The basic assumption of the concept of games is that there is an important world out there that is “completely different in kind” from the world of competition for material goods. Rowan then makes the point that games also involve the “equalizing of honor or status.” In a good team, each player knows that he/she is of worth. In “pure play” the value of winning is “immediately dissolved by starting the game all over again.” To think in these terms it is necessary to return to the milieu of “hide and go seek.” But there’s the rub!
Rowan weeps for the lost icon. “Pure play” in modern Western society is skewed, lost to humankind and in process of becoming “another tribal engagement.” By the time big money and massive commercialization take over, “For the mass audience, [play has] largely ceased to be their (emphasis his) ritual: it is something enacted for their entertainment, rather than an activity that might affect their own modes of behaving and of understanding themselves” (pp. 62-63).
So what about worship? Is it moving in the same direction? It is well-known that the church in any country always reflects the culture of which it is a part. As the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us it becomes flesh in particular, never in general. As that happens the Word/gospel necessarily and rightly settles into the worldview of the receiving culture. It cannot influence that culture unless it becomes a part of it. But that very process creates problems.
The downside of this dynamic is that some elements of the culture are not in harmony with the gospel’s inner nature. In the West, people gain money and use it to acquire power. In the East, people gain power and use it to acquire money. Both are culturally conditioned sins. Inevitably, each offers numerous temptations to Christians who live in those cultures. There is no church, East or West, that can avoid being exposed to the temptations their differing cultures present. If racism exists in a culture one needs to look carefully for forms of racism in the church that need eradicating.
For 40 years, from 1955 to 1995, we, as a family, lived in the Middle East, returning to the U.S. every three to five years for “home assignment.” One of the things we observed was the gradual but relentless move of the “evening news” from information to info-tainment. As the info-tainment intensified, advertising of that info-tainment was born. Now, before almost every commercial break, the announcer says, “And when we come back…” informing the viewer about the next info-tainment segment. On Sunday nights we have to be told what we will miss if we don’t watch the XYZ evening news on Monday. (Clearly, “World News Tonight” is planned well in advance!!)
Each evening, since retiring in the United States, we tune, via short-wave, to the World Service of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) from London. In six minutes we hear more world news than is offered in three or more nights on American television. The gradual shift from “information” to “info-tainment” in the last four decades has been sobering to observe.
This leads me to reflect on the all-pervasive, gradual growth of entertainment in American culture. Personally, I never feel the need to be entertained because I have so many fun things to do, not least of which is studying the New Testament. But I know that “entertainment needs” are now so much a part of American culture that they have profoundly influenced many things, including, as noted, the way “news” is presented. Has it also, almost unnoticed, influenced our worship? I don’t know. I only pose the question.
One luminous unforgettable moment for me occurred a few years ago at a conference in California where an extremely talented African-American church musician was leading worship. He very gently told us,
Our people gather for worship looking forward to what they will contribute as they participate in it. Your people sit back like an audience watching a performance. They then pass judgment on the quality of the show.
Perhaps a part of our problem is the lack of an opportunity to participate.
My mother was English. As a Presbyterian it is my privilege to be Canon Theologian to the Church of England Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf and to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. The liturgy of the Anglican communion assures that the congregation is given nearly half the “lines in the play” which means they inevitably participate. As well, the (Scripture) “readings” are considered a very serious aspect of worship. A guild of specially trained lay readers usually does the readings which can take as much time as the preaching and are considered more important. After all, Scripture is “The Word of the Lord.” No sermon can claim the same status. The lay readers involved are expected to study carefully the text to be read, and convey their best understanding of the passage. Once again the congregation is sharing in the leadership of worship. I have heard members of the Church of England talk among themselves about how they wish to attend such-and-such a Eucharist “because so-and-so is to read the Gospel.” Presbyterians attend a service “because so-and-so will be preaching.” The first reflects deep assumptions about congregational participation. The second does not.
For a reality check on the extent to which American television news has become ‘info-tainment” I can easily switch on the BBC where there are neither ads nor info-tainment, only news. But what do I do for a similar “reality check” when I ask the same question about worship? Again, I don’t know. But I am nervous.
In seminary (back in the Middle Ages) we had a wonderful professor of music who initiated us into the mysteries of worship and music. He was an accomplished church organist who, throughout his working life, served in that capacity in a local congregation. He told us some horror stories about blatant cases of “worship” turned into “the performing arts.” Being an organist he had the right to criticize his peers. He was particularly incensed as he discussed postludes and described organists, known to him, who deliberately attracted an adoring audience around the organ console during the postlude. On such occasions, the worship of God, was clearly not the agenda. Our professor’s personal preference was to have no postlude at all, leaving people to reflect on the nature and gifts of God and on the requirements of discipleship. Worshipers want and need to talk to one another at the end of the service, he argued, so let them do so. He felt they neither wished for nor required any competition — particularly loud competition. These ideas, mind you, came from an organist!
I sense that we need a new word. Allow me to suggest: worsh-o-tainment. As an American Arab, I would like, very cautiously, to point out a few scenarios where I become nervous. The first has to do with expectations.
If Americans have a growing desire to be constantly entertained, has this need gradually created expectations in worship that have nothing to do with the adoration of a holy God? If we don’t “put on a good show” the church across the street will, and folk will be drawn there. The news media turns to info-tainment in order to attract numbers and ratings. Are we being pressured in the direction of “worsh-o-tainment” for the same reason? Granted, if “putting on a good show” is a consciously selected tool of evangelism then special criteria must be applied. Is that what is happening? Again, I am not sure.
As I wander lecturing to and fro across the land (please — no intertextuality intended!) I worship in Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches. In all these traditions, while hymns are sung, the organist often changes the harmony on the last verse. I am a bass and, therefore, can’t sing the soprano line. When the harmony is altered I have to stop singing. As a substitute I try very hard to read and reflect on the words before me, but usually have difficulty because I am slightly angered at having been forced to stop singing. What about the other worshipers? Does the change of harmonization enhance their ability to worship God or does it turn their minds to, “Wow, our organist can really tickle the ivories!”? It certainly emphasizes the last stanza — which in the older hymns is often about death.
I love bell choirs. They involve the congregation in worship, provide small group fellowship, give people a meaningful way to express their devotion to Christ and contribute beautiful music to a service. But I have noticed that when a bell choir executes an intricate piece there is usually applause. I don’t mind clapping in church. But if the applause is simply to thank the bell choir for aiding in worship, then there should be applause for the quiet, gentle, easily performed interpretations of well-known hymns. Why do people only clap for the complicated pieces? Is the applause related to the culture of worship or to the culture of entertainment?
In one Episcopal church where I preach a number of times each year, there is a special guild of some 30 talented musicians who practice together once a month to organize a small combo for each Sunday morning Eucharist. During the distribution of the elements this band leads the congregation in singing some carefully selected theologically profound contemporary hymns. It is very moving. The congregation does not watch them. Indeed, they can’t because they are on their way forward to receive the Sacraments. The band is not performing, it is worshipping in tandem with everyone else and we all know it. Drums, guitars, piano, vocalists, sometimes tambourines — you name it — and it is glorious! No one applauds the Scripture readings either!
The temptation to “put on a show” surely does not affect prayers, but what about preaching? The devil usually sits on my shoulder as I write a sermon and whispers in my ear,
Be certain to include at least one good, tear-jerking story. This crowd wants to be entertained. Surely you can manage at least one? Or include an illustration where you can get worked up a bit. You will receive more compliments at the door, if you do.
The serpent was the subtlest beast in the garden.
Where is the BBC against which we can check worsh-o-tainment? Is it worship in the Two-Thirds World? Is it a weekend in a monastery participating with the monks or nuns in their worship? How do we proceed to catch ourselves as we accommodate to our culture and ever so subtly erode the quality of worship? I have no answers. But of this I am certain: it is not just an obsession with sex that is gradually creeping into our consciousness from secular culture like the damp that penetrates a house on a rainy day.
Info-tainment and worsh-o-tainment: Are we in danger of losing another icon?
Kenneth E. Bailey of New Wilmington, Pa., is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies.