Here’s maybe my favorite Coldplay song. Merry Christmas.
C.S. Lewis said the following, specifically with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in mind:
“A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place. I think the something is ‘the whole quality of life as we actually experience it.’ You can have a realistic story in which all the things & people are exactly like those we meet in real life, but the quality, the feel or texture or smell, of it is not.
In a great romance it is just the opposite. I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves – but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me. Particularly the heart-breaking quality in the most beautiful places, like Lothlorien. And it is so like the real history of the world: ‘Then, as now, there was a growing darkness and great deeds were done that were not wholly in vain.'”
C.S. Lewis, from a letter to Lucy Matthews. 11 September 1958
A good, true “romance” in the literary sense is a story that doesn’t relate to, or teach a clear “lesson” about, life as we know it in a strict “this represents that” sense. But in the telling of the story, and the development of the characters, it feels like real life. It stirs your affections, awakening pleasure and sorrow and fear and joy. You see much that is applicable, as Tolkien talked about, to real life as we all live within the great Story (capital “S”) that the Creator is telling. And in being this way, a romance is filled with Truth, of echoes and emotions that remind us of our true country. The “quality and texture” is there, and is realistic. The Lord of the Rings is filled with more truth than I’ve experienced in lots of other books, though it’s not an allegory. We don’t need it to be. And the things a story like that stirs in us are possibly more real and rich as a result.
It’s good to read books that have these qualities, because they wake us up, I think, to truer feelings, which all point to the new heavens and earth that are coming. When things will be the way they were meant to be in the first place. We only glimpse it now, but reading the right kinds of books can shape us into the right sort of people, who desire and feel for the right sort of things.
“[For many churches], Sunday Morning is a platform driven spectacle, led by mega-celebrities at mega-churches and would-be-celebrities and smaller churches. Rather than a challenging and diverse diet of milk and meat, celebration and lament, confession and assurance, we’re fed a pump-up-the-jams hype fest that culminates in a “You can do it!” sermon and a marketing pitch for membership. It’s an environment that feels hostile to doubt and suffering, unless your goal is to overwhelm them both with enthusiasm […]
“The solution isn’t trying harder to please religious consumers and church shoppers. Instead, we need to look to the old paths, where the good way is, and keep telling the only Story that gives us a sense of ultimate hope in this tragic and broken world.”
I’ve heard hymns sound staunch, anachronistic, pharisaical, sappy, and above all comically glorious. In pop culture the singing of hymns represents a special brand of puritanical escapism and a retreat to “the good old days” of hard-headed faith.
I’ve also heard hymns sound sleazy, shallow, frivolously syncopated and sloppily paired with an alternative rock band (only churchgoers know this horrific reincarnation of the classics). Between these two evils, I choose the hard-headed version, as it is at least slightly dignified.
Mostly, I conclude that the hymn played and sung with subtlety and meekness of style is best of all. That way, no brazen human calculations drown out the sweet poetry and theology that I love, that feeds me.
Brian James, from the JG Hymns project
I’d like to come alongside another author here. Jared Wilson wrote a post today entitled “What’s Wrong With Producing a Worship Experience?” This is an important question, since the American “Evangelical” church is plagued with an incorrect mindset about gathered, visible worship of a church. We hear the lingo all the time, about producing, staging, or aiding a worship “experience” in our church gatherings; but much (though not all) of what churches and worship leaders have said on the subject is unbiblical and unhelpful.
Wilson’s post quotes a conversation reproduced in another book, about the consumerism pervasive in Western churches. At one point the conversation says this, which sums up the critique here, of staging an experience for someone to “meet God” in worship: “When the church gets into the business of staging experiences, that quickly becomes idolatry.”
The other party in the conversation replies, “I’m stunned. So you don’t encourage churches to use your elements of marketable experiences to create attractive experiences for their attenders?” to which the original speaker rejoins, “No. The organized church should never try to stage a God experience.”
I absolutely agree, though agreeing with this critique is very unpopular much of the time.
So here’s my “coming alongside” of Wilson’s post, with a couple of extra thoughts about why churches should care about more than providing personal worship experiences.
We Have Perfect Access To God Already
Much of the “worship experience” mentality is based on the idea that something happens with God in a church gathering that can’t happen elsewhere. Now I do think something is very unique to the gathering of a local church. But it’s not the “God experience” many have turned it into. We need to understand that, positionally, we’re there now as worshipers, and nothing extra happens between us and God when the awesome light show starts and we start singing (if your church rolls the way of the awesome light show).
Here’s the thing: we have the fullest possible access to God now, because Christ stands in the presence of God as our perfect Priest. Jesus is offering worship, standing in that place for us now. Right now. When we gather together, we do it to remind ourselves again of the God we have full access to, through Jesus. In his excellent book Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper says, “God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian,” and, “When a Christian shows up, God shows up. We are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16). When the church gathers, it gathers as a collection of people in whom God dwells. God inhabits the gathered church because these scattered worshipers are all temples, who together make a greater temple. God is with us, and the gathered Church becomes ‘an outpost of hope in a dying world'”
But often I think we’re looking for a little something in addition to the perfect access to God that Jesus provides. And then we often become discontent or upset with a church that can’t provide a powerful enough “experience,” and get us to God in an experiential way on Sunday morning. If we’re chasing a sensory overload of God-experience in our church gatherings, very few churches will ever be able to satisfy that craving. And ponder this: do you think the church gatherings we read about in the book of Acts produced anything like the experiences churches try to facilitate today? I think not. There was something else to it.
So what do we meet for then? We meet, not to have some crazy experience with God, but to remind ourselves and one another of the great, strong, gracious, saving God who has made us alive together with Christ. We remind ourselves and one another of the Gospel, and, as Hebrews 12 tells us, to run the race of faith with endurance, laying aside every weight and sin, always looking to Jesus. He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith, in every way.
This is where we find endurance for the race, and this is how we get to God. Not through a carefully orchestrated theatrical God-experience, but through Jesus. The question for our church gatherings then, is, are we providing ways for people to muster lots of willpower and personal worship from within themselves (through vague, self-centered song lyrics, super dark concert-type environments, etc.)? Or are we presenting a rock-solid picture of Jesus and of the Gospel every Sunday in our singing, prayers, readings of Scripture, and preaching? We should want to stop trying to muster up emotional attitudes of worship from within, and run to our Savior again this Sunday. Let’s help one another do that, and know that right now we are God’s. As the conversation on Wilson’s blog reminds us, “the only thing of value the church has to offer is the gospel.” Let’s be content and overjoyed in this reality, and be content and overjoyed with our local churches if they faithfully bring us to our Savior each week and not to a mere fleeting experience.
This is really a great lecture. Kreeft’s insights into The Lord of the Rings are right-on, and I especially enjoyed this because I wrote a senior thesis paper on this subject matter in college. If you’ve never heard some of this, it’ll give you a deeper appreciation for what Tolkien was up to in his writing.
Peter Kreeft is the author of The Philosophy of Tolkien, where you’ll get more of these insights, in greater detail and depth.