23 July 2021

Holiness versus solemnity.

Years ago I taught at my church’s Christian junior high and elementary school. We had yearly “staff retreats,” which took an inservice day and required us to go do something together. Sometimes an actual retreat at a conference center; sometimes just a dinner. (I think most of us appreciated the dinners most.)

Anyway, one year our principal decided it’d be neat if we visited the Friday night service at Bethel Church in Redding. We’d check into a hotel, go out to dinner, go to the service, return to the hotel, and go home in the morning. The reason for the overnight stay was ’cause Bethel services might, “as the Spirit led,” go past midnight. She thought it was a great idea—and was really surprised at the backlash she got from the teachers.

Y’see, Bethel’s a New Apostolic charismatic church. Their beliefs and teachings aren’t mainstream—and are therefore controversial. I don’t know how aware she was of this; I think she wanted to go to Bethel because she loved their music. (They do have great music.) Whereas some of our Fundamentalist teachers were worried they’d be taught heresy, and were really bothered by the idea of a mandatory staff retreat which’d teach ’em heresy.

So one day in the staff room, I heard my fellow teachers express their worry our principal was trying to convert them. I figured I knew her well enough to explain no, she really wasn’t. It was a simple case of her being really earnest… and kinda tone-deaf.

“All right,” said one of our more conservative teachers. In this article I’ll call her Rachel. She attended an independent Baptist church; one of those churches which only do hymns. Bethel’s guitar-driven music, dancing in the aisles, hands waving, flags flapping, tambourines, wild enthusiams: This was way out of Rachel’s comfort zone. (Not mine; I’d been Pentecostal for years.) But Rachel figured she’d take a look, and if she didn’t like it, she’d just go back to the hotel. Fair enough. And the other teachers decided to follow her lead: See it for themselves, at least.

So off we went. It was nothing I hadn’t seen before. Heck, my church’s Friday night services were similar. (Probably ’cause our music pastors were already big fans of Bethel songs.) Rachel kept asking, “Does your church really do all this stuff?” and yeah, it did. I go to a much smaller church now, where don’t have so much space for dancers and flags, but we still have a lot of fans of Bethel music. To her credit, Rachel stayed for most of it, and left only because it was getting way past her bedtime.

“I dunno,” she told me afterwards. “It’s not what I’m used to. I like my worship to be holy. You understand? Holy.

At first no I didn’t. Exactly what’s unholy about it?

I grew up Fundamentalist, so I know exactly what kind of music Rachel’s church does. And as she described why she preferred that style of music to Bethel’s revivalist style, it dawned on me: By holy she means solemn. Serious. Sincere. Formal.

Because God, explained Rachel, is a holy God. Meaning he’s serious, sincere, and formal.

Sucking all the fun out of holiness.

When I was a child in Fundamentalist churches, I had my youthful exuberance spanked out of me. To be fair, some of that exuberance was the result of eating three jelly doughnuts for breakfast, then being a hyperactive terror the rest of the morning. My giggly fidgeting was wholly incompatible with the atmosphere our church was going for. ’Cause worshiping God, to them, is serious business. It’s gotta be done with just the right amount of dignity, gravitas, and fear. The same sort of respect you show royalty, ’cause Jesus is king y’know. And he might smite you if you displease him, Xerxes-style. Es 4.11

Somehow we Fundies never bothered to ask the rather obvious question: What does Jesus think of this sort of solemnity? Is this what he expects of his followers? Does he like any of this?

But to Fundies, and other formal Christians, it’s entirely the wrong question! Solemnity is just what they do. Remember, it’s how one treats kings. We don’t treat ’em as buddies and equals. They’re royalty. So you never, ever treat ’em with the same sort of familiarity, the sort of closeness, the sort of casualness, as we can with people on our level. You remember your place: Under them.

Hence you never speak with our Lord as if to a friend, like Moses did; Ex 33.11 Moses is an exception to the rule, and probably the only one. It’s gotta be formal, King James style English, like we use in prayer. We never play the music we like; it can only be formal, solemn, king-appropriate court music. We never drag God down to our level and make him a buddy or copilot; God’s our Lord and Master, who can let us into his kingdom, or just as easily plunge us into hell. On a whim, if he so chose.

This solemnity—this vast distance between the casual and familiar, this royalty and majesty and glory of the divine—is what a lot of Christians mean by “holy.” After all, holy things aren’t common things; holy means separate, of special use in God’s service. So holiness means we don’t treat God like a common human being. He’s not common; he’s unique. He’s God.

Doesn’t matter at all that God never invented these artificial distances we have between us and kings; that kings invented it, lest commoners realize kings aren’t really any different from the rest of us, and maybe demand all of our rights and power back.

Doesn’t matter at all that God deliberately became a common human being, and intentionally eliminated all these artificial distances we set up to honor kings. As demonstrated by the fact he was born in a cave instead of a palace, grew up with laborers instead of nobles, taught from fishing boats as well as synagogues, ate with sinners, touched lepers, and blessed little children.

Solemn Christians don’t imagine God became human because he wanted to become one of us, hang out with us, and love us. They figure he became human only because he could think of no better way to save us. It was purely for pragmatic reasons. Once we were saved, he returned to heaven, got all the human stink off him, and went right back to all the pomp and magnificence and stateliness he’d abandoned. Because that’s what’s proper for God.

Like I said, the idea of a removed, distant monarch is a human custom. One mostly created for security reasons. In the early days of the United States, our presidents mingled with the people, because they are one of the people. Problem is, every 20 years or so, people kept assassinating them. (Almost precisely 20 years for the first three guys: Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901.) So now we have crazy, but necessary, security measures around them.

Now look at a king or dictator, who gained power through inheritance or conquest, and not because a majority of the people figured, “Meh; the other guy’s worse.” Imagine living in constant fear of assassins. Of course you’d remove yourself from everyone, and force any visitors to approach you in fear. It’s not because the monarch deserves any such respect: It’s because fear keeps the monarch alive and in power.

Does Jesus reign in this way? Absolutely not. Would he want to reign in this way? Absolutely not.

Praise him loud.

In fact God dislikes our formality. It only gets in his way. He wants a close, familiar, loving relationship with his kids. When we turn it into a formal, fear-based relationship, we wind up with some really messed-up ideas about who he is, what he wants, how to serve him—and not just how to love others, but even whether to love others.

The authors of the bible understood this. By necessity, prophets have a familiar relationship with their LORD; he kinda obligates us to have one! So the writers of scripture tried to express this.

Psalm 150.3-6 KJV
3 Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. 4 Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. 5 Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. 6 Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.

Fundies tend to limit worship to piano and organ, but the writer of Psalm 150 includes a trumpet, a psaltery (or autoharp), a harp, a timbrel (or tambourine), stringed instruments, organs (KJV-English for reed instruments, like clarinets), and nice loud cymbals. You do realize guitars and drum kits better fit this passage than pianos.

Look, I’m not saying there’s no place for formality and old-timey songs in our worship of God. Of course there is. But here’s the fact of the matter: People treat God like that, not because God wants it that way, but because they want it that way. They prefer a formal relationship with their Father.

Sometimes it’s for earnest reasons. Not necessarily good ones, but their hearts are kinda in the right place. Fr’instance, you know the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt”? The idea is once you really get to know somebody, you stop idolizing them, start taking them for granted… and kinda act like the uncouth, rude, inconsiderate boor you can be in private. It’s a common practice—and it’s based on a serious character flaw. Because we shouldn’t take anyone for granted. Especially God! But not even our friends. If people are jerks in private, they kinda need things to stay formal between themselves and God till they gain enough maturity to stop being jerks. They need to grow up—but in the meanwhile, God must remain their Lord.

Other times this distance is for no good reason at all. These people don’t wanna be close to God. He makes ’em uncomfortable. They’d rather he stay back. Their church services make God feel distant and unapproachable, and it totally works for them. Formality is the fence they build around their own lives.

Okay. There’s a place for formal worship. There’s just as much a place for informal worship. Loud, celebratory, enthusiastic worship. Obnoxiously loud worship, ’cause Psalm 150 has the Hebrews bust out the gongs so they could make a joyful noise to God loud enough to be heard miles away. You wanna praise the LORD? Praise him like you’d scream at a football game. Praise him like you’d dance your brains out after winning a million dollars. Praise him like you mean it.

The reason kings insisted on formality is because their subjects don’t mean it. Left to their own devices, they’ll greet their monarchs the same way people greet celebrities they don’t like: Mockery, rotten tomatoes, and the finger. Maybe, if they’re feeling generous, a wave or handshake. But kings prefer worship and fear, and adopt the formal style so they’ll get it, whether people wanna give it or not. It’s done out of duty, not love. It reflects no relationship. It’s not felt.

God is holy, but hardly distant. Glorious, but he doesn’t do regal. Serious, but because he cares about truth, not solemnity. Formal?—read your bible again:

Philippians 2.6-8 KJV
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Can’t get less formal than that. And yet God (particularly God the Son) has never been anything but holy. See the difference?