What Can Monty Python Teach Us About Worship?
First, a clip from 'The Meaning of Life'...
Titled 'Growth and Learning', Or My Version: How To Become An Atheist Before You Get Pimples
If you find this clip from Monty Python's 'Meaning of Life' funny, I'm with you. I don't know if I have ever experienced such a concentrated form of insensitivity, insincerity, and inanity at school chapel or church all at once, but the whole scenario portrayed does have the ring of truth to me.
I find it hilarious!
Really, we aren't that bad... at least not all the time. Are we?
Or are Christians that bad?
When someone who is not a Christian, not a religious person or a church goer walks into a worship service, is this how they see it? If I see it that way sometimes, I bet they do, too! This hardly participates in St. Paul's paradigm where the unbeliever is, 'convicted by all, and called to account by all' (I Cor. 14:24).
Or what about Kids? Since, in the scene, you are supposed to identify with the boys in the choir who are stuck listening to this bunch of ecclesiastical nitwits. I think this scenario, if it ever exists in reality and to the degree it does exist is a kind of inoculation against the idea of corporate worship or ever hearing good news from Christians.
Laughing at the terrible behavior of the adults here might be part of the cure.
Sure, it makes me laugh, partly because it's true and I am sometimes an unwitting participant in it, but mostly because Christ's forgiveness allows me to laugh at myself and my brothers and sisters when we go kind of unconscious and insular, following well worn paths without much thought and not much care for the other.
I don't know everything we would have to do to get out of the blast zone on this one (and that's o.k., getting mocked is part of the job description), but I wouldn't have decided to write something if I didn't have a few thoughts.
We Praise God Because He Is Praiseworthy
In the scene above, an angry, wrathful God is praised for being big and impressive, and I'd be a liar if I said I'd never heard something like this in a public setting; someone gives an extemporaneous prayer, usually a pastor, and it winds up being some version of Monty Python.
When we are praising God, at least in our church, the language is usually that of the history of God's saving acts; how God has rescued His undeserving children from all sorts of distress, culminating in the sending of His Son. Nobody has a track record like the God of the Old and New Testament. Talk about bending over backwards and demonstrating trustworthiness again and again to a bunch of ungrateful and rebellious people. I love one short prayer, a collect, we have by Ambrose. It begins,
O God, You declare Your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity...
Someone might say, 'Maybe in the New Testament, but certainly not so much in the Old, with cities and nations and even worlds being wiped out.'
What I would say in answer is, no one and nothing stands in the way of Jesus saving work and His coming Kingdom. God will go to the extremest extreme to save us, including wiping out worlds if there is no other option. He even goes so far as to die for the whole horrible mess in the person of Jesus.
Speaketh So That Others Understand
St. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 14 that worship has a strong horizontal component. Part of that component is that there be understanding and agreement. Edifying one another requires some level of understanding. Aside from the 'speaking in tongues' issue this passage brings up (and I'm not addressing that), chapter 14 presents the idea of 'bearing fruit', not in yourself, but in others, by speaking for God the words of Scripture concerning the Son. Language can sometimes be a barrier, as it is in Monty Python's faux 1611 King James reading (missing from this clip):
And spotteth twice they the camels before the third hour, and so, the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadesh Bilgemath, by Shor Ethra Regalion, to the house of Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, he who brought the butter dish to Balshazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashomon, and there slew they the goats, yea, and placed they the bits in little pots. Here endeth the lesson.
Eeesh!! Is that how we liturgicals sound? I hope not, but this clip is like an arrow that sinks beneath the feathers for any Christian group that hasn't or doesn't ask the questions in I Corinthians about how we communicate the joy we have 'decently and in good order.'
The lectionaries liturgical churches use, containing a list of pre-chosen passages from scripture set to a calendar for reading and preaching, are wonderful tools to keep the whole council of God in view throughout the year. None of them are perfect and they will sometimes throw the reader a curveball if he or she isn't ready. Reading Scripture from the podium is an important part of the service and should be reverenced with practice. Nothing like setting off the service with the name of a new ancient people, 'the High-titties.'
The Joy We Have Shouldn't Look Like A Grind
And I think when it does turn into a grind, or when we do, we need to look back at what the general conversation of the liturgy is, sermon, songs and all. If we give lip service to Jesus' saving work, but the general tenor of worship is that of a drill sergeant in the barracks barking orders, we are in danger of misrepresenting everything. If the focus is on our response and not the gift of life and freedom in Jesus, I think we wind up teaching people the not-so-subtle art of sleeping with their eyes open.
We also walk right into the cross hairs of this skit.
Hymns Aren't Good Just Because They Are Old
I'm the first to say I'm not a musician, but I do like to sing. I have an eidetic memory for tunes which means that when I get one in my head it won't leave, sometimes like the demon the Apostles could not cast out (Matt. 17:14-21) -- and the Lord knows I have tried 'with much prayer and fasting' to cast out some of these cherished gems of the faithful, these venerated heroes of the faith. What can I say, I try to grin and bear it.
On the flip side, many old hymns are wonderful... and, dare I say it, some new ones are too!
But, some songs are a stretch for the modern ear, to say the least. The church often acts as a preservation society and that's all well and good, but I would request extra consideration when assailing newbies (or even veterans) with certain hymns. At least try to mix it up a bit.
And as I was reminded when seeing the ancient torture devices in Ripley's 'Believe It or Not' Museum a few years back... some things are best left forgotten.
Be aware of others around you. What you say and the way you say it has an effect, even if it is a memorized response. I know a lot of Christians who balk at any kind of wrote anything, because it sounds kind of dead, flat and insincere to them, and, sometimes, they are right! I know that I am guilty of falling down on this one quite a bit myself, but it's fun to sing with others when they are singing, it's fun to respond with others when everyone is into it. My favorite is:
The Lord is RISEN!
He is Risen INDEED! Halleluiah!
This response has been going on in the Church for 2000+ years! And I love uniting with Christians of all stripes and all times at Easter with this piece of the liturgy. This last Easter, I pulled it on my Pentecostal friends and they responded as most Christians do with joy (probably more than many of my fellow Lutherans can muster) and the expected response.
Have A Point
I think the point of the clip is the absurdity of it all, as is often the case with Monty Python. How everything done in the scene is designed to go against everything Christianity claims to represent... and put in the context of worship, it just takes you over the top into funny. The title of the movie and the musical theme focus on the existential question, 'what is the meaning of life?' According to the comic troop, this clip is the funny version of the Christian answer fed to kids.
I was happy to see that Jesus was missing from the Python chapel service. Python tends to blame us Christians for eating the pablum and happily serving it to others and rightly so, I think. For us, Jesus is the point of the whole thing; when we leave Him out for any reason, all we do is pablum and our study of scripture, our preaching, attentiveness, good attitude and long suffering mean nothing.
Let The Point Be Jesus FOR The Sinner
Because that is what the Bible tells us. Because it IS the point! Every time and always! Jesus isn't just the point of everything and the center of our worship, He is for us and He has done everything in His almighty power to demonstrate this truth, accomplishing our salvation.
We do well to keep this at the forefront in every venue we find ourselves. There is nothing for the boys in this Monty Python chapel service other than 'dreadful toadying' to avoid being fried in a wok by an angry and insensitive deity.
Still kind of funny, but dark. Very dark.