October 21, 2020

Riffs: 5:31:07: Dan Edelen and Evangelicalism’s Loss of “Majesty, Awe and Otherness”

logo2.gifDan Edelen has once again written a provocative post on the situation in evangelicalism, and I’ve responded to it a bit in podcast 61. But it’s too good a topic not to bat around a bit more.

Reacting to the blogosphere blizzard of posts following the return of Francis Beckwith to the Roman Catholic Church, Edelen suggests that evangelicals have become “inhibitors” of God’s mystery, awesomeness and otherness. In a highly rationalistic, dry and dull evangelicalism, the “MAO” appeal of Roman Catholicism is clear.

I think Dan is on solid ground, but there’s a lot more to say on this topic than he takes up.

There’s an issue of Old Covenant vs. New Covenant “God experience.” Michael Horton addresses this in his fine volume In the Face of God. In the Old Covenant, God was present in the bush, the pillars of fire/cloud, in theophanies, on Sinai, with the ark and in the Temple. A review of these experiences and their results might be instructive for those who want to sing seven verses of “I want to see your face.”

New Covenant worship takes place with the knowledge that God is now with us in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no temple. We are the temples, and the church is a temple, but Jesus himself replaces the temple. There is scarcely an old covenant manifestation of God that the new covenant doesn’t go out of its way to assign to Jesus. Then Jesus (and the book of Hebrews) go out of their way to say that the new covenant is better than the old in every way. For example, look at this comparison of the majesty, awesomeness and otherness of an old covenant God-encounter with the blessings of the new covenant.

Hebrews 12:18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

The old covenant encounter with God was majestic and awe inspiring. The new covenant encounter is better, but it is not the same. It is wrapped up with Jesus and what he has done and will do for his people.

We are invited to offer worship, with reverence and awe, because of what we have that is unseen and received by faith. In the church’s proclamation and faith, it holds on to all that Jesus has done by his better work, but in the present, there is not a week by week replay of Sinai going on.

So how do evangelicals find “majesty, awe and otherness” in worship?

For me, part of the matter needs to be repentance for some of the errors of the Calvinistic reformation. Many evangelicals live in hostility to anything other than plain churches, exegetical lectures, bare bones art and a pervasive negativity to all things outside of their church. The greatness of God that is there to be found in creation, in the arts, in creativity and in the world where the glory of God is on display is locked up for many evangelicals.

This has resulted in a kind of “false glory” in evangelicalism, and in my opinion, a plague of false claims and phony miracles in the charismatic wing. We are, actually, manufacturing the mystery and glory of God and associating it with our little entertainments, shows and products. It is no wonder to me that the bus to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are full of evangelicals. A few years in the midst of the evangelical wasteland, swimming in a tepid pool of entertainment, warmed over celebrity worship, numbing rhetoric about movements of God, fake prophecies, TBN’s imitation of Tetzel, horrible CCM and unrestrained pulpit ignorance and ego, and the RCC/EO will look like paradise.

If you have never paused in the middle of an evangelical worship service, usually either a musical extravaganza or a sermon peppered with lots of cutsey insights, and said, “What the …..,” then you are fortunate. It’s happened to millions of us, and it keeps happening.

The God at the foundation of this mess is pathetic. For many people, the association of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with the vacuity and anemic vision of evangelicalism makes some kind of new encounter with God mandatory. Such a person may run off to evangelical church option #4,257 or perhaps just give up. I’d imagine the bus filling up right behind the Roman Catholic bus is probably the atheist bus.

For the ordinary church, it’s a matter of finding a good looking young staff members, good contemporary music playing musicians, a pleasant youngish pastor with communication skills, building a nice building and providing the expecting menu of programs, holiday events and moral encouragement for the kids. Mystery? Majesty? Awe? Otherness? What church are you attending with those ideas? Not the majority of evangelical churches today.

There’s plenty more to talk about, but this is enough for now. Add in your bit. This is a great topic for discussion.


  1. Or the next bus to Wiccan or what-not.

    I should point out the irony in the Calvinist tradition about the emphasis Glory of God and the lack of MAO. Glory is often not explainable, cannot be written in a three-volume tome. A “you know it when you see it” thing. And yet, it seems that if a Calvinist keeps writing books, he just might capture it.

    Think of the endless descriptions of the decorations in the Tabernacle that were for “glory and beauty.” Obviously God cares about the details and about our 5 senses.

  2. Heteroclite says

    ” TBN’s imitation of Tetzel” 🙂 🙂 🙂 Touche, iMonk!

    I’ve never been able to relate to Calvin’s astringent formula that things like musical instruments are passe bec. they belong to the category of “mere types and shadows.” Yet here’s where I get stumped on this very valid question of bringing more of the MAO into our worship services: how do we keep it from becoming a thru-the-backdoor snare for idolatry? Or mere ritualism?

    (My apologies if this angle has already been hashed out elsewhere at this site; so far, I’ve only read about 40% of the wealth of material here.)

  3. But you have come to mount Zion the city of the living God the Heavenly Jerusalem and to innumerable angels in festal gathering and to the assembly of first born enrolled in heaven……

    This is what the liturgy is about- coming to the New Jeruselum. After being in the evangelical waistland for a number of years I read what the liturgy was about in the catechism. It shook me to the core (MOA induced shock and awh) and I haven’t recovered yet, which makes it even more difficult to hang out with the evan crowd.
    Also lets remeber that this is how the whole Church Cath/Orth worshiped for 1500 yrs. Did Christ who said he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it let them get it wrong until Luther? And which group has bin right since then?

    Everything that can be shaken will be shaken. Its not Orth/Cath that seems to be shaken. Rather its roots can be surly read in the Apostolic Fathers.

  4. Michael,

    Thanks for riffing on my post on this issue. Heard your podcast, too. Many good points I can’t entirely address in limited time. I’ll probably post more on this in the future, especially concerning a major concern of mine that you touched on in the podcast: Evangelicals thinking in terms of negation rather than on the positive existence of a particular good.

  5. At the suburban UMC where I pastor, we can get some folks to the altar rail to kneel for prayer at times, and some will come to be anointed with oil and be prayed for during communion, but I don’t sense that many of them have a sense of what you are labeling MAO, which I agree that we need. Our posture during worship says a lot, we want to sit most of the time, stand to sing, and maybe kneel as I have indicated above, but when do we fall on our faces before God? I actually got down on my face during a message one Sunday to make this point. Most of the comments that I received were amazement that a then 55 year-old man could get down on his face like that and up so quickly. Believe me, that wasn’t my point. Note how Muslims do bow their faces to the ground when they pray. Maybe we should learn something from that.

  6. Chris Stiles says

    I’m guessing that you would have already read Lewis’ book on the Psalms? Whilst I would hesitate to make his experience normative, he has a great chapter entitled something like “The Fair Beauty of the Lord” in which his hypothesis is that the average Jewish worshipper saw the worship in the temple and the worship of God as something as far more organically connected as us moderns, who feel the need to seperate out the trappings from ‘true worship’ whatever that is.

    I have major problems with my own Charismatic background – whilst being towards the Dan end of the spectrum as far as those roots are concerned, but the one thing that they do is a more whole person approach to worship, that can then sometimes feed into awe and all that. Yes, they easily get into the theology suspect and emotionally overblown – but perhaps they capture something of the awe of God that we – in our more austere view of awe – often miss.

  7. Oh how this takes me back to my days in the Episcopal church before I went back to being an evangelical again. I’m approaching a crossroads I think and if nothing else find I miss the MAO…

  8. I think the real loss of MOA in evangelicalism comes from a basic misunderstanding of what Christianity is.

    Growing up in evangelicalism, I constantly heard “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Well, religion is all about demarcation of the holy vis-a-vis the profane; it’s about transcendence and immanence; it’s about an experience from the outside.

    When evangelicalism jettisoned their desire to be a religion, they jettisoned God along with it.

  9. In our present evangelicultural megachurch, MAO is defined as 35 minutes of standing up for concert-quality P&W music that makes one “feel” worshipful. I tolerate that, but cannot understand how godly men can call it “biblical worship” when so much is missing–reading of the Scripture, public prayer, confession of sin, meaningful communion (3-4x/year with perfuctory efficiency), and other very obvious marks of biblical worship. As lifelong Bible church evangelicals, we didn’t know what we were missing until we stumbled a few years ago upon a conservative evangelical Episcopal church with ancient-modern worship and deep biblical teaching. But we moved, and now we live in an evangelical mecca (or, wasteland), and we long for liturgy and for MAO, but cannot find it. The few conservative Anglican bodies here are good-hearted and well-intentioned, but rather spiritually anemic or just ancient without the modern. It’s all very discouraging, but we will keep searching.

  10. Lamentably, evangelicals seem to have an impoverished imagination – a fear of metaphor, symbol, narrative and improvising on, and from within, the script of the theodrama. The imagination has been left behind.

    Vive l’imagination!

    As you so accurately point out, the rationalism and negation mentality of evangelicalism leaves us dry and disconnected. Could we say it this way: disembodied and unable to see the value of mystery and transcendence regarding everyday life and worship. We need to start to re-narrate the imagination so it has its rightful place and pace in our faith, and all that we say and do, as those involved in the drama of God’s salvation and the renewal of all things.

  11. Irenaeus says

    Pastor M — my wife and I, moderate mainline PCUSA evangelicals — attended a couple Friday night services at a local Orthodox church for the ‘feast of the presanctified gifts’, which involved prostration; quite an experience, that; so i think you are right on target.

    Jim Getz — thanks for articulating exactly what I’ve been thinking for some time now.

  12. “When evangelicalism jettisoned their desire to be a religion, they jettisoned God along with it.”

    What a statement. You’re right.

    BTW, what does “MAO” stand for?

  13. Nevermind, I found the definition in Edelen’s article.

  14. >Edelen suggests that evangelicals have become “inhibitors” of God’s majesty, awesomeness and otherness. In a highly rationalistic, dry and dull evangelicalism, the “MAO” appeal of Roman Catholicism is clear.

  15. hey Michael,
    I hope I’m not being too picky here but the “m” in mao that Edelen suggests is Mystery rather than Majesty.

    The distinction is evident for me, as I do see a sense of ‘majesty’ in evangelicalism (some degree of it), but not ‘mystery.’

    I state this because there is indeed a sense of uneasiness among evangelicals to suggest that there is a hiddeness to God apart from his revelation via the scriptures.


  16. bookdragon says


    Back in one of my theology classes, I encountered the idea of Shekinah. This is usually understood as sort of the Jewish version the Holy Spirit, but it really refers to the aspect of God’s presence manifest in the midst of the people. The more mystical tradition says that Shekinah will manifest physically on earth 7 times, but lists only 6 instances of such in the Tanakh. Of course, when I read that, my first thought was ‘Jesus is the 7th’. I suspect a lot of early Jewish followers of His had the same idea and that’s why those connections are made in the epistles – to point out Who Jesus was.

    So this is not an OC vs. NC thing – in fact, it’s pointing out the continuity between the two. As the presence of God was immanently manifest to our ancestors, but only at specific instances, so His Presence in Christ is manifest to us now and for always. That should enhance, not diminish MAO.

    btw, there is a piece on liturgy, poetry and ambiguity at my one of my favorite Godblog sites:


    It doesn’t address evangelicalism, but the overall consideration of how liturgy affects a sense of awe of majesty and how over-rational/over-thinking about every detail of theological language gets in the way is very good. It also very much ties in with the issue of art/imagination and MAO.

  17. Check out Ancient Faith Radio on the Internet for some Orthodox music that will bring MAO.

  18. Oh I couldn’t agree more.

    After being raised mostly in Bible churches I stumbled into an Anglican church mostly as a result of reading Lewis and L’Engle. I found a sense of mystery and a delight in God’s beauty as expressed through the arts that was almost entirely missing from the Evangelical churches I knew. My first Sunday when I knelt with everyone else for the Eucharist (first time in my life in that context) I was struck with a sense of having finally come to a church where I felt I was part of something bigger than myself. It answered my hunger for a beauty that transcended the normalcy of my life.

    Incidentally, I think that a lot of people in my generation (twenty-something) are looking for that. Obviously my postmodern generation is in desperate need of a solid, Scriptural grounding for our minds, but I think few of us will respond long term to Biblical knowledge if it is devoid of a beauty to capture our souls. I’m just hoping the Evangelical church can revive its forgotten imagination and bring mystery back to life for this time.

  19. If you feel that OT worship has been “cancelled” by the Word made Flesh (and I don’t see why that would be the case), then what of the Supper of the Lamb described in Revelations? I don’t think any commenters have made reference to the bowls of incense, the bowing down, the crying out, the elders around the throne in prayer, the city that needs no sun since the Lamb is in the center and is the only Light necessary.

    I can’t think of a better description of the Mass, in Heaven and on earth, the wedding banquet of Jesus and His Bride, the Church.

  20. This is something that I had been wanting to write about on my blog for a while, but I never got around to it. I definitely notice it as a shortcoming of present-day evangelicalism that when you go to most evangelical churches, it is just like going to the mall, or to a movie, or to a concert. There is no sense of the otherness of the God whom we serve in our services, and I consider that a tragedy.

  21. Often when evangelicals complain about the lack of “spirituality” in conservative liturgical churches, it is not the case that it isn’t there, it is the case that it is different and therefore missed. Granted, there are churches full of “orthodusty” – but the charge of a lack of spirituality often misses the mark.

    It is like somebody that lived all their lives in say lower Manhattan, arriving in Florence and complaining about the lack of magnificent buildings, because he is looking for constructions 100 stories high – and missing the Duomo.

    To receive the Eucharist weekly – that is deep spirituality. To say the Nicene creed together with other believers – that is deep spirituality, especially when you realise that you are saying it in the historically connected church of 2 millenia – “transchronic spirituality”.

    Maybe we should ask – what is this “spirituality” that we want? Maybe when we define that, we’ll realise why the modern evangelical church is deficient of MAO.

  22. Michael,

    I just have to chime in and say thanks. Great post and very pervocative. I just can’t figure out why you get in so much less trouble than me for writing these posts 🙂

  23. marymargaret says

    Now, I am a Roman Catholic, who has attended the Latin/roman Rite all my life (except for those 15 or so years when I was away from the Church–and all Christianity). I must say that the RC, as commonly experienced, has also lost a sense of majesty/mystery, etc. I occasionally go to a Christian church in my home town (used to be Disciples of Christ, but split off over the ordination of active homosexuals to the ministry). I’ll admit that they have less MAO than even the ordinary Catholic Mass. Still, the people in that congregation are kind and welcoming and really, truly believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. Michael, I don’t think I have ever commented on your blog, so allow me to say that it is a privilege to know you through the blogosphere. I am confident that we are one body in Christ. It is a pleasure to find protestants who don’t hate us even when they disagree with our theology. I always find things to meditate upon when I read this blog. God bless you, your family, and your readers.

    PS. For those of your readers that don’t understand, the Latin Rite does not mean that it is celebrated in Latin. It is just a way to differentiate between the Rites of the Catholic Church–I think we have well over 20 of them–I live in KS, where the overwhelming majority of Masses are of the Roman Rite (vernacular).

  24. A question I have for Dan E. (which I will ask on his blog) is why he or others see “the RCC [Roman Catholic Church] as a dead end and always have.”

    I spent 15 years in a Presbyterian church of solid Reformed orthodoxy. The overarching theme of Reformed theology seems, to me, to be the Sovereignty of God. Irresistible grace, unconditional election . . . so many of the elements of reformed belief highlight the all-encompassing power of God. In my view, if there is an element of the Gospel that likewise permeates Catholic belief, it is the Incarnation. The wonder and scandal of sovereign God becoming truly and fully man was the pivot point of salvation history and, rightly understood, is the organizing focus of Catholic belief and practice.

    In my view, that’s the key to the absence of Mystery, Awe and Otherness in Evangelical churches. The Catholic Church is shot through and through with the sacraments — outward expressions of inner actions of God. God really becomes present in Holy Communion; God forms a real bond between the husband and wife in matrimony; God accomplishes full restoration with his Body when I confess my sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation. The power in the individual’s life isn’t based on our intellectual acceptance of God’s truth — it comes from the same invasion into our territory by God himself as the original amazing God-made-man.

    In the absence of that real and present dwelling of Christ on the altar and among the people of God, why is it surprising that worship becomes analytical or dry? It’s not the fault of wholehearted Evangelical believers. It’s the fact that you don’t even get to kiss your sister — you only get to kiss the letter your lover wrote you. Cold comfort, in my humble opinion.

  25. Among many of the others on this site, this is an excellent post, but this issue hits me pretty hard where I’m at in my pilgrimage. I’ve been a believer for 30 years, raised Conservative Baptist, but now currently attending a Calvinistic emergent church. A few years ago I “discovered” the Desert Fathers and many of the Hesychasts, Catholic Mystics, and have been practicing the Jesus Prayer and other traditional forms of Christian contemplation in my desire to wait before God.

    I can’t stand “low church” Protestant worship; the dearth of symbolism, the arbitrary service structure, music that lacks theological depth (contemporary) or is rarely performed correctly (traditional hymns). I love Orthodox liturgy, but as a Calvinist, I’m fairly uncomfortable in some of the finer but vital points of their theology. I’m wary of falling into the trap of “christian consumersim” and church hopping; commitment to one’s body and community is vital. How would fleeing to another denomination or church body fix this error?

    My question is that this post and ensuing discussion clearly spells out the problem at hand; what can be the solution? What can we do, having acknowleged and repented of our poverty, to solve this?

  26. Fr. Mike Creson says

    As someone who tries to keep the MAO going every weekend at Mass, it ain’t easy. How to be relevant and mystery-laden, time for silence and ‘did you see the game last night’, solemnity and a happy face. We all want joy-filled MAO guilt free, ggod music and the seat on the aisle so you can crawl around me.