“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Paul, as recorded in Acts 17:22-23
Like first century Athens, we live in a world that is very religious. Only the worshipper next door probably doesn’t think of themselves as a worshipper; we’re taught more to think of ourselves as ‘thinkers’ by our education system, as ‘doers’ by the market, as ‘lovers’ by our popular culture, as ‘meaning makers’ by the self-help industry and as ‘consumers’ by advertisers. But at the heart of all these concepts is the engine of our humanity that gives them their power; we are worshippers. We like to tell ourselves that these pictures of who we are, or some combination of them, is what we need to tap into to become better versions of ourselves. We believe we need more education, better jobs, more fulfilling relationships, we need to create something more meaningful of our world, or we just need to buy better toys, and everything will turn out better. These ideas of what it means to be human don’t just create themselves; they have champions. Worship warriors. Carrying the can for their particular vision of the good life and embodying it. Like the personal trainer who very clearly worships at the gym in pursuit of their idealised body, or the university professor who has a pretty clear view of the ideal educational sausage who should be produced by their institution… where Athens had the gatekeepers to the Parthenon and the temple priests on every corner, we have all sorts of people presenting and promoting all sorts of religious visions of who we are; whether they know we’re worshippers or not.
People of the 21st century, I see that in every way, we are very religious.
We use our heads, our hearts, and our hands, our money, our time, and our energy, to worship. Just like the Athenians; only we don’t tend to make statues or altars. We are as some put it ‘liturgical animals’ — we are shaped into the image of whatever it is we pursue with all these parts of us, and all that we have.
This is the fourth, and perhaps penultimate, post in this series which began by arguing that the ‘traditional’ way the worship wars have been conceived; as a battle for the style of music or service in the Sunday gathering, misses the much bigger enemy because the fundamental truth about us humans is we become what we worship. The second post suggested that how we worship also shapes us, not simply when it comes to church gatherings but our habits or liturgies that we adopt day-to-day; the implications here were that Sunday isn’t enough when it comes to the worship wars. The third post used pornography as an example of an idolatrous counter-liturgy to test the framework and to show what is at stake. In this post I’m hoping to start to flesh out what the implications are for how we fight in the worship wars.
If you think fighting the worship wars; or being equipped to fight the worship wars; is just about the style of service you put on for an hour and a half on a Sunday, or how often you do the Sacraments, or whether the music you play is contemporary or traditional, you’re actually engaging in a civil war; and the real enemy is winning. If you think worship is just a thing you do on a Sunday, and that’s meant to somehow sustain you for a week of running around in a world saturated with other gods begging for your attention and seducing you; if church is a ‘worship’ event for you, and not a community of worshippers; if you think the answer to our problems as Christians, or the answer for your neighbour, is that we should first know more, think more, work more, love more, earn more, experience more, or buy more then you will lose. And you’ll die. And so often these are the answers we turn to when trying to shore up our faith; they’re all part of what it means to be human, and all at the table when it comes to how we change and grow, but they’re all sub-sets of worship; they’re all part of how we organise our living and our loving around some central idea about what real humanity should look like, and where we should be directed so that we flourish.
1. Fighting the war means knowing who we are and knowing our enemies.
‘Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl — Madonna, Material Girl
It’s an old song now; but Madonna’s Material Girl expresses a perceptive take on reality; on the relationship between us and the world we live in. We’re not consumers so much as conformers.
Our world is not neutral; it shapes us, and it mostly does this subconsciously as we live in it following the script of whatever story we’ve bought into or designed for ourselves about what the good life looks like; which whether we’re religious or not, is ultimately a reflection of the thing we worship, or centre our lives on, as our ‘god’ or ‘gods’… What we do, how we live, how we participate in this world shapes us. You believe the world is material; and it’s matter that matters, then you’ll be a materialistic person; pursuing as much of that matter as you can, probably the sort of matter that delivers you the most pleasure or power. You’ll assess your relationships on the things that ‘matter’ — and that, is it not, is what Madonna’s song is all about?
We live in a world full of scripts; whether it’s the technology we use (where our experience is guided by algorithms on platforms that are guided by commercial imperatives but tell us ‘mythic’ stories about what they might deliver), or the stories we live (religious or just our picture of our own flourishing that guides us), or the media we consume, we’re always taking a next step according to some design (even an attempt at randomness and spontaneity reveals a script of some sort). These scripts shapes us; our world — the stage on which we play — shapes us too. We evolve in a manner shaped by our environment — not just as a species, but as individuals living in our world. This happens as we introduce new tools; a pattern observed in the discipline of media ecology, the founder of this movement, Marshall McLuhan, developed most of his insights from a framework informed by the promise of Psalm 115 that those who worship idols — created things — become like them. McLuhan noticed that our media, in fact, any new technology introduced into an ecosystem, shapes both us and the system (it was McLuhan who coined the term “the media is the message” too). For McLuhan this spiritual and material reality meant no space is neutral; no medium is neutral; everything has the capacity to shape us if we allow it to become our script. Our liturgy (to borrow James K.A. Smith’s insights).
Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
One of McLuhan’s followers in the media ecology discipline was Father John Culkin, a Jesuit priest and media academic. He said:
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
That’s an axiom that holds when we consider idolatry and neuroscience, and one I quoted earlier in this series. This explains how and why social media changes our brain (the subject of another lengthy series from a few years back).
This is where the key battleground is for the worship wars. Everything in this world has the potential to shape you; because every thing we interact with has its own script; it’s own sense of what the good human life looks like; from Facebook, to pornography, to James K.A Smith’s shopping centre example, to how we do church together; the traditional worship wars weren’t misguided in arguing that how we do church matters; they were just focusing on one battle and missing the war. Fighting the worship wars means first knowing this about ourselves; knowing that we have the potential to be our own worst enemy, that our desires and actions might shape us in ways that take us away from God. You can’t win the war running around blind…
But we’re not the only enemy — the world isn’t neutral, and it’s not just our communication technology or tools that shape us, but our idols, and idols are the tools of the ultimate enemy; Satan. In thinking of ourselves wrongly — as thinking beings or consumers — we’ve thought of the world wrongly; we’ve ignored what’s truly at stake in our interactions with things around us, and in doing so have ignored the reality we can’t see or sense. We’ve so flattened our experience of the world and what we look for — by not thinking of ourselves as worshippers — that we don’t, and can’t, see it. Our ‘disenchanted’ view of the world — and by ‘our’ I don’t just mean humanity collectively, but us Christians too — means we run around looking for flesh and blood enemies or fighting about the very tactile stuff we do, without understanding the Spiritual significance of every moment of our lives. We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves, and start fighting the real war, on two fronts.
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. — 1 Peter 5:8
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” — Ephesians 6:12
This is one field that the real worship war is fought on, because this is the field where the real enemy — the enemy of God, and humanity, from the very beginning, is prowling around seeking to devour, captivate, and conscript worship warriors. People who’ll take the fight up to God because they want to worship something else. The Garden of Eden was the first battle ground in this war; Adam and Eve — God’s image bearers — his worshippers — were meant to take the fight up to Satan, only they sided with him; they became false worshippers, and so tasted defeat. Every human life is a battle ground where this war is waged, because the effects of this first loss was to create a second front for the war; it’s now an internal fight, not just an external one… So when Paul writes about choosing between ‘life in Adam’ and ‘life in Jesus’ he talks about our new default; a default where a war rages within us…
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! — Romans 7:21-25
This is us. All of us. Not just post-conversion Paul (in fact not even post-conversion Paul until the last line, and the bit that follows in Romans 8). Not just Jewish Paul under the law. Human Paul. Paul who is just like the Gentiles he’s writing to, as well as being like the Jews. Paul who has been banging on about what it means to follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve; failed worshippers. He’s talking about the human condition; and about the internal war we’re fighting. It’s the same thing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed when he said:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
My neighbours know what good is, sometimes they even do it. But we all sin, in fact, even when we do ‘good’ things its a product of these divided hearts; hearts at war with themselves. And we’re all lured into sin by being lured into worshipping something other than God, so that sometimes we just choose evil. We all know what goodness is because God’s imprint is still left on us; but we also fight a battle that keeps leading us to the sort of deadly idolatry described in Romans 1. There are plenty of other interpretations of Romans 7 floating around, but I think Paul is talking about what it looks like to be made in the image of God (good), and image of Adam (fallen) awaiting the re-creation he describes the Spirit bringing in Romans 8, the delivery that comes through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, which allows us to worship God again and will ultimately make us fully good again, better even (and, spoiler, that’s how we win the war).
2. We win by real worship.
Fighting the worship wars — and taking down the real enemies; our sinful idolatrous nature and the serpent — requires us to be proper worshippers. Thomas Chalmers was right when he said real change requires the expulsive power of a new affection. The way to beat idols is to love something more. Winning the war means changing the script (our story); our desires and imagination, and how we operate in the world (our habits). When Paul describes the impact of idolatry in Romans 1 he shows it totally corrupts our imaginations, and our habits; the way back is a renewal of both via a re-connection with God (that he initiates by the Spirit).
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.” — Romans 1:28
He comes back to this theme in 8…
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. — Romans 8:5
Where Paul goes in Romans 8 (and what he argues before Romans 7) is that we become true worshippers again; true children of God again; conformed into true images of God; images of Jesus; by the Spirit (Romans 8:27-29).
This is a thread he ties off more deliberately (after dealing with the relationship between Israel and the gentiles) in Romans 12, where he also explores the implications for how we should worship in Romans 12, where he describes real worship as ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ — the habitual, incremental, reflection of the life and death of Jesus while ‘not being conformed to the pattern of this world’ but ‘being transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2). This is how to fight the worship wars; fix your eyes upon the story of Jesus by participating in it as you let it shape your habits in community (the yous are plural in 12:1-2, and then the stuff about the body and how we sacrificially use our gifts for each other is pretty clearly ‘corporate worship’). Here’s his guide to ‘true worship’ from Romans 12, and then from Colossians 3; the sort of things that might shape our liturgies in our Sunday gatherings and through the week (I’ll get to some really practical ideas in the last post in this series). This sure sounds like worship…
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. — Romans 12:9-18
In Colossians 3, Paul opens by calling us to reset our minds, perhaps even our imaginations, and our hearts, or our desires, on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2). Then he tells us to avoid the habits that come from the pursuit of earthly things via our earthly nature (which he calls idolatry), and the list here sounds a lot like Donald Trump, but also a lot like Romans 1… There’s a bunch of stuff Paul tells us to take off — old habits — and some things we’re to put on… and this ‘putting on the new self’ is how we take part in the worship wars against the enemy within, and the enemy without… the practices he calls us to aren’t particularly new (nor should they be) and singing and focusing on the Gospel story are at their heart (because ‘worship’ as we understand it matters), but our habits should flow from and cyclically create-in-us these virtues that seem to reflect our story and the Gospel becoming our story as we set our hearts and minds on things above, and participate in the re-telling of the Gospel together.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17
This doesn’t sound like a thing Paul just thinks we should be doing on a Sunday though… the whatever you do would seem to push worship beyond the boundaries of a 90 minute church service and into the shared practices of our church community every day.
3. Attack is the best form of defence
One of the most profound that has crystalised for me in my understanding of the Gospel in the last few years came from NT Greek Scholar Peter Bolt when he was talking to our team about Mark’s Gospel. He made the point that we often think of ‘repent’ as a call to turn away from sin, when it probably most correctly (and especially in the way Jesus uses it) is a turning towards Jesus and his kingdom (which produces a turning from sin). If we spend all our time worried about stopping wrong worship and don’t spend our time actively replacing it with true worship, we’re in danger of not turning to the right things. This is why Chalmers’ expulsive power idea is so powerful and so important. It’s no good simply switching idols. From sex to ascetic sexual purity, or from gluttony to the idolatry of fitness so prevalent in our age… we need to replace the worship of created stuff with the worship of the creator — and we meet the creator in the face of Jesus, through the Gospel of Jesus, and the story of the Bible (and the worshipping community it creates).
There’s another passage (well there are lots) that talks specifically about fighting against the devil’s schemes — preparing us to fight against that prowling lion who is out to devour us — the Ephesians 6 description of the armour of God. The tools we need to fight, or worship, our way through the worship wars against our real enemies are these ones… This set of armour is what will help you see God, the world, yourself, and your enemies (the things you are tempted to worship by the Devil and your desires) as they really are, and help you put things in their right place… this is what real worship looks like; whether you sing modern songs or old ones, with acoustic or electric, organs or synth, in sandstone and stain glass or a theatre, with the sacraments every week or quarterly will shape you (and you might pick some stuff according to what you find helpful to fix your heart on Jesus in community with people you love), but this is where the action is (and so is much more important when it comes to the question of how we do church).
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. — Ephesians 6:10-18