by Ed Dickerson
C.S. Lewis remarked that the French divide all soups into two categories: the thick and the clear. He carried that distinction over into religion. Religions which emphasize the mystical and emotional aspects are thick; those which focus primarily on reason and pietism are clear.
In these terms, the Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day was quite “thick.” Luther experienced this first hand, when he trembled at performing the Mass. The idea that the bread and the wine became the actual body and blood of Christ overwhelmed him. If it were true, it surely would be an electrifying experience—thick soup indeed. The sacramental nature of Catholicism appeals to the human appetite for the mystical and numinous—a God-given appetite to experience His power and presence in a personal way.
In addition, Abbot Suget had provided the intellectual justification for the lavish furnishings and decorations of the churches of his day, adding to an already “thick soup” of religious experience. Beauty in the church: beauty in the art and the architecture and the music would “lift the senses upward to the heavens.” But this reasonable desire for beauty became an end in itself—columns and floors of marble; stained glass windows; decorations with gold and precious stones—eventually practically every inch of wall and ceiling covered with tapestry or paintings. Just as too much thick soup eventually overloads the senses and clogs the arteries, all this decoration overloaded spiritual perception, and fostered a sensuous religion, a sensuous clergy, and a corrupt church.
The Reformation changed all that. Luther was a professor, a creature of the University, so he nailed 95 theses, or debating propositions, to the door of Wittenberg church, hoping to stimulate a serious discussion of issues facing the church in his day. Luther also famously compared Christians to a drunk riding a horse. First the drunk falls off the horse on one side, and then, in an attempt steady himself, leans the other way and so falls off the other side of the horse. No doubt this comparison arose because of what Luther observed at the beginning of what became the Reformation. Luther had written against images, and so, during the “Peasants Revolution,” followers began defacing anything and everything artistic in the church, destroying statues, ripping tapestries, and marring paintings. The gorgeous gilded sanctuaries of the middle ages gave way to the spare lecture hall style churches of Luther and Calvin.
Having started as a debate within the one catholic—that is, “universal”—church, the Reformation quickly devolved into multiple arguments about finer and finer points of doctrine among an ever-multiplying number of denominations. The numinous and mystical experiences of a sacramental Catholicism were scorned, leaving congregations with highly abstract discussions of doctrinal and theological interest—thin soup, indeed. The clear soup of cognitive religion is nourishing, but not fully satisfying. And it is no advance to replace the corruption of the sensuous church with the arrogance and self-righteousness of the intellectual church.
When it comes to our religious experience, we need both the thick and the clear. Experiencing the overwhelming power, majesty, and beauty of God is an antidote to the self-righteousness and self-sufficiency of the intellectual church. And a call to holiness based on an intellectual understanding of the Gospel serves as a curb on sensuality and corruption. We need both the thick and the clear. To change the metaphor, we need to stop falling off the horse, and regain a balanced position.
The charismatic movement arose, at least in part to feed the need for thick religious soup, for the mystical and numinous, for sensuous elements of worship, among Protestants whose religious soup had been too thin for too long.
Early Adventists had a “thicker” soup. After all, if a person suddenly goes into vision and ceases to breathe during a service, that rates pretty high on the “thickness” scale. Early Adventists went from a movement expecting the return of Christ at a date certain—a “thick” experience if there ever was one—to an environment in which competing visions, outbreaks of speaking in tongues, and other spiritual phenomena abounded. Even before that, Ellen Harmon had grown up as a “Shouting Methodist.”
Through the years Adventism has become highly cognitive and therefore very thin soup. This can be seen in both our appetite for and cynicism concerning new visions and other phenomena. In the NAC (Not an Adventist Center) areas, we have an uneasy truce with the arts. Visual art and music we allow, with varying restrictions. Even the mention of drama and dance will probably earn me another couple of web pages denouncing such “Satanic” influences.
At least part of the remedy is to make our soup thicker. We need to embrace all the arts, including the so-called lively arts. We need to integrate them into our services. We need to welcome change. The default in most of our churches is “No.”
The former pastor at one of our college churches told me of his six-month struggle to get the church board to approve removing one pew for one week so the college orchestra could participate in the church service. “You would have thought an angel from heaven came and instructed them to bolt the pew exactly there!” he said to me. That’s a church where the default is “No.” Unless we can find some direct authorization for something in scripture or Ellen White, the answer is “No.” There is one notable exception, where despite a direct command from God, we still say no (see Ps. 149, 150).
At our church plant, the default is “Yes.” Unless there is some obvious reason not to try something, then we let people experiment. Out of scores of new ideas, there is only one we rejected. And we have integrated the lively arts as much as budget, time, and personnel allow.
“But wait!” many will say. “That sounds very risky to me. Very dangerous.”
Dangerous? What most congregations are currently doing isn’t dangerous. Dangerous indicates an element of risk. What most congregations are currently doing isn’t risky, it’s suicidal. A recent study indicates that fully one fifth of our congregations have no infants, children or teenagers. None. We’ve been hemorrhaging energy, talent, and even money for decades. And it’s our own blood. Our own children, our own brothers and sisters, even our own grandchildren. How many generations must we lose before we recognize that not to embrace change, not to engage the whole person, not to satisfy every God-given appetite is deadly?
“Oh, but today’s young adults are spiritually weak,” many say to me. “They yield to temptation.” Of course they do. Again, from C.S. Lewis, “The tempter always works on some real weakness in our system of values: offers food to some need we have starved.”
If we starve our young, we can hardly condemn them for finding food elsewhere. And evidence abounds that our young are starving. While we fantasize about evangelizing the world, we cannot spiritually feed the children we have. Perhaps we need to remember that the final message really is about “Turning the hearts of the fathers to the children.”