09 February 2015

Form Without Substance

Here’s an old Return of Kings post that I’ve been mulling over for far too long.  Entitled “Why I Quit Going To Your Church,” here are some excerpts:
1. Your music is saccharine 
Christians assume that a distorted guitar is the definition of rock music. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Rock music is as much a philosophy as it is a sound. I heard time again growing up, “The only problem with secular music is the lyrics.” This is nonsense because in every genre, music and lyrics are innately connected. Imagine “Something in the way” by Nirvana with Jesus lyrics. It just doesn’t work. 
But of course churches soften the “guitar and drums” element, and you’ll never hear a guitar solo that has any integrity. Perhaps there was some merit to early Christian rock (perhaps), but songwriters now simplify the chords so that churches can play it. So you’ll never find an A7 #9 in a church with “contemporary rock”. Because, you know, those extra two notes in the chord are just too hard to pull off. You might even have to have an extra volunteer guitar player, and the mild dissonance could make people uncomfortable with their edgy new form of worship. 
“But worship is about lyrics, not music!” cries the Christian who glossed over everything I just said. Your lyrics are also sacharine. If you look at Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming” (1979), you’ll find that at least there were a variety of topics on display. Not every song was a praise song. Some were simply doctrinal teaching songs, like the old hymns. Today, your lyrics are so hollow that many musicians are rewriting (and ruining) old hymns on their Christian rock praise albums. 
2. Your sermons sound like a high school assembly 
It seemed like every sermon was either about getting through hard times or being obedient to God. Most pastors I ran into knew fuck-all about the Bible and basic doctrine, which I guess is a product of giving a seminary degree to anyone with “a call from God.” 
3. Your buildings are ugly 
I was in Charlotte, North Carolina. There is this massive evangelical church called Calvary. I mean, this is the kind of thing you see on TV, and not at 3am either. I went in one day to look around. They had this beautiful old organ several stories high, and they tacked two ugly screens on it so the people could read the lyrics. It completely upset the whole aesthetic of the room, but it was necessary since Jesus condemns the use of hymnals. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss out on the latest, most innovative praise chorus, would you? 
The Catholic Church is actually having a substantial number of converts from protestantism. The Eastern Orthodox are being jump-started back to life with converts, and the break-off Anglo-protestant groups are finding evangelical converts demanding Anglo-Catholic worship. Why is this? There are a variety of reasons, but part of it is because people enjoy looking at pretty things and listening to pretty music. Even the Catholic Church is finding its own people are tired of bluegrass masses and dadaist architecture. For all its lies and manipulation, consumerism is right that what you are surrounded by affects the way you feel about that place and about yourself.
While the whole thing is worth reading, the general complaint, whether the author realizes it or not, is that protestant/evangelical sects are just terrible because they fundamentally must rebel against tradition.  There are two major orthodox churches:  The Greek catholic church and the Roman catholic church.  Most protestant and evangelical sects trace their roots to rebellion against the Roman catholic church (the Mormons and JWs being the most obvious exceptions).  As such, this generates an unresolvable tension within most of these denominations because they have the impossible task of getting their believers to reject some traditions but not all of them.

Fundamentally, it is impossible maintain a democratized religion, for it becomes necessary to pick and choose which traditions to keep, which traditions to discard, and which traditions to modify and in what ways to modify them.  Once tradition becomes a buffet table, so to speak, it is simply a matter of time until virtually all traditions are discarded or corrupted.

As such, it should make sense that protestant and evangelical denominations generally suffer from the problems listed above because these denominations have no basis of tradition (other than a hatred of tradition), and cannot therefore reasonably object to alterations to traditional practices.  If you reject, say, papal authority, then on what grounds could you not reject a council of churches?  If you reject the doctrine of transubstantiation, then on what grounds could you criticize those who would do away with observing The Memorial altogether?  Or altering its observed frequency?  If you are willing to toss away one tradition, or one aspect of a tradition simply because you don’t understand it or it doesn’t jive with your personal understanding of God’s word, then how can you criticize those who would do likewise for similar reasons?

Unfortunately, discarding tradition usually to cultural depravity, which should help to explain why protestant/evangelical music, liturgy, and aesthetics are generally devoid of beauty and craftsmanship.  There is no solid foundation to build upon, which is why so many denominations end up chasing trends instead of adding to a tradition that is built to withstand the tests of time.  Worse still, given that the trends are set by “the world,” the aesthetics that come to play are both shallow and complex.  Since the rebellious denominations are often populated by simpletons and clever sillies, the result of chasing trends is often works that are shallow but lacking complexity.

Deep down, evangelicals and protestants yearn for the depth, which is why they try so hard to make their services meaningful.  They dress their liturgies in bright colors and ridiculous props because they want there to be a depth of meaning to their teaching.  Depth, though, is a function of maturity and time, and there is no substitute for either.  The clown show that is evangelical preaching is a mask to hide the immaturity and emptiness of their theology.

The rock show that is passed off for evangelical worship is simply a stimulant, meant to help listeners simulate the emotion of feeling depth where none actually exists.  It is akin to a toddler watching Sesame Street.  The bright colors and loud noises are meant to draw attention to the most rudimentary of lessons while distracting one from noticing that very little is actually happening.  Praise can certainly help one see the mystery of God, but it takes a lot of time and tradition to build an edifice that enables just that.  It should be telling that the longest-standing traditions do not need smoke and mirrors to open the minds of men.

Sadly, most evangelicals and a healthy number of low-church protestants* seem completely unaware that they are striving to solve a problem that the catholic churches solved many centuries ago.  They denigrate the orthodoxy for its reliance on the traditions of man but fail to realize that they are trying to instill their own traditions and thus maintain their own faith for posterity.  Because their primary tradition is denigrating tradition, they will always be doomed to failure and depravity.

* High church protestants, like Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians, are more generally aware that they are essentially Roman Catholic knockoffs.  In spite of this, their rebellion against the orthodoxy of the church has led them, for the most part, to embrace ungodly traditions, such as the ordination of female clerics.