Friday, April 25, 2008

Praise & Worship = Sacrament??

In the most recent issue of the journal Worship, Sarah Koenig makes a case for the sacramentality of Praise & Worship (for Evangelicals) by comparing it to the Eucharist (and, in some places, saying that it meets the same functions as Eucharist for the Evangelicals). This week we had a roundtable discussion at Fuller about this issue, spurred by her article but broadening into our own take as a largely Evangelical group at a decidedly Evangelical institution. I was asked to present a response to her article, and I shall post it here for your general amusement. It would be very helpful for you to read the original article first, if you're really interested in the whole picture, because I reference it frequently and I don't completely explain what I'm referencing (iow I assume the article has been read). But even if you can't get ahold of a copy, it should make some sense.

I was quite surprised that, instead of being tarred and feathered, me & my conservative sacramental self were pretty much agreed with. I think I have a much more "high" and mystical view of the sacraments - certainly a more instrumental belief in what they do - than most of my Fuller colleagues, and yet the feedback I received was mostly positive. That was really great. I must have made some sense. J helped me a lot in clarifying my thoughts, and it was in discussions with him that we came up with the real clincher in my response (something Koenig doesn't use, though it would serve her argument well), which was arguing for the physicality of music. I think a very interesting paper or book could be written about some of these germs of ideas on that topic. I love especially the universal interreligious aspect of music. There's much to be done there...but I can only write one dissertation. :)

Anyway, here is the response. Wish I could do more with it than just publish it here, but I'm not sure what forum would be appropriate. So you just get to enjoy it and if you like it you can tell other people to check it out too. Peace.

Response to Sarah Koenig’s essay “This is My Daily Bread: Toward a Sacramental Theology of Evangelical Praise and Worship”

Sarah Koenig attempts to draw a parallel between the sacrament of Eucharist and the practice of Praise and Worship singing in Evangelical churches. According to Koenig, because these two activities share the common themes of encounter, invocation, anamnesis, thanksgiving, locality and universality, and charity, Praise and Worship may be understood to be “functioning as a kind of Eucharist” (160). Koenig is careful to say that she does not believe the Eucharist can be replaced by Praise and Worship, but at the same time she advocates for expanding existing sacramental theology to include Praise and Worship as an acceptable sacrament in its own right.

I would like to look briefly at two of the six categories in which Koenig draws comparison between Praise and Worship and Eucharist, evaluating whether in fact she is successful in equating the two experiences. I am specifically interested in her focus on encounter with God and on anamnesis as commonalities between the two which, she believes, makes them both sacramental. Then I will evaluate her conclusion that the “congregational activity of Song …performs a sacramental function as it connects participants with divine grace” (158); this, in her view, makes the theology of Praise and Worship a justifiable sacramental theology.

In comparing the encounter between God and congregation in Eucharist and Praise and Worship, Koenig rightly notes that the Eucharist offers God’s presence through “tangible substances that may be eaten and drunk,” and proceeds to argue that Praise and Worship describes encounter in “highly tangible terms, describing seeing, touching, and even tasting the Divine” (149). She seems to equate the actual physical, sensual encounter of taste, touch, sight, and smell that is part of Eucharist, with the description of physical encounter in the lyrics of Praise and Worship songs. But how can mere words stand in for actual senses? One is the real encounter with real objects that are literally ingested and become part of our bodies; the other is an encounter facilitated through the imagination and emotions, what amounts to a mental assent to a description of an action. As Koenig says, “this partaking takes place through the memory of a meal, the verbal imagery of a meal, a meal of poetry and song” (150, italics added). I would argue that there is an immediate, “bio-mystical” aspect to the Eucharist that cannot be duplicated by memory, verbal imagery, and poetry alone. There is an integral physicality to the Eucharist; talking about symbols of water and food and cognitively understanding what they symbolize is not the same thing as physically embodying and experiencing them. This is an ongoing problem with the entire evangelical (i.e, Zwinglian) “memorialization” approach to Eucharist, one that does not allow for a “Real Presence” (whether understood in terms of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anglican, or Wesleyan theology) in the physical elements of bread and wine being imparted to the believer through the physical act of eating and drinking, but rather keeps the entire practice on a mental level.

Now song can certainly be understood as embodied and physical because it involves movement, utilizing the voice, and sound waves that affect the air around and inside the hearer and singer,[1] but this is not Koenig’s argument (though I find it more convincing, and may write a paper of my own about it!). Koenig merely argues from the song’s lyrics, and here she misses the possibility of physical encounter which could be facilitated by music. I would accept the notion that music is able to fulfill physical encounter via the sense of hearing and the motion of invisible sound waves, and the way that the body responds to emotional changes with biological manifestations. Perhaps if Eucharist is hearkening to the basic human needs of food and drink, and Baptism recalls the basic human need of water, then music could speak to the human need to breathe. But Koenig makes none of these arguments, and now I am just doing her work for her. It is a fundamental error when, in trying to prove that music is embodied, she relies on the texts of the songs, thereby making her argument rational and not physical, cutting off its connection to the very physical nature of Eucharist.

Another element held in common by Eucharist and Praise and Worship is anamnesis, the “meeting point between past, present, and future” (152). Koenig again correctly points out that Eucharist richly illustrates the concept of anamnesis by facilitating participation “in the cosmic, timeless, salvific event” of Jesus’ death and resurrection, its purpose and significance in the congregation’s life here and now, and the recollection of the future eschatological banquet which is both called to mind and visibly enacted through the sacrament (our Orthodox friends would say that the sacrament actually brings heaven to earth, opening a window through time and space to the heavenly realm).

Koenig then states that Praise and Worship functions with the same anamnetic purpose as Eucharist. She notes its emphasis on revisiting the paschal event, which “becomes current again as its effects spill over into the present” (152). However, she goes on to point out that personal story takes precedence in this remembering, as for Evangelicals the paschal event is made “legible and effective” by their “individual salvific moment” (152, italics added). Essentially she claims that Praise and Worship validates Christ’s death and resurrection through the personal experience of each individual: “Worshipers recall the crucifixion through the lens of their own personal salvation, and anamnesis of the cosmic salvific event becomes subjectified…” (152). Even if we accept the Evangelical theology of the necessary subjectification of “the cosmic salvific event” (i.e., in order to be saved, we need to appropriate God’s work for ourselves through an act of will), the problem remains that the dialectical flow is backwards. The important thing is not that worshipers interpret the cosmos “through the lens of their own personal salvation” – the goal is to interpret our own lives through the lens of the cosmic event. In other words, we must learn to interpret our own stories in light of God’s story and not the other way around.[2] How can Praise and Worship, with its focus on an individualized interpretation of salvation, substitute for a sacrament like the Eucharist, which privileges God’s story over the human? Aren’t these diametrically opposed types of anamnesis, and if so, which is the truly sacramental one?

Koenig does go on to claim that evangelicals are not exclusively engaged in individual anamnesis, but their songs also proclaim “Jesus’ significance for their community” (152). She argues that “song serves as the bread and the wine, as the familiar communal activity that assumes layer after layer of meaning as it is repeated over weeks and years” (152). But here again her view of anamnesis is shallow: she is still privileging the story of a small group of Christians – a particular church body – over the cosmic story of God’s work in the world and particularly the Church over the last 2,000 years. One cannot simply participate in the layers of meaning of a localized body (which is the focus of most independent Evangelical churches) and claim to be having the same level of anamnetic experience as one who participates in an apostolic church connected to a worldwide body, using a sacrament that stretches back to Jesus himself and has remained, if not identically practiced, certainly recognizable with the same basic purpose and elements throughout time and across space.

This brings us to what I believe is the fatal flaw in Koenig’s argument for Praise and Worship as a sacrament: although it may fulfill many of the same functions as Eucharist for the participants, it has not stood the tests of time, apostolic confirmation, or worldwide practice that are found in the more traditionally and universally accepted sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist (and we might add confession, anointing the sick, ordination, marriage, and confirmation, which have also been practiced from the beginning of the Church and across the world). As the Church matured, these sacraments remained as varied but steady practices, while music went in and out of favor and fashion. Moreover, music has always been widely variable based on cultural and historical factors. I would daresay that the music utilized in churches in the third, eighth, and fifteenth century bears so little resemblance to current Praise and Worship as to arguably not even be the same animal. Praise and Worship as a specific, recognizable, and consistent genre has only been in existence about 40 years, give or take; it simply has no apostolic succession.

Again, we might make a reasonable case for music itself as a sacrament that has stood the tests of scripture, time, culture, and worldwide practice, but Koenig does not make this argument. Rather she is claiming sacramentality for a particular style of music. But again, I have not set out in this response to rewrite her essay into a stronger case, although that could certainly be accomplished.

Koenig specifically claims that it is the similarities between Eucharist and Praise and Worship that confirm the latter as a sacrament. In doing so, she implicitly states that anything that serves the same purposes of a recognized sacrament must itself be sacramental. If it looks like a duck and acts like a duck, then it must be a duck. Yet she never actually defines “sacramental function” on its own terms, simply equating it instead with “eucharistic encounter with the transforming grace of God” (158).

By this, she seems to say that anything that facilitates God’s presence – meeting Augustine’s definition of “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” – must be a sacrament. In accepting such a broad definition, we may also have to include such practices as the meditative creation of art, chanting the syllable “Om,”[3] or taking a nature walk. Are we ready to define these in the same category as the Eucharist and Baptism? We have to evaluate whether we believe that God’s presence in a physical object or action is the sole or even major criterion of a sacrament. Perhaps it is a way towards defining sacramentality or a sacramental, but I am not ready to go with Koenig’s vocabulary of “sacrament” for activities that lack the historical and universal heft of the canonical sacraments.

The fact is that the Church has almost always set strong boundaries around the definition of sacrament. How much do we trust the institution of Christ, the acts of the apostles, and the traditions of the Church to set fences around what we may accept as sacramental? And if we have no problem with such a broad definition of sacrament, we must ask ourselves how much we actually understand and value the sacraments themselves. What is their purpose in our worship and theology? Often I witness that the unwillingness to be specific and cautious about labeling something a “sacrament” belies a lower regard – or a complete disregard – for the meaning and function of sacraments in the Church. I for one continue to believe in the efficacy of sacraments, including their instrumental function in imparting God’s grace and actually making changes in reality. For this reason, I cannot define new sacraments by whether they function like traditional sacraments, or even whether they meet a list of criteria that facilitate encounter with God. I require a stronger connection to the universal Church across the ages, and this is simply not the case for Praise and Worship music.

[1] I owe these ideas about the embodiment inherent in music to John McAteer.
[2] Thanks to John McAteer for helping me clarify my thoughts on this point.
[3] “Om” is a good example of why music could be a sacrament – it is a way of embodying a connection to the mystical ultimate reality through breath and the physical vibrations of sound waves.


Bob Carltom said...

let me first say that i appreciate the work you put into this, as well as the generosity of your tone.

i gotta say that i am struck by my own reaction to this. i understand sacraments as an outward sign, instituted by Christ, that conveys an inward, spiritual grace through Christ.

the way in which styles or rituals are sanctioned as "official" seems to strike at the heart of who gets to decide & whose sacraments are they

i have been in the assembled body for sanctioned sacraments and for Praise and Worship - all can be transcendent, an outbreak of grace & transformation. asking people whose cultural experience is very different to evaluate whether something counts or not just seems like intentionaly exclusionary

i am struck by your reference to:

the tests of time, apostolic confirmation, or worldwide practice

having lived in 'gellie world & liturgical world, I am pained by how this is far too often a hurdle, a club - rather than a welcome. in 'gellie worlds, we see this with GLBT & authority - in liturgical worlds, we see this in rubrics & wo can feed and eat. my own POV is that both us/them binaries stem from the same root - that, in some ways, al moehler & louis weil are singing from the same hymnal when they define who counts as official & who does not

Bob Carltom said...

one thing that has really stuck with me today as i have reflected on your post

how does this criteria impact the sacrament of ordination ?