I’d like to follow up my previous post with some more thoughts on where we find ourselves in history as North American Christians. I believe that our time closely resembles the time of the reformers, and because of that the church is in need of some prophetic voices. Thankfully, they’re out there if we know where to look (and listen) for them.
James White, one of the most prolific and respected scholars of Christian history, notes that in the middle ages monastic life was the center of social stability (James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 77). In the medieval period, the church experienced an explosion of growth for several reasons. Crusades, conquests, and colonization caused the spread of western civilization to farther reaches of the known world. In these newly formed communities, to use White’s language, the monastery was the center of society. Monasteries were guardians not only of faith and devotion to God, but of education and learning itself.
The positive side of monastic life was that monks had one occupation: worship. Their lives were spent in constant prayer, meditation, and devotion to God. The monk’s average day would be dominated by prayer and study, with monastic orders assembling for prayer at all hours of the day and night (times decided by the monastic prayer “offices”). This lifestyle produced a wonderful devotion to God but was unrealistic for most people outside the monastery.
The monastic life developed into the founding many cathedral schools and universities. Again, White sums it up well: “The thirteenth century saw major contributions of scholastic theologians in helping the church to make up their minds about what Christians experienced in worship” (White, 77). White continues by saying that, despite the development of doctrines concerning Christian faith and sacraments, the negative side was an emphasis on the intellect in Christian and sacramental practice. The way was being paved for the coming age of Enlightenment, where Reason and Intellect reigned supreme.
Note here the schism that is created by a society of people who have nothing to do but study the scriptures, pray, meditate and think about all things theological. Add to that schism the gap between the educated and the uneducated, a gap that was wide indeed in the middle ages. You can see why worship became a spectacle to be observed rather than an event to participate in.
Before I get too far into criticizing modern education as we know it, let me point out the obvious: I wouldn’t be writing this (and you wouldn’t be reading it) if these developments in education and literacy hadn’t occurred. So for that we must be grateful. Further, the contemporary equivalent to medieval monks might just be scholars and ministers, people who, in the eyes of the general public, have “nothing better to do” than to “sit around” and pray, meditate, and study. If so, I’m part of that group.
So I am by no means condemning education or a religious devotional life. I would simply like to call into the question the gap that this creates between “us” and “them,” the ones who “get it” and the ones who “don’t.” The constant flow of the gospel is inward to our devotional and educational life, and then outward to the cultures in which we live.
The heart behind the reformation was to close this gap between the educated (and religious) “elite” and the “common” person. Thus Luther and others argued for a worship service (mass) in the common language, for songs in the language (and well-known tunes) of the people, and most importantly for the scriptures in the language of the people.
The reason I believe this is needed once again in our time is because of what I’m calling “new clericalism” happening in the church today, gaps between the “religious elite” and the “common” person. This happens on two levels. One level is the Christian subculture of “Christian-eze,” language and products that are meant only for consumption by people on the “inside” of that subculture (Christians). Perhaps at a certain point in our history the Christian story was pervasive enough for this not to be divisive, but that time is passing. Christendom (the widespread acceptance of/knowledge of/practice of Christianity) is ending in America, and many would say it has already ended. We need to restore the lingua franca that helps real people know what the real God is really saying to them.
The second level of this clerical divide happens within the church itself, with the proliferation of so many “professional” pastors, speakers and musicians. Again, I want to be careful here because I am a huge fan of excellence and quality. Let me be clear: We should work our tails off to sound great when we sing and play and to communicate effectively and powerfully when we preach. But isn’t there a point when the divide becomes so great it becomes unreachable? If our sermons, sound or music is so polished, precise and sterile is seems more robotic than human, isn’t there a disconnect? Consider the difference between putting a quarter in one of those antique self-playing pianos and hearing someone play a piece using their developed skill. Mistakes? Maybe. Heart? Definitely. Despite the latest (or oldest) “robot with a soul” film, robots can’t be people. Unreachable runs the risk of being unreal to people’s real lives.
So what I’m arguing for is a way of being Christian that models the incarnation. Jesus came and “took on flesh,” wrapping himself up in the language and way of life of people. I want to see a restoration of these “common” preachers, speakers and musicians. This means working hard to reverse the all-too-natural human tendency to create a divide between “the stage” and “the people.” Singing in church isn’t a concert, so we ought not work so hard (or spend so much money) to make it one. Preaching isn’t a spectacle of your skill as a scholar or speaker, it is in fact worship. Bob Webber writes, “Preaching, of course, is what we do in worship. We proclaim God’s story, remembering his mighty deeds of salvation” (Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 177). I think we need more men and women who represent God with excellence but with authenticity and a closeness you can feel and touch. Isn’t this what was said of the disciples when they stood before council in Acts 4, that they were common men touched with the power of the Holy Spirit? By the Spirit’s power, let’s close the gap.