The Lost Beauty of Christian Worship

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West Heath Mass

One of the worst trends in contemporary Christianity is the destruction of the historic liturgies of the Christian Church. The Roman Catholic Church is slowing returning to a more traditional liturgy, but in most places the post-Vatican II degraded English translations of the Latin Mass live on. I have a St. Andrew’s Missal from the 1950s that contains, along with the Latin Mass, wonderful English translations of the liturgy in King James style English.  It reminds me of the beauty of the pre-1979 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Not only has the language been bastardized, the beauty of ceremonial has been suppressed in many churches. But even churches with very little ceremonial have taken good order out of their worship services.  The Churches of Christ in which I grew up had a certain beauty in the simplicity and good order of the worship service. Now they are trying to copy the Evangelical’s poor taste, with bad 1970s-style songs projected on a screen along with a free flow of emotion inconsistent with things done “decently and in order,” as St. Paul put it.

As worship becomes bastardized, so does one’s view of God. God is no longer the transcendent (yet immanent) being who created the universe and who inspires awe; God becomes just another beer buddy (without the beer in many Protestant Churches). If any of us saw God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit face to face, we would fall to the ground in awe. Yes, God is our friend, but not a friend in the sense of a buddy who watches football with the guys around a big screen television. Traditional worship, including the traditional King James style language of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, lets us know that God is not man, that God is Holy, set apart from sinful man, even redeemed sinful man. The beauty of order in worship reminds us that “God is not the author of confusion”; He created the world in good form and order. Ceremonial and incense lifts our bodies and souls beyond the ordinary to the Holy. Most contemporary worship does not lift our souls and bodies any more than a large rock on the ground.

Clergy reply, “But we have to keep our young people!” Yet why are traditional Latin masses in the Roman Catholic Church filled with young people? In its bid to become “relevant” in worship, the church has not only lost the dimension of the transcendent; it is not even “relevant.” I think it was Peter Kreeft who said something like “Satan didn’t see a need to give the church atheists, so he gave it liturgists.” I tend to agree.

Azathoth the Postmodernist

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“….the spiral black vortices of that ultimate void of Chaos wherein reigns the mindless daemon-sultan Azathoth”–H. P. Lovecraft, “Dreams in the Witch House”

Since postmodernist relativists are so inconsistent–they say there is no metanarrative even though their denial of a metanarrative is itself a metanarrative–I decided to search for a consistent postmodernist. Such a consistent creature would be mad–indeed It would be Madness Itself since a deconstruction of all narratives includes a deconstruction of the self–and thus the destruction of the self. If only fragments of self really remain, where can we find a god that consists of such chaos. H. P. Lovecraft, the great American writer of fantastic fiction has the answer–the blind mindless deity Azathoth.

Azathoth inhabits the void of chaos which is his being, or lack thereof. He has no mind per se; at best, he is an uncordinated series of mind-fragments (if even that). Around him mad musicians pipe a tune so dissonant that Arnold Shoenberg’s atonal pieces would sound like Mozart in comparison. The most frightening part of Lovecraft’s fiction is the suggestion that ultimate chaos is the principle behind the entire universe. There are other elder gods, but Azathoth, the Anti-Order, Defeater of ALL metanarratives, is the “top god.”

If academic postmodernists and their followers were consistent, they would emulate Azathoth. Their lives would be as disorderly as Azathoth’s–they would be insane to the point that the worst current case of schizophrenia would seem normal by comparison. But most of these postmodernists live orderly lives–they get married, have families, teach for many years until they retire, grade student papers according to a standard–they do not literally try to deconstruct everything. They are hypocrites. When I see a mindless postmodernist sitting catatonic in the center of a circle of raving postmodernists playing dissonant pipes, I will take these pseudo-academics seriously. Otherwise, they should work to be more consistent in their madness. Until then, may Azathoth rant and scream mad non-words that echo through the mindless postmodern universe.

Physician Assisted Suicide and the Ends of Medicine

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When I ask my medical ethics students whether they support physician assisted suicide (in the sense of the physician prescribing a deadly dose of a drug, usually barbituates, for the patient to take when he wishes), the vast majority raise their hands. Even most students in my classes who oppose abortion support physician assisted suicide (PAS). To me this is disturbing, especially since the strongest support for PAS has been in my class of future physician assistants.

What is so wrong, you may ask, about physician assisted suicide? After all, even with ideal pain control, some terminally ill patients either remain in a great deal of pain or have to be totally sedated. Why not allow such patients to “control the time and manner of their own deaths?” Surely PAS will encourage more dignified deaths among patients in intractable pain. And in referendums, Oregon and Washington have passed laws permitting PAS. Shouldn’t this practice spread to other states?

Although PAS sounds attractive, its practice would be a fundamental distortion of the proper goals of medical practice. The internal goods of medicine include restoring a patient to health, and when a patient cannot be restored to health, to make that patient as comfortable as possible. But supporting a patient’s suicide indirectly involves the physician in killing a patient. Physicians have a great deal of power over patients, power which, if misused, can lead to pain, suffering, and death–as the Nazi medical experiments and the Tuskegee Syphillis Experiment revealed. Now a physician can withhold or withdraw medical care that is only prolonging the dying process. The goal is not to hasten death per se, but to relieve the patient’s suffering. But prescribing a deadly dosage of a drug is designed to let the patient hasten his death. One may say that the motive is to relieve suffering, but there is a difference between allowing the disease process to take its course and giving a drug so a patient can actively commit suicide. This abuse of medical power has already spread in the Netherlands, where PAS is legal, to doctors actively killing patients without the patient’s permission or the patient’s family’s permission. Once the line forbidding a physician from assisting in a patient’s death is crossed, it will be difficult to turn back. Doctors participating in PAS will not be practicing medicine, but doing something else entirely–being accessories to suicide.

There is an assumption in the modern world that pain is the worst thing that a person can experience. That was not the view of the premodern world. Socrates was willing to suffer pain and death to keep his integrity. The early Christians suffered excruciating torture via persecution–they believed that they were sharing in the sufferings of Christ. And without modern pain control methods, people suffered far more from diseases than they do today, yet the drive for PAS is a modern movement (David Hume was among the first to defend suicide as an option in a person in great pain). This does not mean that we should not try to stop pain as much as possible short of actively killing the patient or giving the patients the means to suicide. Relieving suffering is a moral obligation of physicians as long as medical power does not cross over the line into aiding a patient in his active demise. Even in this post-Christian world, would secularists really want doctors to cross the line into PAS? Could PAS be controlled once the genie is out of the bottle? I do not believe so–but even if PAS is the only line that is crossed, it remains inimical to the ends of medicine and is wrong.