Book Review: Unceasing Worship, by Harold Best
Harold Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts. InterVarsity Press, 2003. 228 pages. $18.00.
My worship journey includes a time as a thirteen-year-old novice guitarist with braces and a bowl cut. Many a Wednesday evening was spent thrashing out my cutting-edge acoustic guitar under the soul-stirring lyrics of “fun songs.” These were the songs that required teenagers to sing lyrics tinged with Bible verses accompanied by various awkward motions. Those were the days.
As a result of such less-than-soul-stirring experiences, I’m always grateful for an opportunity to sharpen my theology of worship. What is worship? How does it work? What does it have to do with Sunday morning?
Harold Best’s rather original work Unceasing Worship provides an opportunity for such sharpening. Further, Best puts forth a biblical framework through which pastors and churches can think generally about the arts, which is useful since we all use at least one art form (music) every week in our gatherings.
So even if you don’t find yourself in complete agreement with Best, this book will still get you thinking about your own theology of worship. Personally, I was struck by how quick I am to think that I’ve got everything figured out when it comes to worship. You’d think my bowl-cut, braces-wearing experiences would have taught me that sooner.
Worship, says Best, is about outpouring. Best writes, “The burden of this book develops the concept of continuous outpouring as the rubric for our worship. As God eternally outpours within his triune self, and as we are created in his image, it follows that we too are continuous outpourers, incurably so.” But man’s fall into sin means that “we spend our outpouring on false gods appearing to us in any number of guises” (10).
This continuous outpouring entails that “at this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone—an artifact, a person, an institution, an idea, a spirit, or God through Christ.” In other words, “Nobody does not worship” (17).
Authentic worship is only that which is lived out in faith, hope, and love. And it is only possible because of “the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ” (36). It’s “saturated with truth, whatever the context, time and place” (41). As a result, “We do not go to church to worship. But as continuing worshipers, we gather ourselves together to continue to worship, but now in the company of brothers and sisters” (47). Even evangelism exists in light of this continual outpouring as it becomes an act of “overheard” worship (84). Prayer and preaching are at their best when they are not isolated events, but rather the overflow of unceasing worship (ch. 6).
That was Part One. Part Two turns its focus to the arts and their role in light of unceasing worship. Best consistently maintains that the arts are “but one part of the creative ecology of our living” (111). In other words, carpenters and plumbers are to perform their work out of the overflow of unceasing worship just as much as musicians and painters are. Thus, for the artist, unceasing worship requires creating art with excellence and focus (ch. 7), imitating God’s diverse creativity (ch. 8).
Best appropriately brings music into special focus. He warns of the danger of thinking that “music empowers text” (147). This view implies that “the strength of the text per se is at the beck and call of the music” (148). And it “must mean that people come to corporate worship unprepared for worship…expecting worship to be initiated, and the music segment becomes the tool for this” (149). But a life of unceasing worship will not tolerate such a practice.
The remaining chapters include an exploration of the need to keep art within its own limitations (e.g., a painting cannot literally speak words of truth; ch. 10), a warning against idolatry (ch. 11), and finally a discussion of culture and quality (chs. 12-14).
A FEW MINOR WEAKNESSES
With that summary, allow me to observe a few minor weaknesses.
Lack of Exegesis
First, there’s a lack of exegesis. I know. Spoken like a preacher. I just wanted to see more wrestling with various passages, and thus more text-driven conclusions.
I won’t say that Best’s use of Scripture is irresponsible. I suppose what I mean is that it’s sort of like a math teacher looking at a student’s correct answer to a problem, but where the student hasn’t shown his work. More exegesis would really have strengthened Best’s conclusions.
Lack of Interaction with Other Works
Second, there’s a lack of interaction with other works. The endnotes are fairly minimal, and there are few direct quotations from other authors. Best’s work fits within the field of systematics, in particular as a study of the doctrine of man, since he frequently refers to mankind as created in the image of God. Interaction with other theological works would bring his own useful conclusions into a new light. His conclusions are thought-provoking, but, like the student, he hasn’t shown his work.
Finally, Best writes with slightly unusual terminology and turns of phrase that are occasionally opaque. So the earlier chapters which lay the groundwork for his thesis are a bit of a challenge, requiring some rereading. However, I found that the book grew easier to read as I adjusted to Best’s style.
THOUGHTFUL AND ORIGINAL
Overall this book is a thoughtful, original contribution to the worship discussion. Pastors and others involved in the weekly gathering of the local church will find here a good dialogue partner on the path to gaining a solid theology of worship.