Friday, July 22, 2011

False Worship as an Industry

In the sermon from last Sunday at Christ Church, I made mention of 'pagan' worship that the Israelites imported into the worship of Yahweh, the true God.   In light of this, we discussed the dangers of importing two ways of life from our world into our worship of the true God:  an individualistic or consumerist mentality, and an inordinate desire for efficiency or activity.  

But don't get the idea that these are the only two ways of living that we could've mentioned; there are many more ways of living in this world that are incompatible with Christian worship.  It is just as true today as it was in the Ancient world (and in other polytheistic cultures): there seems to be an infinite number of gods.  If this is so, then there is in our world an infinite number of ideals, ways of living that would seek to hinder us in our worship of the One True God.  

But what happens when, instead of Christians importing worldly practices into worship, the world steals Christian worship practices for its own worship and ways of living?  When this happens, new and more appealing ways of false worship emerge.  And many Christians uncritically adopt these false worship practices and inadvertently fall into idolatry.  So, what does this false worship look like?   

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith, shows us that these ways of living that encourage false worship (he calls them "liturgies) are so entangled with modern living that we don't even notice them.  In one section of the book, he imagines a group of Martian anthropologists (not unlike Swenson's "Southbound on the Freeway") observing the ways Earthlings worship:  

I would like to invite you for a tour of one of the most important religious sites in our metropolitan area... notice the sheer popularity of the site as indicated by the colorful sea of parking that surrounds the building.  The site is throbbing with pilgrims every day of the week as thousands and thousands make the pilgrimage... The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that hark back to the medieval cathedrals-- mammoth religious spaces that can absorb all kinds of different religious activities all at one time.  And so one might say that this religious building has a winding labyrinth for contemplations, alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints.  As we wander... we'll be struck by the rich iconography that lines the walls and interior spaces... here is an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb that-- as with all iconography-- inspires us to be imitators of these exemplars.  These statues and icons embody for us concrete images of "the good life."  Here is a religious proclamation that does not traffic in abstracted ideals or rules or doctrines, but rather offers to the imagination pictures and statues and moving images... we need to appreciate the catholicity of this iconography:  these same icons of the good life are found in such temples... around the world.  This temple... offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.  This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life...As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what's happening within the chapel-- invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see.  We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms.  Sometimes we will enter cautiously, curiously, tentatively making our way through this labyrinth within the labyrinth, having a vague sense of need but unsure of how it will be fulfilled... Having our sense of need, we come looking, not sure what for, but expectant, knowing that what we need must be here.  And then we hit upon it... [and] with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar, which is the consummation of our worship... behind the altar is the priest who presides over the consummating transaction.  And this is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion." 

Of course, this description is not of a church, but of a shopping mall.  

Perhaps we have not considered the mall as a place of worship, but if worship is the proclamation of what is ultimately good (i.e. what we really desire and where real life is really found) the mall is indeed a place of worship.  (If you don't believe this, check out the PBS documentary The Persuaders.)  Smith also points out that sporting events (football games, tailgates, etc.) and life in the university also bare a resemblance to places of worship, having their own worshipful activities and visions of transcendent good.  I would add the arts (concerts) and some family events to this.  (Indeed, many families who do not worship God replace worship of the true God with these lesser liturgies, vacations and sports in particular. How many families do you know whose relationships are all centered around their children's events or their alma mater's sports?)

Do you and I worship at these places?  Have we sought to have our hearts satisfied with the visions of the good and the good life which the mall, the stadium, the marketplace, the beach, and the academy lift up?  
  • Consider the mall:  Do we think looking good, feeling good, and having good stuff are important enough for our hearts?
  • Consider the stadium: Do we think that our team's season really matters?  Does it matter if I'm there?  Is my need for community being met by those who do not love my God?
  • Consider the academy:  Have I made man the measure of all things?  Has knowledge instead of knowledge of God become my greatest good? Have I made Christian worship about being in the know?
  • Consider the arts:  Have I made good taste or beauty the ultimate good by which I judge the worth of others?  Have I made fame or artistic excellence my life?  Do I judge the worship of others by their artistic excellence?
  • Consider the market:  Have I acted like the church is a business? Have I imported the business model there?  Do I judge churches like an investor looks at a business?
  • Consider your family:  Are my children, is my family an end in itself?  
Idolatry can be subtle, especially when it is part of the cultural milieu, but as Christians we are called to take every thought captive and submit it to the Lordship of Christ.  Perhaps this article is helping you identify your idols.  Knowing what our idols are is only the first step.  The next is seeing God clearly for who He is.  And this can only be done with his help.  

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