In a 1996 report by the Organization of African Instituted Churches, based in Kenya, it says, “We may not all be articulate in written theology, but we express faith in our liturgy, worship, and structures.”
O, how many books and research and opinion pieces have documented the dumbing down of American culture? Few can now really handle rich or difficult literature. Our children are barely literate and being fluent in online chatroom jargon doesn’t exactly make up for the loss elsewhere. Stupid American’s make for stupid American Christians too. We’re doomed! No. We are only doomed if being a man or women of letters is some sort of prerequisite to receiving the gospel properly and living faithfully for Jesus Christ. (Hint: It’s not.)
We may have fallen from our rigorous classical roots, but consider Africa. They had nowhere to fall from. For many regions, their language has only even existed in written form for little more than a century. Some fantastic scholars and thinkers have risen from this field, but they are anomalies. The bulk of the people are still much less readers today than the dull American turning a paperback thriller that you sat next to on the subway today. The Africans are bringing their linguistic articulation game up even as we have let ours slip. But they’ve got a long way to go, and so do we. So what can be done about this? What can help our increasingly illiterate culture to receive a healthy helping of orthodox theology and knowledge of God?
The answer is via liturgy, not written words. We need better prayers, better songs, better worship forms, and better art. These don’t to need to assume giant vocabularies to be of value. They don’t necessitate a pound of abstract philosophical discourse powers. These things meet people where they are – be they smart and well educated or not so much.
Don’t write another 400-page book explaining the Trinity. (OK, do that maybe), but how about you write a better song about the Trinity? How about you recite a short creed or prayer EVERY DAY about it. Don’t depend so much on the “icon” of the written word. Consider other truthful icons – things you see through to see Christ more fully.
(This picture is of the icon of the Trinity painted or “written” by Anton Rublev in 1411. You are invited to sit down at the table.)
So we have lots of lousy worship music today. So what? Make it better! Just figure out how to do it without lots of big words. Go hit the psalms again – even the ones that don’t sound so happy. They are simple, but powerful.
When we gather to worship, we always follow some sort of pattern. Make this a healthy pattern. Don’t let it be dominated by one guy, be he a preacher or guitar player, or whatever. Diversify. Have more scripture reading. Have more singing together. Express you love for God together in the ways the church as done throughout the centuries – eating the bread of his body and drinking the wine of this blood together – the more the better. People aren’t going to get this by reading a book anymore or listening to a debate. Give them Jesus a better way.
Start a school and teach people to read well again, by all means! But don’t demand they all do this just so you can FINALLY feed them the meat of systematic theology and bring things back to snuff. Reform liturgy – our daily patterns. This is the future for much of the church of the west. We may yet become more like our brothers and sisters in Africa, not less.
All of this is a prelude to saying that I most enthusiastically support the “master plan” of biblical studies, ecumenicism, and liturgical reform that the Trinity House Institute is setting out to accomplish. Peter Leithart recently articulated their dreams and visions here. Three cheers.