Worship in ‘the age of authenticity’

Philosopher Charles Taylor has called this period of Western secularism “the age of authenticity.” From his explanation in A Secular Age:

I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last 10 years it’s hard to argue with Taylor’s assessment. But we Christians are adept at dichotomizing the secular and the spiritual so that we attribute the authenticity quest to the godless while we saints float above it all. Of course, this is naive. We’re shaped by our culture more than we like to admit–even in the church.

In an early chapter of You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith depicts Christian worship as a formative process that is especially effective when encountered through a traditional liturgy. The problem, according to Smith, is that too many of our churches think of worship as an expressive endeavor:

…we also assume that worship is basically an expressive endeavor. This is why we now constrict “worship” to the song service of our gathering, the time in our service when we can express ourselves. . . When we think of worship in this way, then we also assume that the most important characteristic of our worship is that it should be sincere. If worship is expression of our devotion to God, then the last thing we want to be is a hypocrite: our expression needs to be honest, true, fresh, genuine, “authentic.”

We might protest that Smith paints with too broad a brush but his basic point rings true. The discomfort of having our foibles exposed becomes slightly unnerving when we also consider how neatly an expressive worship fits in with Taylor’s “age of authenticity.” One would be forgiven for connecting the dots and concluding that secularism has seeped into the church more than we like to think.

In one sense, Smith is suggesting that we do exactly what our culture tells us not to do–surrender to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside. But maybe what the culture sees as surrendering to conformity is actually submitting to the Creator’s design. As Smith explains:

If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you’re not showing you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?

Maybe real authenticity comes not by expression but by submission. Maybe surrendering to conformity isn’t always a bad thing (Rom 8:29).

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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