23 April 2011

The Temptation of the Tactile

This is kind of a part 3 to the Easter discussion, but this goes far beyond Easter.

Interestingly not that many years ago, Protestants were somewhat apologetic about the pagan elements that had crept in their holy days. But today, Sacralist impulses have driven them to be proud of the conquest and appropriation of these elements. Suddenly, the eggs, bunnies, candy and the rest are good things…just as they've done with all the symbols floating around christ-mass celebration.

It's interesting how the early church quickly lost the authority base after the Apostles. There are several factors here.

One the Scriptures had been recently completed and while the Canon was mostly recognized quite early, there were a few books being debated.

Two they were trying to survive both in the face of civil persecution as well as the twin threats of Judaizing and Paganizing…mostly in the form of Gnosticism.

Consequently the church got off track pretty early and the occasional voices that tried to pull them back were ignored. Days and seasons were invented and kept, relics venerated, and slowly the Church introduced many new things and borrowed things……candles, vestments, crosses, altars, buildings/temples, offices, and eventually the cult of saints, purgatory, monasticism and the papacy.

It's all happening again but we don't live in the Greco-Roman world so the cultural syncretism looks different. Instead we have WWJD bracelet spirituality, pop psychology, self-help, consumer driven gospels, instead of Divine declaration we have marketing. Instead of the Biblical models for church government and leadership, we have democracy, Robert's Rules and pastors who are more like corporate CEO's.

What drives all this? Many things, but I think a big issue is the temptation of the tactile.

I know it well.

I've not been to Jerusalem during Holy Week, but I have experienced it in Rome. I've stayed there more than a few times and once for the entirety of Holy Week. I had traveled south to Naples and Pompeii and returning north I stopped to visit a friend who lived in the Old City. His flat was a short walk from the Spanish Steps and the Coliseum. Rome is a fascinating city. You could spend decades there and not fully explore it.

I was always flooded with mixed feelings. I love history and so it's hard not to fall in love with the place even thought spiritually speaking it's an Auschwitz or a Mordor. I wandered St. Peter's Square late at night and early in the morning. I was always very impressed with the façade of St. John Lateran. Those massive statues looming over you are inspiring…it makes you want to convert to Romanism. The sheer grandiosity is impressive. The flesh says, these people KNOW, how awesome it would be to part of this. I remember standing under the façade of the Lateran, inside the Vatican and just feeling small.

Spiritually speaking I'd like to take a hammer to them, but historically speaking they are treasures.

In terms of the flesh I always remember the temptation of the tactile.

As I watched people climb on the nearby Scala Sancta (Holy Steps), ascending each tread on their knees I felt both pity and envy.

Pity because of their bondage. Envy, because there is something immensely satisfying about 'doing' something. I can understand why people are drawn to High Church worship. It is immensely satisfying to the flesh to kneel on the floor, light candles, touch relics, and go on pilgrimage.

At an Anglican Church in Rome, I sometimes served as the Crucifer…that's the guy carrying the cross on a pole as the procession marches in, and wearing acolyte robes I helped the Canon administer the Lord's Supper. Sitting in grand old buildings is pretty satisfying as well. I was sitting in the chair occupied by Mussolini during George V's funeral service in 1936, looking at memorials to the soldiers who fell at Anzio, and singing God Save the Queen on Remembrance Day. If you love history, the experience of High Worship in old European churches is very attractive.

I wouldn't do any of that today. That was a long time ago.

Rome is always exciting, but it's extra exciting during Holy Week. There are scores of old church buildings that are under lock and key most of the year. This is one time that many of them are open and you can get inside to have a look.

I could easily get caught up in it all. It was exciting to hear the crowds screaming 'viva Papa!' as Pope John Paul II spoke. During my time in Italy I witnessed many processions both large and small. In the Dolomites I ascended mountain paths greeted suddenly by an impressive vista and of course a rustic shrine, a little High Place. I thought how nice to be a Roman Catholic, you could fall to your knees light a candle and pray. You would feel like you accomplished something, sanctified your hike even. It's no wonder the Prophets had to contend with the High Places, they're very tempting to the flesh. I sat in churches and listened to Vivaldi concertos and I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to just immerse myself and glory in the wonders of the West and all its traditions. Protestants are very much smitten with this notion today. For so long they shunned the millennium we call the Middle Ages. Today, they want to participate in it and then they can also participate and celebrate what came after even if it's on the graves of their spiritual fathers.

All these things please the flesh.

Now I live in Northern Appalachia and we have a lot of descendants of Central and Eastern Europe living here. When we drive up to the nearest city we see onion domes looming over the waterfront and we like to visit a little Eastern European grocery where the city's Russian community shops. We're about the only exclusive English speakers that shop there.

Out in the country and forest where we live there's a small town we often drive by. A Rusyn community settled there in the early 20th century. They came from the enchanting realm of Transcarpathian Ruthenia where the modern states of Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland all converge.

The community that settled here are members of the Uniate or Byzantine Rite Roman Catholic Church. They're Roman Catholics, but their worship appears Eastern Orthodox with Icons, Byzantine architecture, married priests etc… From the outsider’s perspective, it looks like an Eastern Orthodox Church.

There's an interesting story there from the 15th century and the waning days of Byzantium. The Emperor of Constantinople could see the end was near and without Western help they would fall. Constantinople did fall to the Turks in 1453. In the 1400's there were various meetings as members of the West and East met and tried to forge a via media for the Catholic and Orthodox communions. They came up with the Uniate Churches. It was heartily rejected in Constantinople by the clergy and people, but a lot of the churches appeared in Ukraine and the whole Trans-carpathian region.

Anyway, whenever we're passing through I always have to stop and go inside. Upon entry your senses are assaulted by golden iconostasis, the waft of incense. I wander about the 'sanctuary' and examine the icons, the windows, the side chapels. I look at the names carved on the memorials, peruse the hymns and liturgy. I always feel like not only am I in Eastern Europe but somewhere back in time. I've long been quite in love with the Eastern lands where the Habsburgs, Tsars, Byzantine Emperors, and Sultans collided, and sitting in this little building in North America lets me taste it…just a little.

It's really from my standpoint quite exhilarating. Some readers will know what I mean.

I think about the little community settling here in a little lumber and factory town tucked in the forested hills. In the basement they have murals and tables where they have their potluck suppers and Sunday School.

I would be very happy being part of that community. In fact in my flesh I long for it…all of it. There's both a beauty and a curse in these little ethnic enclaves. Of course now in 2011 the original immigrants are all gone and their great and great-great grandchildren are probably more interested in Taylor Swift than Cyril and Methodius. Nevertheless my flesh would be so pleased to be a part of them…you know who you are and what you're about and you have others with you sharing in the experience.

There's just one problem. I can't reconcile it with my Bible.

But I just shake my head when I see Baptists and Presbyterians operating under the same principles, the ones that keep me from joining with the Uniate community. There's nothing in principle that keeps them from doing all the things this little Uniate community is doing. Why don't they? In principle the only thing separating them is a different set of traditions and a different cultural milieu.

In America we think our cultural norms are quite compatible with Christian worship and practice. We don't think it strange to mix our consumeristic tendencies, levity, love of celebrity, and down-home folksy type idiom and demeanour with our faith, but most American Protestants would find the Byzantine Church to be bizarre, exotic, even dark and disturbing.

Of course to the folks from Ruthenia, they might find American Christianity to be sacrilegious in how it treats God, gaudy in décor and music, and probably quite evil in the way it markets and tries to sell Christianity.

Don't they inject their culture? Of course. That's why the church building is so intriguing. As I said, I'm flooded with thoughts of Slavic history, Turkish conquests, Byzantium, Habsburgs, and the fault zone between the Occident and Orient. Their music reflects their assured mysticism and the sorrow of their history. It's very moving.

But as I said, most Americans wouldn't like it all. They would find it to be 'creepy,' and it would make them uncomfortable. I feel the same way attending most Evangelical Churches. I literally get a sick feeling and want to run for the door. I feel like I'm in some kind of evil Wal-Mart commercial being tortured by used car salesmen, but that's just me.

The point is…tactile religion is very pleasing to the flesh. Whether it's High Church rites tied to history or Charismatic type experiences…people like to 'do,' they like to 'feel' and experience Christianity…not through knowing God via His Word, but through emotional frenzy, or emotionally charged tactile expression.

I remember being in Padova and watching all the people line up at the tomb of San Antonio (St. Anthony). People are sweating, they look intense, some are on the brink of tears. When they get to the tomb, the press their bodies against it, rub it, talk to it. It's powerful stuff….magic more than Christian Spirituality.

Evangelicals like this stuff and I don’t blame them. They're running to it and embracing it. Passover, Lent, Labyrinths, Passion Plays, all the fads…bracelets, trick-prayers, and on it goes. I don't doubt some will come up with some kind of Protestant rosary, maybe some will even start wearing hair shirts like the monks of old.

Just yesterday on our local 'christian' radio station they profiled this guy that's been carrying a wooden cross around the world for 40 years. Why? God told him to. He even relayed how as a boy when he was carrying water to the farm workers in the fields he wouldn't walk in a straight line. God would tell him to walk forty paces to the left, ten paces to the right. I thought he was going to repent of it as he told it, but instead he insisted God was teaching him to be sensitive to the Spirit. The radio hosts fawned over him and no one seemed to notice there was a lot of talk about him, his experiences, and the Spirit leading, but precious little about the actual gospel of Jesus Christ.

God told him. How can you argue with that? Will you argue with God? The problem is God didn't tell him and rather than celebrate this man, he ought to have been rebuked. I felt really sorry for him because someday he'll find out that it was his flesh telling him to do these things, not the Holy Spirit.

I kept thinking of Simeon Stylites and the bizarre desert monks that appeared in the 4th century. After the persecutions stopped with Constantine, monasticism and a lot of other bizarre stuff arose as Christians sought to be 'extreme' and zealous in their following of Christ. They couldn't be martyrs so they took to silly and often misled attempts at pleasing God.

Everyone laughs when they read about the monks living atop pillars for years. Obviously these guys on the radio were of the same ilk as the people that would trek out into the desert to sit and gawk in admiration at the holy men atop the pillars. This poor deceived man that thought God told him to carry a 12' wooden cross around is not different.

I also read in the paper that in one nearby town they're doing a 'Cross-walk' akin to the Via Dolorosa processions in Jerusalem. I was surprised at the number of Protestants participating in this alongside Catholics and Mainline liberals. I guess they don't mind worshipping with priests and pastorettes? The one pastor is an admirer of Arthur Pink. I've talked to him more than once. I think he needs to read a little more! I can't imagine what Pink would say to him were he alive.

They're carrying some big wooden cross around the town to the various church buildings (temples) and singing hymns etc…

If you want to do that, fine. But if you think you're being a better Christian by doing it and that others are not as spiritual because they're not….Paul has words for you. If you think you're imitating Christ, then you've grossly misunderstood what he went through. If you think this how you take up your cross on a daily basis…you've really misunderstood.

The dangers of hyper-literalistic hermeneutics!

Another church is having a special communion service that replicates the famous Last Supper painting by DaVinci. I'm not kidding. The people will take turns at going up and being seated and receiving the communion.

There's nothing wrong with sitting at a table for communion, but to replicate a Renaissance painting? What's next? I know, we could all go up wearing suits of armour and pretend we're crusaders kneeling at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem? We can carry swords and all, maybe even with fake blood on them to celebrate the events of 1099.

Why not? Do you have some basis to argue against it? Are you going to try and say it's not in the Bible?

I think we should all come in dancing and spinning and yelling 'Ooga! Yabooga!' as we go forward to receive the communion from the pastor. Don't like that? Why not? Maybe that's our tradition where we come from? How can you argue against it? Most would…but not from the Bible….they would argue from the Western Tradition.

What if I went up front and beat my head on the floor? Well, I'm just humiliating myself, giving up something, showing sorrow for my sin. What's the difference between that and Lent? Nothing other than Lent has been around for a long time. Is that all we need for it to be respectable….a few hundred years? Does that validate it?

We walked out of an Easter Service years ago. They decided in lieu of Scripture we'd have a song service. Apparently there were numerous folks in the congregation that had wanted more than anything to sing with Wayne Newton in Vegas but it didn't work out for them. So instead they decided to get into Church music and worship. Sorry if that sounds mean spirited, but it's pretty outrageous. If you want to go sing Americana music….fine. No problem. But you bring it into the Church and I will become very hostile. Were we there to Know God or were we there to be entertained? How were we communing with God by being subjected to tacky and poorly sung songs by solo artists who were putting on an act?

Am I judging their hearts? No, I'm judging their actions by the Scripture.

Some family members attended a church years ago that was having Clown Communion services. The communion ministers were dressed as clowns and when you came forward they'd put a sticker on you called the Mark of the Clown. I am not kidding. It was a Presbyterian Church USA…that's the mainline liberal body.

What's wrong with that? I don't really see any difference between that and wearing a WWJD bracelet or the image of a saint on a necklace. These are all made up spiritual exercises.

I just wear the bracelet to identify myself as a Christian and to remember to act like one. I've heard that.

Okay…God's Word isn't enough? Your baptism wasn't a sufficient sign and reminder for you? Taking the Lord's Supper doesn't help you remember?

What if all the Christians in my workplace are wearing them? Should I do so as well? What if I refuse to, not because I'm scared, but because I don't think I need it, nor does it enhance my walk. If you think it does, then it's a charm, just like the Catholic wearing the saint necklace.

It's just a little thing right? Sure, I'll admit the WWJD bracelet isn't a big deal. Don't misunderstand me. But that argument leads to a lot of other things.

How about just a little wisdom someone might ask? Sure but your wisdom has to be built on principles and if in principle you embrace tradition/innovation, then I can view the scope of history which is vast and inspiring and I can say….the Eastern Orthodox are using wisdom. Wouldn't wisdom also dictate then that I as an individual am incapable of discerning the correct balance and application of tradition/innovation? Wisdom says, turn to others who know more and if they say it's alright to kiss an icon, it's not idolatry…then who am I to argue.

It's only when I stand on the rock of Scripture that I can have any confidence.

What are all these Protestants and Evangelicals standing on? The latest results from a Barna Survey that helps them re-tool and re-market their product?

When they do these things they not only betray the Reformation…which they would wish to claim.

They betray Christianity as taught in the New Testament. They betray the New Covenant, the Canon of the Church of Jesus Christ.

If I'm ever convinced otherwise, you'll find me on Sunday morning worshipping with the Rusyns of the Byzantine Rite.

I’m not going to attend these half-hearted cheap versions of Medievalism. If worship is about the building, I want something old and stone. I’m not going to watch pop-Americana passion plays. I want Oberammergau. If musical instrumentation and the emotive ambience of music is how I know God, then I don’t want praise teams, I want Orthodox chants. But can I say that with authority? I know people get worked up about electric guitars and drum kits, but if you’ve already abandoned the Bible and introduced all the other stuff, what difference can it make? It’s just a ‘new’ tradition for a new context. This is why the pop/youth Christianity has taken over. No one can really argue against it.

I can, but my argument destroys many of the other things the old generation also treasures. The only argument the older generation has…once again when followed through…leads me right back to worshiping with Byzantine Rite folks in the town on the other side of the forest.

In the meantime, I'll stick with Medieval Underground and the good parts that came out of the Reformation.

But that also means that there's not a lot of places to take my family to Church and the number seems to be shrinking every day!

My friend and I used to joke as we traveled around Rome….boy, if we were Roman Catholics, we wouldn't have to spend any time in Purgatory at all! We're earning so many points by visiting all these holy places we'd be set.

Luther expressed something similar when he visited Rome. He wished his parents were dead so he could get them out of Purgatory.

I think attaching the tactile is kind of default setting in a fallen world. We naturally want to make God in our own image. We want to feel him, express him in terms we can relate to and understand. Isn't that kind of like making an idol?

People like me are often accused of making Christianity a cerebral exercise. I understand the charge but I don't agree.

Since God is a Spirit it would seem that primarily our knowledge of Him comes through the mind, the heart…the parts of our being that aren't subject to scientific dissection. Faith, the hope that saves us is an abstract concept….but it has a concrete reciprocal. I won't deny that.

Knowing God is not just about knowledge, it's knowledge applied. Our love is to abound in knowledge. It's mortification, putting ourselves to death, dying daily and living unto God. It's being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ with whom we are united.

We know God through experience, but here's where I differ with my opponents…God decides the terms. We know him in our lives through Providence and we know Him through Worship as He defines it.

In the Old Covenant, the people of God were under tutelage. He gave them the tactile because in terms of God's unfolding story of Salvation, the developing plot leading to the Cross, Redemptive-History, they were children. Pardon the illustration. I don't mean to sound sacrilegious so please don't take it that way….it's as if they had legos, building blocks, and crayons. That's what they needed at that time. They needed to be told what to eat, what to wear, when to work, when to rest, when to worship and so forth.

Paul calls these the weak and beggarly elements. Why? Because they could not save, and the Jews who really believed understood that. Those that were not, put their faith in these elements.

But in the New Covenant, the people of God, the Israel of God is in the age of maturity. We put away the childish things, the types and symbols, even the temporary signs and wonders of the Apostolic period. We don't need to return to the Jewish way of doing things, nor do we want to replicate it…make a Christian version of it. That's what Rome does. They've 'Christianized' Old Testament worship…temples, priests, sacrifices, the whole thing.

In accordance with New Covenant simplicity, after all the New Covenant era is the End Times, the time between the times…we are provided with only the simplest of elements.

Water, Bread, Wine.

It's almost as if because we're human and we're weak He gives us these things. We need something and I would argue that any time we ADD to these, we (without meaning to) denigrate their value.

The tactile we should be satisfied with in the Age of Maturity are the things God gives, the elements of the ordinances/sacraments, Providence, and of course the best way to know Him….His Word.

That's what all these things are for anyway…to Know Him. That's actually what it's all about. It's not about merely escaping the fires of hell. To many this seems to be what their understanding of Christianity is. I've been driving past one of those accursed and often blasphemous church signs every day……..

Free Trip to Heaven, Details Inside!

That's not the Gospel or at the very least a weak perversion of it. The fact that they think it's something to joke about is very telling.

The idea is that we are to have our sins forgiven and be reconciled to our Creator that loves us. We want to know him…Jesus provides the Way. In order to know Him, some things have to be taken care of first.

If our tactile experiences are to help us Know Him….then what are all these people doing? What are the Byzantine Rite folks doing? Do they know him through lighting candles, burning incense, and kissing icons of saints? Who told them that's how you know God?

What are the Evangelicals doing? Do they know Him through their praise teams, WWJD bracelets, Purpose-Driven programmes, Name-it and Claim it prayers, being 'slain in the spirit' (whatever that is), tongue speaking (which isn't Biblical tongues anyway), Cross-walks, DaVinci suppers, and market based Christianity? Who told them that's how you know God?

So with both groups why are doing these things? Who's it for? God? To know God? Since when can we decide how we approach God? When we do this, we're declaring that the definition of His Person and Character is in our hands and subject to our understanding. It's almost as if we're saying…we know how to approach you, because we've defined you according to our terms.

Their doing it because of the tactile, because they have confused the gospel with experiences and emotions. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to trust myself to those types of things anyway. People can deceive themselves. All of us are guilty of this at least from time to time. We're dishonest with ourselves about our motives and what's really driving the attitude and posture of our hearts. To build your house on these things is to build on sand.

The reality is…if I ever really abandoned my belief that Scripture is the sole Canon for the Church, I probably wouldn't be attending the Byzantine Rites…I'd probably just cease to be a Christian.

I sure wouldn't embrace modern bubble-gum Evangelicalism.

So why are you celebrating Easter? To know God according to His Word?

Or so you can have an experience that pleases your flesh.

If you're doing it because you want to follow Scripture, how do you justify it? What's the criteria? Are the Byzantine Uniate worshippers justified in what they do? If not why? What standard can you hold them to when you admit we can add to the Scriptures?

If they are justified, even in part….then I'll play advocate for them a moment…..where was your Church prior to Martin Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin? If you argue Justification by Faith Alone was the reason the old church ceased to be in the 1560's, why? If they had the authority to do those other things and still be the Church, why couldn't they worship/express salvation in traditional/innovative terms as well? I don't see the problem.

Things to think about.


A Watchman on the Wall said...

Things to think about indeed. WOW.!!.

Anonymous said...

You get it! You challenge us well and rightly about these things. Do we discount the teaching of Jesus in John 4? The carnal nature seeks to satisfy itself, all the more powerfully and deceptively in our "spirituality" and religions. We should remind ourselves that the flesh wars against the spirit!

There is no allowance for our own innovations in our "worship" toward the God Who is Truth and Spirit. Help us Lord to avoid the presumption that would tend us toward offering "strange fire."


John A. (Protoprotestant) said...

Yes, the John 4 passage is excellent. I should have included it.

Strange Fire is a reference to Leviticus 10 is anyone is wondering. Old Nadab and Abihu thought they could innovate as well.