But he might well be taken aback that the churches have so enthusiastically endorsed this project of distraction and diversion. This is what much of modern worship amounts to: distraction and diversion. Praise bands and songs of triumph seem designed in form and content to distract worshipers from life’s more difficult realities.
Even funerals, the one religious context where one might have assumed the reality of death would be unavoidable, have become the context for that most ghastly and incoherent of acts: the celebration of a life now ended. The Twenty-Third Psalm and “Abide with Me” were funeral staples for many years but not so much today. References to the valley of the shadow of death and the ebbing out of life’s little day, reminders both of our mortality and of God’s faithfulness even in the darkest of times, have been replaced as funeral favorites by “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “My Way.” The trickledown economics of worship as entertainment has reached even the last rites for the departed.
Yet tragedy is a vital part of entertainment. Aristotle in his Poetics famously argued for the personal and social benefits of tragic drama. The audience, swept up into the vertiginous moral crises, the magnificent flaws, and the catastrophic falls of the heroes, enjoyed the experience of catharsis—running the gamut of relevant emotions—without being agents in the events depicted on the stage. They left the theater cleansed by the experience and knowing more deeply what it means to be human. They were wiser, more thoughtful, and better prepared to face the reality of their own lives.
Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection.
It is therefore an irony of the most perverse kind that churches have become places where Pascalian distraction and a notion of entertainment that eschews the tragic seem to dominate just as comprehensively as they do in the wider world. I am sure that the separation of church buildings from graveyards was not the intentional start of this process, but it certainly helped to lessen the presence of death. The present generation does not have the inconvenience of passing by the graves of loved ones as it gathers for worship. Nowadays, death has all but vanished from the inside of churches as well.
In my own tradition, the historic Scottish Presbyterian tradition, the somber tempos of the psalter, the haunting calls of lament, and the mortal frailty of the unaccompanied human voice helped to connect Sunday worship to the realities of life. There are indeed psalms of joy and triumph. The parents rejoicing in the birth of a child could find words of gratitude to sing to the Lord, but there are also psalms which allow bereaved parents to express their grief and their sorrow in words of praise to their God.
The psalms as the staple of Christian worship, with their elements of lament, confusion, and the intrusion of death into life, have been too often replaced not by songs that capture the same sensibilities—as the many great hymns of the past did so well—but by those that assert triumph over death while never really giving death its due. The tomb is certainly empty; but we are not sure why it would ever have been occupied in the first place.
Only the dead can be resurrected. As the second thief on the cross saw so clearly, Christ’s kingdom is entered through death, not by escape from it. Traditional Protestantism saw this, connecting baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection. Protestant liturgies made sure that the law was read each service in order to remind the people that death was the penalty for their sin. Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ. The congregants thereby became vicarious participants in the great drama of salvation.