The Gospel & Our Culture
by James Brownson & David Mills
A Reply to David Mills’s “The Devil Is a Good Sociologist”
by James Brownson
There are several aspects to David Mills’s discussion of worship at the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN) meeting last February (Touchstone 7.2, Spring 1994) which I find worrisome. First, there are some unfortunate cheap shots. To characterize the cantor as “a tall, thin, almost gaunt young man with a close-cropped beard and mystic expression” is certainly a caricature of the scene, intended only for dramatic effect as a “zinger” to open the essay. Such half-veiled mockery is inappropriate in an essay designed to stimulate reflection and dialogue regarding worship. Likewise, the suggestion that “we look to the vast weight of inherited wisdom, and they don’t” is heavily adversarial in tone, and simply untrue. That statement would gain little assent from the vast majority of the participants in the conference, I believe. There is an edge to some parts of this essay which sounds more like the venting of spleen than an opening of helpful dialogue.
Second, there is in the essay a reluctance to recognize values in traditions different from those embraced by Mills. In particular, I believe there is a fundamental divide in this country between those who regard worship as the spontaneous expression of the heart toward God, and those who see worship as the joining of the great chorus of praise which has continued from the beginning and which will continue into eternity. Certainly the more liturgical traditions can teach the rest of American Christianity a great deal about this latter set of values, but their lesson will be better heard if they realize the significance that intimacy and spontaneity in worship have for others. There must be some reason why so many at the GOCN conference found something of value in the worship services. Dialogue and mutual learning is possible only when we can realize the significance of the values of those with whom we disagree. One could wish for more of such generosity in this essay, that the same humility which was enjoined upon fellow Episcopalians regarding their own tradition would have been exercised toward those of other traditions.
Third, I am greatly disappointed in the conclusion of the third paragraph of Mills’s essay, that the worship of the conference said something basic about the GOCN movement as a whole. Such generalizing seems unfair. Related to this is the lack of any awareness of the writer that these were seminary students who were leading the worship services, students who were given the freedom to design and lead the services in ways which seemed good to them, without the censorship of some larger and more authoritative body. Certainly there are things which I would have done differently. (Mills’s comments about the “contemporary” statement of faith, for example, were quite apt in my view.) Yet the Gospel and Our Culture Network is not a hierarchical organization which imposes a “politically correct” view (of either the right or left) on its constituents. It exists only because people have found a common set of concerns, and have benefited from collaboration and dialogue, despite their differences on many subjects. If all of us were to have rejected the movement the first time we heard someone say something offensive to us, the movement would not exist today. The very nature of the movement as “network” requires that each of us take what is good and leave behind what is less helpful to us.
Finally, a word should be said about inclusive God-language. This has been, and will probably continue to be, one of the most sticky issues for us in our worship as a network. I don’t know how to resolve it, other than to note that both the presence and absence of masculine God language seems to elicit passionate concern from folks who are part of the network. And yet such people, who differ so deeply and passionately on this issue, nonetheless find that they can learn from each other on these and other questions as they discuss the implications of the gospel for our culture. I suspect that this will continue to be a source of strain for us for some time.
The liturgical traditions have important contributions to make to the GOCN. Many of the concerns expressed in Mills’s essay are concerns which all of us need to hear and to learn from. I must confess to being challenged by his essay as well. I think that we in the GOCN still have not paid enough attention to worship. Those traditions which do most of their theological work through liturgy have something important to say to those of us who tend to be more cerebral and discursive in our orientation. If we paid as much attention to our worship as we did to our lectures (which we have not), our network would be significantly strengthened. I am heartened, moreover, by the way in which Mills clearly has been grasped by some of the same concerns which stir in many of our hearts. My hope and prayer is that we can move past some of our more visceral reactions to each other, that we can find ways of focusing our energies on common concerns which the church as a whole deeply needs to address.
Response to James Brownson
by David Mills
I appreciate Dr. Brownson’s response, but I am afraid that it tends rather to prove than disprove my argument. He seems to think worship an “optional extra,” like tinted glass in a new car, and not an act of the most extraordinary intimacy, for which the most precise knowledge and language is needed. Obedient to the “jealous God” of the Bible, and directed in serving Him by the inherited wisdom, the ecumenically orthodox are unable to accept nearly as much diversity in the content of worship as he does, or as did the meeting of the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN). I will take his points in order.
The Editorial’s Purpose
First, he did not quite understand the purpose of the editorial. If he is going to accuse someone of venting his spleen, he really ought to make sure his subject has some spleen to vent. I didn’t, really; I was simply commenting, which is what writers do, which I suppose is why some countries shoot them.
My description of the young man leading worship was, for example, perfectly accurate. I did not intend it simply for dramatic effect (though I’m all for dramatic effect), but to convey the essence of the worship by describing its iconography or dramatic expression. The cantor’s soulful expression and the young woman fluttering about in place of a sermon well expressed the worship’s sentimentality and faddishness. And did so (speaking as a writer) more concisely and effectively than paragraphs of argument.
Such an opening may inhibit the helpful dialogue Dr. Brownson calls for, but if I may scandalize modern sensibilities, I really wasn’t interested in stimulating dialogue. That new holy word now means the pained pursuit of mutual affirmation, in which no one is allowed to speak as if he might be right and his partners wrong, and the goal of the exercise is to blend the partners’ beliefs without changing anything either holds important. An open dispute seems a better way to clarify differences, and thus resolve them if possible, than the pained attempt to be affirming, or if not affirming, inoffensive.
Second, I was criticizing not the values of another tradition but the rites of a particular meeting, which were at best inane and at worst flatly heretical. If, as Dr. Brownson agrees, the meeting’s creed was “unitarian, pelagian, utopian, self-congratulatory, and sentimental,” how could I describe it generously?
I should note that here Dr. Brownson very much confuses the question by defending something—“the spontaneous expression of the heart towards God”—that the Network did not practice. Its worship was not the least bit spontaneous, but was as thoroughly programmed as an Orthodox liturgy. I could only quote and criticize it because it was written, and only thought it worth criticizing because, being written, it was intended to be what it was.
Even had the worship been spontaneous, spontaneity is not an excuse for heresy. The mind that knows the truth will be able to speak the truth, and speak it accurately, which is why doctoral programs require oral defenses of the thesis and evangelical churches expect their members to be able to give their testimony. A husband who can’t say whether his wife has blue or brown eyes is a bad husband, and a blue-eyed wife would not be placated by her husband’s excuse that he spontaneously called her eyes brown.
But “the spontaneous expression of the heart towards God” was not the subject of my editorial. Had the Network’s worship been the sort he defends, I would never have written about it. I was concerned about what it said, and said intentionally, and therefore about what it said about the Network and its theological assumptions and commitments.
A Legitimate Conclusion
Third, as I wrote in the editorial, it was not only the worship that led me to conclude that the American branch of the GOCN “had conceded too much to ‘our culture’ and was thus far too vague about ‘the Gospel’,” but the response to it by the leaders and others, random conversations, and the discussions in my small group. Dr. Brownson is annoyed that I claimed that what I called the ecumenically orthodox “look to the vast weight of inherited wisdom,” and the Network doesn’t, but this was a legitimate conclusion from what the members and the chosen speakers said, not only from the worship.
I knew the worship was designed by seminary students, but that is no better an excuse than spontaneity. Assigning the worship to seminarians seems to show how little concerned the organizers were with worship. They would not have their five-year-old son cater his sister’s wedding reception, and she would not accept as an excuse for the ensuing disaster that the boy had been given the freedom to cater the meal in ways that seemed good to him, without the censorship of a larger and more authoritative parent. They did not, I note, give seminarians responsibility for choosing the speakers or workshops.
It may seem unfair to judge the Network by worship its leaders may feel did not adequately express their own understanding of the gospel. But they did put it in the hands of seminarians whose views they should have known, and it did go on for five services unrebuked or unrevised, and the coordinator did praise the worship in the closing meeting when at least a tactful silence might have been expected, and many there found “something of value in the worship services,” and no one except the English observers seemed to find a problem with it. Dr. Brownson’s claim that the Network should not be held accountable for its worship by itself shows how far the Network’s understanding of things is from one guided by the wisdom of the past.
Fourth, Dr. Brownson’s explanation that the Network is divided over the use of “inclusive” God language most clearly expresses the basic disagreement between us. (I put quotation marks around inclusive because I object to the feminists’ ideological use of the term. Nothing in the cosmos is more inclusive than the Father who sent His Son to die for every man and woman. Calling Him something else because you feel His name exclusive is somewhat like demanding that the fireman carrying you out of a burning building first go home and put on a dress.)
He is right about the nature of a “network,” and I am grateful that the GOCN exists. He fails, however, to draw the crucial conclusion that such a network ought not to worship together. If you cannot agree whether God is properly referred to as He, or She, or both He and She, or neither He nor She, you disagree too deeply on Whom you are worshipping to speak to Him (or Her or It) together. Worship is an act of intimacy, and to speak intimately with someone you must know him intimately. You will certainly know his name.
Worship also is an act of union, and union is an act of knowing, which is why the medieval mystics used for prayer those sexual metaphors our supposedly more open age finds so embarrassing. Whether spiritual or sexual, to have intercourse with someone (or Someone) you ought to know them, and be committed to them, and only to them. Spiritual intercourse, or prayer, with Someone about whom you know as little as Dr. Brownson implies is adultery.
Perhaps some modern people resist the idea of union with God because union with another so greatly limits our ability to speak to Him, and of Him, as we wish. If we know the Father, we cannot call Him Mother or (without presumption) nickname Him Creator or avoid addressing Him by name because a companion might be offended. We will call Him Father.
A Profoundly Worrisome Thought
If we meet the Father, we cannot pretend to worship with those who refuse to call Him by His Name. It will be a point of division, not a “sticky issue.” To worship together with such a fundamental disagreement is to grant (implicitly if unconsciously) that God may be conceived more or less as one wishes, and that the act of the community in worshipping together is more important than knowing Whom it is they worship, or whether they are worshipping the same God at all.
That the Gospel and Our Culture Network thinks of worship this way is profoundly worrisome. I share Dr. Brownson’s hope and prayer, but must raise a warning when my tradition helps me see a dangerous error another tradition cannot so easily see.
Dr. James Brownson is the coordinator of the Gospel/Theology Work Group of the Gospel and Our Culture Network and Associate Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“The Gospel & Our Culture” first appeared in the Summer 1994 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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