Please Me, O Lord
S. M. Hutchens on the Roots of Romantic Worship
After the collapse of the Episcopal Church our family returned to the Evangelicals whence we came. During our years away, however, they had been undergoing their own changes. An electrotheatrical liturgy seems now to be the common and expected manner of worship—spectacular when the budget can manage it, and imitation-spectacular when it cannot.
On a recent visit to a fairly typical Evangelical church, we were treated to one of its regular features. A handsome young woman, attractively dressed, stood before the congregation with an eight-inch microphone, the head of which she held gently to her lips while she writhed and cooed a song in which she, with closed eyes and beckoning gestures, begged Jesus, as she worked her way toward its climax, to come fill her emptiness. The crowd liked it.
Her song had a different effect on me than I suspect she thought it would. It did, perhaps, bring me closer to Jesus, but by bringing me closer to the sinfulness of my own heart, the kind of heart that would be excited to lust by a pretty woman begging to be filled, and that would be instructed by its conscience to avert the eyes until she was done with her performance.
It also made me wonder if her husband, sitting by while she went through her show, was doing his duty by her, since she seemed to have a large surplus of the sort of womanly energy that husbands like to see. (One can only account for these displays by Christian wives and daughters by the unquestioned acceptance in Christian homes of feminist assumptions about obedience not owed to husbands and fathers.) These are not particularly pious thoughts, but I rather doubt that I was alone, and as I write am in no humor to pretend otherwise.
The Next Phase
Upon reflection I had to conclude that the song was not un-Evangelical, not foreign to the tradition. It was the “In the Garden” tryst of the old hymnbooks carried into the next phase of intimacy and excitement. Jesus has been walking and talking with the revivalists and telling them they are his own for many years now, and it is not surprising that, given his romantic propensities, they should be expecting him to move to the next phase of the courtship ritual.
Many of Evangelicalism’s most beloved verses are off-putting to men (at least those who are paying attention to the words) because they seem to be proper to women, or even homosexuals—or because they force them to lie to God about their intentions or state of mind as though they were under the influence of some kind of religious excitement. These hymns are largely the products of a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminization of American religion (see Ann Douglas’s The Feminization of American Culture ), of an era that has borne most of its fruit in the last hundred years or so, when evolving Christianity in the West (Catholic and Protestant, liberal and conservative) has come to be regarded by a great many men, and not without reason, as an almost exclusively affective domain—something for women, children, and unmanly men. Much of the new Evangelical music—and I have heard the same in Catholic churches under the influence of “liturgical renewal”—is of the same ilk.
The display that provoked this writing is the product of development shared by the mainline and the Evangelicals. The latter, still largely in the feminized stage, have not yet moved wholly into the emasculations of the mainline. The Evangelical academy, while for the most part egalitarian now, has managed to avoid the bleak, militant feminism now in unquestioned control of the mainline schools. The influence of the academy is further mitigated by Evangelicalism’s congregationalism and its strong populist and anti-intellectual streaks. The professors have influence, to be sure, but they do not become bishops who can force their will on congregations, or fill commissions having the power to change a church’s lex orandi over the course of a few years.
Nor do churches that may elect their own pastors without interference from the denominational intelligentsia favor the women that have been forced on mainline congregations. The Evangelical churches, in accordance with their tradition, can remain “merely feminized”: “soul-winning,” now in the sense of gravid with “seekers,” full of the warmings sought by Evangelicals, and marked by preaching and music that present no particular challenge to the mind or tastes of a child of ten—a child that in traditional cultures has not yet, as Leon Podles observes in The Church Impotent, left the society of women. The church feminized is not only the church demasculinized, but inevitably the church infantilized as well.
The excuse for this is that to “reach” people, the churches must operate on this level, but this becomes suspect when it appears that nothing deeper is available in these congregations for those who have for many years been “reached.” There is no move from soft rock or campfire chorus to Bach or Mendelssohn, from melody-line singing back to the four-part harmonies from which most of these congregations have fallen in a single generation. (Children in the Evangelical church where I was raised learned to read not only their Bibles, but also soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, from singing the parts with Mom and Dad. Now they just accompany, singing melody only, the principal musicians, which they once themselves were.)
They rarely move from skits and anecdotes to Augustine or Calvin, from entertainments to prayer and fasting, from “come to Jesus because he’s attractive” to “obey him, his apostles, and his apostolic ministers, because he’s Lord,” from affection for a cosmeticized Jesus to the fear of God. (What I am saying here applies to mainstream Pentecostalism as well.) The only difficulty I would see for our ten-year-old is making sense of all the sexual heat and energy of the liturgical performers, with their thumping rhythms, their body motions, their phallic microphones, and the increasingly erotic overtones of the “personal relation with Jesus Christ.”
Tradition Gone Awry
The young woman displaying herself before the faithful with her sexualized—and hence secularized—religion is not simply an example of unfortunate excess, but, I believe, a symbol of a whole tradition gone awry, caught now in the glaring intensification of what it was in its beginning, and what wiser heads, in those beginnings, often warned it against. It is a tradition in which religious affection is the measure of faith, where preaching is paramount not because it teaches but because it “blesses the heart,” where the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not the center of the gathering of Christians on the Lord’s Day, but rather is minimized in favor of replenishment of emotional capital, where the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed are not customarily repeated, not because they are not believed, but because they, being “rote,” like written-out prayers, contain not a minim of the spontaneity alleged to characterize true worship.
It is a faith in which the value of worship is measured principally in terms of its ability to excite the worshiper rather than give glory to God, and in which it is assumed that what satisfies the jaded church-attender, always seeking new and heightened religious experience, is what pleases the Lord. It is a faith in which the Scriptures are honored in word, but in which they have always been freely altered, distorted, or ignored to meet the changing requirements of an unstable religious culture, the sons and daughters finding egalitarianism and toleration of their divorces using the same exegetical tools their fathers used to find the prohibition of wine and dancing.
The churches are large, but because sin is barely mentioned—it depresses the celebratory atmosphere—one suspects they are run by unjust stewards who fill the pews by encouraging their Lord’s debtors to minimize their accounts. It is a faith in which all too often the good pastor is rejected in favor of the talented one.
I now doubt that the faults of churches like this can be avoided by fleeing to others that are better, for having spent my own time sojourning in the wilderness, I am now skeptical that the “better church” we once sought is available on the terms we sought it. I do think that these churches, and all churches, whatever their faults, can be saved (else they will most surely die, however large and noisy the corpse may be) by serious self-examination and reform, doing what must be done to correct the flaws in their histories, such as the Lord calls the churches in Asia in the prologue to the Book of Revelation to do.
This means admitting that a good number of what are regarded as church distinctives are simply wrong, and that the fathers of the sect were wrong so far as they were fathers of a sect. And of course, it means the division of churches, so that those who are obedient can now find each other’s fellowship, unencumbered by the burden of old lies. What evil calls the scandal of schism is, from the perspective of good, the removal of diseased tissue so the body might be healed.
If the Lord commands these changes of his churches, they are possible. They are not begun by telling young women to behave themselves with greater modesty, but by the admission of the old men that the chain of events that brought her to expose herself before the congregation is of their forging. The errors are in constitutional matters, and the burden of amendment lies at their feet far more than hers.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Please Me, O Lord” first appeared in the May 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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