I have been doing some reading and thinking about “aesthetics” vs “ethics” in relation to worship. this harkens back to the presentation that I did in Melbourne.
my first few assertions went something like this:
Church education must be bilingual, forming people in the “language” and world-view of faith and with the capacity to engage with the “language” of society.
The task of liturgy is to fund a counter-imagination of the world.
(both of the above drawing on Brueggemann’s article “The Legitimacy of a Sectarian Hermeneutic” in Mary Boys’ “Education for Citizenship and Discipleship”) I used banksy’s Palestine graffiti as an illustration of a counter-imagination being funded from beyond the churches.
I also quoted Marva Dawn in relation to the above but then went on to say that:
The tensions in worship have (wrongly) been more about aesthetics than ethics.
I talked about the ways in which John Smith from the God’s Squad, and Yoder and Hauerwas, and a family of Mennonites have influenced me to see the gospel as counter-cultural, and yet question the cultural ‘stylings’ of both evangelicalism and post-liberalism.
It is clearly the case that some of the “seeker-sensitive” worship movement has focused on culturally familiar forms without sufficient questioning of the imperial, political and consumerist challenges of the gospel. Marva Dawn and others have quite rightly been critical of that. However…
Worship that seeks to engage contemporary culture has often been criticised as seeking to be ‘relevant’ or ‘entertaining’, as if the aim instead was to mystify or bore people. However, it could be argued that much of 20th century worship has been about using foreign cultural forms to reinforce dominant societal values. As I see it, this ‘alternative worship’ movement asks - Which is to be preferred – a culturally foreign church with an innocuous message or a culturally familiar church with a provocative message? In other words, part of the ‘alternative’ being sought is a faith community which is culturally engaged yet promotes and fosters radical discipleship. Alternative worship seeks to offer an unfamiliar word through familiar culture, rather than a familiar word through unfamiliar culture. “Alternative church” seeks to speak an alternative to a socially and politically culturally domesticated “church”.
I have been helped by a UK Professor of English and musicologist Simon Frith to see that society’s high culture – low culture distinctions in music (think Wagner versus the Pet Shop Boys) are highly questionable, and that these same distinctions have permeated the church. Frith’s analysis would take some time to unpack.
Some of Frith’s message is about the importance appreciation of an art form or genre from the inside. He suggests that those who disparage particular cultural movements, particularly from on high, don’t realise the levels of craft, values and politics contained. But he also contrasts the formulation of classical music with the formulation of African music to indicate the different social processes involved in different types of music. By comparing two different cultures he highlights that it is in fact cultural values and practices that are at stake.
It is partly because of his thinking that I think that Marva Dawn is just plain wrong about some of her cultural analysis.
I once said in a throwaway line that youth ministry should be more concerned about lifestyle than about style. I suspect that the same issue is true for liturgy. Good alternative worship seeks to bring an authentic ‘word’, however alien, radical or disturbing it may be, in familiar cultural forms that allow that word to begin its work of revelation and transformation.
My intention then was to use Rick Bull (aka “Deepchild”)’s song/animation “What’s Going Wrong?” and the “Postcard Secrets” (Psalm 139) clips as examples, but I had already run out of time.
The next bit is about mono-cultures and multi-cultures, India and Newbiggin.
In a postmodern world, we need to look to cross-cultural mission for insights about the nature of Christian worship and community beyond the ‘mainstream’.
These concerns are in the arena of contextual theology, cultural ‘translation’, and ‘indigenous’ worship.
John Witlivet, in his chapter about the relationship between liturgy and culture, identifies 8 different bodies of knowledge that bear upon the question – liturgical history, missiology, cultural anthropology, cultural cricitsm, contextual theology, social ethics, ritual studies and liturgical inculturation.
But he basically boils the worship and culture question down to two areas:
liturgical expression within a culture and liturgical expression across cultures.
I know that for some of you this is old hat, but the whole exercise helped me to string a number of things together and begin to present them to people for whom it was mainly new, so to speak.
But I’ve been reading Robert Johnston’s “Reel Spirituality” and trying to chart the aesthetics vs ethics thing in the light of that.
That will have to be the next post…