What is a good aesthetics of worship?
I went to a Good Friday service today at a church I don’t normally go to. There was a full-sized cross in the centre of the room. The seats were arranged in four separate groups, all facing the cross. In front of the stage, there were candles to represent the life of Jesus (they were snuffed out during the service). On the stage, there was a mandolin, a guitar, a cello and some cymbals. Spotlights put the emphasis on the cross, and to a lesser extent, the stage.
I couldn’t help comparing it to the Good Friday service that would be held at the church I grew up in: A few plants to the right and left of the pulpit. The pipes of the pipe-organ. A piano opposite the organ. Not austere, exactly. Simple. Not wildly imaginative.
The set-up in this church initially appealed to my artistic side. I checked their website, and it was the same way. (The design of a church website can tell you a lot about a church.) The worship leaders had excellent voices. As the service progressed, you could see that everything about the experience was planned to make you have an emotional reaction to Christ’s death.
I had a range of reactions. First, I felt uncomfortable, because Christ’s suffering was put in my face, and I’d been preoccupied with a lot of other things up to that point. It took a physical piece of wood to remind me of the actual crucifixion, and even then I was having some difficulty responding emotionally to it. Christians should be aware of the cost of sin more often than once a year, but if, like me, you had trouble mustering the emotions you’re supposed to feel about the cross on the one day of the year that specifically commemorates Jesus’ death, maybe you need to reshuffle your priorities.
When two people started hammering nails haphazardly into the cross, though, I felt the aesthetics of the experience wobble dangerously. We’d crossed into bathos. I say that as gently as possible. I don’t think difference in worship is a bad thing unless it fails to serve the point of worship. And I’m obviously no expert in leading church services. But this did seem a little silly to me. It didn’t do justice to the moments when Christ was nailed to the cross.
While the hammering was going on, the pastor was reading a series of texts from the Psalms. He read very well. His voice broke at all the parts you would imagine David’s voice breaking at. I would like to hear him deliver a dramatic monologue from Richard II, and that thought seriously did occur to me during the service. In this context the reading didn’t quite work though, because he was acting instead of reporting. It was David who suffered in the Psalms, it was Christ who suffered on the cross, so why didn’t he tell it like that? I think what he wanted was to remind everyone of how bad Christ’s suffering was, but part of me refused to go along with it. Not because I am too squeamish to think about what it would actually be like to have nails driven through your hands and feet, though I certainly don’t like thinking about that, but because the performance wasn’t believable. And really, how could it be?
After that we sang a few more songs, and I was a bit more emotional in the way I think a person should be about Good Friday. Then the service was over. The pastor had said that it was not a celebration but a commemoration, so we were to leave in silence. No one said a word, even after we had all exited the church (except for a guy who said sorry to me when he surprised me in the bathroom – I hadn’t locked the door properly). Everyone got in their cars and left. At the end I simply felt strange. Are we supposed to be somber until Monday? I’ve never seriously considered that before.
Anyway, the experience got me thinking. If that wasn’t a good aesthetics of worship, what is? How much does my background influence my judgment? Clearly worship is an activity that doesn’t work if it isn’t wholly focused on its object, Christ. The more you notice how the activity is done, the less it succeeds in doing what it’s supposed to do. In that sense it’s stupid to talk about this as I have been, with a lit. crit. kind of interest in aesthetics for its own sake, instead of simply writing a blog post about how thankful I am for Christ’s death (and resurrection). Even the phrase “aesthetics of worship” has the unfortunate quality of an academic buzzword about it. I think, though, that there is a kind of beauty inherent in credible worship. A simple, straightforward focus on telling the truth in words that most people can understand. An aesthetic worth writing a blog post about.
There’s some subjectivity to credibility, of course. I naturally distrust people who gush. But there are some people who gush sincerely, and if someone gushes sincerely words to the effect that Jesus is Lord, that’s beautiful too. Maybe I could stand to learn something from that person. Maybe sharing the gospel is like writing poetry: to be credible, to be moving, you have to be “on the inside”. You have to give up that sophisticated pretense of complete objectivity – that stance that imagines itself on the outside, somehow evaluating without bias all the different narratives that claim to be the truth. You have to be able to “gush” about Christ. I hate saying it that way, because I know how hard it is for me to take Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses seriously when they don’t seem able to consider the possibility that it might be their belief that’s warping the truth. I imagine they feel the same way about me. But it’s difficult to honestly try to evaluate everything neutrally (which means not exactly the way people on the inside evaluate things) at the same time as being honestly committed to one point of view (which means being on the inside).
(I’m just realizing as I type this that I’ve drifted a little from an aesthetics of worship to an aesthetics of sharing the gospel. In theory, the aesthetic should carry over because I mean worship in the corporate sense, which includes the preaching of the gospel, but the distinction is still worth making.)
In the end, I wonder whether performing, eg hammering nails into a cross with ball peen hammers during the Good Friday service, is less appropriate than reporting, eg telling the events as they happened, or if performing is just another kind of “gushing.”
“These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning…”
[Edited to improve clarity]