Singing the Psalms: an answer to Neo-Baalism

In his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Eerdmans, 1980, reprinted 1992), Eugene Peterson defines biblical worship as “a response to God’s word in the context of the community of God’s people” (183).  He writes, “Neither Bible nor church uses the word ‘worship’ as a description of experience… Worship, in the biblical sources an in liturgical history, is not something a person experiences, it is something we do, regardless of how we feel about it, or whether we feel anything about it at all” (183).

Contrast Peterson’s thoughts to what we see in so many modern “worship” services.  Our songs, our liturgies, our prayers are all calculated to heighten our experiences, to manipulate our feelings to achieve that perfect emotional high.  That’s, after all, what “worship” is all about, right?

And before we conservative Reformed folk use that last paragraph to get all smug and look down our noses at “those liberals,” bear in mind what Michael and I have stressed so often in our articles of late: so many of the “classic” hymns that we sing (and that are in our own Psalter Hymnal) were written with the same philosophy of worship in mind.  Think of the hymn “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” with its emotion-driven lyric written by one of the primary movers in the emotion-driven worship movement, Charles Wesley (read more about it in “Wesley, Watts, and Worship Wars”).

Peterson points out that experience-driven worship was the hallmark of Baalism, the religion of the Canaanites in the Old Testament era.  Their entire worship structure was focused on catering to emotions.  “When you were terror-stricken you offered a sacrifice; when you were anxious about the crops you made a visit to the temple prostitute; when you were joyful you ingested the wine god.  You did what you felt like doing when you felt like doing it” (184).

In his book, Peterson warns against what he calls “Neo-Baalism,” a contemporary revival of the mindset of ancient Baalism.  Neo-Baalism complains when we “don’t get anything out of worship.”  Neo-Baalism lets “feelings call the tune” in our services.  Neo-Baalism is all about the experience, regardless of content.  “We may be entertained, warmed, diverted, or excited in such worship; we will probably not be changed and we will not be saved” (185).

Now, neither Peterson nor I want to make it sound like emotion and experience have no place in worship.  But that’s not the point of worship.  Emotion is not our goal, experience is not our endgame.  What we experience and what we feel are results of proper worship, responses to the Word of God.  Wittily, Peterson illustrates it in this way: “Experience develops out of worship.  Isaiah saw, heard, and felt on the day he received his call while at worship in the Temple – but he didn’t go there in order to have a ‘seraphim experience'” (183).

What does this say in terms of music?  As hinted above, so much of our church music tends to be Neo-Baalistic.  We gravitate toward songs that make us feel good, either because of their emotional lyrics or because they make us nostalgic about some past experience.  I hope you see the danger in such a mindset.

Singing the Psalms offers a grand answer to Neo-Baalism.  In singing the Psalms, we are guaranteed that the content of our singing is solid, accurate, and God-centered.  Worship, after all, is “a response to God’s word.”  What better way to respond than with the very words God has provided for us?

But in addition, the Psalms are replete with emotion.  The Psalms touch on every emotion existent in the Christian life.  But the emotion we feel in singing the Psalms is always geared toward God and His glory, never toward self and experience.  In singing God’s Word back to Him, we are guaranteed that our singing, if done in Spirit and in truth, will be centered on God, not self, and our felt emotions in worship will be appropriate and God-glorifying instead of self-gratifying.

Peterson writes,

Some editions of the New Testament have the Psalms included at the end.  It is a most appropriate conclusion.  The Psalms integrate the experience of grace into our lives at every level of praise and petition, of faith and doubt.  They express gratitude and struggle for honesty in confession.  The person who comes of age in Christ finds many ways in which the Psalm nurture the personal intimacies that keep faith “new every morning.”


5 Responses to “Singing the Psalms: an answer to Neo-Baalism”

  1. 1 Steve Vander Woude October 5, 2012 at 10:10 am

    Good post. I generally agree with your point, however, I wonder if you present a false dichotomy when you write: “But the emotion we feel in singing the Psalms is always geared toward God and His glory, never toward self and experience.”

    • 2 James O October 5, 2012 at 10:22 am

      The point I would like to make is that, if properly sung, the psalms direct us /first/ to God’s glory. Our own emotions and reactions are then filtered through and flow from that (and then are absolutely appropriate). That would be the contrast with “Neo-Baalism,” which addresses its worship /first/ to satisfying our emotions.

      Peterson’s book and I would not say that emotion and glorifying God are mutually exclusive. Rather, that emotion has to be subservient and secondary to glorifying God. Emotion has to be a result, not a motivation.

      Is that a fair clarification? I do hate false dichotomies and am thankful that you pointed it out, Steve.

  2. 3 Steve Vander Woude October 5, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Thanks for the follow up Jim. Let me elaborate on my original comment. I did not understand you to say that emotion and glorifying God are mutually exclusive, but rather, emotion that is God-glorifying is never “geared toward” self and experience. I may be getting a bit philosophical here, but I’m not sure this is a proper distinction, or perhaps it is too easy. I understand that we should not seek to manipulate emotional feeling through worship in a crass, sentimental, cheap way. But if we worship, at least in part, to be comforted (emotionally, rationally, bodily) with the gospel, can we not say that our emotions plays a factor both in our motivation to worship and are responsively shaped by that worship in a way that is geared toward BOTH self and God, and that this is God glorifying.

    • 4 James O October 5, 2012 at 11:32 am

      I’m digging it… gearing worship not only to glorify God but also, in that glorifying of God to gain in ourselves the comfort of the gospel, the soothing of fears, the jubilation of praise. That makes sense to me and, I think, does not contradict Peterson’s point.

      Emotion isn’t bad. Seeking proper fulfillment of that emotion in worship isn’t bad. Biblical worship in general and the Psalms in particular offer a perfect avenue to express those emotions and be emotionally fed in the most God-glorifying and proper way.

      We should be emotionally involved in worship. But, “Neo-Baalism,” which caters exclusively to contextless emotion, is unhealthy. But the opposite extreme – singing the right words with a cold, dead heart – doesn’t help anyone.

      I think your solution is a biblical one, one that is reflected in the psalms. The quote I closed with seems to be in line with what you’re saying: “The Psalms integrate the experience of grace into our lives at every level of praise and petition, of faith and doubt. They express gratitude and struggle for honesty in confession. The person who comes of age in Christ finds many ways in which the Psalm nurture the personal intimacies that keep faith ‘new every morning.'”

      So let’s always make sure our emotion is God-glorifying and rooted in a proper context. If that is true, our worship will be richer and our hearts in tune with the glory of God. After all, “God is most glorified by us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

  1. 1 Neo-Baalism: Experience-Driven Worship | Heidelblog Trackback on October 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm

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