What is a worshipping being?

“Whatever experiences we may have, we shall not regard them as miraculous if we already hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural.”  – C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock

 

As I reflect upon what it means to be a worshipping being, I find it difficult to even define worship, let alone being. The struggle is rooted in the sundry examples of worship, definitions of worship, characterizations of worship, etc. that answer the questions of “what it is” as well as “what it is not.” To be a worshipping being must be to embody worship (whatever “worship” is) and that is as far as I can often go in my thought process.  By this definition, if I am a human and I one day decide to be a “worshipper,” quite suddenly I am transformed into a worshipping being. But maybe the relationship is backwards: to be is in fact, to worship, and before being anything else in our lives, we are simply beings and we are simply worshipping beings.

I think about young children who hardly recognize the world around them yet they recognize the presence of their mother: her voice, her touch, her gait, her smell. These children are worshipping beings, living in so many ways, dependent on someone or something else for sustenance and ultimately, life. While they are in some senses selfish, they are in other senses radically other-focused and other-dependent. They have not reached an age of autonomy. They are utterly helpless. They are worshipping beings, dependent on a mother who must provide for their needs.

As we get older, our dependence breeds independence. We want to fulfill our own needs and we want to assert ourselves. In essence, we want to worship ourselves: who we have become and who we are becoming. At all stages of life, we have needs and we decide whether to be autonomous or dependent in having them filled. All beings are worshipful in one sense or the other and to various degrees.

The trouble with worship is its inherent power. It draws us to and fro and controls our senses. Sometimes, we can become so focused on the object of our worship that we fail to see other avenues of need fulfillment. Perhaps, we steamroll relationships in order to fulfill our self-diagnosed personal needs or perhaps others of us grow reclusive, independent and self-focused in order to self-fulfill without the requisite failures that accompany a dependence on others. Either way, we worship.

Some have said that being is accompanied by a “God-shaped hole.” At our deepest level, we all struggle to fill needs that we were predisposed to possess. In worship, we look at our need and decide what or who will fill it. Whatever we draw strength from, that is the object of our worship.

The beautiful and haunting thing is the way in which Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit fill this need so perfectly that it virtually disappears. A worshipping being that worships in Christ is one that acknowledges a lack of needs because the need has finally and totally disappeared. Christ’s death and his resurrection have transformed the hole into a spring. A worshipping being in this sense has a worldview that is upside-down. They move through an unknown world where the rules have been rewritten, where reality is more than what can be proven through empiricism. They see dimly (but sometimes vividly) into a different sort of reality that can in turn, reach back and change this one. I’m mostly talking about the Holy Spirit’s awesome power to fill us, transform us, and speak through and to us. But I’m also talking about God’s Angels, their battles over us, and God’s dominion over certain areas of our lives, physical and emotional. I really don’t mind being mystical about the forces of good and evil. I also don’t mind acknowledging the power of prayer, the strength we draw from it, and God’s perpetual answers to it. A worshipping being in this sense is someone who is beginning to reshape and recalculate reality. They have begun to discover exactly who God is and why He is to be worshipped. They may even find that it is not because He is good, or big, or a giver of salvation; they may find that it is simply because He is God and even without His goodness, He is great. He has dominion and He has power and He is holy. He has created us and He has given us a longing to understand Him more fully.

When Jesus calls us to be children, He is reminding us that our needs are still very primitive and inborn. He is reminding us that “worship” is that thing we do from our very first breath and it is good for us to remember that worship is not formal, ritualistic, or hokey because it is simply a direction that we orient ourselves and from it, we proceed toward the holy or the profane. If we point ourselves toward the holy, we are acknowledging the deep and metaphysical quality of reality, its flexibility at the hand of God. If we point ourselves away from the holy, then we are closing ourselves off to the possibility of seeing the miracles of God and especially Christ’s resurrection. A child-like faith believes in the mystery and the inexplicability of God’s power. It worships God by focusing need-fulfillment on the one thing that fails to fail. And even while Christian worship can feel like focusing on a phantom it is only because Christian worship finally focuses oneself away from oneself and from an immediately tangible reality.

From my tradition’s standpoint, Scripture is a perfect revelation of God’s power and strength. In it, we find God’s great works that often resist scientific explanations. We also find stories that point to human insecurity, sin, and destruction. Such a great gulf between us and God’s goodness is evident in the stories of the Israelites and the later in the stories of new Christians in the Roman world. We also find God’s call to worship Him, to focus our minds on Him (Proverbs 3:8), to pray continually to Him, and to be worshipping beings in a new sense of the word, a Christian sense. Christ embodies it as a suffering servant and from his life, we draw the inspiration to live our own lives by a new and radical sense of worship that focuses on God and consequently, the suffering of those around us. Thankfully, as Christians, we find hope in this newfound worship because as worshipping beings who delight in Christ’s victory over death, we also delight in God’s active presence and know that God may transform our suffering if only we ask.

Envisioning the future Christians through Google Glasses

urlIn less than a year, Google may be poised to take us through one of the biggest technological jumps of the last several decades. We have become accustomed to this kind of leap. I read about the first ipod in the early 2000s (as well as its price tag) and scoffed at its potential. Then, several years later, I heard about something called the iPhone and began wondering when my small flip phone might actually connect to the growing thing we call the internet. Now, I set my horizons on the potential use and ubiquity of an exciting and expensive technology, Google Glasses without an ounce of scepticism and a level of excitement that I once restrained when technology of this sort seemed far-fetched or overstated.

Remember the first time your pastor walked on stage, donned his smartphone, and began reading scripture from the 3.5 inch screen? Our reactions vary from incredulous or nonplussed to excited and embracing. Some of us would rather worship amidst candles, couches, and oriental rugs where the buzz of a cellphone is as distant as our sin. Some others of us want to be able to text our pastors in the middle of the service with a question about his sermon or tweet his latest, greatest quotation. Still, some of us see the glow of his iPad and the beautifully rendered text of a bible app as the dawning of a new age for Christian community life. Regardless of your predilections, it is certain that Google Glasses will make their splash not only in everyday routine and business, but in our churches, bible studies, and spiritual journeys.

Perhaps you know very little about Google Glasses already. At least you know about Google and you may even know about some of their devices or platforms – for instance, Android phones use a software developed by Google. Glasses are a future iteration of mobile computing by Google that, for the moment, will connect to your current phone or use data from wi-fi within your vicinity. They are worn like regular glasses and place a small screen, in the shape of a clear cube, in the upper-right hand of your field of vision. The excitement generated by this technology during the last several years is due to the integration of Google Glasses with your everyday life — you will be able to interact with a computer while never losing touch with the reality before you.

Smartphones and Church

The future Christians will no doubt be a part of the community that uses technology like Google Glasses. The question is how this could hurt or help the life of the church. To begin, how have smartphones changed our lives? We have become dependent (in many ways) on the various forms of social living that cell phones provide: we update friends through Facebook statuses and pictures, we celebrate one another’s accomplishments via the web, we support one another in prayer through email, we text times for our next group meeting or a movie showing that everyone should attend. Smartphones make access to a social existence instantaneous and pervasive.

Smartphones also bombard us with information. For better or for worse, a smartphone is often a catalyst of distraction. At our fingertips, we have access to the infinite breadth of information on the web. We can research on a whim our friends’ lives, history, art, theology, sports, and anything you might think of. But we find ourselves looking down at our palms, typing on tiny keyboards, and ignoring the world around us.

When my pastor steps in front of the church with iPhone in hand, what I see is not the opening of informational worlds, but the symbol of my divided devotion to reality and virtual life. As he reads from scripture, I wonder what Facebook updates might be dropping from the top of his screen while he attempts to focus on God’s Word. Thankfully, we have learned to limit our technology in churches and in community life because we have reached a simple understanding with our smartphones: stay quiet for now  and maybe we can hang out later. It seems important that seasons like Lent also train our vision on a simpler life and we realize that smartphones are anything but simple! They divide our attention into discrete domains of social existence: virtual and real. But this problem can be overcome and even enhance the life of a church when we realize the proper place of technology in practice. Smartphones can be used to connect with others but do not belong between my physical person and the person next to me, otherwise, smartphones are barriers to healthy community life.

Google Glasses are…?

So what do we do when the technology that is useful for social connection becomes a part of our face and the eyes through which we see the world? How do we react when our pastor steps on stage wearing his prescription glasses and a funny-looking mini-computer attached to their frame? Imagine that he keeps looking toward the ceiling (and a little ot the right) as he reads scripture or searches his notes using this new technology. Or imagine that we walk into the foyer and while we talk to our spiritual mentor, we wonder whether he is actually listening to us or simply checking the weather and absent-mindedly nodding at our words. We must learn again to integrate technology while avoiding its pitfalls.

The good news is that Google Glasses will be a seamless part of our daily routine. The bad news is…that Google Glasses will be a seamless part of our daily routine. Scripture will be at your fingertips, just a voice-command away. Friends will call you and you will stream what you are seeing to their computer. The virtual lives of the people you love will be so close, it will be as if you truly know them! And when those very same friends shake your hand at church or in welcome you to small group, you will still have access to their online persona. This is all about connection!

But the connection comes at a price for those of us who fail to relegate technology to its proper place. The future Christians will battle a world that still fragments their lives into virtual and real existence but the line is becoming blurred. No longer will we be staring at our palms while reading headlines and checking messages, instead, we will see virtual reality being literally imposed on our visage. When augmented reality becomes actualized, the future Christians must wonder if this is really an augment to our existence or another barrier between ourselves and the beauty of real community.

It was once easy to put your cell phone on silent and bury it in your pocket or purse. What happens when I bolt a computer to a my eyeglasses? The world either becomes much larger or very small. I am no longer a sceptic about the innovations that technologies like Google Glasses afford but we are in uncharted waters and the ways that churches proceed to either embrace or avoid this kind of future technology says a lot about the community we wish to form.

 

 

Can we be Intelligent Evangelicals?

I just listened to a sermon by John Piper. I am occasionally struck by how John Piper’s composition is always precise, concise, and extremely academic, even at the pulpit.

He begins by laying out two different, seemingly dichotomous points of view on an issue. He describes the dangers of each and then asks us to stand somewhere in the middle, within a new understanding of how these two viewpoints do not have to be mutually exclusive. He’s using a classically philosophical method: thesis, antithesis, and finally, synthesis. And what I find most striking is that while some disparage the synthesis of two viewpoints as too totalizing, too black and white, too rigid, it is actually a wonderful sequitur for moving the conversation forward.

Yesterday, a classmate asked me what my role in Evangelical Christianity could be. Did I want to create something totally new and different, a new Evangelicalism? The short answer, no. That’s been done by churches within the emergent or emerging movement and to be frank, I’m not particularly enamored with how distant they seem from the heart of Evangelical Christianity. My answer to a friend was not that Evanglicalism needs a whole new system, it needs more people who wish to engage with culture and academia from within.

People like John Piper, even his style of sermon, shows me that there’s hope for Evangelicals to not see their own views as black and white, but move into conversation and dialectic with two poles in any controversy.

I aspire to be a Christian like Pastor Piper. We must always strive for the middle ground in the dialectic before we ossify our theological stances. If more of us are willing to be intelligently engaged in conversation with all facets of culture and scholarship, Evangelicalism will evolve instead of splintering.

Music in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

As I read Mike Spies’ article, Spotify and Its Discontents, I started thinking  about the countless debates I’ve had over how Spotify changes our perspective on music. Spies’ article also reminded me of an essay by Walter Benjamin who has something to say about the quality of art as it enters the reproducibility that technology enables. How does our experience of music change when we can walk into Starbucks and pick up the latest Taylor Swift album? How does it change when we can find not only John Mayer’s latest CD on Spotify, but also his entire library?

From the conversations I had with a friend, the way our brains interact with the endless libraries of songs in Spotify is a cheapening of the artistic process and in most cases, a lower quality experience with the music itself. Spies writes about wishing to purchase a CD but then deferring and eventually finding the artist’s CD on Spotify, as well as the artist’s entire corpus. Instead of creating a more meaningful relationship with artist, music, and physical product, he sits across from a computer screen whereby the keyboard and touchpad bring him seamlessly into the artist’s world. Good or bad?

I’m trying to describe an intricate process, crucial to forming a lasting, meaningful relationship with a piece of art. Because if I was going to buy a CD, back when I bought them, I had to eke out some time, and even pray for a little luck, as I could spend hours in a dimly lit store, and leave with nothing. So I had to make a conscious decision that I was going to take my chances. And once that was decided, there was still the journey to the shop, and the browsing, and, depending on the outcome, either the very long, or very giddy, return home. And even then, of course, there was still the possibility that the album would suck.

We seem to have created an environment in which wonderful music, newly discovered, is difficult to treasure. For treasures, as the fugitive salesman in the flea market was implying, are hard to come by—you have to work to find them.

Music is now about discovery. It’s about finding exactly what you like through 30-second previews on iTunes or youtube videos. We have personal music curators: blogs, reviews, and sites like Pandora. Songs are neither hit nor miss, instead, they are consistently within our scope of preference and fed to us through silicon tubes.

As a child, I saved money for weeks just to purchase CDs at the local Kmart. I did research, listened to the radio, and finally plunged into the artist’s world by taking a chance on more than just their hits – I wanted to get to know what tracks 4-11 sounded like. And when CDs disappointed at first, it collected dust, but often found me a few years later when I finally understood the artist’s vision. It was as if I grew with the music and it grew with me.

The quality of experience between the two models of finding music can be summed up in one word: investment. We are invested in the music at a certain level when we commit to adding it our collection which is then lugged around in our CD binders and stored in boxes. Spotify offers no commitment, no investment, just discovery and swift enjoyment. The second mode gives a challenging, overwhelming  and eclectic array of music where I can sift carefully through the flotsam and stream the good stuff into my daily life – but all to often, it feels like what it is, streaming.

This all reminds me of a wonderful essay by Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction makes a lot of interesting arguments and one in particular is that art loses its “aura” as technology increases the accessibility to the art form while distancing the viewer (or listener) from the original work [1. Benjamin, III]. Before the art work was immediately accessible to the viewer through reproduction, it was glorified as an object unto itself, almost an autonomous thing that emerged from the heroic imagination of the artist. An original has authenticity that a reproduction jeopardizes. Benjamin writes, “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element; its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” [2. Benjamin, II].

Thus, while investment in music creates in me a greater appreciation for it, it still doesn’t account for the ephemeral quality that music possesses as something raw, coming from the actual artist him or herself. CDs feel closer, simply because they are made of plastic, to the artists’ original imprint. But when has music been made most real to you and recaptured that “aura” that Benjamin talks about? In concert! We crave the real, authenticity of a work of art and in music, this happens in stadiums, bars, festivals, and places where we see the object of our enjoyment – because it is not the music we appreciate most, but the artist himself, the way her or she exists and creates for us! We want the original, authentic, aura-giving and essential part of our songs.

Spies wants to rally against the disposable nature of his music brought on by music’s abundance in Spotify. “The tyranny of selection is the opposite of freedom. And the more you click, the more you enhance the disposability of your endeavor”. But even less disposable then a CD is the actual artist; while I read Spies, I wonder how many times an article like his was written post-cassette, post-8-track, post-beta-tape, and post-phonograph.

What we work against in attempting to engage music is not Spotify, it’s the world of Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction where music is less real and less original. We are in an age of musical discovery but what about musical understanding, where we truly know the artist and the songs he or she makes?

What is time to God?

This question came up for me around seventh grade. A friend and I finally spoke out loud of the implications of God’s ability to see through or in time. We actually did more than talk about it, we fought about it and for a while, a strange gulf formed between us that seemed to be delineated by Arminian and Calvinistic frameworks.

Our seventh grade brains could not address the problem of eternity with much maturity, so we defaulted to philosophical positions of our parents and mentors.

This led me down a road that eventually culminated in a pretty serious existential crisis with the question being, does God know the future or does he choose to not know it? I mean, is it outside of His nature to know the future since we as humans must also have free will. In reality, this is a Calvinist argument bumping against an Open Theist argument. I have since grown to view these problems with more grace.

They helped me elucidate a wonderful truth about God. We hear that oft-quoted passage, Psalm 90:4 (but also found in 2 Peter 3:8-9) that 1,000 years is like a day to God. The significance is that God exists outside of something we perceive as human, chronological time. For a while, I had trouble wrapping my brain around this thought. In the end, I came to understand that God exists in a single point, outside of human time, as the summation of the universe -time included- and all actions. Whether he knows future time is perhaps a question out of scope.

What matters is that God exists in the all-at-once and we live in a constructed, human time. Of course, I’m not the first person to think this. Augustine thought it at one point. He writes, “In the sublimity of eternity which is always in the present, you are before all things past and transcend all things future, because they are still to come, and when they have come they are past” (Confesssions, Chapter XI).

Ruminate on that!