“Wast Thou ordained, dear Father,/ To lose thy youth in peace,
and to achieve/ The silver livery of advisèd age/ And in thy reverence
and thy chair days . . . .” (II Henry VI. V.2. 45-8)
Because 94% of the land in Iowa is devoted to agriculture, the philosophy faculties of the various universities in that state regularly and predictably complain about so much attention paid to farm animals. Truth to tell, most Iowans do indeed put the horse before Descartes. However, there are sound anthropological reasons to study the horse. I know several persons who are most accurately described as an equine behind.
Looking at the subject from the other side (as Lady Godiva recommended), we should recognize that René Descartes (1596-1650) is very important in western intellectual history. Descartes shifted the basic question from being to knowing — from ontology to epistemology. Western Christians, then, are heirs of two epistemological traditions: the Hebrew view of knowing by hearing (“Hear, O Israel” Deuteronomy 6:4) and the Greek view of knowing by seeing (Plato, Phaedrus, 250d; Republic VI, 507c). Although we can employ the phrase, “I hear you,” to mean “I understand” we generally use “I see.” While some theologians working in seminaries and some working in congregations will continue to seek answers to the complex issues of being and knowing, a growing number of Presbyterian pastors have lost all interest in these questions.
A quarter century ago it was shockingly claimed that the average American who reached 30 years of age had devoted two around-the-clock years to television watching. This means that even larger groups of people today are more comfortable with observation directed toward the actor’s stage than in reflection directed toward the scholar’s rostrum. Responding to an age of rough anxiety by providing smooth entertainment (from malaise to mayonnaise) may be acceptable to Methodists and Baptists (let them say), but Presbyterians, I always thought, were differently re-formed. Their pulpits were once the places where accredited-seminary-trained teaching elders invited the company of the faithful to “Hear, understand, and obey the Word of the Lord!” Today, even in Presbyterian churches, the teacher’s platform is being replaced by the actor’s boards. Liturgy has moved from the theologian’s proclamation to the thespian’s performance. The scholar’s robe is replaced by the clown’s motley, and the dumbing down of worship continues. Many churches now have an intermission, pausing between the acts of the worship of God to “greet one another” by shaking hands, hugging and chattering briefly until the salvation drama begins again. Soon Presbyterians will join the sports crowd throwing up their arms in sequence around the sanctuary doing a “wave offering to the Lord” (Numbers 5:25). Then, the pom pom persons will shake their stuff and our cheerleaders will demand, “Gimme a ‘G.'” “Gimme an ‘O.'” “Gimme a ‘D.'” If contemporary worship must resemble a television show, surely our learned clergy should at least offer more theological direction to the amateurs who want to perform possessed of no greater instruction than their enthusiasm for the footlights.
The Gospel we believe is for all people and not just an intellectual and cultural elite. Nevertheless, churches that can be denominated are inevitably social entities and appeal to the belonging needs of different groups of people. May I whisper, dear reader, into your ear alone: Faith and action in the Presbyterian tradition demands more than ordinary pastors and people, and Reformed theology, taken seriously, should produce a highest common denomination. The present mad desire for wide popularity will find a lowest common denomination by saying to the entire ecclesiastical world, “We Presbyterians can let down our theological and liturgical standards faster than you can!” True dignity today probably does not require a bald head, a Homburg hat, a three piece suit and a stomach watch chain, but it also does not require shaggy hair, a scraggly beard, sandals, and dirty toe nails.
The problem, of course, is that none of us has a perfectly balanced and universally applicable formula for the relation of sound theological substance and captivating popular style. In addition, every congregation exhibits a daunting diversity of ability, taste, and sophistication. Nevertheless, our worship leaders are still called ministers of the word not producers of the play. Sermons should still be designed to exalt the sublime glory of the one God not to meet the therapeutic needs of the most customers. We can all happily affirm the educational value of “show and tell,” but, no matter how popular it might be, showtime cannot replace telltime in the Christian church. Proclamation is not a star-turn soliloquy from center stage delivered by an accomplished actor. Rather, sermons involve a congregational listening together for the living Word of the living God.
The really important theological moment for Martin Luther came at the Diet of Worms in 1521 when he declared to the world, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” The really important liturgical moment for me came at church the other day when I declared to myself, “Here I sit. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” That means when the drum roll is called up yonder, I am not moving from my chair if the beat is provided by a stubble-faced, tee-shirted, backwardly baseball-capped dude banging on a bongo