PART 1: THE PSALMS AND THEIR PAGAN COUNTERPARTS
Ooh…was that title provocative or what? Though many modern worshipers feel that the worship wars are past us, I don’t think the fight is ever going to be over. And if that’s true, discussions like these are still worth having. I still hear the now age-old argument against modern worship (usually directed at modern instrumentation like electric guitars, drums, etc.), which can be basically summarized in this way:
Modern worship is wrong because it takes forms from the secular culture and uses them in sacred worship. Worship should be other-worldly and unique from cultural expression.
In refuting this argument, many go to the high ground by pointing out the fallacy of one’s understanding of “culture.” In a very true sense, all worship is “cultural” because in every worship form, a culture is expressed. A boomer-oriented contemporary church might express a 1980s culture. Traditional, low-church worship may express a 1950s culture. An Eastern Orthodox service* may very well express the Greco-Roman culture of the Middle Ages. Just because they’re not rocking out with SM58’s and tube amps does not mean that they’re not expressing worship through cultural forms.
However, let us grant the ground that the accusation seeks to lay and meet the argument on its own turf. The counter-argument is simple: God did it, and therefore we can, too. Exhibit A: Psalms 20, 92, and 104. All three of these psalms contain shocking similarities to pagan poems which parallel these psalms. The similarities are linguistic and poetic.**
Psalm 20:1-10 contains verbal and sequential parallels to an Aramaic hymn dedicated to the Egyptian god Horus, unearthed from papyrus dating around the 2nd century B.C (which isn’t necessarily an indication of the date of the poem, but the date of when it was written down).***
Psalm 92:9 parallels a line from an ancient Ugaritic hymn (what has been unearthed from Ugarit dates from between the 13th and 12th centuries B.C., well before the time of David, even under the most conservative scholarship):
As for your enemy, O Baal, as for your enemy, you’ll smite (him),
You’ll destroy your adversary.
For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish;
All evildoers will be scattered.
Psalm 104, perhaps most shocking of all, contains multiple linguistic parallels to an ancient Egyptian song: Akhenaten’s hymn to the Sun. In this hymn, for instance, Baal is named a “rider on the clouds,” just as YHWH is in verse 3 of this psalm.
It appears that we have at least three instances of “sharing” worship texts between the “secular” world and God’s sacred worship. Put it another way, it looks like God has not only allowed, but inspired, the writing of praise songs which are “Christianized” versions of worldly song (I understand that “Christianized” is anachronistic, but you get my point). What are we to make of this?
The only conclusion I can draw is that God is not uncomfortable with the world’s expression of worship being imported to Christian worship. Now of course this needs all kinds of qualifiers. We can’t just wholesale import the world into the church without a lot of wisdom and biblical discernment. However, the evidence above is enough to convince me that those who say that the worship of the church should be marked by an expression which is disassociated with the cultural forms of the world (its poetry OR its music) are wrong. Tabling the fact that there are major philosophical problems with the concept of a sharp sacred/secular distinction, it seems obvious that God would have his people express their worship of Him through cultural forms (again, not without wisdom, holiness, and other qualifiers).
Getting down to brass tacks, the above evidence to me grants an allowance (and maybe even encouragement) of supposedly “worldly” instruments such as drums and electric guitars. Many traditionalists have lodged this whole no-world-in-the-church argument for why such instruments are wrong in the church. Ultimately what they’ve done is mask their personal preferences in a poor biblical-philosophical argument. Stripped away, their issue simply becomes: “I just don’t like those instruments.” That’s fine. I’m fine with preferences. I’ve got them myself. But let us separate preferences from moral imperatives so as to not create division in the body of Christ where there does not need to be division.
There are two more brief posts to follow, offering additional evidence toward the same conclusion.
*I’ve had several friends who have joined the evangelical exodus to Orthodoxy. Many times, it’s been motivated at least partially by a desire for worship less tainted by culture. Ironically, Orthodox worship, regardless of its antiquity, is no less cultural. Its liturgy, like any other, carries its own set of positives and negatives from all the cultures and eras involved in shaping its worship over time. So while they are for the most part escaping the trappings of modern culture in worship, they are not immune from the inevitable result that occurs when sinful humans mold Divine liturgy.
**The observations which follow are indebted to Dr. Richard Hess.
***Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Parallactic Approach (London and New York: Continuum, 2001), 669-674.