At least in my worship circles, I don’t hear a lot of people talking about Robert Jenson, senior Lutheran theologian with a particular talent for writing which is both concise and evocative. But too many of my friends keep bringing him up to me, and I could no longer avoid setting his work aside for other books in my queue. And so I have come across a marvelous chapter on worship in a forgotten yet prescient book of his from 1967, A Religion Against Itself. What follows is a sort of “jam”—an improvisational call and response—to give you a taste of what I found most remarkable about his insights in his chapter, “Worship: Liturgy Demythologized.”
First, Jenson talks about worship as a narration of the gospel, and how we as worshipers “play-act” (a term he uses several times in the chapter) in that narrative. I love this line:
For this narrative is made with the claim that nothing less than the destiny of the hearers is being narrated. The one who hears this story hears his own last judgment. To tell this story to someone is, therefore, to commit an act of violence upon him, it is to do something decisive to him. It is to utter “performatively,” to use words in such a way as not merely to describe a reality, but to create it (p. 48).
Whew. There’s a lot in there. I hear parallels with another favorite worship theologian of mine, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, who considers worship as God’s “protest” against the world. But Jenson puts a finer point on it. In worship, the Word of God not only protests the world, it protests me. And, even more, it commits an act of violence upon me. If I am to be “made alive” in Christ, I must first die (Rom 6). Worship helps me relive, re-experience, that judgment. That is, if and only if the worship service I lead makes room for that confessional moment where I name myself a sinner (or, more truthfully, accept God’s naming me thus). I think, though, Jenson is also pointing out that when worship allows us to hear the story of our “own last judgment,” we are looking at the cross, where the past “It is finished” becomes a backward echo of the future verdict we will received when we stand at the threshold of the pearly gates. And it is a declaration to be received in the present. This is the cosmic, time-bending power of worship. But it’s predicated on the forcefulness and clarity of the gospel proclaimed in our service’s words, structure, elements, and preaching. How does our worship stack up?
Thus Christian worship is a gathering around a story in which what is told about also occurs as an enactment in the lives of the tellers and hearers (p. 48).
And this is indeed the most difficult thing for us as worshipers and worship leaders. It’s so much easier to let the story of worship just be “told,” somewhere “out there.” It’s much easier as human beings to let the gospel be proclaimed at arm’s length as some kind of story or narrative we listen to, or appreciate. This, in fact, is so much of what worship often is for you, for me, and for our congregants. It is a removed and distant storytime. It’s much more difficult for us to engage the story in such a way that it isn’t just told, but it acts upon us. This is why I spend so much time in my book on emotions. I do believe that emotional investment in a worship service—for us worship leaders, and for worshipers—is a key ingredient to worship moving from being a distant story “out there” to a Word working on me “in here.” I’ve heard Tim Keller say something to the effect of, “Worship begins when truth about God spill over from head to heart.” I think this is a cousin of what I (with Jenson) am getting at. Our people need to jump into the experience of worship in such a way that they feel the Word of God acting upon us. This is what I think my charismatic friends understand and appropriate so well in worship—they come for God to act on them. What is often lacking in this scenario, though, is what the historic church gives us: a service-structure that allows us to enact the gospel-narrative in such a way that we are enable to receive what the Word (yes, through the Spirit) is there to do—to kill and to make alive.
Insofar as the supernatural Jesus is no longer experienced as a present entity in worship, the two poles of Christian worship—the past events narrated by the gospel and the occurring history of the worshipers—tend to disconnect. When this happens, the act of worship is replaced by other acts, even though many of the words and gestures which formerly belonged to the act of worship continue to be reiterated. This happens slightly differently in Protestant and Catholic traditions (p. 50).
Jenson goes on to describe that Protestant worship tends to “disintegrate to moralism,” and Roman worship tends to disintegrate into superstition. But both are equally troublesome, equidistant (though perhaps in opposite directions) from the ideal of the experience of Christ working on us presently and in the moment of worship. Jenson’s point is that, either way, worship becomes a shell and not the true thing. Worship doesn’t become the event where the living God, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, works on me. Instead it becomes something more distant, more removed, more tame. Death and resurrection is a harrowing experience. I’ll settle for some good advice, moral encouragement—a spiritual pat on the back. The latter is much easier. But it isn’t the real work of the Word in worship.