The Devil and the Liturgy

It was Henry David Thoreau who said that “life is frittered away by detail.”

I can’t exactly say why this comes to mind this morning. But since it’s out there, now, I suppose what he meant was that it’s very possible for us to travel the vast and winding lanes of our lives spending far too much time concerned over the throwaway minutiae rather than enjoying the actual journey. Perhaps this applies to people, as well. Perhaps the lens of our examination is often focused too finely that we miss the human being for the over-magnified imperfections of the individual.

Perhaps.

In a sense, I think this maxim can be applied to the Church.

As a side to the Gospel of Matthew, I’ve been working through The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis with the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in my theology class on Wednesdays. We’re taking careful steps through the volume. Last week we happened upon a portion of advisory text from the well-experienced demon, Screwtape, to his nephew-demon, Wormwood, which offered, “There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.”

By “the Enemy’s camp,” Screwtape means the Church. He goes on to say, “One of our greatest allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.”

I’ve read the book no less than fifteen times, and so I know where he intends to go with this. Nevertheless, notice the elementary nature of Screwtape’s vantage point. He knows and understands the Church to be a singular entity spanning the entirety of human history and finding itself born from something eternal. His words assume a culture, a language, and way of life that belongs to all believers and not just a few. It isn’t born from any of us in particular, but rather is rooted in Christ and His Word.

In other words, the Church’s identity isn’t the sole property of any one generation, thereby giving it that generation license to change what it looks and sounds like just because it no longer appreciates the details.

Screwtape continues, “But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is…”

It’s from this point forward that Screwtape turns the lesson to the things a Christian might see as flaws in the people sitting in the pews around him, and Screwtape suggests that Wormwood might begin cultivating in his patient the feeling that the Church—the true Church—is nothing more than one giant mechanized establishment of hypocrisy going through the motions.

“I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites!”

Have you ever heard this? It’s certainly not new to me—or most pastors, for that matter. It’s a tired go-to excuse that I hear quite often when chatting with inactive members, and every time I do, I hear the words of Jesus from Mark 2:17 ricocheting in the empty spaces of my feeble mind: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And which of us pastors in such a moment could forget the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14, which begins with the words, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable…”

“I don’t go to church because it’s boring. They do the same thing over and over again.”

Have you heard this one, too? Again, I have. Although, there’s something else worth considering here. Screwtape already hinted to it. There’s a very real difference between Tradition and Traditionalism. I like to think of Tradition as “the living faith of the dead.” It’s the life and culture of the Church unbound by time—just as Screwtape described fearfully. The going-through-the-motions of Traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living.” I suspect that while Screwtape would prefer a Christian not locate himself in a liturgical church because of the possibility of what a liturgy properly understood might ultimately reveal and teach, but if his “patient” must end up there, Traditionalism would be the best he could hope for. He would prefer that the Christian interpret all of the gloriously Gospel-centered words and actions as Traditionalistic, as little more than the mechanically necessary, but soullessly hollow, placating of a deity—just in case that deity is actually real.

That’s dead faith. The demons are just fine with folks going through the motions.

By the way, Traditionalism isn’t owned by the liturgical churches alone. This more than happens in the ones with coffee bars in their narthexes, too. It happens in every church building in every nation across the world.

But steering away from all of this, my interest remains back at Screwtape’s point of origin. It’s quite the calibrating assessment that a demon would surmise that a gathering of worshippers that looks and sounds nothing like the Church of history—a church that shuns the liturgy—is fertile ground for the greatest success among the ranks of the underworld. And why? Well, in the end, the details of personal preference—what I like and dislike—reign supreme in such worship spaces. What makes me happy becomes the standard determiner, and when that happens, Sin is not so easily defined, and if that’s true, then neither is the Gospel remedy. From this, the only result would be that objective truth is obscured and Christian hearts are more easily led into uncertainty.

Don’t lie to yourself. It’s true. People are naturally desperate to chase after what they like. In this case, I’d say it’s how so many in mainstream evangelicalism find room for slandering the Church’s historic liturgy—and guys like me who appreciate it. The liturgy takes Man out of the driver’s seat, while Man wants God as his co-pilot. The liturgy doesn’t steer us where we want to go, but rather where we need to go. From its organic origins in the early house churches, all the way through the centuries, the liturgy has been a means for seeing that the shifting uncertainties of anthropocentric tendency aimed at doom are exchanged for Christocentric truths that establish certainty and save. They’re not just words and motions—rites and ceremonies—but rather they’re Godly contexts born from eternity that keep your eyes on Jesus. Every turn of the liturgy is in place to take the spotlight from you and put it on Christ.

The liturgy isn’t oppressing you. It’s serving you. It’s keeping you from frittering away at the wrong things and missing the point of the reason you’ve come into the presence of Christ at all.

This is why the historic liturgy remains so important, especially today. It’s why words like the following from Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel come to mind as so penetrating:

Thus, the liturgy can be a great gift, haven, and joy to people who live in a society and a world where they can’t be quite sure what things are going to be like five years from now, or whether tomorrow everything will be changed. In a world where everything has gotten to be so transitory and “throw it away tomorrow,” is there anything that they can count on as lasting, that they can be sure will still be there tomorrow, next Sunday, next year, and when they die? The liturgy delivers the answer, “Yes!” Same old liturgy every Sunday. You can count on it like it’s been there for a thousand years and more. When people bump into that in a world where there isn’t anything else they can be sure of like that, there is something real! And so we decline the demands of a consumer society which has to have a new model every year or every week if you’re going to sell. For then you’re talking marketing, and you’re not talking the Church of Christ and the holy liturgy. (“Whose Liturgy Is It?” Logia II 2, [April 1993]: 7.)

Liturgy. Leitourgia. Λειτουργία. This is the word the Bible uses. Jesus participated in liturgy. The Church lived it out in the Book of Acts. Paul encouraged it in his Epistles. He even instructed on how to do it. I guess if the Bible and its central figures are keen to the importance of liturgy, then perhaps we ought to be as well.

I suppose lastly, from the profoundly faithful and deep-thinking mind of C.S. Lewis, it would appear that the demons know the importance of the liturgy, too, and they have a justifiably deep-rooted fear that if we were to somehow come to the realization of its truest benefits, we might actually embrace it and be far harder to catch. We may even demand it of our pastors and defend it in our churches. I mean, which demon losing a patient in this way would want to hear as Wormwood heard from Screwtape: “Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties…”

President Trump, The Apostles’ Creed, and a Promotional Christmas Video from a “Christian” Church

A fellow member of my congregation shared with me the following promotional Christmas video from a local church. Take a look.

A fun piece, I suppose. The production quality is certainly above reproach. They put a lot of work into it, you have to give them that. As a tool for communicating their identity as a church to the unbelieving world around them—that is, who they are and what they hold most dear—by way of the skillful grip of song, the video ponders the deepest of loves at Christmas, which we learn is, first, whether or not Santa loves the individual, and if so, will he deign to allow Rudolph to lead the rest of the reindeer to one’s house with something other than coal; and second, the individual sharing this message has braved Black Friday to fill his Chevy with things that he truly wants with the hope that the approaching Christmas-tide sleigh will be equally full.

I don’t exactly have the verbal dexterity to communicate this beautiful Gospel quite like the performer in the video, so I’ll just share the lyrics here:

“Santa, do you love me? And are you riding on a sleigh full of gifts to my chimney ’cuz I want them…”

That’s the well-crafted and easily discernible point at the center of this song of outreach to the community on behalf of a Christian church.

There was something else in the video that stirred a bit of confusion, though. For one reason or another, and for only a second or two, the video drifted into a more enigmatic arena, saying, “Pastor got loud in the sermon, talkin’ ’bout a dude who had a baby with a virgin.” For the whole two minutes and sixteen seconds of the video, it was the only of its kind, and I guess I’m wondering why it was there. It didn’t really fit. Although, as a Christian myself, I say “Whew! I’m glad they sprinkled that in there.” If they hadn’t, we might’ve missed a subtle truth that helps to portray what pastors do from pulpits—which is being loud and shouting at people, sermonizing and shoving stuff down our throats that none of us wants to hear. At least they were honest about that particular impression. And then that little piece about the non-descript dude impregnating a virgin, well, I’m not really sure what that means. Is that God? Is it Joseph? Maybe it’s just a little bit of moralism tossed in since that’s how the church would prefer that babies come along in this world. Personally, my guess is that the performer just needed to fill some space and the line fit the rhyme scheme.

…Eh-hem… Let me clear the sarcasm from my throat and shifts gears a little.

Did you watch the Bush funeral? I did. Did you see that President Trump didn’t recite the Apostles’ Creed? Did you hear or see anything in the news or on social media about it? I sure did. “Deeds not creeds,” I’ve seen heralded from Christian sources. “The church doesn’t need creeds!”

Puke.

For those in the church getting yanked into the “Deeds not creeds!” riptide that may or may not have resulted from President Trump’s silence at the Bush funeral, I’ll simply say, “Be careful.” Videos like the one shared here are what happen when there are no definable contours to the faith you confess.

Yes, there are those who just go through the motions. I get that point. Some believe that such repetitive staleness is the constricting enemy of free-flowing religion from the heart.

Whatever.

How’d you learn the alphabet? Repetition. How’d you learn how to speak? Repetition and by being repeatedly immersed in language. How’d you learn how to dress yourself? Repetition. How’d you learn anything of value in your life? Well, whatever it was, I’d be willing to bet repetition played a part.

Still, I get the premise. But again I’d urge folks to be honest. Even the churches with no creeds have the people among them who just go through the motions. Every church has those people. Just keep in mind there’s a huge distinction to be made between repetition born of “traditionalism” and repetition in service to “tradition.” Traditionalism is, for the sake of a definition, the dead faith of the living. It represents a somnolent faith. It is to do for the sake of doing and nothing more. And I dare say that it’s the traditionalists, the ones who can’t see the value in tradition, who get bored by substantive things and want to go off the sure path to things unknown, they’re the ones who lead the churches into mushy religiosity. Tradition is different. It is the living faith of the dead. It is a carrying on of the past into the future. It is an unbroken gathering of the one true faith spread across the generations and throughout the world. Time means very little to tradition because it is unbound by it. Tradition stands in place to say that the truths of the faith aren’t ours to change because they don’t belong to just us. Tradition isn’t a bending reed in the winds of culture. It’s a tree with endless rings in its core. Tradition is a binding thing that maintains identity for the whole and belongs to the whole.

“Why do we put an angel on the top of the tree at Christmas time, dad?”

“Well, Susie, because that angel has been in our family for a long time. Putting it on top of the tree is a tradition. I did it. Grandpa’s family did it. His dad’s family did it, and his dad before him did it. When we do this, we’re sort of, well, showing that we’re a family and that we’re in this together.”

There’s a reason the holy Christian church throughout the ages has subscribed to the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. Creeds help to set the boundaries for this and stand in stark contrast to bad theologies that are more than capable of wiping out entire populations of faith in a single generation. The creeds bear no “non-descript dudes” that leave questions. Who is the virgin? It’s Mary. What child is she bearing? The Son of God, Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and then then He rose again from the dead. For what reason did this happen? To save the world from sin, which includes me! How did Jesus’ conception happen? I know it wasn’t Joseph, so then, was it God the Father? No, Christ was incarnate by the Holy Spirit. He is true God in the flesh, born to win salvation!

Creeds help to prevent confusion in these things, making sure the message remains crystal clear.

And by the way, for the record, “Deeds not creeds” is a creed. It is a confession of what you believe, albeit a little less thought out than most.

On another front of the same discussion, for the Christians in the political sphere doing all they can to say President Trump set a positive example by refusing to speak the Creed, I’d say in tandem that you’re speaking out of both sides of your mouth, especially when you clamor for unity around a party platform. The party platform is the party’s creed. Even further, I’d encourage folks to take a quick stroll through history. It is an observable datum that the beginning of the demise of any society or subset organization and its affirmed morality begins with the destruction of its creeds. When you see the citizens dismantling or simply disregarding the statements of the convictions and the language (the precisely selected words) that communicate those convictions, you’re watching a group lose both its identity and its way forward. They’re heading into treacherous waters. As the lines become blurry, eventually they dissipate and disappear. With that, if you can’t locate the border of what you know to be objectively true and untrue, you may find yourself standing on foreign soil.

To close, you should also know that the church that made this video is the same one in which one of their members told one of mine as he and his family were observing that there weren’t any crosses in the place that the reason they don’t have any crosses is because the cross is a disgustingly off-putting image. Go figure. Paul said “We preach Christ crucified!” When that message is disgustingly off-putting, you may have a problem with the internal, free-flowing religion emerging from your heart. My recommendation: Try one of the three ecumenical creeds. It’ll help.

Just a thought for you to stir into your eggnog and sip.