Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship & the Arts (Part 2)

    -- by Harold Best, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003, 226 pages.

(link to Part 1 of this review)

In the first six chapters of Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts,1 Harold Best lays a theological foundation for artistic action in worship, based on the concept of worship as “ceaseless outpouring,” which was summarized in Part I of this review (published in the previous issue of this journal). He turns in the last half of the book to the implications of that theme in relation to artistic action.

Chapter 7: “Continuous Outpouring and Artistic Action”

For the Christian, the arts do not stand by themselves, but are “only one part of the creative ecology of our living” (p. 111). In terms of the foundation laid in the earlier chapters, any undertaking, however magnificent, that is not rooted in an understanding of authentic worship, is misdirected. Artistic action, like all other acts, must therefore be an act of worship: “The more Christian artists understand that artistic action is nothing other and nothing less than pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet, the more they will be refreshed and liberated in their imagining and crafting” (p. 112).

Here Best makes a crucial distinction between art as offering and as behavioral motivator: “We make and offer art because we worship; we should not make it lead us into worship” (p. 119). This distinction strikes at the heart of any reliance on the arts, particularly music, as “aids to worship” or “tools for worship.” The belief that music can help us worship or prevent us from worshiping, Best maintains, is at heart a pagan, essentially idolatrous, notion—an assumption that we can be shaped by the things that we ourselves have shaped and are meant to be sovereign over.

The power of the arts and our faithful response to them are together to be offered up to the Lord, who is infinitely beyond them, as a part of our continuous worship. Instead of depending on the power of the arts to enhance their worship or bring it about, faithful worshipers can actually enhance the power of the arts by the faith-driven force of their worship (p. 122).

In an age where so much of the corporate worship in our churches is response-driven, the implications of Best’s argument on this point are profound and far-reaching. Whether we agree or disagree,2 the question should cause us to look long and hard at much of what we are doing. Do we need to think more carefully and deeply about what we mean by “worship languages” and “heart music?” I wonder…

Chapter 8: “What Creative People Can Learn From God’s Creation”

In this chapter Best lays out a theological perspective on human creativity that is consistent with the mainstream of Reformed scholarship in the field of aesthetics—the awareness that God is both the source and the model for human creativity. As imago Dei, we are created “to do things the way God does and to work the way he works” (p. 128). The image of God in us means that we are all accountable, whatever our gifts and abilities, for the creative stewardship of our lives:

The fact that we were created imago Dei, and through Christ have become both image of God and children of God, means that there is an unavoidable and continually better way for each of us, whatever our aesthetic condition and however we use artworks in our living and worshiping.… It is the responsibility of all Christians, irrespective of the observed quality of their work, to purpose inwardly before God [to reflect his creativity], in spite of contrary comment or cost. In other words, we are to imagine and to make while being like our Savior (p. 129).

If imago Dei means working as God works, then it follows that the primary model for creative activity would be God’s creative acts. These provide justification and motivation for the most adventurous, mysterious, unsettling, and imaginative artistic undertakings. “God had the prerogative to imagine freely, and so does the artist as imago Dei.… There is nothing, not even in the most remote places of my abstract lexicon, that God did not venture into first” (pp. 131-2).

Among the many treasures in this volume, the eight “lessons from God’s Creatorhood,” which are the core of this chapter, are deeply challenging for artists as well as Christians in general. They are “a call to creative diversity of the most fearless sort, in which the way God goes about his creating work is to be our model, even as we place the burden on the Giver instead of our few paltry gifts” (p. 142).

Chapter 9: “The Peculiarity of Music and Its Unique Role”

As the only musical instrument directly created by God, the voice has special significance for the individual and the congregation. “In fact, the center of all church music,” regardless of size or giftings, “is congregational song” (p. 144).
(Note from Editor: This may sound very different around the world; see Whitney’s article, page 12 in this issue, for an unusual example of “congregational song.”)

Best’s exegesis of the Pauline teaching of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 sidesteps the much-debated questions regarding the meaning of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and draws particular attention to the different but coordinated roles of text and melody in our singing. “Teaching and admonishing” is by definition concerned with truth. “What do we teach? We teach truth, and music cannot teach truth…. Therefore, we can assume that it is the text, the Word, that teaches and admonishes.” By this argument, the text is directed horizontally; “it goes back and forth among continuous outpourers as edification and instruction” (p.147). The direction of melody in both passages, however, is Godward:

This is the direction, always, of music: vertical, to the Lord, first and foremost. Music is not truth telling, and God does not need truth; he is the Truth. But he wants to hear us use his truth prophetically even while we make music to him lovingly and praisefully (p. 147).

On the question of the “emotive” power of music, Best argues against popular assumptions about music in worship, by which music is said to “empower text,” and awareness of God’s presence is linked to the emotional progression and contour of the music.

If music is a ‘tool,’ this must mean that people come to corporate worship unprepared for worship, or at least neutral, expecting worship to be initiated, and the music segment becomes the tool for this. If music is a tool for worship, it defies logic to say that it is an act of worship (pp. 148-9).

Musicians, worship leaders and congregations will find the contents of this chapter challenging, and perhaps provocative.

Chapter 10: “The Arts in Contrast: Allowing Art to be Art”

In this chapter, the local church is confronted with the responsibility to “go beyond what it is locally capable of,” and draw on “the riches of what surrounds it” (p. 153). At the same time, it is cautioned against an attempt to make art function beyond its limits, by requiring it to carry a “message,” or by expecting it to communicate in the same way the word does. While words are the most accurate means of communicating truth, the arts vary greatly in their capacity to “say” things, and in what kinds of messages they express.

When this is taken too far, the nonverbal arts are expected to perform a function of which they are incapable. Dancers are expected somehow to dance propositional truth…. People are afraid to let go of the idea that dance must preach a truth…. Once we look at the various art forms this way, seeing how some of them do certain things extremely well and others do them poorly or not at all, we should strike a balance and celebrate each art form for what it does uniquely well. That is enough (p. 156).

Attempts to push the non-verbal arts beyond their limits devalue the uniqueness of the Word and weaken the art forms themselves (p. 157).

[W]e must allow art to be art. We must allow each art form to be its own form of praise to God…. The arts should never take the place of direct proclamation. Rather they should be used in worship as themselves, ultimately pointing away from themselves to the truth, but never giving the impression that they can do what truth alone can do…. Our task is to make art as honestly and freely as we can and then offer it to him, and when we do, he will do his work in a way that will validate both his power apart from the arts and the arts themselves as given over to him (pp. 159-60).

Chapter 11: “You Shall Not Worship Me This Way”: Worship, Art, and Incipient Idolatry

Idolatry, as Best has already pointed out, is the inversion of authentic outpouring, the pouring of oneself out towards a false god rather than the true. For the Christian, perhaps the most obvious temptation to idolatry lies in turning the legitimate appreciation and celebration of God’s good gifts into a worshiping of the gifts themselves. A more subtle but no less insidious danger lies in what Best describes as “worshiping God idolatrously” (p. 164). In fact, “idolatry is the chief enemy of the most fervently worshiping Christian, even to the extent that some of us may end up worshiping worship” (p. 163). The principles in this chapter are among the most heart-searching passages of the book.

These cautions have great relevance for those of us who cultivate and promote indigenous forms of worship, lest we are tempted to regard “heart music” or culturally informed liturgies themselves as agents of renewal or mediators of authentic worship in the global scene. At the same time we must be cautious of knee-jerk reactions to what may, in fact, be clearly idolatrous. Historically, evangelicals have tended to be iconoclasts, and in the process we are slow to recognize the Lordship of Christ over all things.

The glorious thing about God’s grace is that he can take an idol and, without destroying it, turn it into nothing in order that it can be changed into merely something to be offered back to him through Christ. If music is an idol, God can burn it clean and turn it into a faith-driven offering…. In this way the arts, along with beauty, quality, variety, results and even continuity, would become one in a radical newness that is always at the ready when God is enthroned over the gods (171).

Chapter 12: “The Cultural Expanse, Part 1: Realities and Unities”

The two chapters on culture are especially important to ethnodoxologists. If “liberated and authoritative cultural engagement” is part of our biblical mandate, chapter 12 gives theological and philosophical perspective to this premise, both in regard to cultural action as well as to the wide cultural spectrum. With respect to cultural action:

Once a culture is transformed by Christ, its artistic dialects and processes can remain as they are even while bearing new fruit. The changes that might occur—radical or ordinary—will then come from within. No one should expect another culture to change its art into “our art” but instead to continue to generate its own authentic “heart song….” ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ is the dayspring for engaging in and appreciating the artifacts of another culture (p. 178).

With respect to the vast diversity of the cultural spectrum, Best argues for the ultimate unity of the widest stylistic and functional diversities:

Deep within its workings, [artistic culture] is also seamless, even in the face of vivid differences between, say, grunge rock and Renaissance motets or street rap and Milton’s poetry…. It is only a secular or paganized culture that chooses to divide people on the basis of their artistic preferences. It is a spiritually connected culture that takes cultural differences, works through the tensions that they may create and comes to the blessed condition of mixing and reconciling them and of stewarding their increase and growth (pp. 180-81).

In his earlier book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Best makes a convincing case for the kind of musical pluralism that embraces the widest possible range of genres, styles, and ethnic expressions of music.3 The present volume enriches this perspective by demonstrating a way to engage with so-called “high” and “low” art as part of a “seamless continuity,” rather than on the basis of divisive classifications such as classical and popular, traditional and contemporary. All artistic content, posits Best, may be explored and understood in terms of a series of pairings: (1) shallow to deep, (2) simple to complex, (3) strange to familiar, (4) ornamental/variational to developmental, and (5) entertaining to engaging. Each term is “neutral,… flexible and easily capable of crossing from one grouping to another” (p.182). For example, while some art is shallow and some is deep, both can be of extremely high quality. Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” is “eloquently simple,” and Beethoven’s Ninth is complex, but both are art of the highest order. A Bach fugue and Tibetan chant may be either familiar or strange depending on who hears it. Folk art and jazz are generally concerned with pattern, ornamentation, variation, and repeated design, while much of classical art moves in the direction of development and transformation of musical ideas. At the same time, one may approach both a Prokofiev Piano Concerto and “Yesterday” as entertainment or engage with them at a highly intellectual level.

Entertainment is dangerous only when it becomes the exclusive thing, cutting itself away from any linkage with active engagement…. [P]opular art can be good or bad, just as classical art can. Intellectual content may be deep but ethically flawed, while popular wisdom can turn a heart and mind in exactly the right direction (p. 185).

Chapter 13: “The Cultural Expanse, Part 2: Issues”

Having already affirmed the validity of popular art within the cultural spectrum, Best proceeds in Chapter 13 to make a highly significant distinction between popular culture and mass culture. The distinction is important, because historically, popular, ethnic and classical cultures have shared a healthy interchange of practices within the creative continuum described in the previous chapter. However, in contemporary culture something “disruptive and unhealthy,” which Best calls “mass culture” or the “massification of culture,” has entered the picture—a “noxious ethos” which subsumes and uses the best of human creative work to feed a worldview rooted in experientialism, self-enclosed shallowness, and massive relativity, an “overriding spirit” which has contributed to an unprecedented degradation of language.

The character and effects of each of these forces is sobering; for worshipers and artists in the church, the danger lies not so much in the things of culture as in “the worldview with which this mass culture puts them to use. And it is this worldview that can so insidiously be at work in the body of Christ and its worship” (p. 214).

Chapter 14: “What of Quality?”

The final chapter is a tour de force of philosophical and theological reasoning, in which the subject of continuous outpouring comes full circle. If we are called to lives of continuous outpouring, the issue of quality is of supreme urgency, and it must be approached with the recognition that “the issue… is not merely artistic but theological.” Stated simply:

Excellence, the lifelong process of becoming better than I was yesterday, must be the normal condition for the excellence of stewardship. Good stewardship comprises the entirety, not just parts of my living. I am called to a life of continuous outpouring; therefore excellence, good stewardship and authentic worship are bonded in such a way as to bring everything I do under common scrutiny and, if need be, judgment. Only then can the arts be brought under similar scrutiny (p. 197).

Here the author offers the core of “a Christian aesthetic that goes beyond Christianizing classical aesthetics,... a way to view the wide range of artistic practice with something more than art in mind.” The case for quality, in biblical terms, is rooted in its connection to the biblical triad of love, faith, and hope. The chapter concludes with an impassioned appeal to individual believers and to the church as a whole:

I want to teach and share these insights with everybody, not as an exclusivist, not once taking their many musics away from them, never demeaning them for what they love and what they ascribe to, never holding to a position of superiority. I want to talk about the fullest extent to which anything… can be taken. I want to talk about connections, not just the surface one, not about how something feels or how it can keep me settled in what I already enjoy or know. I want a world of neighbors to understand that they have been created in God’s image, created capable of enormous stretches, capable of intellectual probing and pleasure. I want to take them into territory that lies far outside of the poll-driven drivel that tells me how limited and superficial my neighbors are. I want to show them that it is possible to like one thing more than another, while loving both. I want to show them that laying hold of a mystery is a wondrous paradox, that while the greatest things are attainable by a very few, they can be offered to all. I want to show them that they are more alone by staying the same or moving with the crowd than by being stretched within their minds and spirits. I want, above all, to show them that going beyond, instead of just looking or being around, is what authentic diversity is truly about (pp. 207-8).

Epilogue

The book concludes with three beautiful and touching episodes from Jesus’ life, episodes that stand as parables for ceaseless worship: Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume (John 12:1-3), Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-5), and Jesus’ making breakfast for his disciples (John 21:1-3). Perfume reminds us of the costliness of worship and the utter worth of Jesus; water tells us that worship is expressed in service; breakfast tells us that Jesus seeks out, feeds, and nurtures his disciples. As he invites us to his table, whatever our condition, so we are also called to seek, feed and nurture people, simply because they are the objects of his ceaseless, loving outpouring.

In summary, Unceasing Worship is a beautifully written and eminently winsome call to artistic action that is rooted in a radical, holistic vision of worship. Its complexities amply reward thoughtful reading and re-reading, whether or not one agrees on every point. One of the strengths of this volume lies in the author’s gracious avoidance of aesthetic “axe-grinding.” This could be a temptation for an artist whose passion and gifts of expression are as finely developed as Harold Best’s. Humility is coupled with prophetic authority, grace is seasoned with salt. Make this a high priority on your reading list.

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1 Published by InterVarsity Press, 2003.
2 The debate between Barry Liesch and Harold Best on this question is informative; see Barry Liesch, www.worshipinfo.com/materials/tnwsup03a.htm.
3 Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, San Francisco: Harper, 1993, pp. 149-52.

    --reviewed by Vernon Charter, Prairie Bible College

Published in Vol.3, No.2 of

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Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony
www.ACTinternational.org