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by Sue A. Rozeboom

Divine Theater

God's weightiness in worship.

At first glance, Michael Horton's A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship may appear to be just another jeremiad. Having listened too much to the world, Horton charges, believers have come to script their lives and even their worship according to our culture's self-centered expectations. Citing Neal Gabler's Life the Movie, Horton suggests that contemporary entertainment has "conquered reality" by beguiling each of us to think of ourselves as the star of our own show. We take it that God is at our disposal. We assume that worship is the way to get God into our script, and perhaps into that of an unbeliever. No wonder, then, that some strains of worship have become increasingly subjective. No wonder that some have the ring of tv talk-shows. No wonder that some employ any gimmick in order to effect communion with God.

Yes, yes, the reader may mutter impatiently, I've heard this indictment before. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Horton's book as merely a rehash of familiar themes. These habits of contemporary worship, Horton suggests, are the expression of an "over-realized" eschatology. God's transcendence is preempted by God's immanence. Weary of waiting for the fulfillment of a promise, we try to force our future—our eschatological communion with God—on the present "by 'staging' our own spectacle."1 In this way, says Horton, we seem not to trust God's promise to get to us through the ordinary means of Scripture and sacrament. So we contrive extraordinary means, figuring we will get to God through them.

There are also those who hold to an "under-realized" eschatology, who despair of God's inclination and power to do anything about sin and misery, here and now, in this fallen world. Admittedly, says Horton, this is the more likely vice of "traditional" churches, whose worship may be theologically erudite and yet "indifferent to the reality that God has come among us in Jesus Christ and remains with us until the end of the age by his Spirit."

Liturgically, these two contrasting perspectives are equally regrettable. In both settings, God's glory is trivialized, God's "weightiness," as the Hebrew renders it, is put off. In both settings, historical-redemptive reality is diminished, its drama is missed. Worship's function and form are disintegrated, neither imparting the reality of salvation nor orienting us to our place within it. For these reasons, says Horton, Christian worship needs reform—the primary source of which must be Scripture.

If Christian worship is to be truly understood, says Horton, we must not turn merely to the Old Testament, nor to the New, but to the whole of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, from creation to consummation. The truth of salvation in Christ entails the reality of the creation, the fall, and the flood; the calling of one man and his wife from Chaldea; the exodus of a nation from one captivity and its exile into another; a virgin birth, a cross, and an empty tomb; Pentecost and parousia. The point of being a Christian, says Horton, "is not to find a place for God in our story but to receive the good news that God has found a place for us in his. There is a seat for us at the table of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," and it is God in Christ who has made room for us there.

While Christ is the story's central figure, "covenant" is its central feature. In ancient Near Eastern culture, covenants were "treaties," royal agreements binding mutual loyalty between a sovereign and that sovereign's peers or subjects. God, the Sovereign of sovereigns, made such agreements with, among others, Abraham and his descendants: I am your God, and you are my people. So gracious and solemn an agreement was not to be forgotten, so God regularly renewed the covenant with his people: at the foot of Mt. Sinai, on the plains of Moab, after the conquest of Canaan, and upon return from exile.

By his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, Christ transformed that covenant, fulfilling the promise that it would be for all nations. Furthermore, Christ transformed the signs and the seals of that covenant: just as the circumcision of infant boys and the sharing of the Passover meal are signs of God's covenant promises to Israel, so baptism and the Lord's Supper are signs and seals of God's covenant promises to us.

According to Horton, Christian worship fundamentally is covenant renewal. That is its function. Not unlike the covenant renewal ceremonies of the Old Testament, Christian worship is itself a ceremony in which the terms of the covenant are proclaimed and its promises are sealed. For this reason, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments figure prominently in Christian worship, as these are the ordinary means by which God effects the extraordinary work of establishing faith and sustaining it.

"Many evangelicals have a problem with sacraments precisely because they regard them chiefly as human works," Horton notes, "but Scripture presents them as God's testimony to his work." Sacraments are signs and seals of God's saving action for the sake of a community's salvation. They are God's means of getting past our ignorance, dullness, and weakness, says Calvin. "God's truth is of itself firm and sure," he writes, but "our faith is slight and feeble." So our merciful Lord, "according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that … he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements" of water, bread and wine.2 Just so, Horton says. Preaching "is not merely the minister's talk about God but God's talk, and not just any talk," but a radically miraculous talk that generates a new people, that constitutes a new community.

By understanding Christian worship as covenant renewal, we begin to see that Word and Sacrament work as a pair. They are God's accommodation to reach us in our belief—and in our unbelief. Which leads Horton to wonder, why do churches reinvent worship in order to accommodate God further? Why do they excuse the sacraments and sometimes even the proclamation of the Word?

His answer is at the heart of this book:

I am persuaded that one of the reasons why so many churches have gone to drama and other theatrical arts in worship is because the sermon and the larger liturgical setting have failed to provide the sense that something important and dramatic is happening here, now, as we gather before God. Divine and human action easily become "choreographed" by the culture when we do not sense that it is occurring at all.

Rather than reworking worship that is biblically ordained, the "better way," suggests Horton, would be to revitalize our understanding that "when God's people gather for worship, a drama is already set in motion." In worship, a dramatic dialogue ensues between God and God's people, and it comprises, in Horton's estimation, the biblically sanctioned "elements" of invocation and blessing, the reading of the law, confession and absolution, prayer, proclamation, and sacramental celebration, thanksgiving and offering. God summons us, and we, God's people, respond.

With repeated reference to worship that consists "in nothing more or less than [God] has commanded" and to the distinction between the "elements" and "circumstances" of our worship, Horton reveals the liturgical "school" in which he was trained, namely, one that espouses the Regulative Principle of Worship: whatever is not specifically prescribed by God in Scripture is thereby proscribed.

While Horton's book is clearly informed by this principle, his discussion is, shall we say, "evangelically ecumenical." After all, he recommends weekly communion, set prayers (which, as he so beautifully describes, may be like a trellis, teaching wandering hearts to weave their thoughts to God), new hymns and spiritual songs, and lectionary reading. Will he soon be recommending the liturgical year? Observed already in the early church, the liturgical year is itself a means of rehearsing the historical-redemptive narrative Horton himself so longs to recover.

Horton's rhetoric is forthright, strong, robustly Reformed. But his overall assessment is not condescending. Horton takes on common conceptions of worship in the church today, both "contemporary" and "traditional," and puts forth a challenging alternative, deeply rooted in the biblical narrative of redemption.

Sue A. Rozeboom is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame, and co-author with Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., of Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today (Eerdmans).

1. Presumably, Horton intends an allusion to Tex Sample, The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World: Electronic Culture and the Gathered People of God (Abingdon, 1998).

2. Institutes, 4.15.3

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