"Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking About Christian Worship Today" by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. and Sue A. Rozeboom

Gillis Harp
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Sep/Oct 2004

This volume is a collaborative work produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College. Although Plantinga and Rozeboom are the primary authors, it includes more than twenty brief articles or sidebars on related topics, mostly penned by the members of a Lilly-funded research team. The book's "main project . . . is to set a context and recommend a tone in which healthy decisions about worship may be conducted." Accordingly, the book is neither a sharp polemic against nor an uncritical celebration of contemporary worship forms. Given the heated character that the so-called "worship wars" have often taken in recent years, such a tack represents a welcome departure.

Discerning the Spirits begins with a valuable history of what has come to be styled "Contemporary Worship" (CW). Among the developments that shaped CW were the church growth, charismatic, and praise and worship movements of the last forty years. Moreover, in Catholic circles and beyond, the major liturgical reforms of Vatican II have also played a crucial role. Many North American churches have adopted CW for evangelistic purposes. Yet even the most keenly CW congregations still have to grapple with hard questions about the interaction of the Christian message with its cultural context. "We're wrestling with questions of integrity," the authors note, and they rightly ask, "[A]re we upholding the integrity of the gospel and of Christian worship even as we translate them into fresh cultural idioms?" Some degree of cultural adaptation in worship is both inevitable and desirable, but also undeniably risky.

Although some have stressed the centrality of the Incarnation to a Christian appreciation of culture, such an approach can be misleading in isolation since the Incarnation doesn't simply validate all of culture indiscriminately. Our understanding of the true nature of the church can be of help here. While we endeavor to be culturally and generationally inclusive, "niche marketing tends to reinforce our differences" and Christians need to be wary of the uncritical adoption of such marketing techniques. The final chapter starts with a stimulating definition of worship as "narrative engagement with the triune God" and then proceeds to unpack all that this formulation implies. Ultimately, the narrative of Creation, Fall, and Redemption "frames Christian worship in ways big enough to stretch us all beyond our [particular and often parochial] preferences."

There is much to commend in this brief volume. Its approach is balanced, charitable, and filled with practical advice for clergy and thoughtful laypersons. Unfortunately, it is not always clear whether its treatments of some subjects are prescriptive or purely descriptive. The normative role of Scripture is occasionally lost in the sociological discussion of various competing models. Some congregations, for example, are described as employing drama or dance in their worship, but there is no explicit examination of whether either is in fact sanctioned by the New Testament. Indeed, the question of what Scripture permits and what it actually enjoins are rarely explored directly-a curious omission for scholars within the Calvinist tradition. At one point, the authors note that

The good news is that between men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, Jesus Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14) The bad news is that his followers keep trying to put that wall back up. Some want women to preach; some do not. Some want the church to take a stand with unborn children; some want the church to stand with women in crisis pregnancies.

The latter differences hardly appear analogous to the apostle's original categories.

Finally, sometimes there is a therapeutic quality to the discussion that moves one away from the consideration of whether a particular practice is biblical and toward options that are preferred because they are "healthy" or "authentic." The garment of denominational tradition is worn pretty lightly in these discussions; it is assumed that clergy are free to be their own liturgists, that the options for designing suitable worship are almost limitless, and that conformity to a single mandated order would presumably be archaic or perhaps simply unthinkable. Of course, in this respect, the book mirrors the untidy state of American Evangelicalism.

In short, Discerning the Spirits contains some helpful and insightful analysis of the contemporary worship scene, but it should be used with discernment.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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