Monday, July 18, 2011

Baal, hear us!

I'm spending part of my summer days reading Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way. One of his series of "conversations in spiritual theology," the thesis in Jesus Way is that if we are to follow Jesus faithfully, we must do it his way. It is a way prepared for - anticipated by - people of faith in the Old Testament: Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah. (I'm still working my way through Isaiah.)

I am often floored by Peterson's perspective. He has long been a reading companion for my own Jesus walk and the pastoral life. I'm resisting the impulse now to detour into a history of my engagement with these books. Today I am just highlighting one section of The Jesus Way chapter on Elijah - Elijah's contention with Baal. It is a challenging consideration of worship. The following quotes (in italics) reflect upon the dramatic difference between the gyrating histrionics of Baal's priests, and the simple, direct actions and prayer of Elijah.

In Baal worship, The transcendence of the deity is reduced to the ecstasy of manipulated emotions. (p. 109) Here at the outset I need to remind myself that the danger of idolatry is not inherent in any one style or preference for worship. The challenges of "Baalism" are as real in traditional worship as they are in the latest fad worship.

"Harlotry" is a biblical metaphor that extends its meaning into the entire theology of worship, worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passions of the worshiper as its baseline. "Harlotry" is worship that says, "I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I'll do it in the form most arousing to you." A divine will that sets itself in opposition to the sin-tastes and self-preoccupations of humanity is incomprehensible in Baalism and so is impatiently discarded. Baalism reduces worship to the spiritual stature of the worshiper. Its canons are that is should be interesting, relevant and exciting - that I "get something out of it." (p. 110)

 This is not to say biblical worship is non-sensory. But as rich and varied as the sensory life is, it is always defined and ordered by the word of God. Nothing is simply done for the sake of the sensory experience involved - which eliminates all propagandist and emotional manipulation. (p. 111) The "worship experience" is categorically different from "let us worship God." It is the difference between something that makes sense to an individual, and acting in response to what makes sense to God. (p. 111)

The biblical language of worship is a response to God's word in the context of the community of God's people. Worship in the biblical sources and in liturgical history is not something a person experiences, it is something we do, regardless of how we feel about it, or whether we feel anything about it at all. The experience develops out of the worship, not the other way around. Isaiah saw, heard, and felt on the day he received his prophetic call while at worship in the temple - but he didn't go there in order to have a "seraphim experience." (p. 111, author's emphasis)

Oh, for the wisdom to sift these matters in conversations about worship. Well may we be concerned to "hold" sheep in the worshiping flock, or to "attract" the flockless. Our instinct is to cater to human instincts: faster! louder! softer! slower! candles! brass! jokes! video! I think the Bible teaches us:
  • that worship means to listen and obey;
  • when we are together to read scripture and pray;
  • to teach and to sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord;
  • to be thankful and to foster thanksgiving;
  • to honor the Lord by prefering one another.
How I wish that this somehow made it obvious what song or hymn we should sing at the beginning of the morning service, and how it should be accompanied! No, we are always thrown back on decisions we have to make. But I'm thankful to Pastor Eugene Peterson for the reminder that regardless how we sort out those details, we have to beware of our Canaanite tendencies. We need to stop offering "worship experiences" and keep calling people to "worship God." And all the while (as William Willimon wrote some 20 years ago) let the Bible guide, fill, and judge our worship.

1 comment:

Jim Lowery (Richmond, VA) said...

A wonderful article. Thank you for sharing your insights, and Dr. Peterson's stimulating quotations. Almost thou persuadest me to purchase the book. (SMILE)

I am reminded of another article I recently read regarding the on-going "worship wars" (at

I am coming to the realization that these "WW" have been going on since Lucifer attempted to ascend to The Throne of God.

I'm coming to UNDERSTAND something I've known with my mind for a while- the 'story line' of Mankind's relationship to God -from Genesis 3 to Rev. 20 -is a "worship issue." (Insert that famous John Piper quotation regarding worship and missions here.) I can still remember the shock when I heard Dr. Warren Wiersbe say in a Moody Founder's Week message (on Jesus' Temptations) that God and Satan have in common the desire to be worshipped. Salvation itself is The Father seeking true worshippers.

The form and content of our worship really is The Battle of our time much as the inerrancy of the Scriptures was the battle a century ago. Thank you for remaining on the front lines.

Jim Lowery (Richmond, VA)

(Chuck: If you want to post this, feel free to remove the second paragraph.)