Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Book Review: Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time.

This piece responds to Dr. Marva J. Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time. I will begin with a brief summary of the material and conclude with a critique.

1. Summary of Material

To its credit, Dr. Dawn’s book is designed to heal the church from the “’worship wars’ that rage in so many congregations” which “prevent[ ] us from truly being the Church.” (p. 3.) She looks for ways to reconcile these divisions so that “we can truly be the Church.” (p. 3.)

Delving deeper, Dr. Dawn announces four (4) other goals: “to reflect upon the culture for which we want to proclaim the gospel; to expose the subtle powers that beckon us into idolatries and that upset the necessary dialectical balances in the Church’s life and worship; to stimulate better questions about, if, why, and how we might be dumbing faith down in the ways we structure, plan, and participate in worship education and in worship itself; and to offer better means for reaching out to people outside the Church.” (p. 11.)

In the chapters that follow, Dr. Dawn explores the culture surrounding the Church’s worship. She then breaks down this part into chapters dealing with the “Technological, Boomer and Postmodern Culture’; the idolatries of contemporary culture; and worship as a subversive act.
In the next section, Dr. Dawn tackles the “Culture of Worship.” Here, she explores the three (3) main participants in worship. First, God is at the center of worship. Then, she addresses the character of the believer. Finally, she discusses the character of the church.

In part IV, which Dr. Dawn entitles “The Culture in Our Worship”, she expands out into music, the word and ritual, liturgy and art. Part V concludes with an outward focus, where worship is seen for the sake of the culture. Its mission is to reach out to others, but “without dumbing down.” Finally, she writes about the Church serving as its own “worst enemy” and catalogues numerous negative manifestations of the church evidently trying to conform to culture. (p. 303.)

2. Critique of Material

First, I thought Dr. Dawn’s book brought a lot to the table through its reliance on sociological approaches in exegeting the broader culture. Indeed, Dr. Dawn concedes that her book’s content has been gathered from “sociological data”. (p. 11.) This focus is perhaps the text’s greatest strength because those in the Church (as well as outside of it, obviously) cannot help but reflect the culture in which they reside. By the same token, those who seek to reach others efficaciously must understand this context. This culture, as she writes, is characterized by the visual—especially television, technology and postmodernism (pp. 19-40).

As a backstop, however, Dr. Dawn correct points out that the church must be mindful of the dangers of adopting the surrounding culture. She astutely uses the phrase, “dumbing down” to describe the phenomenon whereby the zeal to connect in the least challenging way has deleterious effects. I have long been concerned about this tension. As one with ample theological education (nearly 120 units between undergraduate and graduate studies) I have wondered how others are able to obtain the knowledge, background and foundation in biblical and theological education when much of this content is stripped from worship songs (pendulum may be swinging back) and the devaluation (if not elimination) of adult “Sunday School” in so-called “seeker-sensitive” environments. Dr. Dawn stands in the gap and forcefully states that the church should not and cannot be seduced into “dumbing things down” for the sake of fashion. Dawn eloquently laments: “[F]aith was lost, not because churches did not adapt themselves to changes in the culture around them, but because they sacrificed the wisdom of their traditions too eagerly and too submissively in favor of capitulating to societal idolatries and demands.” (p. 303.) Similarly, the Church can serve as an antidote to those that “dumb down” in the broader culture, she contends. (pp. 7, 303.)

Second, while I believe that Dr. Dawn has done an excellent job of diagnosing the malady (in fact, she belabors it), her explication of the prescription was inadequate. For example, after—yet again—identifying all the problems in the Church (at the very end of her book, oddly), she superficially offers: “There is an alternative. We could ask better questions. We could plan worship that keeps God as the subject, that nurtures the character of the believer, that forms the Christian community to be a people who reach out in God’s purposes to the world.” (p. 304.) These are all laudable goals. However, they approach the platitudinal, rather than the practical.