Argumentum ad Repetitium
When I get into discussions with people over the liturgy and traditional hymnody (over and against so-called “contemporary worship,”) a lot of the same arguments and assertions pop up.
First is the charge that I just want traditional worship because it is “just what I like.” In other words, it’s a matter of personal preference and taste. This accusation is more a revelation about what the one making the accusation believes, for “contemporary worship” is typically based on pop-music forms that are, well, popular. People want pop music because it is what they like, not because of its theology or particular confession, not because it reflects what God prefers from the Scriptures, or because it promotes the Word of God. No, people like pop music in worship because they like pop music elsewhere. If it’s good enough for listening to while driving to work, it’s good enough to listen to in the church service.
So the charge that traditional church music is “just what you like” sounds like a projection. For are there any people arguing that they don’t really like pop music, but it is the best music for worship? Is there anyone who champions guitars and drums in the chancel who leaves church and turns on the radio to listen to organ music and chorales? Admittedly, this is just a hunch, but I suspect that most proponents of “contemporary worship” actually prefer those music forms, and listen to them outside of the church service as well. In other words, “It’s what they like.”
One finger pointed at me, three fingers pointing back at thee.
To the contrary, my desire to uphold the traditional liturgy and hymnody of the church has nothing to do with my musical tastes. In fact, the vast majority of the music that I listen to is pop music. I like what is today called “classic rock.” I like hard rock and 1980s heavy metal. I do listen to some classical music as well, but the vast majority of my musical tastes are the very types of music that I would loath in the Divine Service, and would consider its use to be blasphemous against the Lord and a degradation to rock and roll. As the cartoon character Hank Hill famously told a Christian rocker, “You’re not making Christianity better, you’re making rock and roll worse.”
I’m a stickler for traditional liturgy and hymnody for several reasons. One of them is that this is what God likes. He is a God of order. He is a God of dignity. He is a God of beauty. He is a God of sacrifice, atonement, and forgiveness. One would be hard-pressed to find the self-serving desire to be entertained in Biblical examples of worship. In fact, after recording God’s worship style preferences over the course of seven chapters (Exodus 25-31): the beautiful tabernacle covered in magnificent fabric, an altar of bronze followed by a courtyard also outfitted with beautiful textiles and precious metals, exquisite priestly garments (as well as rubrics for ordination), the altar of incense, the bronze basin for ceremonial washing, the anointing oil and incense, and specific instructions for fine craftsmanship, we come to chapter 32: the rejection of all of this for a more entertaining worship style around the golden calf, “and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose of to play.” They played at their worship. There was no indication that God wanted the priests to “play” in the holy of holies, or that the laity should “play” while sacrificing animals as a type of the Lamb to come. Some believe the word translated as “play” may be a euphemism for erotic overtones in this worship service - something that comes to the fore in many popular “praise and worship” songs, many of which that can be embarrassing to read the lyrics out loud or to watch the gyrations of the often-female performers - or “ministers of music", “worship leaders”, or “worship pastors” as they are sometimes called.
By contrast, we see the Israelites who worshiped the true God repeating their ritual and liturgical actions of remembrance each year - and they were commanded to keep various feasts as a memorial. And to be a memorial, there must be continuity, both in ritual, and in the passing along of those rituals through the generations.
Every year, a lamb was slaughtered and it was cooked with bitter herbs. It was eaten on the same day each year, and the same ceremony was repeated again and again, century after century. There were readings, there were hymns, there were psalms to be chanted. Why? Because God commanded that it should be done each year. Why should it change, since ultimately, the Passover meal was a type of Christ, pointing us to the Eucharist and to the cross? The message doesn’t change, and therefore the rubrics of the meal do not change. For if they were to change even a little every year, in a hundred years it would look nothing like what it was supposed to remember.
And when God interacts with mankind, there is a coming of heaven down to earth. Something otherworldly, something holy is happening. “Holy” means “set apart.” So when Jacob saw the vision of the angels ascending and descending on the ladder, he set apart that place as holy, and marked it with a pillar that was anointed with oil. That place was no longer just a spot to bed down for the night, it was the gate of heaven.
God is also a God who is concerned with esthetics. He is the author of beauty. He is not indifferent about matters of style. For again, when God tabernacled with the children of Israel, he commanded a tent to be made up to His standards, with magnificent furniture, with gold and silver and fine-twined linen, beautifully woven fabrics of purple and scarlet. His tabernacle, and later his temple, was epitomized by exquisite beauty beyond what one normally had in his house and daily life. God ordered the priests to be vested, also in beautifully crafted textiles, rare jewels, and fine detailed ornamentation.
This is not my idea or preference. This was not the preference of the priests or architects of the House of the Lord. This was done according to God’s order. And God likes beautiful art - the cherubim above the mercy seat, the intricate carvings of almond flowers, palm trees, and pomegranates. Why? Because God likes this design. It’s what He wanted. It is not because the congregation liked it, or the priests, or the leaders. God also likes bells and incense. Why? I don’t know. He just does. He likes craftsmanship and high art. And this level of ornateness was not how ordinary people lived in their day to day life. The place where God made Himself present for, and with, mankind, this holy place, was set apart and beautiful.
How anyone can actually read the Bible and come away thinking that God prefers people to just “come as you are” and “don’t go to any trouble to make things nice” when they come into His presence? Or how can anyone conclude that God’s attitude is “do whatever makes you happy, whatever you like,” or “do whatever is cheap.” This is not the God of the Bible.
And related to this idea of God becoming present with His people, this is one major difference we have with Protestantism. We, along with the historic communions of Christianity, confess that a miracle happens on our altars when we celebrate the Mass, that Christ, the living God and King and Creator of the Universe, the Man who is perfect, comes to us literally and in incarnate form, as the bread and wine that are blessed by His Word are truly His body and blood.
And so, that Presence takes us out of our ordinary, pedestrian existence and places us at the table with God.
So is informality called for in times like these? Did Isaiah behave casually when he found himself in the throne-room of God, when the angels purged away his sin by bringing him a coal from the altar and placing it upon his lips? Did Peter, James, and John behave the same as they always did when Jesus transfigured before them on the mountain?
Do military men behave differently around an officer than when they are hanging out with their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines? What about when a general enters the room? How about the president? Are there different protocols and ways of behaving around one’s superiors? And how would it be received if a soldier did not treat officers differently than their friends? Do these rituals and ways of carrying oneself communicate something? Are they for the good of the entire corps, the whole body of men united in service?
What if you were invited to a banquet at Buckingham Palace? Would you comport yourself the same as if you were at home in front of the TV with a bucket of KFC? Or would you maybe be more formally dressed, perfectly groomed, more aware of those around you, especially those of high social rank? Would you like to know what the rubrics for such an important meal are? Or would you be content to carry on the same way that you do at home?
Our formality in worship as Lutherans is crucial, because it is a confession that we do confess that Christ is miraculously present with us. We do not confess, as do many Protestants, that the Lord’s Supper is a symbol, or that our Lord’s flesh is far off in the heavens, leaving us with mere tokens that are at best some kind of “spiritual” presence. No, we confess that this is the eternal banquet that Jesus is always talking about, or at least a foretaste of it. The Divine Service is eschatological and brings us into contact with eternity. He is present under our roof, though we are unworthy. He says the Word, and we are healed. The King, God Himself, deigns to dine with us! This is not watching TV with KFC eaten out of a plastic container with a spork. Rather, this is the Holy of Holies, and Christ incarnate is present with us. And we not only eat with Him, but we feed miraculously on the true Passover Lamb, even as His blood is poured into us to mark us as His own, protected and saved from condemnation, from the Angel of Death.
And so, our worship is different than our day to day lives.
The hymnody comes from our rich tradition and is unbounded by fads or notions of what is popular today, but may well fall out of favor tomorrow. Our hymns not only praise God, but confess our faith rigorously and boldly. Our worship is dignified, and like the liturgical actions of remembrance of the children of Israel, it doesn’t change again and again, becoming unrecognizable in just a few years. Nor is it play - whether motivated by a desire for fun, or even tinged with eroticism.
Jesus said, “Do this in memory of Me.” He did not order us to change the liturgical action to bend it to our standards of entertainment, or to prevent it from not being “special.” And this is why the Church’s liturgy remains the same. It is a remembrance, just as the liturgical actions of the Old Testament Church were. Any changes are not made to reflect theological change, but perhaps to accommodate linguistic or technological shifts. And over the centuries, we have developed a corpus of the very best that the Church has in terms of liturgy and hymnody, not subject to fads and fashions. Our progressive culture routinely gets rid of the old in search of the ever-new. Our church’s heritage is a blend of the old and the new, not subject to “chronological snobbery” or Critical Theory that denigrates our own forbears.
And as a pastor, I want people to be taught (as ceremonies teach the people what they need to know about Christ, as our confessions teach us). I want my parishioners to have no doubts about what it is that we Lutherans confess about Jesus, and about what He Himself says in Scripture. This is communicated verbally in what is said, and nonverbally in what is done. Research suggests that 60% of what is communicated between people is non-verbal - meaning what we do and how we speak is as important, and perhaps even a bit more, than what is said in words alone.
An informal liturgy belies what is really happening: the miracle of heaven meeting earth and of Christ tabernacling with us. Pop music lowers the level of dignity, perhaps to the depths of frivolity and impropriety. And when we have centuries of magnificent hymnody, to settle for what is sung in Pentecostal or non-denominational churches is like choosing to eat cold Vienna sausages instead of the luxurious spread of delectable delicacies that you have been invited to partake of at the feast.
So far from being a matter of personal taste, the traditional liturgy and hymnody is what God wants, is a confession of who Jesus is and what He does, and is good pastoral care in terms of teaching and confessing our faith.
And this is why our forbears included Article 24. They did not just say, “Do whatever you like.” For while our Roman opponents were lumping us in with radical reformers that abolished the Mass, we vociferously deny such a scurrilous charge. To even suggest it is a gross insult, and resulted in an angry retort by Melanchthon, as well as a master class on what real worship is all about in the Augsburg Confession and the Apology.
It all boils down to Jesus, and what you believe about Him. Do you believe the Bible when it confesses that Christ is present with us? Do you take Jesus at His word when He says, “Do this in memory of Me?” Are you humbled at the Lord’s miraculous presence with us, like Moses, like Isaiah, like Peter, James, and John? Do you believe, teach, and confess that the presence of Jesus is the fountainhead of holiness, and so our worship in the holy place must itself be holy - as opposed to common and ordinary?
Are you willing to sacrifice your own personal tastes and desire to be entertained in the style to which you were accustomed in order to submit to Him and to receive His gifts - and to give Him thanks in return in the setting of His choosing? Do you actually believe what He says, and what the Church says about Him? Or do you hold the faith of another tradition, whose informal and casual worship is more fitting?