient landmarks, to rise in the presence of the aged, to regard the gray head as a sign of gathered wisdom. So convinced were the Jewish people of the value of tradition, that Christ had to confront them with their unwarranted obedience to man-made traditions. This seems a far cry from modern evangelicalism, with its anti-traditional tradition. At least we can say that enough Christian voices are out there reminding believers that a church with no understanding of the past is amnesiac.

While no Christian would argue the importance of bringing value to the world, a Christian steeped in Scripture recognises the difference between what is permanent and what is current. Permanent things may or may not be currently popular (2 Timothy 4:2-4). But what is true, good, and beautiful is permanently pertinent to the life and well-being of a creature made in God’s image. Something current, on the other hand, may be one of countless spasmodic experiments in novelty that a godless culture will produce. The church that weds itself to a particular generation finds itself a widow in the next. Nothing is as irrelevant as a trendy church.

Those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones, are permanently relevant. Those enamoured with the wood, hay and stubble of the fashions of the day, may find little is left of their ministry at the Judgement Seat of Christ.

Ten Mangled Words – “Relevant”

Perhaps one of the great put-downs today is to be told that your church is not relevant, or that your preaching is not relevant to “the issues people are facing”. Being called irrelevant cuts a little deeper than being called intolerant; for if you’re cited for being intolerant, it merely means your teaching may have hit a nerve, whereas being called irrelevant is to be dismissed as useless, with a casual wave of the hand. We can handle having opponents to our view; being sloughed off as redundant is harder to stomach.

But as we keep listening, we soon realise that the word relevant has near-infinite flexibility in the minds of its abusers. Some mean something like “current”. Something is relevant if it represents what is novel, or contemporary. Relevance means something like what is currently being said, done, or used. Promoters of this meaning of relevance have a snobbish disdain for anything older than, say, the year of their birth. What’s new is true, what’s true is new, and therefore whatever is familiar is what is relevant.

Others, when speaking of relevance, have a vague notion of a something like importance, or value. Relevance is a measure of importance, even of urgency. Something is relevant if it has enough weight or force to merit attention, and if something is irrelevant, then it no longer carries the weight to demand our attention.

For others, relevance carries the idea of practical value. Something’s relevance is measured in terms of tangible effects and results. If it can achieve whatever end was set out for it, then it is relevant, and if not, it’s simply irrelevant. Similar to this, some think of relevance as intelligibility. If it seems too cerebral and abstract, it becomes, to them, irrelevant.

Still others think of relevance in terms of notoriety. If one has celebrity status (famous for being famous), thousands of followers, or some kind of fame, then one has consequent relevance. By implication, the anonymous and little-known must be, well, irrelevant. What is widely known is often widely loved, and so whatever is relevant must simultaneously be appealing to as many people as possible.

Smuggled into this mangled use of ‘relevant’ are a lot of assumptions. One is that the chief end of man is to appeal to his current generation’s lusts and appetites. A second is that the dead have nothing valuable to say to the living, and that the current generation represents the furthest man has come and the best he can be. A third is that if we focus mostly on means, the ends will take care of themselves, that instruments are more important than ideals. A fourth is that fame and power are forms of value that are necessary to a life of eternal significance.

These, and others, will be our delightful duty to demolish, to restore a sane and thoughtful use of the word relevance.

Without Wax

To recover the word sincerity from its current mangled form, we might remember some etymology. The etymology of sincerity is a favourite among preachers, and for good reason – it’s an interesting tale. It seems in the Graeco-Roman world, unscrupulous merchants had found a nifty way to sell otherwise useless cracked pottery. By using wax, which could be coloured to match the pottery, small or larger cracks in the clay could be concealed. Not repaired, mind you, merely concealed – for when the Mediterranean sun did its work, the wax in those pots would soften or even melt, and the pottery could collapse and lose its contents. Like the used car rigged to last just one test drive, pots with wax could impress while on the shelf, but not endure real-life use. At some point, merchants decided to offer a guarantee of sorts: in Latin, sine cera: “without wax”. The “sincere” pottery was simply the real deal, not hiding flaws that would render it useless.

While etymology doesn’t determine the meaning of words, the proper meaning of sincere is not far from its root. A sincere man is one without pretense, without deception. Sincerity is very close to what the Bible calls integrity: wholeness, consistency. A man with integrity does not have a private life which contradicts his public claims. His character is not shot through with waxed over fatal flaws. A sincere man is a man with integrity, who seeks to be as much on the inside what he is on the outside.

Sincerity has nothing to do with formality or informality. One can be completely sincere and observe custom, ritual, or manners. Conversely, one could throw off all formality, be as casual as a surfer on Sunday, but remain a hypocrite, having different faces for different places.

Sincerity also has nothing to do with how public you make your inner or private world. Many of our private moments should remain just so. Instead of supporting the weird exhibitionism and voyeurism that much social media encourages in all of us, we should foster a healthy privacy, without cultivating an unhealthy secrecy. Sincerity is not making a public confession where none was asked for, venting your frustration because you want to be “open and honest”, or expecting some kind of therapeutic listen-‘n-share group in the church.

Sincerity has nothing to do with how sensate your feelings are to you. While worship must come from a sincere heart (1 Timothy 1:5, Matthew 6:1-18, 15:8), that really has nothing to do with how intensely you feel your feelings in worship. On a given Lord’s Day, your physical condition, relative mental sharpness, or overall spiritual maturity may render your sense of your own affections less acute. That does not mean the worship was offered insincerely, or with the aim of impressing others, or to mask some monstrous sin.

Sincerity has nothing to do with how relaxed, casual, and familiar you feel. You may feel quite tense, nervous, or awkward, and be entirely sincere. Indeed, in circumstances or occasions of great moment, we would expect both sincerity and carefulness. It’s true that awkwardness can tempt men to posture and act seriously, so as to fit in. It’s equally true that casualness can tempt men to be flippant and profane so as to fit in.

Sincerity has everything to do with truth. The sincere man wants the truth of reality, so he does not immerse himself in amusement. He wants truth in his words, so he learns to say what he means and mean what he says. He wants truth about God and man rightly symbolised, so he does not fear custom, tradition, or formality, but can penetrate their meaning and use them sincerely. He wants truth about himself, so he is able to acknowledge his failures, even among other believers (James 5:16), without polluting the minds of others with graphic descriptions of his every sin (Eph 5:12). He wants truth in his own affections, so he works on chastening and training his affections to love what he ought to love, in the way he ought to love it (Phil 1:9-11), and not giving place to every emotion that emanates from his heart.

In short, the sincere man is wrestling against the deceptiveness of his own nature, fighting man-pleasing, pride, hypocrisy, and narcissism. The very last thing he needs is to become intensely self-conscious of just how sincere he is (compared to all those fake, phony people out there, you know). That’s like becoming proud of your achievements in humility.

Instead, he prays David’s prayer for truth in the innermost man (Ps 51:6). He repents of eyeservice. He seeks to love men, not please them. He does not “really want sincerity” as much as he sincerely wants reality.

As Real As I Feel

An assumption of a generation intoxicated with authenticity is the notion that feelings don’t lie. Given their spontaneous and often uncontrollable nature, emotions are seen as the inevitable and unstoppable eruptions of the heart. Breaking through the surface layer of ‘masks’, ‘forms’, or some other supposed act of evading one’s inner truth, emotions represent pure, authentic, sincerity. You’ll find this all over modern culture, and sadly, modern Christianity.

Witness the pop songs about ‘admitting how we feel about each other’, ‘surrender to what our hearts want’, ‘these feelings don’t lie’. A whole generation has been catechised by pop music to understand their emotions as truth, and repression of these feelings as both unhealthy and a form of deception.

Pop psychology has championed the cause of ‘listen to your heart’. Anger management classes include verbalising your anger to a present or absent object of your anger, venting one’s wrath through shouting, or even physical rage. I once sat bewildered in a “pastor’s” fraternal, where one pastor told the group that a suicide in his church had made him angry with God, and he felt it was healthy and healing to speak openly about his anger with God. The nodding and smiling heads around the table made me realise I was alone in my narrow theology of the book of Job.

Rare is the person today who doesn’t see value in telling a group all his heart, in “admitting how you feel”. Carl Roger’s encounter groups have taken on myriad forms, from group therapy, to market research focus groups, to church cell groups. Indeed, churches which don’t give people the chance to “express themselves” must be repressive, authoritarian institutions where the male leadership is too insecure to allow the healthy emotional expressions of its members’ spiritual struggles. Emotional catharsis is taken to be some of the healthiest purgation available: let it all out.

Christian worship has been almost completely colonised by this approach. Because worship is rightly to be an act of sincere love for God, the Christian brought up in this culture begins to think that unless he has a strong sensation of his own feelings during worship, he must be less than sincere, perhaps falling into ‘mere ritual’. So he pursues an intensity of feeling, closing his eyes to concentrate (usually scrunching up his face, too) hoping for the most emotive music, and longing for a preacher who can pull on the heartstrings. Many Christians go looking for churches that have perfected the emotive approach, and enough churches see the market in creating a form of worship where everyone can feel his feelings. Of course, they won’t call it “feeling your feelings”; they’ll call it it “connecting”, “creating a worshipful atmosphere”, “being authentic in our worship-expressions”. But it amounts to using music, lights, and atmospherics, to give a generation whose primary art form is the movie an experience of escapist-like sensations during worship.

Actually, this is a fairly old idea which keeps getting a fresh coat of paint each year. French philosopher Rousseau taught that man in his natural state is at his best. The noble savage, uncorrupted by pretentious European civilisation, is man at his most honest. So, too, is the man who does not manage and chasten his emotions, but lets them come out, raw and unfiltered. He is the sincere, authentic, Man of Passion.

Old-fashioned Romanticism, and its step-child sentimentalism, live upon these old lies. Feelings, like unrehearsed responses, represent our honest side; while feelings controlled and shaped represent inauthentic, phony people who just can’t “be themselves”.

Consider a contrasting view, by Roger Scruton:

In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse…[He was] right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject matter and the mere cultivation of effect…Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own.

 — Beauty

Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation, and deliberately placing some distance between us and what we are contemplating. By doing so, it avoids evoking impulsive and visceral reactions, and trains us, if we are patient with the process, to feel more carefully, and more circumspectly about the object portrayed.

Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfillment of desires, substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification.

To put it another way, art that lies takes shortcuts, shows us a mirror, and leads us to believe that hyped-up passions are evidence of how sincere and passionate we are, that our most superficial and immediate responses are the truest kinds. In reality, we are actually feeling less, like the hyper-emotional person who perpetually finds crisis and alarm in every situation. We don’t envy such a person; we pity her, because we know that her intoxication with her own feelings blinds her to feel more deeply or carefully about the world. She is self-consciously hyper-emotional, and so she uses her drama as a perpetual shield from patiently thinking and feeling as she should.

Try telling the average person that he needs to have his emotions and sentiments properly trained, and he will think you are from outer space. Tell a man that his first and immediate emotional responses will usually be wrong, malformed or inappropriate, and he will think you represent some Organisation for the Suppression of Human Happiness. But the Christian understands the strange propensity of the human heart to deceive itself, and realises his feelings are some of his least reliable members.

Sincerity and Profanity

Many pastors and Christian leaders believe they are purifying Christianity and worship when they remove any kind of formality from corporate worship. Formal dress, an exalted tone in prayer, or reverent music are eschewed for a more casual and informal approach. They appear to believe that retaining forms that are not immediately recognisable or penetrable by the average Christian represents an attempt to “appear religious”. To them, this is hollow priestcraft and chicanery. In fact, the term hocus pocus grew out of the medieval peasant’s presence at the Mass, where he would hear the priest say “this is the body of Christ” in Latin: hoc est corpus Christi. At some point, the hoc est corpus got mangled into hocus pocus. How bread became God was a kind of magic, impenetrable to the average peasant. Many modern Christian leaders believe divesting Christianity of formality will purify it of hocus pocus, and make it more sincere, authentic, and real. But this profoundly misunderstands the difference between the profane and the sacred.

Since Cain and Abel, man has understood that when something is performed, offered or used in an act of worship, that thing is set apart for that purpose. It is sacred. It is not always intrinsically so; it becomes sacred because it is so dedicated. It is sacred in purpose, not in makeup. This applies to animals, altars, human bodies, clothing, spaces, music, speech, times, even whole days or weeks or entire buildings. This is the act of consecration: setting things apart for holy uses. Once a common thing or place or time is set apart for worship, it is considered sacred.

The Mosaic Law made this point in hundreds of ways. Ordinary animals, utensils, tents, clothes would be consecrated and re-consecrated through sacrifices and ritual cleansings. When something was not consecrated or ritually cleansed, it was not to be used in worship, with dire penalties for disobedience. God kept explaining that by these acts of separating the ordinary from the sacred, Israel would be taught that God is holy: “that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean” (Lev. 10:10). God is other. And because He is other, He is not known or worshipped by what is purely familiar or common. Even in pagan worship, common things, such as shoes were to be left in front of the temple (Latin= pro fanum), not brought inside it. To bring the unconsecrated into a sacred space was to profane that space, and indeed, that god. To obliterate this distinction between what was specifically given for worship, and what was for use in ordinary life was an act of profaning the name of the Lord. To profane God is to drag God and His worship down to the level of the ordinary.

No one, in all these millennia, misunderstood the nature of sacred things. They knew that the wood of the altar is still wood. They knew that anointing oil is still oil, and that the Sabbath is another twenty-four hours like all others. They did not waste time pointing out that priestly linen was the same material as regular linen. Nevertheless, they knew that what was consecrated had changed in its purpose, and since that purpose was now sacred, the objects or space or time were to be considered such.

Although the New Testament church is no longer restricted to a Tabernacle or Temple, and although it is true that all of our lives are to be offered up as worship, this does not mean that we by this fact lose the distinction between the sacred and the profane, particularly regarding corporate worship. Romans 12:1 is not meant to profane worship; it is meant to consecrate the mundane. The Lord’s Day is still His day. Ministers still ought to dress as if they were handling the most serious message in the world. Christians still ought to dress as if they were going to appear before God. Prayer still ought to be speech set apart to speak to the Most High. The Bible still ought to be read and heard like no other book. The space we meet in still ought to be treated like a space given over to worship. In various ways, we New Testament believers still ought to show that what we set apart for worship has a consecrated purpose, and therefore we should treat it as sacred, and not as common.

However, the realness police do not understand this. They rightly recognise that all of life is sacred, but then they take this to mean that the difference between worship and life is precisely what they should eliminate. They must make worship seem as ‘real’ or familiar as driving, eating, or walking through the mall. That way, they reason, no pretense exists in worship.

But in fact, such people turn out to be destroyers. Their efforts do not elevate normal life to a state of consecration; instead, they debase everything. Instead of a deep sense of reality permeating worship, they end up with a profound sense of mundaneness in corporate worship. Instead of filling the Christian church with sincerity, they fill it with what is average. Life does not become elevated and consecrated; worship becomes predictable, everyday and ordinary. Awe and reverence is lost, and the small consolation is that “we’re all so real about it.” Like Titus, they tear away the veil, and find nothing is there, and feel satisfied that at least they’d removed the mask.

The very contrast between worship and everyday life is exactly what invests worship with its power and transformative force. The gap between the common and the sacred is what makes worship a numinous and spiritual experience. The sacredness of worship is precisely what engenders the fear of the Lord. When we tear away at form – those things and ways and acts that remind us that this occasion is sacred – we tear away at worship itself. Indeed, we tear away at our own dignity as being made in the image of God, and not mere animals concerned with the material. When we refuse the distinction between the sacred and the common, we are nothing more than what C.S. Lewis called trousered apes.

Do not despise consecration. Do not attribute the setting apart of worship as a sacred experience as a bunch of sham and pretence. Learn to embrace such consecration yourself. Recognise it is part of the way God teaches us that He Himself is holy.

The Colloquial, the Casual, and the Crafted

Those who call for ‘authenticity’, ‘realness’, and ‘sincerity’, are not always sure what they mean, if you press them for a definition. Some mean honesty, some others mean integrity, both of which are virtues the Bible commends and commands. But some of those calling for authenticity are really calling for a removal of formality from worship, communication, and life in general. Things formal are considered posed and vain, and therefore less than real. (Of course, objecting to what is supposedly posed and vain is a tad rich when coming from the take-a-selfie-and-edit-the-photo generation, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.) People like this believe that any move towards informality is a move towards honesty and openness. Casualness in dress, colloquialism in speech, and the absence of structure means everyone is being more spontaneous and ‘authentic’. Notice how many church websites advertise their meetings by promising a ‘relaxed atmosphere’, as if other churches are deliberately seeking a tense atmosphere. What these churches are really doing is agreeing that whatever feels formal (and therefore unspontaneous and perhaps unfamiliar) has no place in ‘authentic’ worship, and that the more familiar and casual it seems, the more it is ‘connecting’, and ‘real’.

A few years ago, a book came out that, in my opinion, made some remarkable observations.
Doing Our Own Thing (with the sub-title The Degradation of Music and Language and Why We Should, Like, Care) is written by John McWhorter, who, to my knowledge, makes no claim to be a Christian. McWhorter uses examples of letters, speeches, and debates to point to a major shift in our culture. He shows that until recently, most cultures have spoken in two voices. One voice is the everyday, conversational street language, with its slang, colloquialisms, repetition, and impreciseness. Everyday conversation includes a lot of hedging (“like”, “sort of”, “kind of like”, “y’know”), grammatical mistakes, and colloquial expressions. McWhorter has no complaint about this (nor do I), and documents historical examples of how the language on the street or in the kitchen has always been one voice that the culture uses.

The other voice is the voice used for speeches, written prose, sermons, and even letters. This form is eloquent, refined, precise, and polished. It is a tone of carefully-crafted words, adopted for specific occasions. It is quite remarkable to read the letters written by Civil War soldiers to their loved ones at home. The same men who would be speaking in perhaps a coarse and ragged manner on the battlefield would write home in tones of surprising eloquence and literary polish. Clearly, nineteenth-century men did not think that it was hypocrisy to use two different tones for different purposes and different audiences.

McWhorter shows, using examples of speeches and letters, that the tone of formal oratory and prose has been tending towards the conversational and colloquial since the 1960s. Speeches by senators in the 40s and in the early 2000s are markedly different. The formal tone is disappearing almost completely from our society. McWhorter suggests that the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s enshrined informality, and turned the wider culture against any form of artifice. Language that is carefully written, artfully constructed, and poetic in quality has come to be viewed as inauthentic, staged, and one more attempt by some intellectuals to lord it over the common man. Sincerity, authenticity, keeping it real, is represented by an off-the-cuff, everyday style in speaking and writing. Once again, McWhorter is not raging against the conversational language we all use. He is asking why those domains where language used to put on its Sunday best now prefer that it be in beach-clothes.

This has major implications for Christians, and for Christian leaders. When we consider the prayers of the psalms, are these colloquial, conversational prayers, or are they eloquently written? Undoubtedly, David spoke to his soldiers in everyday language, but when he addressed God in poetry, and particularly when representing the nation in prayer, he adopted an elevated tone. Or consider, are the sermons of Scripture, such as the book of Hebrews, informal ‘chats’, or are they carefully written examples of rhetoric? Remove the tone of eloquent address from a culture, and you have hamstrung it from reverent worship.

To turn again to Richard Weaver, we find a gem of insight in this statement: “Unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance”. To put it another way, when people wish to express themselves in the tone of carefulness and reverence (as worship certainly requires), their expression needs the guidance of form. Speeches need introductions, propositional statements, main points, illustrations, supporting arguments, conclusions and an elevated vocabulary. Poetry needs a particular metre, rhyme scheme, line length, metaphor and other devices. Whatever the device used for human expression, it has a form that such expression must be poured into, like water into a mould. Apart from the mould, water will simply splatter randomly on the floor.

Weaver is suggesting that human expression is just like that. Remove the artifices of form (which the formal tone of address requires), and human expression tends towards ignorance, which is exactly why the casual and colloquial tone is not where we find the clearest thought or the deepest insight. If the thoughts and sentiments of people are never channelled by the discipline of formal speech or poetry, they tend to become disorganised, disparate, and, in a word, chaotic. And chaos does not enlighten or educate anyone, nor it is more real, authentic, or sincere. Think: the unprepared extemporaneous preacher, the painful testimony time monopolised by one long-winded and imprecise person, the rambling and circuitous public prayer, and ‘what this verse means to me’ Bible studies. Ironically, when churches tolerate or foster this kind of thing in the name of sincerity and authenticity, the fog of ignorance and vacuousness of thought that grows is doing the very opposite of getting to the heart of things, or increasing ‘transparency’, ‘realness’, and authenticity.

In my own life, I have experienced the difference it has made to recognise and practice these two tones. During the day, I cannot pray as succinctly or concisely as I might like, so my prayer is made up of momentary phrases, short observations, even unarticulated sentiments – a lot more conversational and colloquial, without, I hope, being irreverent. But in times of private devotion, I have found that a short, carefully worded, ‘prayer of address’ is far more helpful to thoughtful worship, than a lot of rambling conversational prayer and consequent wandering of mind. Like a letter, such a prayer cannot be long, for most of us cannot sustain that kind of precision for very long. But the clarity, reverence, and, ironically, sincerity it brings has been very helpful to me. This also explains why Christians have often written down some of their prayers, because they are artfully-composed addresses to God. No one writes down his conversational impromptu prayers, nor have the sermons of ramblers been recorded for posterity.

Similarly in corporate worship, well-written hymns, well-thought-out prayers, well-crafted sermons and other well-prepared aspects of corporate worship are not acts of hypocrisy, posturing, or quenching the Spirit. They respect form, and use it for beauty, reverence, and precise expression. Where form is respected and steadily explained, it not only shapes our expression, it further refines it. Long-term exposure to well-formed expression has a maturing effect on our own. Our minds start to think in those forms. We find ourselves praying better prayers. Our spontaneous testimonies are more succinct, and more edifying. Our extemporaneous teaching has substance. But when we adopt only the colloquial tone for our corporate worship, we will end up losing not only the thoughtfulness and beauty of the elevated tone, but coherence and substance in the conversational tone also.

Christians would do well to oppose the counter-culture’s emphasis on informality as authenticity. Our own Bible is a formal document, obeying literary forms, and giving us examples of worship that followed such forms. It is time to realise that the use of artifice does not mean we are artificial, that when we adorn our speech, we are not necessarily disguising our meaning, and that when we prepare our expressions, we have not evacuated them of heartfelt sentiment. In fact, like the Psalms, our best expressions of worship, and therefore our most authentic responses to Him, will be those we carefully craft.