Carl Trueman, the Psalms, and Keepin' It Real
Eds. note: Two weeks ago, Joey Phillips delivered a sermon from our Summer in the Psalms series entitled "Break the Arms of the Wicked." The entire thing is worth a listen (if you don't mind shedding a tear or two). In it, he used an excellent and pithy quote by Dr. Carl Trueman. Here, he adds some explanation and context for that quote and another that he didn't use in the sermon in explaining why our worship services and the songs we sing should not fall into the trap of making our worship services suitable only for a comfortable, middle-class congregant.
The Psalms run the gamut of human experience and emotion, and give us a language of worship through it all. That is the beauty of the Psalms. If we neglect the Psalms in our songs of praise to God, we run the risk of missing the health that comes with worshiping through the variety of experiences that the Psalms delve into deeply.
As a church, you shouldn’t want your worship leaders to be happy go lucky all the time, or constantly depressed. Our church services shouldn’t be designed only for happy people, or only for sad people. Carl Trueman, in his typically clever way, talks about this in an essay called “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” He says this:
“In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?
I did once suggest at a church meeting that the psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do — and was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism. On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship — and thus from our horizons of expectation — which has in a large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies.
By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity, and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent. In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical — and yet I posed the question in all seriousness. Is it any wonder that evangelicalism, from the Reformed to the Charismatic, is almost entirely a comfortable, middle-class phenomenon?”
The Psalms are very real. That realness is what allows them to pierce through our own desperation and infuse us with faith. As Trueman points out, the typical reason for avoiding songs that miserable Christians can sing centers on the idea that we want to make the Gospel attractive. We wouldn’t want people to come into our church and think ‘well, these are a bunch of depressed people.’ There aren’t too many mega-churches where the pastor is telling folks to live their worst life now.
Trueman addresses that concern partially in the essay I quote above, but he also makes a similar, but different point in another article. The avoidance of sadness in our meetings reflects a desire to entertain, rather than to be real. Trueman says that not only are we confusing our priorities, and missing out on ministering to most actual humans in this fallen world by pretending everything is awesome, but we also misunderstand what is actually entertaining.
“The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world, Catholic and Protestant alike, is not that it is too entertaining but that it is not entertaining enough. Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that “in the midst of life we are in death.”
It neglects tragedy. Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken. Even the cry “Jesus is Lord!” assumes an understanding of lordship very different than Caesar’s. Christ’s lordship is established by his sacrifice upon the cross, Caesar’s by power.
Perhaps some might recoil at characterizing tragedy as entertainment, but tragedy has been a vital part of the artistic endeavors of the West since Homer told of Achilles, smarting from the death of his beloved Patroclus, reluctantly returning to the battlefields of Troy. Human beings have always been drawn to tales of the tragic, as to those of the comic, when they have sought to be lifted out of the predictable routines of their daily lives—in other words, to be entertained.
Christian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator, and it should thereby sharpen our longing for the only answer to the one great challenge we must all face sooner or later. Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection… Pascal observed the problem in seventeenth-century France when he saw the obsession with entertainment as the offspring of the fallen human desire to be distracted from any thought of mortality. “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room,” he said. And: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”
Today the problem is even greater: Entertainment has apparently become many people’s primary purpose of existence. I doubt that it would surprise Pascal that the world has increased the size, scope, and comprehensiveness of distraction. It would not puzzle him that death has been reduced to little more than a comic-book cartoon in countless action movies or into a mere momentary setback in soap operas and sitcoms. Indeed, he would not find it perplexing that the bleak spiritual violence of mortality leaves no lasting mark on the bereaved in the surreal yet seductive world of popular entertainment.
But he might well be taken aback that the churches have so enthusiastically endorsed this project of distraction and diversion. This is what much of modern worship amounts to: distraction and diversion. Praise bands and songs of triumph seem designed in form and content to distract worshipers from life’s more difficult realities… Perhaps it is ironic, but the church that confronts people with the reality of the shortness of life lived under the shadow of death prepares them for resurrection better than the church that goes straight to resurrection triumphalism without that awkward mortality bit.
Bonhoeffer once asked, “Why did it come about that the cinema really is often more interesting, more exciting, more human and gripping than the church?” Why, indeed. Maybe the situation is even worse than I have described; perhaps the churches are even more trivial than the entertainment industry. After all, in popular entertainment one does occasionally find the tragic clearly articulated, as in the movies of a Coppola or a Scorsese.
A church with a less realistic view of life than one can find in a movie theater? For some, that might be an amusing, even entertaining, thought; for me, it is a tragedy.”
More in Redeemer Blog
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October 30, 2019When are the Glory Days: Lessons Learned from Heartland Part Two
October 29, 2019When are the Glory Days? Lessons Learned from Heartland, Part One