I recently finished Mark Galli’s book, Beyond Smells and Bells, a book I enjoyed quite a bit. Given the title, I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, and I found myself agreeing with virtually everything Galli wrote. He writes engagingly, and with a great deal of practical wisdom. He is clearly one of the good guys. And yet I object — violently — to an unstated assumption behind the book, an assumption that is quite common in our day. If the reader shares that assumption, then this book will perpetuate confusion and do quite a bit of damage. If the reader hates that assumption as much as I do, throwing rocks at it every chance he gets, then he should profit from this book as much as I did. Shall I explain?
When C.S. Lewis had been exasperated by a particular fallacy for quite long enough, he finally decided to name it. That is how we got Bulverism, the fallacy of dodging an opponent’s argument by explaining first how he got to be so silly.
In a similar vein, but not from so lofty a height, I have decided to name something that has been provoking me for some years now. I need a name for a tendency that attempts to resist Gnosticism while simultaneously falling into something else very much like it.
Let’s call it knostic, shall we? The ancient error of gnosticism came from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. The Gnostics claimed to have an extra spiritual “something,” a spark of heavenly knowledge, which trumped everything down here. It has come to mean a disparagement of the earthly and material, and a privileging of the rational, spiritual, or the abstract. I have taken the English word knowledge and, using the latest advances in gene splicing, have translated this ancient tendency into its modern English-speaking form — knosticism.
Let me give an example of it, the kind of thing I have been valiantly standing against for lo, these many years, and then move on to how it applies to Galli’s treatment of liturgy.
Many modern knostics have wanted to learn how to appreciate the arts of narrative. As far as that goes, nothing wrong with it, but whether writing about novels, or movies, or stageplays, they have found “redemptive” or “death and resurrection” themes in all kinds of grimy stories. In other words, an abstract thing, the structure of the story, is mysteriously able to sanctify the actual content of the story. By means of this amazing magic trick, any amount of Tarantino sludge can be made edifying.
Now . . . three cheers for structure, but content matters. Content is determinative.
Now back to Galli’s book. He is describing and defending a generic Western liturgy, and it is with that word generic that we get ourselves in trouble. In Appendix B, he has a helpful comparison of basic liturgies across denominational traditions — Roman, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian. The point of the table is to show the astounding structural similarities between them. And, point taken — if the liturgy of Christ Church were included as a sixth column here, the similarites would continue to be just as obvious. In other words, I don’t want to dispute this point at all, but I also want to maintain that this point is entirely beside the point.
I cannot tell, by examining these parallel liturgies, which tradition includes prayer to graven images. I cannot tell, by examining these liturgies, which ones allow the service to be led by a lesbian minister. In short, by looking at these liturgies, I cannot tell whether or not God receives them as “acceptable worship.” But whether or not God receives us in our offered worship is the central thing. In a line up of skeletons, I cannot tell which one is the tattooed biker moll and which one is the junior miss princess.
The Bible teaches that the basic division in worship is not high and low, or traditional and contempory, but rather acceptable or unacceptable. And the only thing that makes it acceptable is pure, unfeigned, evangelical faith in Jesus. Anything else is on its way to the Bad Place.
Right near the beginning of Scripture, we find the story of Cain’s religious offering being rejected (Gen. 4:5). The people of Jeremiah’s day are told that burnt offerings were not acceptable (Jer. 6:20). God refused to accept offerings from the hands of the Jews in Malachi’s day (Mal. 1:10). We are called to worship God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear (Heb. 12:28). Remember all thy offerings, and accept thy burnt sacrifice” (Ps. 20:3).
One of the reasons I emphasize regeneration so much is that this is the heart change that enables us to understand this critical point. Without the new birth, we are all of us sunk. When the worshipers are converted and regenerate, they fill out the worship service with acceptable content. And yes, I know this argument works just as well with those impudent organizers who think that the worship of God can be a junior high pep rally. Unconverted Protestants have figured out their own ways offending God. Someone who is born again knows that God cannot be “worked.” He knows that it not our task to assemble before the Almighty in order to blow smoke at Him — whether or not thuribles are involved.