pre-modern & modern worship elements

A friend/colleague of mine emailed me this question and attached quote:

I came across a lengthy quote in a primer book on Postmodernism on the topic of premodern/postmodern vs modern worship. I’d be interested in your reflections on this too? Does it seem accurate? Here it is. Thanks for your insights…

“The difference between teaching and practice is simply one element of a wider difference about how the self is best formed in worship. Fundamentally, the question is, do people become better Christians through basically intellectual means, or do they need a heavy dose of non-intellectual influence? The latter option is the premodern answer—and, coming full circle, the postmodern answer too. All the elements of the premodern worship experience are designed to influence the believer in a God-ward direction. That explains why premodern cathedrals are architecturally impressive, why the music aims for grandeur, why the liturgy is conducted in elevated language, why the altar and liturgical implements are decorated for beauty and treated with reverence, and why parishioners in these churches sometime genuflect or cross themselves. In contrast, modern-oriented low-church Protestants never bow or cross themselves, they simply close their eyes rather than kneel to pray in church, their architecture is unremarkable, their churches contain no visual art, and their music is relatively bland. The this-world elements of a modern Protestant service are designed to stay out of the way, to keep from interfering with the heart-to-heart, or mind-to-mind, communication between preacher and congregation, and between God and his people.

In a postmodern world, there is no particular reason that church services should remain the way they were instituted during the modern period. Some changes have already begun. As postmodern Christians have begun to arrange their own services, they typically juxtapose hold and new elements, for example using Powerpoint presentations in candlelight ceremonies. This kind of juxtaposition expresses a laudable desire to assimilate the best of the old and new, reaching into both the past and then future without fear of either. One of the deep questions at stake in the design of a service, however, as I have been pointing out, is how you think about the self. Are people basically influenced through their reason, so that teaching should be the focus? Through their emotion, so that music and art should be emphasized? Through certain habitual patterns of activity, so that liturgical practices out to be established? And how socially contructed are we, so that old and young, white and black and Latino, working class and middle class, modern and postmodern would benefit differently from different types of service? The contours of the postmodern self—if there is one single type that qualifies as “the postmodern self,” and there probably isn’t—are just beginning to be outlined. The worship of the future may look like nothing we have every seen before. Or it may borrow a lot from the worship of premodern Christians.” (Heath White, Postmodernism 101, Brazos Press, 83-84)

My response to him:

I’d say the answer to Heath’s early questions in paragraph two is “Yes to all.” IOW, I believe we need to engage and attend to mind, heart, soul, spirit, emotions, intellect, reason, familiar patterns, etc. at each worship gathering somehow (at least, at its best).

The question that I believe is the really difficult one is: “…how socially contructed are we, so that old and young, white and black and Latino, working class and middle class, modern and postmodern would benefit differently from different types of service?” I’d say that one can transcend the former questions (above) but may need to segment the kind of people gathered around this final question.

For me, ideally, I would like to believe that in Christ we can integrate all peoples, tribes and tongues. At Ebenezer (my new church home in Minneapolis, MN), we just might get to attempt this.

Otherwise, I’d say what Heath says/writes is on target. I’m not so sure about how some people would respond to some pre-modern elements brought into the worship gathering, but I’m very much interested in incorporating Christian worship forms that are meaningful for today’s context.




  1. Pingback: Postmodernism 101 with Heath White: Homebrewed Christianity ep. 24 | Homebrewed Christianity - September 18, 2008

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