Friday, October 25, 2013

Worship as Drunken Revelry; Faith as Music of the Heart

I set out to write another update of my thinking on the role of gender in the church, in light of some thought-provoking recent posts on the subject by Rachel Held Evans and Richard Beck. I'll get to that. I was rereading Ephesians 5 to this end, when suddenly verses 18-21, the part leading directly up to the controversial passage on women submitting, jumped out at me
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
"Do not get drunk with wine"; or probably more generally "do not get drunk" okay, that's a simple command, easy, I can do that. (Except maybe when there are mixed drinks and my curious urge to sample everything kicks in) But the part after that had never really made sense to me: "but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart". It always gave me some odd, unnatural mental image of Christians going around singing spiritual ditties to each other instead of speaking, maybe holding candles or like The Sound of Music in church. It was honestly kind of creepy.

Matthew Henry's classic commentary helps point out how Paul is intentionally drawing parallels between his instructions for Christians and pagan festivals such as Bacchanalia, where revelers would get very drunk on wine and sing songs to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and merrymaking. Henry says, "[Drunkenness] was a sin very frequent among the heathens; and particularly on occasion of the festivals of their gods, and more especially in their Bacchanalia: then they were wont to inflame themselves with wine, and all manner of inordinate lusts were consequent upon it...Drunkards are wont to sing obscene and profane songs. The heathens, in their Bacchanalia, used to sing hymns to Bacchus, whom they called the god of wine. Thus they expressed their joy; but the joy of Christians should express itself in songs of praise to their God."

This is interesting because you might expect Paul to try to distance himself as far as possible from the licentiousness of these drunken heathens. Instead, he describes how the spiritual life of Christians should mirror that of the pagans, but with the true God as the object of worship and the Holy Spirit as the intoxicant. The phrase "singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart" really jumped out at me. I realized I had been imagining Paul's instructions too literally, and with none of the pagan parallels. I think he is basically saying that we should live for and worship God like drunken pagans reveling and singing songs at a feast! (Or for a more modern example, Bavarians drinking and singing at Oktoberfest)

I will have many interesting meditations on this image of Christians adoring their Christ, but one thing that sticks out to me now is that there are few who take themselves less seriously than drunken revelers, even if they are taking their god very seriously! By "singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart", you worship the way you enjoy really good music (the kind with driving across the country to hear): with your mind, passions, soul, and body; not passively, or standing on the sidelines pontificating. Paul gives a very experiential and participatory picture of Christian spirituality that I find very compelling.

One objection answered: you may say, "This verse is all well and good, but we must not give in to anti-intellectualism and instead balance it with verses that tell us to 'be transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Rom 12:2), keep a close watch on our teaching (1 Tim 4:16), and so on." And I agree, but I would remind you that these letters were originally sent out piecemeal to specific individuals, churches, or regions, who could not have systemized the teaching of the whole New Testament in such a way. And so if you view verses such as Ephesians 5:18-21 that emphasize Christianity-as-experience as being in tension with verses that depict it more as teaching or doctrine (both are translated from the same Greek word, didaskalia) and that for this reason you need both, you imply that Paul gave the Ephesians an imbalanced and possibly dangerous subset of what Christianity is.

I am beginning to get over the anti-intellectualism I flirted with earlier this year as I am guided to a changed understanding of the role Christian theological study and teaching play. I was speaking to myself earlier when I said that Christian worship and practice (which I am convinced are the same thing) cannot be enjoyed "passively, or standing on the sidelines pontificating". Is it possible the intellectual side of Christianity that has become so prominent today to be part of this "drunken revelry"—our knowledge of God intricately tied in with our experience of God and practice of holiness? I think it must be.

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