A Better Way (Horton)

Horton, Michael.  A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002.

The main problem with the so-called worship wars is that both sides at best are ignorant of what they are doing; more likely, they are idolatrous.  Traditional worship can be just as man-made as praise bands.  Contemporary worship, while often ditzy and shallow, will often sing primarily the psalms (or refrains of them).  This technically gives them the moniker of “more biblical.”  But is there more to worship?  Does the way we worship tell what we believe about God?  Anchoring his discussion in the logic of Romans 10, Michael Horton cogently argues that the method and the message are correlative.

In such a book it would be easy to attack modern contemporary music nonsense.  There is certainly a place for that.  Here is the problem: on Horton’s reading of Romans 10, many traditional services and sermons are just as guilty.  When you hear a sermon, is it a lecture or an announcement from a herald?  What does it come across as?  Even worse, given American pragmatism, one should always ask the question, “Did Jesus need to die in order for this sermon to be true?”

Romans 10, echoing Deuteronomy, says we do not need to ask who will go up to heaven to bring Christ down, nor down to the abyss to bring him up.  In other words, we do not need to ascend some mystical ladder of being or descend within ourselves in introspection.  Christ, rather, takes the initiative to meet us. God is the primary actor in worship.

The logic of preaching reflects the logic of grace.  As grace is a passive response on our part (receiving and resting), so is preaching.  Our ear, not our eye, is primary.  We receive the message as we receive grace.

Drama is the key word in this book.  By drama Horton does not mean doing plays in worship.  Drama is the story of redemption. Our worship style reflects God’s sovereignty in the story of redemption.  

Is worship a covenant renewal ceremony?  Horton wrote this book before the “Federal Vision” wars.  For him “covenant renewal” means something different than is used by CREC churches. Drawing rather upon historical sources than liturgical imagination, Horton reminds us that a covenant involves at least three things: a historical prologue, a list of commands, and a list of sanctions (Horton 20).  Our worship involves more than this, but this is the theological or dramatic foundation.

In a covenant renewal ceremony “God summons us and acts in word and deed for our good” (29).

A Dramatic Script

The logic of grace is God’s script. As noted above, “the ears are organs of reception, not attainment” (39). Therefore, we need a mode of delivery that matches the message of salvation.”

Casting New Characters

The (post)modern self (not soul) is fluid. It struggles to find a lasting identity as it competes with various narratives. One of the chief means of “constructing self-identity is chiefly community-shaping stories” (52). The herald who announces God’s kingdom reminds the hearer that he is no longer anchored in the flux of marketing. As Horton so wonderfully puts it, “In Adam, ‘change’ means endless choice made in random freedom. In Christ, ‘change’ means growth in Christ as we are transformed through perpetual immersion in Scripture as the story for our life” (57).

Preaching and Speech-Acts

Preaching is “an announcement of something that has been accomplished by God, rather than an incentive to get sinners to save themselves” (65). God accomplishes threats and promises contained in preaching.  Drawing upon speech-act theory, Horton notes that preaching has “an illocutionary act.”  When I say one thing, it does another (think of wedding vows). This happens because there is a connection between Word and Spirit.

Concluding Analysis

Space demands I skip over much of the center of the book, though it is well-worth a careful study. Horton covers how the two-ages shape Christian worship. He also explains the Reformed view of the sacraments. Of importance is the chapter “Is Style Neutral?” If the medium is the message, then the answer is “no.” For the most part Horton avoids saying what style your church should embody.  (Even an exclusive psalmody church might have different tunes from what is normally expected.)

The problem is not “liberalism” or “speaking to the common man.”  It is marketing.  Pop culture, as distinct from genuine folk culture, is a mix of “marketing/advertising, the triumph of the therapeutic, and entertainment as stimulation rather than refinement” (183).  It also usually (though not always) lacks a meaningful narrative.  As applied to the church, “pop” Christian music was detached from the church.

The book is somewhat dated.  As it was written in 2002, it was somewhat before Rick Warren achieved the status he did.  There is also the occasional, albeit charming, reference to “Walkmans.”  The content, though, is outstanding.

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