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The Theater, the Laboratory, the Playground

We in the West have been acculturated with a dichotomized view of life and an individualistic anthropology. This worldview and philosophical outlook have affected both our views and practice of spirituality and worship.
Much of our definition and practice of spirituality is an individualistic, privatized, and personal quest for the Divine. Or it is a personal, individualistic “Walk with God.” This is an other-worldly, inner spirituality. It is not a spirituality that is social, relational, or dynamic.
Traditional spirituality is rooted in the Greek dichotomy between soul/spirit and body/flesh. The former is to be embraced and elevated; the latter is earthly and must be suppressed. The early Christian church adopted this worldview as it transitioned from being a Palestinian-Jewish movement to being a Western Greco-Roman European religion. Subsequently, just about all of Christian spirituality and practice was influenced by a philosophy of life and being that was foreign to its origins.
This individualistic and privatized view and practice of spirituality was super-emphasized with the monastic life of the medieval period of European Christianity. The contemplative life, the emphasis on being “alone with God,” and the minimizing of biblical other-centeredness all played a significant role in influencing much of the centuries-old narrow Western definition and practice of spirituality. Thus, to a large extent, discussion of the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, fasting and solitude, is focused on the personal, and is inner-centered. The corporate and the communal, though not ignored, is not highlighted, highly affirmed, or emphasized.
The Greek dichotomized view of life, which influenced the European Christian view of spirituality, also influenced the traditional view of worship. The spirit and the soul are good; the body and the flesh are evil. The latter must be tamed and restrained; the former must be enhanced and released to achieve its fullest potential.
Not only is the “soul/spirit” emphasized, but in the West the cognitive – the mind, is elevated above all in the enterprise and practice of worship. This heresy of the dichotomized self has led to the depreciation of the emotive and the physical in worship. In worship we are thus only half alive – partly blind, deaf, dumb, lame, and for the most part lacking in emotion.
This narrow conception of worship flies in the face of Jesus’ wholistic injunction to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength – the emotive, the cognitive, and the physical. Worship that is simply at the cerebral level, utilizing only the “rational,” borders on heresy. The love that Jesus calls for must of necessity be involved in worship and should encompass the rational and nonrational, verbal and nonverbal, physical and nonphysical. The whole being needs to be caught up in the reverence, joy, and adoration that are part and parcel of the worship enterprise. All the key components of worship should involve the total person. The Word, music, drama, dance, prayer, bodily contact, and even silence, can be choreographed or expressed spontaneously to create a liturgical experience that glorifies God and spiritually enriches the community.
In order to recapture a wholistic philosophy and practice of worship, we should possibly change our paradigm. The paradigm of the rationalistic worshiper is the traditional classroom, in which the preacher is the moral instructor and the congregants are uninvolved spectators. Effective contemporary pedagogy, to a large degree, has moved away from that model. Student-centered learning is the new wave in the academic environment. Both student and teacher are involved in the learning experience. All senses and aspects of the person are drawn into the educational play.
Instead of the lecture-room with set pews that hinder total participation, the new paradigm for wholistic worship suggests the theater, the laboratory, the playground, the book of Revelation! The only extended passage in the New Testament that describes a worship service is found in Revelation 4–5. There we find a circular setting, artistic, dramatic, physical movement, verbal and nonverbal expression, all embedded in solid and rational theology.
What is intriguing about this apocalyptic description in Revelation is the lack of a rationalistic sermon. One of the powerful influences of the Enlightenment was the elevation of the spoken word to such a height that what was said in worship became more important than what is done. Information became more valuable than experience. Sermons, therefore, became lectures, which in many instances were dry and boring, devoid of any emotive content. I reckon that most worshipers today find such expositions unappealing, unproductive, and out of touch with their real selves.
True wholistic worship should elicit an emotional and even physical response, just as meaningful expressions and experiences of love elicit a romantic, emotional, and physical response among couples in love. The music, the sermon, the drama all call for whole responses. Whole worship is not for spectators and participants as separate groups. We are all active participants who are involved in the redramatization of the redemptive acts of God. Throughout scripture we observe worship that involved such re-enactments. There were recitations, chanting, singing, dancing, and all kinds of elaborate ceremonies choreographed antiphonally, individually, and corporately. The whole person and the whole community were caught up in a total, complete experience of praise.
This wholistic experience began to be lost as the church lost its primitive pentecostal fervor and descended into the rigid structure of the Constantine and post-Constantine era. For centuries the Mass was prescribed down to the last detail without room for any emotive, spirit-guided spontaneity. As noted before, the Enlightenment also affected the Protestant liturgy and impeded it from recapturing the ancient wholism. In Protestantism the focus was not on the stilted drama of the Mass (as in Catholicism), rather it centered narrowly on the cerebral and rational.
Happily, however, a number of Protestant movements recaptured the biblical wholistic practice of worship. Such groups as the Holiness, Pentecostal, and Free Methodist (though at times unbalanced in their emotions and physicality) worshiped with the whole being.
Many today are surprised to find that Seventh-day Adventists have their liturgical roots in the branch of Methodists who worshipped wholistically. Their exuberance is well documented in the New England papers of the 1840s and 1850s. Ellen G. White’s shouts of “Hallelujah,” “Praise the Lord,” “Glory to God,” and “Amen” were all typical of early Adventist worship. She noted that that period was a triumphant time and none should keep silent in worship meetings.
Although many Seventh-day Adventists have lost or rejected their wholistic roots, many today are recapturing the totality of worship – worship that involves the whole person. It is an intoxicating and intellectually enlightening experience. The whole being is caught up in praise and adoration to God in the community of saints. It is wholistic spirituality at its best.
Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Th.D., is Assistant to the President for Diversity and Professor of Biblical Studies and Missiology at Walla Walla University in Washington State. He is the author of Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean & Hispanic Perspectives, InterVarsity Press, 2000.

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