I have deliberately chosen the terms “modern” and “postmodern” as opposed to “contemporary” culture. This is because “modern” and “postmodern” are specific. Modern can be understood to refer to the culture generated by the mindset of the Age of Enlightenment, which gained momentum in the Age of Romanticism and came to a head in the early 20th century. Postmodern is a reaction to modernism (or positivism) without proposing an alternative to it. In this brief essay I suggest that the major controversies over human sexuality and contemporary worship that we are dealing with in our churches have to do with responding to the challenge of modern/postmodern culture.
Modernism was a complex movement embracing literature, art, music, and science. As it emerged in the 19th century, this movement was animated by the idea that “traditional” forms of art, literature, music, social organization and daily life had become outdated, and that it was therefore essential to sweep them aside and reinvent culture. Modernism encouraged the idea of re-examining every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding anything that was “holding back” progress, and replacing it with new, and therefore better, ways of reaching the same ends. In essence, the Modern Movement argued that the new realities of the 19th and 20th centuries were permanent and imminent, and that people should adapt their worldview to accept the new ways as good and true and beautiful.
Permeating this movement was a new attention to the individual human being in terms of one’s unique identity and personal development. Pre-modern “man” was identified in relation to his or her social group and status in society. Personal development in traditional societies was equated with acquiring the learning and tools needed to pursue one’s assigned vocation. G. K. Chesterton introduced his 1908 book Orthodoxy — and the concept of orthodoxy in opposition to modernism — with the observation that, while he was challenged to state his own philosophy after having challenged everyone else’s in a series of essays called Heretics, “I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.”
T. S. Eliot lamented “The Waste Land” of modern culture and proposed reappropriating the values of a Christian culture. But postmodernists have given up on all grand narratives and totalizing schemes because of their perceived ill effects on individuals and societies. Life is not necessarily made better through chemistry, and what is good or true or beautiful is in the eye of the beholder. Therefore we must each affirm each other’s reality, including each person’s assessment of his or her relationship with God, which can only be deeply personal. The judgment of one’s community is not allowed.
The challenge to orthodoxy of modern/postmodern culture is that tradition has been debunked by the use of critical tools and perspectives developed in the Enlightenment and no critical assessment of the consequences is acceptable. All that notwithstanding, I offer the following critical assessments of two of the cultural developments that are currently impinging on the ethics and worship of the church.
A new book titled Marriage: A History, by the behavioral scientist Stephanie Coontz, shows how this cultural development applies to marriage and human sexuality. Contra both liberals and conservatives, she shows how, for most of history, marriage was not a relationship based on a loving relationship between a breadwinning husband and a stay-at-home child-rearing wife. This view of marriage was a product of the mindset of modern culture that marriage is a means of self-fulfillment as opposed to the traditional view that it is a social institution designed to provide economic security within which a family can be protected. The relationship between husband and wife entails a lifelong commitment (fidelity), but it is a partnership that while hopefully ending in love need not necessarily begin there. Coontz’s thesis is that laying on marriage the requirement that it meet one’s need for personal intimacy, combined with the breakdown of traditional norms and expectations, has contributed to the crisis of marriage in our time, signaled in the high percentage of divorces and the high percentage of cohabiting couples.
The increasing demands for recognizing same-sex unions or even homosexual marriages takes place within this context. Coontz writes: “Some of the agitation on the issue of same-sex marriage strikes me as a case of trying to lock the barn door after the horses have already gone. The demand for gay and lesbian marriage was an inevitable result of the previous revolution in heterosexual marriage. It was heterosexuals who had already created many alternative structures for organizing sexual relationships or raising children and broken down the primacy of two-parent families based on a strict division of labor between men and women” (p. 274). The issue before this church is whether we have the will to propose any norms in our teaching on marriage and human sexuality based on what our confessions called “the magnum consensus that is taught in our churches,” which includes the teaching on marriage and human sexuality in our catechisms.
Religion since the 18th century has been progressively experiential (which is the religious equivalent of scientific empiricism — truth claims should be verifiable). Reason and revival have gone hand-in-hand. Religion must play a role in forming good citizens (Immanuel Kant); but it can make its contribution to civil society only by converting or transforming individuals (John Wesley). Revivalists have understood this partnership of reason and renewal. That’s why great awakenings and social reform movements have been yoked. Social leaders have also understood this partnership. That’s why there has often been support for the revivalists from leaders in business and government.
The revival service has a social end, but it must appeal to individuals. Tapping into the American entrepreneurial spirit, great revivalists since Charles G. Finney have believed that one is free from traditional liturgical orders to do whatever is necessary to save souls. This has always included the partnership of music and musicians with preaching and preachers: the Wesley brothers John and Charles, Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey, Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver, Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows with George Beverly Shea. In The Purpose-Driven Church, Rick Warren counsels that the first thing a founding pastor should do is secure a good musician. The revivalists have also tapped into the genres of popular music, whereas the liturgical churches have used genres of chant, art music, and folk music. Popular music is itself a modern phenomenon. It could not exist without mass entertainment; it has expanded exponentially through the electronic revolution of the 20th century so that its sounds are now ubiquitous.
We will bracket here the question of whether certain styles of music are inappropriate for worship. Such assessments have been made before. The church fathers, for example, clearly thought that musical instruments associated with pagan cults could have no place in Christian assemblies in which Christians were being weaned away from paganism (even though they recognized the presence of the Levitical orchestra in the books of Chronicles and the psalms). But even though we bracket that issue, we cannot bracket the fact that much contemporary Christian music is written for soloists and ensembles and that this kind of music has not often worked well for congregational singing. We cannot bracket the fact that much of this music is intended to be disposable and therefore has limited value for long-term faith formation. We cannot bracket the fact many of the lyrics reinforce a personal relationship with God, couched in the first personal pronoun, and therefore do not communicate the doctrines of the faith. We cannot bracket the fact that the lyrics of many of the songs express a personal devotion to Jesus but not the public praise of the Holy Trinity. We cannot bracket the fact that the order of worship promulgated in Pentecostal traditions such as the Vineyard and adopted in many mainline churches aims at bringing individuals into a personal, intimate relationship with God (even Holy Communion is used for this purpose) rather than celebrating word and sacrament as means of grace and expressing liturgically the response of the community of faith.
These are serious issues. As one congregation after another adopts the styles and even the orders of contemporary worship, this church is going to have to decide whether there are norms of faith and practice, based in ecumenical creeds and catholic liturgies, that this church expects of its congregations.
The issue is ultimately a question of whether a community of faith can exercise a magisterial or teaching authority and how it can do so, if it desires to do so at all. The last option is no option at all since there has to be something that holds a denomination together besides the clergy pension plan. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, is there something that God and humanity have made that has a claim on individual Christians, congregations, even denominations? It is truly a “culture war” we are waging, but that war transcends the battles over particular issues. The larger issue is orthodoxy — indeed, a Christian worldview — in relation to the modern/postmodern worldview.