"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Aesthetics and the Reunion of all Christians

It was April or May of 1995. My wife and I had been attending a non-denominational charismatic church here in St. Louis for about nine months. The church met in a school, and there were probably between 400 and 500 people there each Sunday. These people were very loving, sincere and devout. The pastor had an exceptionally charismatic personality. He wore blue jeans, oxfords, high-top tennis shoes, and had long hair and a made-for-radio voice. (He later took a job for a local radio station.) The praise band consisted of a keyboardist, drummer, guitarists and a team of singers. The worship would consist of a series of songs played in direct succession, and often repeated, for at least 40 minutes. The words to the songs were projected onto a large screen. The worship service was designed to reach a kind of emotional climax, and then move into a 'spiritual state' called 'soft worship', during which the drums fell off, and keyboardist would go through a very simple chord progression, playing softly, and sustaining each chord for some time (with 'improv' and arpeggios in the upper register). If you have been in this sort of thing, then you know what I'm talking about.

On this particular Sunday in 1995, a woman performed a voice solo. She went up to the front, and was handed a microphone, and began to sing the traditional hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty ...". But she sang it as if she were in a night club, with a forced gravelly voice, and sensual, bodily motions. It was the most poignant contradiction of form and content I had ever witnessed. I had been growing more and more disturbed by the irreverence of the *form* of the worship, without being able to identify consciously what it was that was bothering me. Finally, during this song, the contradiction hit me square in the face, in large part because the words of the song are specifically about the holiness of God.

As we left the service that day, I told my wife, "I'm never coming back", and we didn't go back. Over time I came to understand that the form of worship is no less important than the material content, because the form itself has an intrinsic content that is communicated along with the words.

Consider, for example, this video of a contemporary worship service:

Contrast that with this video of a prelude to the Mass I attended last year on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica.

What does the form (not the words) of the music communicate about God? Does it communicate sacredness? Reverence? Transcendence? Order? Majesty? Beauty? Holiness? Royalty? Contrast the prominence and visibility of the musicians between the two videos. Structurally, the invisibility of the choir communicates that it is not about them.

I did not make that transition right away, from charismatic worship to Catholic liturgy. I think I could not have done so. The transition is immense, and involves a reshaping not only of intellect, but also of intuitions, appetites and sensibilities. After leaving the charismatic church, we started attending a Presbyterian church and joined it shortly thereafter. I knew that there, at least, I (and my family) would not be getting the night-club version of "Holy, Holy, Holy".

But four years later, I was becoming more and more aware that the Presbyterian service was simply not feeding my soul. And yet I couldn't identity what was missing. One thing I did know, the whole service seemed to be man-centered in its form and activity. Here's what I mean. So much of what took place involved handing a microphone to a human being, and letting that person give his or her thoughts about something. There were welcoming comments, particularly to visitors, an explanation of who we were as a church, and what our mission was in the community, various reports by different lay persons on different activities and outreaches they were doing, a session meeting report, a report on a missions trip, a budget/attendance report, a report on the youth group retreat and announcements by the youth pastor of upcoming youth group activities, a report on the college ministry activities, a series of prayer requests in which an elder would walk around and hand the wireless microphone to anyone who wanted to describe to the whole congregation and to any degree he wished for as long as he wished something he was going through for which we all should pray. There was a children's sermon, a regular sermon, and exhortations about stewardship and being generous to God, by an elder, before the offering plate was passed. I was weary of all this man-talk. I wanted no more words of men, no more handing around of the microphone. I was coming to church for something else, *not* to hear people give their opinions or talk about what they were doing. I could go to a newspaper or a theological journal or many other places, and get much more informed opinions than these. I didn't just want to be in a religious club; I wanted something other than that.
It got to the point that during the service I found myself being internally critical and disengaged. I knew that cynicism is soul-destroying. So I stopped going to church, for about a year.

Then a friend suggested that I visit an Anglican church. The moment I walked in, I noticed the difference. People weren't talking before the service started. People were kneeling and praying, on kneelers. All the words of the service were already written down, as the liturgy, in this case the Book of Common Prayer, which is beautiful and reverent and drawn largely from Scripture. (The BCP was itself drawn largely from the Catholic liturgy.) The only occasion in which a person spoke his own opinion, was the homily, and the homily was only about five minutes long (compared to the 30-40 minute homilies I was used to). And the climax of the liturgy was the Eucharist.
The service was simply called "Holy Eucharist". We walked forward between the choir, and received the Eucharist while kneeling. Here was something that went beyond men's opinions. I couldn't be cynical about the liturgy, or critique it. And that was especially true of the Eucharist. This was not man-talk. It was non-propositional; it was sacramental, i.e. the Gospel embodied, Christ Himself. I realized that this is what my soul had been craving -- to be fed on God. (At that time, I wasn't aware of Apostolicae Curae.) And this aesthetic and liturgy was clearly the *form* that fit the serving of this divine food. In the liturgy, my soul was literally drawn up to God by its majesty and beauty. When the priest says, "Lift up your hearts", we reply, "We lift them up unto the Lord." The form of the liturgy and the music helps us lift up our hearts to heaven.

So what does this have to do with the reunion of all Christians? It wasn't just (or even primarily) doctrine that moved me from a "non-denominational charismatic" to Catholic; it was also aesthetics, i.e. beauty. I came to understand episcopal ecclesiology only *after* already being drawn in by the beauty of the liturgy and its sacramental nature. If it hadn't been for the beauty and sacramentality of the liturgy, I would not even have started to consider seriously the historical basis for episcopal ecclesiology. My point is that theological arguments alone will not reunite Christians. Beauty, however, is attractive; when we encounter it, we are drawn to it, because in the depth of our being we crave Beauty. We can only sing "Lord I lift your name on high" or "Our God is an awesome God" so many times. Such music is neither beautiful nor soul-nourishing. In its form, particularly, it is trivial, common, tiresome and banal, not transcendent, noble, heavenly, enduring and glorious.

There are, I'm sure, an untold number of Christians burned out by ugliness of form and a steady diet of mere man-talk, not having the Eucharist. They have gifts to give Catholics, for they know something about communal love and life, and being entirely devoted to Jesus. But we can hold up to them what they lack, the beauty and soul-nourishing quality of the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist. The beauty of the liturgy, and the gift of the Eucharist are treasures that we can offer to our brothers and sisters in Christ who do not have them, and who may not even be aware that they exist, having never known anything else. This is the kind of exchange of gifts in which, I hope, we may begin the path to full visible union.

If anyone wishes to study more about the relation of form and content, how form is not content-neutral, and how form can contradict content, I recommend Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death, and his Technopoly. He shows there how media is not content-neutral. I would expand that to the more general claim that form is not content-neutral. See also All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers. I also recommend Thomas Howard's Evangelical Is Not Enough, Kilde's When Church Becomes Theatre, Frankforter's Stones for Bread: A Critique of Contemporary Worship, Marva Dawn's Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, and Michael Horton's In the Face of God. All of those are written by Protestants, except Howard who has since become a Catholic. My referring to them does not mean that I agree with everything in them. The same sort of form/content relation is true in architecture as well: see, for example, Michael Rose's Ugly as Sin, as well as his In Tiers of Glory. Roger Scruton's book The Aesthetics of Music is also quite helpful in explaining the differences between beautiful and ugly music. Consider also the contrast between contemporary Evangelical worship and what is revealed in the recent film Into Great Silence.

Sursum Corda!


Kim said...

I could not stand to be in a church that contemporary (first clip). I've had a similar journey to yours, Bryan, in that we were in a non-denom church (more "normal" than that first clip) which only went so far in depth. It attracted the "cool" people. We did the choruses, ad nauseum, and after awhile it grew tiresome. I can only stand to repeat a line in a song so many times. My eyes glaze over and my mind starts to wander.

Our kids were getting older and I saw that the other nice kids in church were changing once they entered the youth group. They were getting that haughty "I'm it" look about them and I wasn't about to let my kids fall into that. So we moved on to a Presbyterian (PCA) church that was part of the denom we had been involved in before the non-denom church. It was a relief for awhile to be around those who appreciated a more solemn form of worship, but I became more and more dissatisfied with the man-centeredness of the services, like you. I was just so unhappy.

I began making up whatever excuse I could find to skip church Sunday after Sunday. It's hard when you have kids. I felt terribly guilty, but I couldn't see a clear solution other than putting on a false face and going anyway, which I've done just to ease the guilt of keeping my family out of church.

My faith was getting very weak. I needed fellowship and was aware that I was not supposed to isolate myself, but what to do? (I'm sure there are many reading this who have LOTS of opinions on what I should do! lol)

I do admit that the beauty of the Catholic Church is attractive to me. Were the Episcopal church not on shaky ground from its foundations I might consider that route, but doctrine is very important to me, as is standing up for morality.

So here I stand on the outside of this huge Entity wanting to come in, but still feeling a bit shy about stepping forward. I'm reading Thomas Howard's book that you mentioned, and it's definitely speaking to me.

Keep talking, Bryan. I so appreciate your posts whether I comment or not.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking of this very thing Sunday at mass. Unfortunately, at my shameful parish I can't help but think of this every mass. The form doesn't match the matter.

Only the completely carnally minded person cannot understand that the Gloria cannot be sung with melodies and rhythms that sound as if it had sensual overtones!

There is an objectivity to art, to beauty and to music. Our culture doesn't want to hear that though.

That's why Vatican II affirmed that Gregorian chant is not just another choice of music that is appropriate, it is THE most appropriate music at mass. All things being equal, chant should be employed but rarely is these days.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Bryan, fascinating post. I think that an intellectually honest person cannot resist the logic behind the sheer weight of Catholicism's claims.

It is manifestly interesting that you felt this brute force via the shortcoming's of the worship style of that particular modern Protestant church. This in turn started the wheel's going and the quest you embarked Presbyterian/Anglican/Catholic seems to be the normal route of the Christian in search for ultimate truth.

R.E. Aguirre

jmw said...

I just looked at Fr. Pfleger's parish in Chicago online - looks like they have all the goofiness that you are condemning in Protestants, and they're Catholic to boot. Those who live in glass houses...

Bryan Cross said...


My wife was really concerned about the doctrine at the Episcopal church. At the time, I was less concerned than she was. I was in survival mode, and I was willing to put up with [unspoken] laxity regarding doctrine in order to have my soul fed on the beauty and richness of the liturgy. Eventually we found a conservative Anglican church, and we joined that church in 2003. But in the middle of 2004, I was already trying to figure out what was the *referent* of the line in the Creed: "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". I was wondering whether what we were meaning by that phrase was what the early fathers meant by that phrase. And eventually it got to the point that as we said the Creed each Sunday, I had to remain silent when we said that line, because I felt that I was being dishonest if I said it. And after a lot of reading and study, I determined that that phrase referred to the Catholic Church. That was in 2005. :-)

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Tim V said...

Thanks Brian for the post. You really put your finger on what I've felt the last few years at the seeker-sensitive evangelical church I had been attending. In the mid-90's I was first exposed to more contemplative worship where the form did fit the content at seminary chapel & the Anglican church I attended. Although I'm still in the process of re-investigating the Catholic faith, I have been attending Mass the past 8-12 months and find it much more congruent.

Bryan Cross said...


I agree that you can find goofiness in the Catholic Church. I wasn't claiming that Catholics have a monopoly on liturgical beauty, as I pointed out in my post regarding the beauty of the Anglican liturgy.

The presence of liturgical goofiness in the Catholic Church is also a problem, as is banality in contemporary Evangelical worship. I am proposing that we find common ground in our shared desire for beauty and transcendence in worship, particularly in the liturgy and in the Eucharist.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Kim said...

I was in survival mode, and I was willing to put up with [unspoken] laxity regarding doctrine in order to have my soul fed on the beauty and richness of the liturgy.

I can certainly understand that. I think it speaks volumes on how important beauty and richness are to the human soul. At one time I was very tempted to visit an Anglican church nearby, but could never get myself to go through with it. Maybe it's easier for the husband to pursue such things than the wife. I have a hard time pursuing things like this on my own, although as a new Christian over 18 years ago I had no trouble. I was young and impulsive. Now I weigh everything to death! lol

Eric Telfer said...

It is the case that some division is rooted in personal preferences, and that preferences play and have played a significant role in division. This is the case with doctrine, as when one would prefer a doctrine to be otherwise and it is the case with worship style as well. It is important to distinguish those who disagree on the basis of preference and those who disagree on the basis of something more substantial, either by itself or added to preference.

Also, people are moved in various directions here. For example, some start with the Mass and claim to become quite bored and dissatisfied with it as well, sometimes finding a different worship style more refeshing or, as above, seemingly better suited to his or her personality type. So a person who loves a certain instrument, for example, may favor a service which makes use of that instrument. A person who loves a certain style of singing may favor a service that allows that style of singing.

Moreover, abuse does not nullify proper use and so one could imagine a different style of worship that was not the liturgy proper, but which was not so improper in form or content. I have seen lots of wonderful expressions of the faith in the form of music, plays, skits, etc. One church we attended frequently had skits and plays. It was quite nice, actually. Others have had wonderful music that was edifying. Unfortunately, all too often there is a slide downhill into the less than best. Moreover, the type of service is not so much, many times, intended to encourage great reverence or stillness before God, but some more enthusiastic, emotional experience. Many modern churches lack an altar. The entertainment can be great, but one wonders if he is there to be entertain and edified through these various forms of Christian-related entertainment or to worship in some more profound quiet way.

I might also add that my wife and I mainly attended Assembly of God and non-denominational,independent Christian churches before becoming Catholic. I had grown somewhat frustrated with the services in these churches. My wife had also. But not so much of the use, but of the abuse. And for my wife the liturgy, though it has grown on her, was a huge adjustment and, at first, not seemingly very edifying at all for a variety of reasons, i.e., new, different, 6 kids to keep quiet and discipline throughout the liturgy, etc. Even to this day she might think that there are certain well done Protestant services that she might find more uplifting. And yet the transition has been made for historical and theological reasons, such that secondary preferences involving worship had to be made secondary and kept secondary.

But there is a beauty in the Mass that is there to be appreciated. New-comers sometimes have to struggle to see it and old-timers have to struggle to continue seeing it, if they have before, or see it for the first time if they have yet to really appreciate it ever, which is the case for a great many young Catholics today.


Skyrim Geek said...

It would be difficult to comment on the first video without sounding uncharitable. The second clip was very beautiful. I am pleased to have access to two traditional Masses in my area. Though they aren't as prominent as they are in St. Louis. They have more of an "underground" feel. It doesn't appear that the bishops up here in the Harford Archdiocese and the Diocese of Bridgeport are very enthused about tradition, so it can only be found in the "designated" churches, usually in the really bad parts of town.

Oso Famoso said...

This makes situations like Father Pfelger's parish in Chicago all the more troubling. Father Pfleger has the liturgy but destroys it.

This is also why I can't stand seeing an ugly, Brady Bunch style Catholic Parish. What were they thinking?

When I was a "secret-Catholic", meaning I would sometimes sneak into a Catholic mass and just watch, one day I realized an important difference between a Catholic Church and my PCA Church.

In the center of my PCA church was a podium. A podium at which my pastor gave man made sermons (granted they were usually very good sermons). But at the center of the Catholic Church was an alter. Wow....

The climax of my PCA Church was the sermon. Sometimes we had visiting pastors if our pastor was out of town. Often times the visiting pastor’s sermon wouldn’t be very good. I’d here people talk about it the next week, “Oh, what a bad sermon last week.” In the back of my head I was thinking, “Why is the sermon the focus of our worship?”

George Weis said...


I enjoyed this post very much! I am so ashamed when brothers and sisters in Christ do what you mentioned. All too often, I wonder how much SHOWMANSHIP is taking place in churches like that one, and how much confusion is in a church like the clip you showed.

Additionally I am confounded at the great deal of man-talk that you encountered. So typical of our western culture to be man-focused. I am increasingly concerned for the church as we try to mimmic the world and the culture to the point where the sanctuary simply becomes a theater of sorts. My siblings attend a megachurch complete with light shows, guitar solo zoom-ins and a Starbucks (well not an actual Starbucks of course).
My brothers fateful comment "It is the only church that I can stay awake in" horrifies me! Our consumerism is taking us down in so many ways.

The gathering of Christians should always be Christ centered. Our worship should be communal and unified. Our participation in the Eucharist should be reverent. We must stop seeking out a fulfilling experience for ourselves. If we abandoned ourselves to God, we would be filled. I think as you noted, in certain environments, that kind of focus is easier to achieve.

I appreciate the nod that you did give to Protestants in regards to their devotion to Christ and their communal love. I do indeed appreciate the reverence of higher church services, even though I have rarely traversed such assemblies. I intend to enjoy the opportunity to explore them, although I do find in many ways my own Church to be Christ focused, at least that is their aim. Not to say that many do not get wrapped up in the beautiful orchestrated and choral music, or the sermons, as I am sure they do.

May you be richly blessed for the sake of the Kingdom.


Jim H. said...

"First we shape our buildings...then they shape us."