In his remarkable book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict XVI draws out a fascinating insight from the story of the Exodus. Generally we tend to perceive Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh as entirely concomitant with the ultimate result of the Exodus, which is the Hebrews’ freedom from Egypt and the eventual goal of the Promised Land. But in looking carefully at Moses’ encounter with Egypt’s sovereign, the purpose of “letting my people go” is not (at least initially) couched in terms of liberation, but rather of worship.
When Moses first approaches Pharaoh, he says:
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.”’ (Exodus 5:1 NIV)
Pharaoh, of course, is not impressed with Moses’ demand and asserts his own godhood over-against that of the Lord, refusing them. Moses and Aaron double-down and give more specifics to their request, noting that this is of a sacral quality, with a hint of potential economic repercussions for Pharaoh if he refuses:
“The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” (Exodus 5:3 NIV)
With each subsequent encounter, the nature of their request retains this sacred quality; they are wanting the Hebrews to be able to journey into the wilderness for three days to worship God. However, with the back-and-forth with Pharaoh, the true nature of this worship comes into the forefront.
After rounds of plagues and what might be called “worship negotiation,” Pharaoh eventually agrees to let all the Hebrews (women and children included) make the three day journey into the wilderness, with the caveat that their flocks and herds must remain behind. His assumption is that their worship will be largely identical to that of his own people, and that certain animals known beforehand will be taken to be sacrificed, allowing him to retain the leverage of the totality of their economic means. However, Moses startlingly explains that they actually don’t yet know the manner in which they are to worship:
But Moses said, “You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings to present to the Lord our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord.” (Exodus 10:25-26 NIV)
Worship is thus understood by Moses to be something that is not simply the perfunctory motions of sacrifice or cultus. In fact, it is not even something that can be generated by desire or imagination.
There were no lack of differing and competing ways in which one could worship the divine in the ancient world (as well as in the modern world), and no doubt each had its own glimmer of beauty or of truth or even of emotional or spiritual catharsis. But Moses (no doubt due to his own personal encounter with God) recognizes that worship is something cannot be created, but must be received. Benedict XVI notes that
Man himself cannot simply “make” worship. If God does not reveal himself, man is imply clutching empty space. Moses says to Pharaoh: “We do not know with what we must serve the Lord” (Ex. 10:26). These words display the fundamental law of all liturgy. When God does not reveal himself, man can, of course, from the sense of God within him, build altars “to the unknown god…”
But real liturgy implies that God responds and reveals how we can worship him… It cannot spring from imagination, our own creativity- then it would remain just a cry in the dark or mere self-affirmation. Liturgy implies a real relationship with Another, who reveals himself to us and gives our existence a new direction. (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 22)
Of course, the corollary of worship being something received is that it must also be revealed. This strikes at the heart of the conflict between Pharaoh and Moses. For Pharaoh, worship may have its prescriptions and rituals and the like, but ultimately it becomes something within the purview of men, to be crafted so as to curry the favor of the divine. As someone who considered himself divine, Pharoah’s understanding of worship is as consumeristic as we might describe the most potent offenders in the modern world. For him it is either something that caters to his own ego, or else becomes a cynical grasp for power.
But in Moses’ understanding of worship, worship is revealed by God. It has nothing to do with earning favor or trying to worship God “better” or more creatively or what-not, precisely because the human response to God is not primarily on the level of creativity, but rather on the level of obedience. When that order is inverted, man suffers degradation:
Worship, that is, the right kind of cult, of relationship with God, is essential for the right kind of human existence in the world. It is so precisely because it reaches beyond everyday life. Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours. (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 21)
Thus, Moses’s response to Pharaoh highlights that there is a right way to worship, and that must be something revealed by God and received form him. Benedict XVI notes that straying from this principle can only lead to idolatry.
As the Hebrews escape from the Egyptians and come to Mt. Sinai, Moses is summoned to meet God and to receive the Law, as well as the manner in which to worship. However, he notices that Moses’ stay seems to tarry beyond expectation, and the people, eager to worship the God who brought them out of bondage, grow restless. Having lived among the visible gods of the Egyptians, they find it difficult to grasp God as transcendent, as eclipsing location and time, nationality and ethnicity:
The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world. He must be there when he is needed, and must be the kind of God that is needed. Man is using God, and in reality, even if it is not outwardly discernible, he is placing himself above God. (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 22-23)
This failure to worship God on his own terms culminates in the sad affair of the golden calf.
It is easy for us moderns to perceive this as outright idolatry, but the reality is far more subtle and insidious. After all, while the heathens had their idols, they nevertheless believed that the visible representations were indicative of some sort of higher reality. The golden calf thus served as an obvious (to them) representation of the God they believed had rescued them from Egypt. The apostasy was thus not in any intentional turning away from God, but rather located in that they began to create God in their own image– to be specific, to create God in an image they could understand on a level they were familiar with.
Worship thus becomes a means to access God on one’s own terms and according to one’s own understanding, and- if one might be so crass- according to one’s own tastes. All the trappings of piety can be in super-abundance, and on the subjective level the familiar can provide a certain reality as context.
But the difficulty is that worship ceases to function as something revealed and received and thus responded to in obedience and becomes something that functions as a way to make God into what we want him to be and in a manner that we are comfortable with and even really really like. Benedict XVI notices that in this situation
The worship of the golden calf is a self-generated cult. When Moses stays away for too long, and God himself becomes inaccessible, the people just fetch him back. Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself; eating, drinking and making merry…
It is a kind of banal self-gratification. The narrative of the golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from ones’ own resources. Then liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around. Or still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise. (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 23)
In the modern western church the notion of applying creativity to worship is a continual concern. We talk at length about how to be creative in worship. We attend creative worship conferences. We speak about creativity as if it is some unfettered good and often toss it around as if it functioned as some sort of evangelistic panacea. And of course we have great motives. We want to worship God more creatively. We want to create creative worship experiences that reach people or help them have amazing worship experiences. And perhaps none of those motivations are bad in and of themselves.
But lately I cannot help but wonder if creativity has become our own golden calf. Not an obvious apostasy, but perhaps a much subtler and thus more destructive one.
After all, we try our best to accommodate our message to our various cultures. We voice platitudes about how the medium changes but the message doesn’t, perhaps blissfully unaware of the truth that “the medium is the message.” But in our attempts to reach or to be relevant or to capture X or Y demographic, are we possibly trying to create the God we need or think that the world needs? Are we sculpting bullocks out of gold by recreating worship according to our terms?
Benedict XVI notes that in this passage the transcendent, invisible God gets drawn down into a specific time and a specific place. But the obverse of this is precisely what distinguishes the God who is revealing worship to his people. There is a universality beginning to be revealed. God is the God of his people to be sure, but he is also the God over all the earth. He reveals himself to Moses as I AM, as existence itself, the source of all being and the fountain of all of creation’s plenitude. How could the worship that they are familiar with apply? And how could recreating their habits of worship (or being creative in fashioning new ones) in their bondage speak to this universality and their newfound freedom?
In Jesus God himself actually was drawn down into a specific place and a specific time, but the crucial distinction is that it was not an act of being drawn down by man, but rather an act of revelation. Moses’ revelation of God and of “how we must worship” was only a shadow, as the author Hebrews demonstrates, and St. John bookends these revelations by stating:
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:18 NIV)
By taking flesh upon himself Jesus as God in flesh takes this universality of worship into himself and expands it infinitely. His eternal act of union with the Father enables and promises the union of man with with God. But in this revelation everything comes on God’s terms; in the conversation with the woman any the well, Jesus states that those who worship must do in “Spirit and in Truth.” As much as we moderns tend to see this as some form of expression of spontaneity or emotional catharsis, it actually expresses the most radical obedience and submission to God’s revelation of himself. St. John notes in his prologue that Jesus came to his own people, but his own people refused to receive him; yet for those who did receive him, he gave the power to become children of God.
This becomes a truly expansive, cosmic vision that reaches far beyond the rubrics of any form of liturgy, for it encompasses all of space and time:
The cosmos is praying with us. It, too, is waiting for redemption. It is precisely this cosmic dimension that is essential to Christian liturgy. It is never performed solely in the self-made world of man. It is always a cosmic liturgy. The theme of creation is embedded in Christian prayer. It loses its grandeur when it forgets this connection. (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 71)
Perhaps this loss of the cosmic vision of worship is why so many of us in the modern west are compelled to constantly add spectacle to our worship, to creatively adorn it from year to year or from month to month or from week to week. Is all our production in a sense trying to compensate for this loss? Do we sense that real worship demands this notion of universality, that it must have a cosmic dimension to be worship?
A significant difficulty in our creative approaches to worship is that each attempt by its very nature necessarily detracts from this cosmic vision and grounds worship in a specific time and place. We lose all of heaven by trying to capture a piece of it in our creative endeavors, and our worship becomes locked both spatially and temporally.
The experience of creativity that we too often seek speaks to the subjectivity, and easily sows confusion about who worship is for. As we delimit worship spatially and temporally, we offer it no room to expand; not beyond its usually brief existence, and certainly not to be a cosmic vision. Our creative worship thus is only as “good” as our attempts to make it creative are, and perhaps only can be evaluated in materialistic or subjective terms.
In our attempts to reach X or Y demographic or target market, we perhaps start sculpting our own golden idols. Our mission statements talk about how we worship God, but how much of what we do is actually done for God? How much of our worship do we attempt to contrive to get butts in the seats or to generate experiences? These can all be really cool and really well done and on the subjective level be really “powerful,” but in the final analysis have we misdirected the focus of worship? Is the familiarity we imbue into our worship and the preference checkboxes we tick what worshiping in Spirit and in truth is about?
And of course, what happens when we stop being creative?
It seems far too often that our worship actually detracts from the essence of worship; that is, of man’s response to God’s claim over him. Worship should bring us face to face with the mystery of the universe, of the Being from when all being flows. The way in which we speak about worship purports to have such cosmic significance, but does our performance of worship actually cash that check? In our attempts to make our message relevant and relatable, do we perhaps too often try to draw God too far down so as to make him familiar and accessible, understandable on our own terms and comfortable as far as we will allow him to be to those we are trying to reach? Do we ever actually have the space wherein someone could actually be uncomfortable in our worship? Benedict XVI analyzes much of modern worship in such terms:
People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of the crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments. (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 148)
When we try to make our worship “creative,” we actually are parceling out what experiences we want people to have. In the crafting of these experiences, we invert the order of worship so that worship is understood in our terms, and too often, according to what we want and what we like. If this were not the case, how does one explain every conceivable niche of worship style that exists, often even under the same roof? How can we reconcile the purported universality of worship with the delimited experiences our creativity sculpts, or presume that we have not subsumed worship to our own desires when we play the “that’s awesome!” game of one-upsmanship in production and spectacle?
Like the Hebrews cloaking their apostasy beneath the veneer of accommodating worship, have we perhaps stumbled into a similar error? Or are we even capable of realizing such a possibility? Do our platitudes about reaching others and creating experiences and our metrics about responses and our penchant for making worship as comfortable and accessible as we can even provide the space to ask the question?
In the end, how much of our worship is actually about God, and how much of it is actually about ourselves? Does modern worship-tainment even have the capacity for an actual “experience” of God’s presence, or have we mistaken God for creatures of our own construction?
It is perhaps a trifle, but I simply have little tolerance for the “live” worship music albums. Not because some of the music isn’t passable, but primarily because worship-as-entertainment comes to forefront almost immediately. A song leads off, and one can hear the crowd/audience/whatever cheering and whistling and applauding. One might be forgiven for thinking one was at a concert. But I cannot help but think- what is the whistling for? The hoots of the crowd (and sometimes, regrettably, even of the performers!) comes off as silly, but even more so as hugely incongruent.
After all, this is all purportedly for God. God is- according to our theology- the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Supreme over All, Mystery beyond all contemplation, Beauty beyond all wonder, Infinitude beyond every mind or fathoming.
And yet in our worship we treat God with the same fawning familiarity that we would celebrities or performers, as if God is performing for us and as if worship is about what God is going to give to us or will do for us.
And at the end of the day, perhaps that is really what we think. We talk about how we are creating worship experiences, where people can come have this amazing worship experience, can come and experience God’s presence. With the banality of our modern music we talk about bringing the Holy Spirit down to fill the space we are in so we can experience him. We preen about how God apparently has some sort of sentimental attraction us. In most of our worship our invocations are not invitations, but rather demands. We have sold the promise of worship as an experience, and now we must deliver.
God thus ultimately becomes something we can experience on demand, and our creativity thus serves to vary that experience from time to time so the consumers have new content to consume. Our worship becomes almost exclusively about what we get out of it, and the more we pour our creativity into it, the more we accentuate ourselves within it. We in the modern world especially tend to see creativity as almost an ex nihilo event in which we take the meaningless background chaos of the universe and fashion it into something interesting or cool or meaningful or powerful or creative. Our fundamental approach varies little from the project of outright nihilism with the exception of a Christian veneer. Worship becomes something we create, rather than something we receive:
Only respect for the liturgy’s fundamental unspontenaity and pre-existing identity can give us what we hope for: the feast in which the great reality comes to us that we ourselves do not manufacture but receive as gift.
This means that “creativity” cannot be an authentic category for matter liturgical… Creativity [in the modern sense] means that in a universe that in itself is meaningless and came into existence through blind evolution, man can creatively fashion a new and better world. Modern theories of art think in terms of a nihilistic kind of creativity. Art is not meant to copy anything… This kind of creativity has no place within the liturgy. The life of the liturgy does not come from what dawns upon the minds of individuals and planning groups. On the contrary, it is God’s descent upon our world, the source of real liberation. (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 168)
Creativity in this sense becomes another way to control worship, for us to experience and encounter God when we and how we want according to our desires and demands.
On the mountain of Sinai, God warned Moses sternly about the people approaching him; they were not allowed on the mountain. Although they longed to worship God, their worship was still waiting to be revealed on God’s terms:
The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.” (Exodus 19:20-22 NIV)
Is our creativity really about giving glory to God, or is perhaps subtly a way of glorifying ourselves as we delimit out that of God that we are comfortable with? Do we press forward up the mountain because we want God as we will have him?
I speak in strident terms only because I think that modern worship has largely failed to even entertain these questions, let alone grapple with them and their implications. After all, we often have very good motives for the things we do, and even many times our selfishness and the like is mingled with the better angels of our nature.
But are we willing to submit everything- including our worship and our creativity- in obedience to God? Are we willing to receive God on his terms, to sacrifice the creative things we long to create that may turn out to be idols, even if it’s all in the name of reaching the world? As Benedict XVI concludes:
Liturgy can only attract people when it looks, not at itself, but at God, when it allows him to enter and act. Then something truly unique happens, beyond competition, and people have the sense that more has taken place than a recreational activity. (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 198)
Or we could just continue letting our creativity murder worship in the face.