Sunday, July 20, 2008

Of Style and Dogma, Carts and Horses

In Mark 7:1-23 we gain some subtle insight into the relationship between outward religious rituals (lex orandi) and the beliefs of those who practice them (lex credendi). After highlighting the extrabiblical nature of the Pharisees' demand that people scupulously wash themselves before eating bread (vv. 6-13), Jesus then gets to the heart of the matter:

And he called the people to him again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him" (vv. 14-16).
Why the abstract lesson on sin? Wasn't the issue supposed to be the amount of hygiene necessary to eat a sandwich?

Well if, as I have been arguing, a church's worship shapes its member's beliefs every bit as profoundly as its beliefs shape its worship, then Jesus' excursus on indwelling sin may not be as random as it initially appears.

You see, what certainly seems like a harmless religious ritual (ceremonially washing one's hands before eating) had clearly led to a deficient view of sin. In other words, the Pharisees' lex orandi (law of worship) had adversely affected their lex credendi (law of belief). Because they had for so many years been seeking to lessen their defilement by scrubbing their hands every few minutes, they had begun to think of defilement as primarily outward and circumstantial rather than inward and substantial.

Here's how this works in the church today: A church's leaders begin with the question, "What style of music should we have?" They decide that in order to reach the youth, they had better scrap the piano in favor of an acoustic guitar. They quickly realize that certain songs aren't easy to play on a guitar ("A Mighty Fortress"), while others are ("As the Deer"). Before long, the church's worship style (mellow acoustic music) defines its content (songs with a mellow acoustic feel). And then lo! and behold!, a movement is spawned that sees Jesus as that friendly guy at Woodstock with some real groovy spiritual insight.

But then, the Emergent Church has rescued us from the Jesus Movement, and I, for one, am thankful that none of these concerns can be applied to them....