A Good Beginning

I’m starting to read The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch. It gets off to a goodly start. I’m only a dozen pages or so into the book and already I’m thinking about my devotional experience and life. Mr Maculloch starts off by trying to paint a picture of how far removed our worship, Catholic (whatever that word might mean) or no. He describes some figure work in an old little English country parish, with a worn figure carved before an arch by the altar, wherein a man’s naked buttocks are presented aimed right at the altar. He wonders what could the artist or patrons have meant by this … ending up with no answer but writing:

Otherwise the meaning of the figure is now irrecoverable from a belief system where the physical and spiritual were much more intimately, unexpectedly, and exuberantly fused than they became in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. This was a religion where shouts of laughter as well as roars of rage were common in church, where the clergy waged a constant if perhaps halfhearted battle against the invasion of fun, entertainment, and commerce into their church building. (emphasis mine)

That makes the worship I’m used to sound like a dead thing. This book is going to be interesting, if only from the perspective of looking at what we have lost in our adventures along the trail of the Reformation (and its Counter) as well as what we have gained. Perhaps we can consider ways to get back some of that which we have passed by. If we could bring more of that life back into our church, might we get more people in the pews as well?

In our day and age, we are careful in our parish life very often to keep the earthly out of the devotional service for fear of being irreverent or disrespectful. Pre-Reformation art commonly displayed man in his nakedness. Modern Christian art rarely does and frowns disapprovingly on riotous excess in good Puritanical fashion. Today, Samantha at Intellectuelle speaks to a similar topic, wondering if even reading Ms Rowling’s books are ok because they speak of “good magic” yet in an obviously fantastic setting. She goes on to point out a book she has read off and on for years, which because of several graphic sex scenes she has decided not to pass this on to her husband as she writes:

After all, I wouldn’t hand him a novel with 8 or 9 Penthouse centerfolds interspersed throughout. Yet, I still have that novel and re-read it every few years.

Those two sentences don’t make sense to me in juxtaposition … for why is it good for the “goose” if not for the gander? But Samantha is not the only person who thinks similarly. Ours is an age when a lot of extremes in worship experience have been sanded off. For the “riotous shouts of laughter” and “roars of rage” are missing as well as public displays of contrition and sacrifice. Is it because of our political credo, which we all learn deep in our bones, holding “sacred” a separation of Church and State might also have led to the reverse, to whit us keeping our daily lives and concerns of state from our Church. But has that led us too often to separate the sacred from the human?

Admittedly things aren’t as bad as I paint them. But … what do you think?

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  1. GladManly says:

    of facing the uncertainties of life and death with calm faith and trust in God’s grace and mercy in Helplessness and Anxiety. Mark Olson at Psuedo-Polymath offers some thoughts on the struggle between modesty, spirituality, art and worship in A Good Beginning. And of course, I have a post at the Carnival as well. Starting with a personal reflection on my own journey of faith, I examine the second part of Romans chapter 2, focusing on the initiative and priority of God’s rich love and mercy when He wrote

  2. Samantha says:

    Hi, there! Thanks for linking to my entry at Intellectuelle. As to not giving the Pillars of the Earth to my husband. I just thought it would be “distracting” to him in a way that it is not for me (and I also know what’s coming and can turn over the page very quickly). He’s not a reader anyway and probably would have let the book collect dust (heheheehe)! But I know that despite the wonderfullness of the book, I would be very careful recommending it to *anyone* because of this content.

    My point was not whether something was good for the goose but not for the gander, but just pointing out that this conundrum for Christians goes beyond Harry Potter (as I mentioned with the nudity in art issue), and that even Christians will discern things differently (which makes for interesting online discussions.)

  3. Mark says:

    Well, my wife reads little as well, so I know how that is 😉

    Tim Challies also offered some thoughts recently about art and the Christian life recently.

    The question might be, seeing that somewhat graphical images used to be common in churches, have we lost anything by excising them from our place of worship? Have or do we set aside too much of our human-ness when we enter to worship?

  4. Samantha says:

    I think general ribaldness among “common folk” used to be more common than it is today. I see this a lot in historical novels, where even old widows would make somewhat suggestive comments to a young, good-looking pedlar visiting them!

    Apart from this issue of earthiness, it seems that worship services today, in many ways, are more “orderly”, more like a lecture with preacher speaking, congregation listening sedately (except for the responsive reading). Even in the NT, the church service seems like a more participatory event.

    Back on the subject, I know that I have read and heard certain things about Martin Luther and his flatulence, a subject which we polite people tend to avoid today…maybe it’s all tied together. Is being socially “polite” necessarily synonymous with holy living?


  5. thebloke says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I too ask similar questions often. What does it mean to practice community faith and celebrate as a community the goodness of God, and to remember Him and reverently to re-center ourselves around His love, His grace and mercy?

    I once opined to my then pastor that we may need to get rid of the sermon at our services in order to re-connect the spirit of what it means to come together and worship as a community and yet be authentic to the way contemporary people live, and although he was sympathetic to my intentions and directions of my thoughts, he feared that that was just way too radical to actually put in practice.

  6. Christian Carnival #82

    Well, here it is at last! The 82nd Almost Weekly (or As-Far-As-We-Can-Manage-It-Weekly) Christian Carnival where participating bloggers submit a post they have penned during the past week to showcase to the blog-reading public. Each week, a host arran…

  7. […] Also along the same notes, Mark Olson at Psuedo-Polymath offers some thoughts on the struggle between modesty, spirituality, art and worship in A Good Beginning. […]

  8. Samantha says:

    I think I should have said common CHRISTIAN folk. Thanks for pointing that out…

  9. Mark says:

    If our pollsters demographics are to believed red-stater/NASCAR fans are also identified with the Christian right. But I think you are right, in that certainly our elderly tend not be outwardly very ribald and bawdy.

    I wonder if the non-Christian NASCAR bawd (and many of the urban variety) would find a church which tolerates “less structure” to speak more directly to where they live.

  10. […] I’m continuing to read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. Last time, if you recall, I had just read a dozen pages, and I was inspired to write about it. Well I’m a good bit further along, perhaps a fifth of the way into the book. The Reformation is truly underway in his account. So far this is still a well crafted, occasionally quite humorous history text. Again, if any of my gentle readers have further reading suggestions akin to this for myself (and my daughter!) don’t be shy, drop a comment (or e-mail, find it by clicking my name under the picture on the left there). Mr MacCulloch makes it clear that Dr. Luther was swept along by events and not quite the author of the Reformation as one would have thought. The account of the Roman Church described in small detail in my last essay was part of a thesis he begins with to point out that the people in general were not unsatisfied with their worship experience. There was indeed tension (of varying degrees by location) between friars, secular clergy (a term I’ll admit I don’t really understand), priests, and the political rulers. Indulgences and fund-raising efforts tied to questionable (from a Biblical standpoint) soteriology had been decried before Luther. Luther was not the first to stress salvation by Grace not Works, notably Augustine whose influence had not been lost by any means. When the damn broke, this hadn’t been the first time that Luther had expressed similar opinions … it’s just that the “perfect storm” occurred and swept the Western Europe along. I’ve made the claim (without references) that Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace expounds the thesis that great men are not in charge of events. They merely ride the tide of social forces. It might be said that Mr MacCulloch ascribes to the same thesis. For certainly time after time, so far in this book we see men swept up by the tide of events. […]