Few disagree that reverence is to be in the heart of the true believer. But few agree on what expression reverence should take. Some regard contemporary Christian music as intrinsically irreverent. Some regard it as deeply devout.
Some of our modern difficulty lies in the fact that folk cultures that developed in distinct geographical areas have now been blended into a mixed mass culture, which is really no culture at all. Technology and the economics of the city brings together those who hail from very different traditions, where reverence was expressed very differently. The resulting mishmash increases a sense of relativism and pluralism.
Consider some almost amusing examples. In Western culture, when a visitor or guest enters the room, one stands to show honour. In some African traditions, remaining seated demonstrates hospitality, because standing up is what you do to challenge an intruder. For some African ethnicities, a man should enter a room ahead of women, so as to function as a protector for the women following him. By contrast, Western cultures descended from chivalric traditions demonstrate honour to a lady by opening the door for her or allowing her to enter first. Many Western traditions regard loudness as rude and relative quiet as a sign of respect to one’s neighbour, and so voices are lowered to an almost whisper when in company of strangers. Some African traditions regard lowered voices as an act of secretive exclusion of others and therefore insulting to the neighbour, whereas loud voices in public demonstrate openness and friendliness to neighbours. Westerners regard eye contact as the sign of honesty and personal interest and regard a lack of eye contact as either evasive dishonesty or dismissive indifference and boredom. In some African traditions, only a superior looks directly at a subordinate; the subordinate shows deference and respect by looking down and away at all times, even when speaking.
These examples illustrate the fact that expressions of reverence can differ so radically between folk cultures as to be opposite in their varying expressions. This presents little problem to the church mostly isolated from mass culture, and more or less homogenous in its membership. But when varying ethnicities are thrown together in one place, and in one church, then deciding what constitutes expressions of reverent worship is far from a simple decision. Moreover, mass culture complicates things further by portraying its own stereotypes of reverence in its movies, TV shows and songs. How do we find our way out of this morass?
Perhaps the problem is not as extreme as it sounds. After all, once all these ethnicities have lived together in one place for some time, general standards of respect and deference emerge. Forms of greeting, dress codes, postures and manner in esteemed places, such as courts, gravesides and some places of worship once again become broadly standardised. In fact, with the exception of the notoriously obnoxious tourist, perhaps most people want to learn the code of conduct that governs a place, and at least respect it while there. Moreover, second and third generations of transplanted ethnicities blend into the society with much greater ease, and adopt the codes of conduct current for that time and place.
The more serious problem for the Christian is when even broadly understood reverence begins to disappear from the wider secular culture. When language is increasingly vulgarised, dress becomes almost universally casual, titles and honorific are despised, authority and hierarchy is torn down, and art celebrates the trivial, the familiar, the casual and the profane, then even the common grace of a “norming norm” of reverence in a culture has been withdrawn. This is the problem mentioned in the last post: when entire eras or generations lose the meaning of reverence.
We can navigate the questions of sitting down or standing up, speaking softly or loudly, clapping hands or folding them, as long as the concepts of reverence, submission, wonder and deference are in the hearts of believers. Learning another’s expressions of reverence is like learning another’s differing words for objects and actions. Language acquisition is possible between people of normal capacity. Warm Christian love will seek to outdo one another in showing honour, and respecting each other’s conscience. But when the very concept of reverence begins to fade from the hearts of believers, it is no longer a question of gestures, posture and tone of voice.
In the next post, I’ll propose a solution that as Chesterton put it, has not been tried and found wanting, but has been found difficult and so seldom tried.