Worship in Something and Something IV: Words, Words, Words

This is a continuation of my series of disjointed posts on worship. The previous ones can be found here, here, and here.

In a previous post in this series I recall mentioning that I had played on a few worship teams in various churches. I haven’t shared too many observations directly from this experience, but this time I’m going to jump off from one of them: You know what you should not expect in a contemporary worship song? An extended instrumental or solo of any type. The only one that I can think of in a popular worship tune is the four bars or so of lead guitar in Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” In that case one could even suggest that this riff mainly exists to imply the vocal melody for the verses that ensue.

The only time you can expect a large expanse of instrumental without any singing is as a backdrop for the pastor and/or worship leader to talk and/or pray at the beginning or end of a song. Why is this? Well, one of the explanations that I have heard is that instrumental music would somehow be “indulgent” – there had better be some words to go with all that music – as if the words are the content and music is just a sort of optional form. Contemporary evangelical worship always seems to need to some kind of verbal content, or else the music is apparently of no value.

One of the mostly obscured murals in Geneva

One of the mostly obscured murals in Geneva

Now, step back with me nearly half a millennium. What did Calvin do to the cathedral in Geneva? That’s right church historians, he (or at least his followers) whitewashed it. A few murals survive, but for the most part the interior is blank. So it goes that most protestant churches have fairly austere interiors to this very day. Even if many protestants today think the Geneva cathedral was overkill, we nonetheless follow its example.

What do these two things have to do with one another? In the case of instrumental music, the problem seems to be that main message of the music ought to be verbal (even in the charismatic case where most of the congregation does not know what exactly is being verbalized). Anything not supporting this verbal message is seen as a distraction at best and self-indulgent at worst. In the case of doing away with religious icons the charge is even more serious – they are surely seen as unnecessary at best, perhaps idolatry at worst.

Protestants like to be all about The Word (you know, sola scriptura), but they are also fond of words. You don’t really need to have music if you aren’t going to be singing some words on top of it, you don’t really need some pictures on the walls, they might distract you from the same words being either sung or spoken. Words, words, words, to borrow a line from Hamlet, colonize the entire worship experience for Protestants. While there is nothing wrong with speaking, hearing, or reading words in church, I submit that it is possible to over-prioritize words in worship.

On a practical level let me say that not everyone is into reading and/or listening. There are those of us who vastly prefer a picture, or music, or just the ability to get up and do something as a means to internalize what we learn. I must hasten to point out here that this is not an excuse to not listen to the preacher. One cannot say, “Excuse me, but I’m going to leave for the sermon, I don’t do auditory learning.” On the other hand, many Protestants like to emphasize good teaching, and what is the point of good teaching if it is not accessible.

On a more abstract level abandoning things like images/icons, movement of any kind (aside from standing at the points indicated), and instrumental music is part of our dis-incarnation or excarnation of worship. Who cares about our bodies or our senses, what really matters is our disembodied minds which apparently need only words for instruction. We are on the way out (excarnating) as Christ is on the way in (he was, after all, the incarnation). That way lies gnosticism.

To me this smells a lot like Cartesian dualism and not very much like anything you see church history prior to, say, the 1500s. (Yes, I know that I used Calvin as an example of this, and that he predates Descartes, but they were still operating in that same early enlightenment/late renaissance milieu.) Actually, let’s go further, think about the only bit of a church service that was specifically instituted by Jesus himself – communion. Everyone gets together and partakes in the supremely carnal (in its original sense – meaning of the flesh) acts of eating and drinking.

Now this is not to be a matter of either/or, but of both/and, since we would disregard our minds (embodied, disembodied, whatever) at our peril. But I think it’s fair to say that we need to think again about our physical, carnal selves – our bodies. We need to think about this beyond the sort of optional extras that are sometimes allowed (raising hands in worship) ask what is lost when we no longer think it right to look at an icon or listen to a tune as part of our worship of God.