In the first part of this section, Smith continues in his disparagement of propositions, doctrines, and belief. Worship practices are superior, he says, because they “catch hold of our imagination.” They are “aesthetic and not didactic”. He accuses the “doctrine police” of “lacking imagination” and “thinking truth only adheres in propositions and doctrines.”
[Jen cringes and very seriously considers dropping this and reading another book instead. I have lots of others on my to-read list already, ya know? Cindy warned us that Smith has a tendency to get kind of sneery. I’ve just about had enough of it.]
As I stated last time, I believe that right belief goes hand-in-hand with right practices (for life or for worship), and the standard to determine both is the Word of God. Our practices are certainly a good indication of what we really believe to be true, but cannot be the determining factor for Truth.
Despite the fact that I don’t agree with Smith's approach, I think I do understand what he is reacting against. I have seen far too often people and churches who may say that they ascribe to a certain set of beliefs, but don’t back that up with practices that mark us as set-apart from the rest of the world or worship that is meaningful and authentic. Or Christian people who are ‘stuck in a rut’ and just going through the motions of Christian faith (I have been guilty of this myself at times). Or that tendency to emphasize and debate various interpretations of the minutiae of doctrine, analyzing and tearing apart Scripture to prove a certain point of view. These things have concerned me too.
And maybe I'm weird, but I would disagree that doctrine can't capture our imagination. A couple of years ago, I realized that I wanted to more fully explore the theme of grace in my life and so I turned to a slow, meditative study of the book of Romans. It's been a slow transformation, but I do very much believe that that study has made a difference in the way I live out my faith (my practices, in other words). And I find that the language in the Heidelberg Catechism is just beautiful, almost like poetry in parts. If the book of Romans and a catechism aren't "doctrinal", I don't know what is?!
Smith seems to have a bit of a tendency to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. His approach seems to be ‘cognitive assent to a set of beliefs isn’t enough to change us, so let’s not use didactic sermons as our starting place, let’s focus on our practices instead’, and thereby apparently dismissing the power of the Word preached. I wonder if rather than throwing out belief, doctrines, and God’s Word as the centerpiece of our worship from which our other practices flow, perhaps we should reconsider the way that we interact with God’s Word. Perhaps instead of glossing over doctrine or using it as a tool for debate, we need to approach God’s Word as a thing of wonder, as something that really does have the power to change us. I would contend that the Word – our source for belief, doctrine, theology – also has the power to “catch hold of our imaginations”. This is actually something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in recent months – I wrote about this before here, and this fairly recent article from Circe addresses the same thing. Dr Perrin seemed to be heading in this direction in his answers to the questions that Smith raised in the first chapters of the book. Carolyn Weber describes the Bible as "the most compelling piece of creative non-fiction" she has ever read. It came up again in the comments to last week’s Wednesday with Words post, and in a conversation with my husband on how we could make our family devotional time more living and robust. This idea is popping up in a lot of different places, so I think maybe I’m not crazy. J
To his credit, towards the end of this chapter, Smith finally does acknowledge the role of the Spirit in all of this talk about belief, worship, and formation:
“..the Spirit meets, nourishes, transforms, and empowers us just through and in such material practices.”
“The point of worship is not formation, rather, formation is an overflow effect of our encounters with the Redeemer in praise and prayer, adoration and communion.”
To both of these statements, I would also add that we encounter Him through His Word. We mustn’t leave that out of the equation.
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