Walking out of a movie once, I started discussing the movie with a friend, raising questions about some its themes and a few inconsistencies in the plot. After a few minutes, one of my other friends got rather annoyed and asked why we had to analyze everything. Couldn’t we just enjoy the movie?
At first I found his response confusing. For me, understanding the movie was part of the experience. You enjoy a movie both by watching it and by trying to understand what you’ve just seen. That’s why I’ve always thought the traditional “dinner and a movie” night was backwards. It’s more fun when you have dinner afterward so you have time to discuss the movie.
Over the years, though, I’ve come to realize that many people are more like my friend. For them, things like movies and TV shows are just meant to be experienced. And analytic reflection interferes with the experience. It’s like watching the sun setting over the ocean, casting its amber rays over the slowly darkening waves. Talking ruins the experience. Shut up and enjoy.
And I often find this same mindset when it comes to worship. Many get frustrated if you press on the lyrics of the songs, asking questions about what they’re saying (or not saying), digging into the song’s implicit theology. For them, that kind of analysis is antithetical to the experience of worship. You’re being too critical, too picky. Shut up and worship.
No one says that, of course, but they’re thinking it.
Knowledge and Experience
Where did we get the idea that experience and understanding were opposed to one another? My wife studied art history in college. So her understanding of the techniques, themes, and stories behind famous paintings far transcends mine. When we visit a museum, does that mean I’m somehow better equipped to experience that art? Of course not! She loves art museums, experiencing the depth and beauty of the art in ways that I simply cannot. My lack of understanding limits my experience.
The same holds true in so many areas of life. Whether its people, music, food, or even sports. Knowledge deepens experience.
The truth behind the error is that there is a kind of knowledge that moves in a different direction. This is the knowledge that stands apart from the experience, seeking to assess as an observer: the stance of The Critic. The Critic doesn’t participate. He’s just there to analyze.
No one likes The Critic.
At least, not in the way I’m using the term. Many of the people we call critics in society are full participants in the things they criticize. One of the things that made Roger Ebert such a great movie critic is that you could tell he really loved movies. He also knew a lot about movies, and he used his knowledge to reflect on his cinematic experiences.
The Critic is different. This is the person who doesn’t seem to enjoy movies at all; she just enjoys tearing them apart. The guy in the book club who just wants to show off how much he knows about literary criticism. Or the person in church who just wants to come up with a list of all the things wrong in the service and the sermon, seemingly untouched by the reality of God’s presence.
The Critic loves knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Fear the Critic, Not the Knowledge
We fear The Critic. And we should. The Critic separates knowledge from experience, idolizing the former and alienating the latter. That’s shallow, barren, and tragic. And we know that there’s always a chance that we will become the critic.
But many fail to realize that they make precisely them same kind of mistake when they protect against The Critic by privileging experience over knowledge. That too separates knowledge and experience and results in an approach that is equally shallow, barren, and tragic. My wife doesn’t want me just to experience her; she wants me to know her. Indeed, the former isn’t really possible without the latter.
That’s how worship should work. The Critic has no place in worship, but knowledge does. As Karl Barth once said, we really don’t take worship seriously unless we step toward understanding:
It would not be a serious awareness of this reality, were it not immediately to turn to understanding also. That would not be a credere, which did not force its way through to an intelligere. It is with God’s revelation that we are concerned in this reality, that is, with God’s relation to us, with His reality as it concerns us. If we would or could merely be aware without wanting to understand, merely let ourselves be told without also telling ourselves what had been told, merely have faith without knowledge, it certainly would not be God’s revelation with which we had to do. If it were, such refusal on our part would only reveal our disobedience, or our unwillingness to be involved in it. Obedience to revelation must invariably mean to let oneself be involved. (CD I/2, p. 26)
Worship and Knowledge
Last Sunday I realized that I had just sung an entire worship song without thinking about what I was singing. I just lost myself in the music. And I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. God made music to be enjoyed. And enjoying it with his people to his glory is a tremendous blessing. But I shifted gears in the next song and intentionally reflected on the truth of the lyrics while I was singing, even noticing one part of the song that seemed to reflect some inadequate theology. That wasn’t moving away from experience, but stepping into it.
The Critic separates knowledge from experience and, as a result, loses both. Many make the opposite mistake, but with the same consequence. Knowledge and experience are meant to go together, especially when we’re talking about something as important as the knowledge and experience of God himself. Taste and see that the Lord is good.