My friend theobilly and I went to the Paulist Center in Boston yesterday to hear Matthew Myer Boulton, currently associate professor at Harvard, formerly of my own school, Andover Newton, give a short lecture based on his new book 'God Against Religion; Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship'. I have NOT read the book, so this is a short review of his lecture. To be honest my initial reaction was that Boulton's argument was thin... but upon more reflection I think that was more because he had 45 minutes to summarize the argument of an entire book.
This morning I am having a different reaction. In the lecture Boulton begin by referencing the second creation story of Genesis where humanity is created to serve, protect and enjoy the earth. He notes that no mention is made of worship of God in the purpose of humanities creation and existence. This part of the lecture I did not find helpful to his argument. He went on the story of Cain and Abel, and his reading of this story I found interesting. He notes that this is the first act of worship in the Bible and notes (something I have never notices) that this appears to have been completely the initiative of Cain and Abel... in other words, God did not ask for this or command it. Boulton asserts that this story serves as a warning about religion. The details of why Abel is 'regarded' or 'noticed' by God in this act of worship and Cain is not are non-existent. Genesis does not explain why. The point is that Cain reacts with anger and violence and we witness the first murder. Boulton reads this as a critique of self-centered religion and relatedly, worship. Cain was more interested in gaining God's favor than in truly making an offering of love to God. His religion and worship was self-centered, not God centered and this leads to violence. Boulton also notes that God speaks to Cain and reminds him in his anger (previous to the murder) that if he 'does well' he will be accepted. Boulton ties this 'doing well' to prophetic texts that voice God's rejection of Israel's worship because their lives outside of worship are not lived well; they do not live ethically. Boulton notes Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8, and Hosea 6:4-6 as prophetic expression of God's rejection of religion through the emptiness of worship. Worship is focused, as Cain was, upon gaining God's favor... but does not lead to acts of justice and kindness, and so offends God and does not please God. Boulton does not intend this to be a critique of Judaism or Israel, but a mytho-poetic story about all religion and all worship. All Worship and religion holds the dangerous potential to be more about the worshipper and his/her comfort, than about the God we worship and the righteousness and justice God expects.
I think that Boulton's work may be very important and I intend to buy and read this book. The very idea that God could 'be against' anything, is revolutionary in this day and age. Since so many think of God as a largely non-intrusive idea that can be largely ignored until times are tough and we want some comfort (think Cain) the idea that God is much more invested in the daily living of our lives an the trajectory of our values (toward or away from justice) is an important addition to discourse on God.
And I also think this offers interesting potential for a clear discussion of popular Christian worship in Christianity in America. While we are busily arguing, one way or another, for praise bands, praise choruses, fancy projection tech, etc. Boulton may indeed be offering us a theologically clear star upon which to fix our journey through troubling waters... justice. Is our worship focused on justice and does it inspire us to live just lives? This is what I hope Boulton gets to in the book... his lecture inspired me to think more clearly along these lines. If you are interested on some other thoughts I have had on worship and justice click the link to Tradition, Progression and Justice in Worship