I had a good conversation with someone a couple weeks ago, talking about different Christian traditions, and it led me to notice some negative tendencies that different traditions lean towards. This pair of classic sins is Idolatry and Irreverence. I’ve always loved a good pun, (or at least, a pun) so let’s summarize this as follows:
Different Christian traditions gravitate toward one of these two problems: we either have an “Eye problem,” or an “I problem.”
Idolatry: the Catholic “Eye problem”
The Catholic tradition is very beautiful. Whether you are a fan of Catholicism or not (in any of its forms – Anglican, Roman, Eastern, Oriental…), you cannot deny that most of Western civilization’s greatest art, music, and architecture has been fostered by Catholic Christians. And when you walk into a church building you find yourself surrounded by beauty: icons, stained-glass, carefully-composed music, carvings, statues, ornate decorations, stately vestments, grand sweeping walls and roof structures… it’s overwhelming for most first-time visitors.
But beauty comes with its challenges: it can be treated as an end unto itself. If we’re going to a church because it looks prettier, the people dress better, the music is more solemn, and so forth, then we’re making beauty into an idol in place of God. When a well-executed and uninterrupted liturgy is more important than its contents, then the Gospel message may be in danger of being squashed under the weight of human performance.
The ancient Israelites experienced this very problem. They had a beautiful Temple in Jerusalem dedicated to YHWH, the God of all gods, which God himself said he’d be living in, and that over time became a source of confidence. They put faith in the Temple rather than in the God who makes the Temple holy. Jesus offered a harsh correction to these trends (in Matthew 23):
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
In short, the Temple and all its beauty was a good thing, but the people committed idolatry by focusing on it instead of God. The same challenge faces Catholic Christianity: beautiful worship and a solemn liturgy are good things, but focusing on those things above God is an act of idolatry. Beauty must be seen in the right way: as communications of God’s glory, not substitutes for it.
Irreverence: the Protestant “I problem”
Meanwhile, Protestant traditions have swung the other way. Many Protestant church buildings are sparsely decorated, painted a blank white, favor extremely simplified liturgies, and prefer contemporary music that reflects the present generation much more than the character and soul of the entire Church. The problem of idolizing beauty is solved. But a new one is raised in its place: irreverence.
One of the purposes of beauty, after all, is to reflect and communicate the glory of God in ways that we can understand and respond to. When we de-beautify, simplify, and truncate our worship spaces and practices, we unwittingly rob ourselves of the most powerful means we have for communicating God’s glory. Fear and awe in the presence of Creator of All, the King of the Universe, becomes a casual (and even sloppy) hang-out time with a domesticated Jesus who conveniently looks like our own ethnic and sociological group.
Granted, it’s a challenge for a Protestant to admit to irreverence, just as it’s a challenge for Catholics to recognize when a commitment to beauty spills over into idolatry. But both are serious problems. The warnings against idolatry are so numerous in the Bible that I don’t need to provide any quotes. Reverence, however, may be less familiar, so let’s take a look at Hebrews 12.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
Alongside this we could add the command in Ephesians 5:21 and Jesus’ example of reverence in Hebrews 5:7, but this says it best. Our worship of God is acceptable through reverence and awe, because God is a consuming fire. All those Old Testament regulations about how people were to worship God show us that God cares about that sort of thing! And although we are no longer bound to the methods and means spelled out in the Law of Moses, the call to reverence and awe is still fully applicable. Without that reverence for God, worship quickly devolves to being about ourselves and becomes a parody of itself, as some Protestants have already realized.
Cleansing the I and the Eye
As I’ve hopefully made clear through the course of this post, the solution to these problems is not to run from one extreme to another, but to rehabilitate what we’ve corrupted. We need to preserve (or restore) beautiful art and design in our worship places in order to portray the majesty of God. We need to make sure at least some of our music in worship is thoughtful and intricate and a little challenging, to remind us that we do not and can not worship God on our own strengths or according to our own whims. Similarly, with our liturgies, we can’t oversimplify a worship service to the point that we communicate a domesticated Jesus who’s just like us – the transcendence of God needs to be portrayed just as clearly as his immanence.
For God is both our King and our Friend. We are slaves of Christ and we are sons of the living God. We are sinners still wallowing in our iniquities, and we are saints redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb. So we do need to communicate both a “familiar” and an “unfamiliar” God when we gather for worship, and to do that we need to fix the “I” and the “Eye” so that we can reverence God humbly and lovingly, neither distracted by the physical means that we use, nor casually assuming God’s presence. For idolatry and irreverence both are sins, and we would do best to avoid both.