Original article: Trueman, Carl R. (2003) ‘Tragic Worship’ in First Things
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/06/tragic-worship [last accessed 2nd May 2014]
I’ve had a rip at ‘chipper’ worship music already. Shallow, exclusively-cheerful music expressing profound and complex truths as simple platitudes doesn’t give people time or space to weigh up how they feel about the realities they’re expressing – and these realities take more than a bit of emotional and intellectual digestion. There are paradoxes everywhere we look – paradoxes whose lines converge ever-imperfectly in our finite minds like geometric lines into exultant joy, but also into heart-broken sorrow. We are free because God was nailed to a tree to suffer in our place. When we meditate on this, when we sing about it, how can our thoughts and feelings not be complex or even incomplete? This is not something to be ‘chipper’ about. This is not the ‘chipperness’ of having just baked a pie or won a game of football, or having finally won that pay rise or that job we were hankering after. No, this is the “pleasing grief and mournful joy” of which John Newton writes in his hymn Looking at the Cross, and it is profound and heart-breaking, as well as uplifting. The paradox inherent in these feelings is nothing new to Christ’s order of things. We are saved from death and hell by a crucified convict who is the Son of God, and this is surely a paradox par excellence. We are worthy of hell, but stand with the hope of heaven. We are weak, and yet we are strong. We are poor, and yet we are rich. We are at peace, and yet we are at war. We make well, and yet we are sick. We are dying, and yet we live. We are being crucified, and yet we are triumphing. St Augustine of Hippo put his spiritual experience in similar terms of paradox:
What is this which gleams through me
And smites my heart without wounding it?
I am both a-shudder and aglow.
A-shudder, in so far as I am unlike it,
Aglow in so far as I am like it.
I was encouraged to find that my favourite preacher John Piper had similar things to say about this pet subject of mine in the last sermon of a series entitled Thirty-Year Theological Trademarks, ‘Sorrowful, But Always Rejoicing‘. But for now, I would like to turn your attention to a 2003 article by Carl R. Trueman in First Things, entitled ‘Tragic Worship‘. Trueman believes that the missing element of our worship; the thing that makes it sound trite and shallow and unexciting, is precisely the lack of that half of the emotional paradox which we cannot bear to present to people. We, as a British culture, are allergic to mourning. We are allergic to death. We are allergic to meditating on our inadequacy before God – and if some of our music pays lip service to these, much of our other music does what British media does: it serves as a form of distraction from sober questions and heart-breaking realities. We might listen to a sermon that causes us to question the deepest motivations of our heart – and then before we even have time to think and present our admissions and concerns to God and reconsider our priorities or the authenticity of our faith, we are forced into a high-octane performance of ‘Oh, Happy Day!‘. At times like this, it seems as if these genuine wrestlings, these heart-changing feelings of discomfort, were not the very stuff of the Christian life, but were instead so many cracks that we have to paper over by a cheery onslaught of noise. We do not like discomfort or questioning, because these things are awkward, and like everyone else, awkward is something we resist, because it threatens the status quo and makes our lives more difficult. Deep, soul-searching questioning, especially when it borders on sad thoughts and confounding paradoxes, is what we seem to invite through our evangelistic events, but we stifle it when we treat it like this. There is authenticity, there is real life, when we allow ourselves to admit our own disquiet and our own grief and our incapacity to understand to each other and to God. When we admit that our plant is diseased and seek to heal it, rather than sticking a faux flower on with some PVA, we see a growth that’s real. I think our churches would do us a favour if they incorporated this into our some of our worship, rather than leaving us in a position in which we struggle to muster the courage to air these matters and get ourselves taken seriously by people who are accustomed to an emotionally, intellectually and existentially easy ‘church’ life. Sure, we laugh together. We learn together. We even sing together (sort of). But do we weep together? Do we grieve together in a real, mutual way over Kingdom things? Do we wrestle with God’s Word together? Do we confess our sins to each other and do we share our spiritual burdens, sorrows and trials with each other? Sometimes. But not usually, in my experience.
This insistence on the importance of the ‘tragic’ in our services might sound absurd to some. But I’m convinced. As well as life, joy and healing, Christianity addresses death, human corruption, the nature of God, the price of evil. Our view of life and humanity is authentic: the Biblical worldview supports existential questions and uncomfortable truths; it provides catharsis for our despair over the brokenness of the world and humanity and ourselves, and it and validates our grief. Christ is a haven for the weary, the orphaned, the widowed, the foreigner; he is a friend of the sinner and a Redeemer of the unworthy. Our faith is a faith that encompasses our grieving and thinking and wondering and crying. The point that Trueman makes in his article is that when we remove this from our worship, we impoverish it. The point that I want to make in my article is this: if the gospel of Christ has the capacity to do this, then why aren’t we using it? When worship can only be “undignified“; when it cannot also be sober, or thoughtful, or mournful; when it cannot sit in a corner and weep plaintively to God in anguish and fear at the same time as it rejoices in loud and jubilant singing; when it cannot express those deep feelings of undeserving and human inadequacy mingled with our delight that we do and should feel when we sing the words, “in royal robes I don’t deserve, I live to serve your Majesty” – we are erasing part of what belonging to Christ is about. We are erasing part of the human condition and its needs, even, and these are needs that Christ himself can satisfy. Why won’t we let him? In Christ’s ‘arsenal’ of promises, his promise to satisfy our thirst and give us rest come close to the top of the pile!
Now, there are many things Christ didn’t promise: he did not promise, for instance, a miracle healing to everyone who believed in him, as some would have him do. However, he wept for the dead with mourners. He wept over unbelieving Jerusalem. He promised rest to those who are weary and heavy-laden. He placed himself in the role of physician to the sin-sick. He was kind to doubters and genuine questioners. He was grieved by the unbelief and perversity that he saw in his generation and the obstacle that it posed to the power of his disciples’ ministry. What’s worrying me is that people today, especially young people, are deliberately turning away from Christ to get their experiences, emotions and concerns validated elsewhere, because the church does not draw on the resources provided by the God of Israel in his Word to minister to people in this way. And the killer is this: the Word of God is more than capable of doing it. It has this capacity built-in. You only have to read the thing, and you find comfort. What a vanity, what a waste, that people don’t seem to know about this.
The world is out to distract us from uncomfortable truths, paradoxes and complex feelings, probably because these things don’t do well at the hard-sell, and probably because the world doesn’t have any meaningful answers anyway. In Britain the secular distaste for matters of death and sin is fairly universal. But they are real things, and they perturb us, and, stifled by social conformity, when we find ourselves in need of an outlet to express and embrace our concerns, the church of Christ should be a place where we feel accommodated rather than alienated. The glorious, joyful, life-giving gospel has, and is founded on, these heavy and burdening aspects of life that are suppressed from polite conversation as taboos. The Christian worldview should validate as real and considerable things, the deepest, darkest crevices of human depravity and the loftiest heights of the holiness of God alongside the greatest deceptions and disappointments of the world and the most righteous and true promises of God. We should be among those brave souls who are not too prudish or morally squeamish to accept that these things exist; those who can relate to a convicted mass murderer or a child rapist, and recognise them as sons of Adam, as sinners who fall short of God’s holiness just like we do; as human beings made from the same stuff as us, who are just as worthy of hell as us but for the undeserved grace of God, and not as monsters. We don’t just impoverish ourselves, I feel, but we impoverish our ministry of the gospel when we join the world in erasing the tragic from the visible aspects of our worship. Through this erasure we offer, in Trueman’s words, “a less realistic view of life than one can find in a movie theater”. Life is hard, and that is something we’ve been promised. God is not less good because we suffer. If (God forbid!) we are embarrassed of God for allowing evil and suffering in the world, as much of the world goads us that we ought to be and even manages to convince some of us, then masking the fact isn’t going to sort out either the world or us. If we make pain, suffering, hardship, hell and doubt into so many white elephants crammed into one room, it’s just going to make the gospel of Christ look trite, cheap and irrelevant at best, and at worst, it’s going to distort it. I say, let’s get real about how we present ourselves and humanity before God, and about how we present God. There will always be stumbling blocks and people to stumble over them, but the glory of God is dearer to God than that, and the gospel is the thing with the power to redeem anyone at all from spiritual death, and from the depravity of their own heart.
This doesn’t mean that we have to be perennially dreary, but perhaps it does imply a balance shift that allows us to feel more authentically. Cue Leeland weeping for “the lost and unsaved“, and Godfrey Birtill on God being “still God, when we’re desperate for our healing/even through the things that hurt us/when the government has no answers“, and Laura Story on our experience of disappointment and heartache in this life as “the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy“.