08 May 2010

Give Me That Old Time Religion

There is a song I remember from when I was a child. It was called “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” and the chorus was very simple:

Give me that old-time religion,

Give me that old-time religion,

Give me that old-time religion,

It's good enough for me.

Other verses would follow, listing other people for whom that “old time religion” was also good enough. There is another version, by Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, which references various ancient religions, which we did not sing in church. It is quite funny, but its content is outside the purpose of this discussion.

Getting back to the original song, this gospel tune, dating back to the late 1800’s, tends to make me think of old camp meetings and Sunday morning services in country chapels. It makes me think of ministers preaching the Gospel in a straightforward, uncompromising way. It makes me think of the great hymns of the faith, sung with gusto by the entire congregation, all without the benefit of drumsets or electric guitars. It makes me think of a more pure, simpler time, a time that had already largely passed before I came on the scene.

It is a time I miss, as I stand in church in my jeans, the pop/rock strains of the latest contemporary music filling the room. I miss the old days of singing “Amazing Grace,” “Revive Us Again,” or “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” I miss the days when church on Sunday was a little less like the rest of my week, the days when it was something special and sacred.

I hesitate to bring all this up, because sometimes I feel like an old man, yelling at the neighborhood kids for walking on his lawn. Musical styles change, people will say. We have to appeal to the new generation, people will say. Dressing up for church scares away the poor, people will say. I appreciate these arguments, and I am sure there is something to them. However, I cannot help but feel that there is more at work here than simply a change of style. It seems to me that what we are experiencing is a loss of our sense of the sacred.

It was a Saturday in 2006, and I was stepping cautiously into the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia. Unless one counts a few masses in Iraq held in the shared chapel, I had never before set foot in a Catholic church. It was the most beautiful church I had ever seen. As I walked in, I was faced with the holy water font, a reminder of my baptism. The walls were covered with paintings and stained glass windows, showing stories from the Bible and from the lives of the saints. All along the sides of the church were the stations of the cross. In front was the altar, an object that held far more meaning in this Catholic house of worship than in any Protestant church I had previously attended.

Soon after my Saturday visit, I attended mass. I sat with a kind married couple, whose Bible Study I had participated in earlier that morning. I saw people walk in, drop to one knee beside their pew and, facing the alter, cross themselves in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We knelt to pray, we said the Creed, we prayed the Our Father, we sang hymns (to include one in Latin!). I watched the procession, as the priest walked down the center aisle, holding the Sacred Scripture over his head. We heard more scriptural readings than I had ever heard in one service before. We stood, out of respect, during the reading of the Gospel.

Though I, as a non-Catholic, did not receive Holy Communion, I felt that I had truly participated in the reverent, holy worship of God. This was not a show put on for my benefit. There was no rock band on a stage, there was no multimedia display. And when the priest elevated the Host and said, “This is my body,” I felt that I truly was in the presence of Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity.

It was much the same at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church, also in Savannah. I walked in alone, not knowing what to expect. Here I found the same reverence as at St. John’s. The people lit candles, kissed icons, and made more signs of the cross than I had ever seen in my life. Incense filled the air, the choir sang (again, without a rock band) in Greek and English, following a liturgy whose age is comparable to the settled canon of the New Testament. When it came time for the Eucharist (communion), even infants in their mothers’ arms were brought forward to receive.

Having experienced the reverent, sacred liturgies of both East and West, it has proved difficult to find the same level of worship in modern Evangelical Protestantism. The statues and icons of Christ and the saints have been torn down, the stained glass windows have been smashed, and the sacraments have been reduced to mere symbols. Even the great hymns of Protestantism have begun to disappear. As Dr. Thomas Howard, the brilliant author of Evangelical Is Not Enough once said:

Evangelicalism has changed drastically, having bought almost completely into a jazzy, breathlessly contemporary ambience, registered most obviously in their hymnody, which is now limited to ‘praise songs,’ in the place of the immensely rich, 500-year-old treasury of hymns which were Protestantism's greatest glory.”

This sort of talk likely offends many people, which I understand. Modern evangelicals are proud of their churches and believe that they are true places of worship. I do not doubt that this is the intent, nor do I doubt the sincerity of the worshippers. To me, it is ludicrous to suggest that God requires a beautiful liturgy and beautiful churches. Humans, however, are creatures who are drawn to beauty and who are inspired by beauty. Keeping that in mind, is it really a good idea to strip away any sense of beauty, reverence and ceremony from our services?

I think this is a question worth pondering, and even the Catholic and Orthodox churches should consider it. The Catholic Church, in particular, has gone through a ruinous 40+ year affair with iconoclasm, from which it is only now beginning to recover. It remains to be seen how the Orthodox Church, still a bit of an outsider in the West, will deal with the pressures of the modern world.

Much of this is about preference, I realize, and I know there are other issues at work. Doctrinal disputes are important, of course, which is partly why, along with love for my current church family, I am not yet a Catholic or Orthodox Christian. Still, I cannot help but long for the ringing of the bells, the smell of the rising incense, the reverence of traditional liturgy, and the physical act of worship in the sacraments. There is also something wondrous about the idea that Christ is present in the Eucharist, that the waters of baptism truly wash away sins, and that a man and woman are truly united in marriage.

Those are just some of my thoughts. I welcome comments.

God bless!


Joe Heschmeyer said...

That was beautiful!

Tiber Jumper said...

here's my new "Old Time Religion"