Some out there don’t think that postmodernism needs an antidote, for that would imply that something’s wrong with it. I happen to think that almost every “ism” needs a check. Many writers and thinkers on postmodernism point out the fragmentation that occurs in a culture of postmodernity. Common belief-structures are no longer shared in large quanities among the masses, and the truth that once glued us together, as both whole individuals and whole communities, is no longer present (existentially speaking). The resulting postmodernity is a fragmented culture and fragmented persons.
As I’m reading through James K. A. Smith’s great book, Desiring the Kingdom, I’m realizing that the battle for wholeness and shalom cannot be waged solely on the field of ideas, propositions, and worldviews, as much as I’m all for that (maybe even a little more for that than Smith is). As Smith would point out, because the core of the human being is more properly seated in the heart or “gut,” people are, essentially, beings who desire, beings who love. Smith spells out what this means for how we are formed as human beings into the image and likeness of Christ, and while this certainly happens on the cognitive, “head” level, it happens more basically (and perhaps more holistically) at the existential, affective, experiential level. In other words, we are formed by practice and ritual. Now, let’s see if we can keep this in mind as we listen to a prescient word from the 1960s, from worship theologian, Jean-Jacques von Allmen:
Worship has also a sociological usefulness. It brings men together and gives them the deepest cohesion, the most basic solidarity which can be found on this earth: “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf” (1 Cor 10:17). This sociological usefulness does not, however, consist merely in its property of cohesion. It implies, further, a personal integration and appeasement, since it imprints on our life a certain style and mode of being, a simplicity, a haplotes [a New Testament Greek word which means, “simplicity, liberality”], which deliver us from the agonies and the contradictions of the natural man. And it has further a cosmic implication in the sense that the cult [i.e. “corporate worship”], as has already been suggested, unites men in the only way which does not make of them a solid body, that is, in and for the operation of grace, so that we may go so far as to say that Christian worship stabilizes the world, penetrating it with something which opposes its fragmentation and contends with its chaos.1
I’m convinced that we evangelicals suffer from a genetic disease which causes us to think far too anemically about the power of worship in our (post)modern world. If worship is the place where God chooses most accutely to meet with, nourish, nuture, and strengthen His body, it makes sense that it is in this place where humanity finds its greatest concentration of wholeness and integrity. It’s in this place, as we practice the faith and ritualize it, that we discover in greater depths, the meaning and purpose of our existence. As I said in a sermon on Psalm 10 (a psalm of lament) yesterday: some truths of Scripture are best understood not as we study them or contemplate them, but as we sing them and pray them. Worship, in large part, is singing, praying, receiving, tasting, hearing, rehearsing, acting, and living out Truth. And a funny thing happens when we engage worship wholeheartedly…God continues the slow, steady quilting process of stitching our fragmented selves back together.
(One final jab: Maybe this raises the stakes for those of us who plan or lead worship. We can’t just plan what tickling ears want to hear. We must choose to engage our planning as pastors, who know that worship is far too formative to be taken lightly.)
1Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 119-120.