Worship and the didgeridoo

As a proud didgeridoo player, I am keenly aware of the attraction of pagan worship forms.

There is nothing quite like sitting peacefully in the bush blowing intensly down a long hollowed log. The earthy sound of the didg, combined with the backup vocals of the kookuburras, and the hyperventilation of circular breathing, creates a kind of spiritual experience in a matter of minutes. It is no wonder Aborigines traditionally believe that the didgeridoo is a religious instrument; that it rouses the spirit world.

My didgeridoo experience is a little window into the nature of worship, as understood by most of the world’s religions. Paganism at it’s heart believes that the worship activities of the faithful create the enviroment in which the divine presence (whether for blessing or curse) is roused.

The classic scriptural example of this pagan worship is, of course, found in 1 Kings 18. Here we find Baal worship and Yahweh worship set in powerful contrast. The frenzied activities of the prophets of Baal are an attempt to rouse this fertility god to make his action and presence felt. Yahweh’s prophet does no such thing. In fact, he performs a kind of ‘anti-worship’. He tries to create an atmosphere which is non-conducive to divine intervention (for example, pouring water over the sacrifice). When Elijah eventually does do something religious it is a short prayer of dependence which recalls God’s covenant history (“God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”). In no way is Elijah’s prayer an attempt to rouse God to act. It is simply a dependent request based on Yahweh’s prior faithfulness. Of course, we all know how this praise and worship meeting ended.

This contrast between Israel’s worship and that of her neighbours can be simply stated in an antithesis: For Israel, worship was the response to God’s action, not the means of rousing it. This is particularly clear in the Book of Exodus where God’s people are redeemed from slavery “so that they may worship” Yahweh. Sure enough, the life of “worship” prescibed in the second half of Exodus (everything from ethical demands to liturgical practice) is premised entirely on God’s saving action described in the early chapters.

The Passover celebration, the high point of Israel’s religious calenda, also illustrates this point. The yearly Passover Feast was essentially a memorial—a thankful recollection and response to God’s grace in redemption. The same could be said of the next most significant festival in Israel’s worship life, the Feast of Tabernacles.

As you’d expect, New Testament worship is no different. In Romans 12:1 for example, our “spiritual act of worship” is premised entirely on “God’s mercy”, which in Romans refers to God’s action in Christ. Thus, again, worship is the response to God’s action, not the means of rousing it.

Why the fuss about all of this? Well, it seems to me that a subtle form of “Christian paganism” has appeared on the church scene.

I recently heard an experienced missionary tell an audience that praise and worship singing was one of the two methods God had given the church to remove the curse on a nation’s land. He told a few dramatic stories of desolate lands becoming plentiful as a direct result of Christians singing praises to God. Apart from being a misunderstanding of the curses mentioned in Deuteronomy, this sort of teaching runs counter to the Bible’s insistence that worship is response to God’s action, not the means of rousing it.

Another, more subtle example, is the popular belief that praise and worship singing releases the presence of God in a Christian meeting. A Christian singer told me a few weeks ago that they thought that praise music should be played at the end of Christian meetings because it “kept the presence of God in the building”. In fact, on another occasion a song leader remarked “I cannow feel the Holy Spirit beginning to work”. She was referring to the praise song which proceeded my 30-minute gospel presentation.

In a multitude of different forms, the view that praise singing brings God’s presence to a meeting, is one of the most solidly believed principles of praise. When questioned (by people like me), the response of those with this view is the same: “Yahweh is enthroned on the praises of Israel.” According to many, this verse from Psalm 22:3 teaches that when God’s peoplesing praises he is invited and manifested among them. However, the idea of this verse is virtually the opposite. It pictures Yahweh seated in his royal court being acknowledged by his loyal subjects as the universal king, as they publicly proclaim his mighty power and deeds. (A similar idea is captured in Psalm 80:1: Yahweh is “enthroned on the cheribum”.) It has nothing to do with God’s people inviting him to be present at their meeting. Such a view has more in common with paganism than with Christianity. There is nothing in the Bible that would suggest that God is any more present with his people after one hour of heartfelt praise singing than when the meeting began. To think otherwise is dangerously close to what I read about the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18.

So why do people go for this understanding of worship?

The view that our ‘praise and worship’ rouses God to act in some way is attractive because it gives us a part to play in the divine activity. It makes us feel as though we are able to create the atmosphere which is conducive to God’s blessing—that my singing, praying and praising somehow invites God’s presence. Attractive as it might be to some, I hope it is obvious that this way of thinking cuts right across the gospel of sheer grace.

Unfortunately, some of the ‘praise and worship’ sessions I have been to recently remind of the experiences I’ve had in the bush with my didg. I’m not sure that’s such a good thing.