N.T. Wright’s comments on Christian worship, and a subtler implication


“If you have the right beliefs, then approaches, methods, and manners do not matter.” Innumerable American Protestants seem to take this point of view as axiomatic.

At first blush, the following defense of liturgical worship, a gentle defense from N.T. Wright, seems to fit perfectly with the axiom at hand: “If you have the right beliefs, then approaches, methods, and manners do not matter.”

In Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Wright says, “Sometimes formal liturgy enables those who attend it to relax into the love of God in a way which the frenetic informal style, so popular in some quarters, never does. Beware of worship which simply reinforces the wrong kind of behavior patterns” (64).

Consider, however, Wright’s use of the word “frenetic.” It’s more subtle than perhaps even he realized.

According to Merriam-Webster’s definition, the origin of “frenetic” situates the word as a description of undesirable mental states.

The dictionary’s website says, “Middle English frenetik insane, from Anglo-French, from Latin phreneticus, modification of Greek phrenitikos, from phrenitis inflammation of the brain, from phren-, phrēn diaphragm, mind”.

More raw emotion, less organization, more spontaneity, less theological intention — these worship services become frenetic, or insane.

The internal experience of the worship service — we might say, the mindlessness of the worship service — becomes more important than the mind’s and body’s interaction with the worship service. The experience of the soul’s elevation to new heights diminishes the human body.

And yet when Jesus heard Lazarus had died, he wept. And Jesus did not say, “Rejoice! Lazarus has been freed from this earthly prison!” Rather, Jesus resurrected Lazarus, calling forth “Lazarus,” his entire being as one.

And furthermore, consider that the early church rejected as heretical the belief that Christ only appeared to have a bodythus affirming the physicality of the human frame.

Also consider The Fall, however mythological (in the best sense) the Genesis account is, involved humans as unified selves that did not become flesh-and-bone, did not tumble down into bodies, after sinning.

Liturgical worshippers want to have their bodies and senses engaged in worship because that’s how God made them. I’ve rarely heard a sermon about God’s created beings doing normal, creaturely things — as if created beings, doing creaturely things, by design of their Creator, cannot involve serious theology!

So I’m putting all this emphasis on embodiment and the created order and the Incarnation as an point of reference in all this. (Much Christian talk about the soul depends, after all, on shaky grounds.) Sure, you can reply with various proof texts. And I can reply with the promise of resurrected bodies. And you can throw angles on my comment. And so on.

I can bring up recent insights into the human brain and add speculation about the connection of the “mind” or the “soul” to the body. And you can throw doubt on science and certain philosophical commitments.

At least consider, as a possible movement toward a middle ground, C.S. Lewis’s defense of ritual — ritual is certainly a form of embodying beliefs through habits, repetition, and re-enforcement.

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