Thursday, January 16, 2014

Prompted for good. . .

The sad and mournful cry of Sarah McLaughlan's On the Wings of an Angel has become permanently entered into my consciousness with the image of an abused dog.  The commercials are quite effective at marshaling up the forces of sentiment and guilt in support of a noble cause.

We could name a dozen or more commercials that do a good job of marrying music and image to prompt us to tear up and to feel sympathy for this cause of that.  Nearly all of them are good causes and we should be supporting them whether we feel an emotional attachment and a tinge of guilt or not.  Over time, however, the images and music have to be ramped up to remain effective or we will have grown numb to the emotional tug and the guilt that once moved us to do what is right.

There is great danger in transforming faith into sentiment, in judging the success of the Gospel by a burst of emotion, and defining faith in terms of feeling.  While these work well in the beginning, they grow less and less effective over time.  In fact, sentiment tends, over time, to prompt less action and more inaction.  That is why the subtle learning from the charismatic and pentecostal segment of Christianity, especially in terms of worship and what happens on Sunday morning, has had such a deleterious effect upon mainline churches.  We thought we were borrowing songs and a style but with those songs and a style came a complete redefinition of faith, worship, and piety.  Faith became an emotional response to an emotive prompting.  Worship (and particularly the music of worship) became a sacramental effort to create intimacy, a pious tug at the heart strings, a means of establishing community, and a build up to the emotional peak of the service, the sermon.  Piety because the impossible effort to sustain the emotional level or the pursuit of alternative means of obtaining the desired "high" that discovers God's presence and favor.

How many times can you watch those abused animal commercials before the power of the music and the image begin to fade?  How often can you be brought to an emotional fervor by the same music or the same pattern of worship?  In the end, the effect not only wears off but it breeds inactivity and immunity to the cause.  We live in a world awash in an emotional style of Christianity, in which feeling substitutes for objective truth,  It has certainly resulted in the feminization of Christianity and the Church but it has also contributed toward the fearful, uncertain, in constant need of reaffirmation style of faith so vulnerable to doubt and despair.

So what are we to do?  We must reassert the Christianity of our fathers, in which doctrine was taken seriously enough to be the subject of dispute, in which intimacy with God was no feeling but the fruit of our participation in the means of grace where His promise is attached to earthly element, and to the knowledge of God's Word which gives us confidence of our salvation.  We must reassert the Small Catechism as the signal work that ties catechesis and personal piety together in the ordinary calling of daily life.  We must reassert the didactic hymnody of the Lutheran Chorale which sings what God has said so that we might carry with us no mere melody but the song of faith throughout the day.

What will happen if we do not stop this slide is that the emotional "high" of entertainment worship and its musical sacramental style of worship will grow old and tiresome, we will search for something to replace the feeling, a search which will take us further and further from the cross, from the authentic Gospel of Christ crucified, and from our confidence that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.  Then we will wake up one day to find that we are no longer sure we believe anything because we no longer feel it.  Once that happens, we become calloused and hardened even more to the voice of the Word and the power of the Spirit.  And, as St. Paul several times expressed, the Gospel will have been spoken in vain to us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish our pastors wouldn't cave into the pressures of the praise people.