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Resolving the debate over expressions of reverence is difficult. More than one reason could account for a clash in expressions of reverence between ethnicities, or even between generations of people belonging to the same ethnicity or culture.

First, there can simply be ethnolinguistic differences. Gestures, like words, function as signs and symbols of deeper realities. Different words that point to the same reality are not contradictory. They merely require translation. One culture might see standing as respectful, while the other sees remaining seated as respectful. While it is impossible to do both at the same time, translation would enable the two cultures to see that respect was the goal of the differing gestures. This difference in expression for the same meaning is not fundamentally problematic for reverence. The next two reasons, however, are.

Second, there can ignorance over meaning. Children are often rude, not out of a desire to offend, but because of ignorance of the forms and conventions that characterise polite company. This ignorance often continues in adults and their sub-cultures, who grow older in total ignorance of the meaning of respect, reverence, and of the forms that express it. This ignorance does not constitute total innocence on their part, for the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and self-understanding is an obligation laid upon every thinking man.

Imagine, for a moment, a biker gang that greets one another with an obscene hand gesture. They understand the offensiveness of the gesture in biker sub-culture, and delight in the very coarseness of making an insult into a greeting. By some strange machination of pop culture and mass media, this greeting finds its way into mainstream life, and after a few years, polite adults are now using this hand gesture to greet one another. Question: are the polite adults guilty of disrespect and coarseness? The answer is that they are, and they do not realise it. Their ignorance of the meaning of the gesture does not change its meaning; it only makes them foolish for adopting what they do not understand. This is true of musical forms, poetic forms, word connotations, slang, dress, body piercings or markings, hair, tone of voice and many other media of meaning. Now, it may be true that after many decades of use, the gesture is so widespread that its original obscene meaning fades altogether (assuming there was nothing obviously and intrinsically obscene in it). At this point, the culpability for using what was originally rude is no longer present. Except where the meaning is intrinsic, meaning does change with time.

Disrespect is sometimes sourced in ignorance, and the nearer in time we are to the disrespectful form, the less excuse we have for not knowing its meaning.

Third, and similarly, expressions of reverence are missed because of desensitisation. That is, our consciences are malleable things, and what shocks and scandalises today can become quite tedious and accepted tomorrow. Exposure to and acceptance of irreverence eventually normalises it. Again, this does not change the rudeness of the form; it only changes the reception it receives. One simply cannot function in a state of perpetual shock, or remain permanently scandalised by irreverent dress, music, advertising and marketing all around us. “There is no fear of God in their eyes” is the warning Scripture gives us of the world, so we should not be surprised that the culture emerging from godlessness is irreverent, casual, flippant, cocky and outrageous. The difficulty is the ancient one of all believers: Christians must be in this irreverent world, but not of it. We have to continually return to acts of reverent worship in private and public if we are to escape the coarsening of our own consciences, with the inevitable cynicism and jadedness towards things of awe and wonder.

Where then can we go to find out if perhaps our own expressions of reverence have been polluted by coarse and rude forms from our own era? If we are immersed in it, then we speak with its accent, and cannot hear anything wrong with it. How would we know if we have been desensitised or become ignorant to meaning?

“He who knows only his own generation remains forever a child” said Santayana. Our only escape is into the past. The Christianity of the past provides us with the writings, liturgies, hymns, music, poems, prayers, homilies, sermons, paintings, sculptures of many, many Christians, from many different places. Their geographic spread, linguistic variety and chronological distance remove any question of copycatting among them. But it is within the vastness of this tradition that we find surprising similarities, and remarkable equivalences. It is not simply what these men and women say that sounds similar, it how they say it. How they address God, how they sing to Him, how they petition Him, how they speak of knowing and loving Him is surprisingly, and encouragingly, consistent. That is, consistent until you reach the era of mass media, when popularity, not beauty, becomes the measure of value. Christians inherited and built upon a living tradition of reverence for God until mass culture turned even worship into a commodity.

If you want to sense the difference in reverence between contemporary Christianity and pre-American Civil War Christianity, read widely in the historical Christian tradition, and read much. Read the liturgies of the Eastern and Western church. Read the homilies and prayers of the ante-Nicene Fathers. Read the books and sermons of the mystics, the Reformers and the Puritans. Read the hymns of the Lutherans, the Pietists and the Methodists. Hear the sacred music of Palestrina, Allegro, Haydn. Then return to your own day, and ask, who is speaking like that today? Who is using 21st-century vocabulary to set the same tone, address God in the same posture, and evoke the same affections towards God?

If you struggle to find examples, then our contemporary debate about expressions of reverence may not be a question of interchangeable external gestures between different “styles” of music and expression. It may be because, as secular writer John McWhorter suggests, our entire culture is discarding the formal for the colloquial, the reverent for the casual. We’ve become, as a people, irreverent.

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  1. Avatar David

    Duane Cook

    Thanks, David, for this insightful article.

    One of the popular phrases of disdain in our culture here in the USA is the particularly vulgar, “That sucks!” (I suspect it is equally ubiquitous in SA.) I have repeatedly heard it used with alarming regularity by my fellow believers, even by pastors. When I first heard this phrase spoken by one of my close brothers I was taken aback. I am currently retired, but made my career working in the trades, so you can imagine the type of language I regularly heard on the job. But to hear vulgarity from the lips of one of my pastors pushed me to confront him by simply asking him to finish the phrase. Sucks what? It served the purpose and he apologized for offending me. However, I think he only tried to refrain from its use in my presence, since I have subsequently heard him use it freely when speaking to others. This sort of worldly encroachment into our Christian subculture pains me. It has regretfully also served to lower my opinion of one of my dear brothers in Christ.

    Thanks again for this blog. I follow it regularly and am always enlightened.

  2. Avatar David


    Hi David. Thanks for the article on reverence. I’d be interested in your perspective on two biblical passages – David dancing in his linen ephod and the tax collector beating his breast in the temple, repenting before the Lord. From a cultural, outward view of meaning, I can see how both of these examples could be seen to fall short of appearing reverent, yet they are celebrated in scripture because in each case the intent and heart behind the actions was pure. How do you interpret these passages?

  3. Avatar David


    Hi Chris, thanks for the question. Of the two examples, the tax collector is easier to answer, only because the symbol of beating the breast is more foreign to us. Beating one’s chest was a common sign of mourning in Oriental cultures. In fact, it is still practised by various Arabic, Persian and semitic cultures. To publicly perform a rite of mourning would not have been considered irreverent, the opposite in fact. It was a sign of public humiliation, akin to tearing one’s clothes, or putting ash on the head.
    The matter of David dancing is more difficult to us because of the associations that Westerners have with dance, and assume that David was doing some kind of jive or boogie.
    In reality, David was performing a kind of liturgical rite, a celebratory, ritual dance. The closest link we have to this would be the folk dances still present in some cultures, or the marching bands or war dances still performed on special occasions. These dances are usually monosex, colourful, symbolic, and without the sensual and sexual overtones of Western nightclub dancing. His dance was also not in the context of corporate worship, as much as it was a parade: a national celebration of the return of the Ark – a perfect occasion for a folk dance of celebration.
    A great article on the place of dance can be found here:

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