William Dyrness is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and was a founding member of the Brehm Center for worship, theology, and the arts. He invites us today, the first day of the Calvin Symposium on Worship, to reflect on how God draws us near to him “in the midst of what we love and enjoy” and to ask why our worship often fails in this regard.
I think the basic ideas behind my new book, Poetic Theology, came to me one night at a University of Southern California (USC) football game. A couple of my friends have season tickets, and now and then when their children or family can’t go they invite my wife and me to come along. If you haven’t stood on your feet amidst eighty thousand screaming fans I can’t describe the experience to you, but I can see how it becomes addictive for many people.
With seconds left in the game, a five-point lead for USC, and the opposing team on the five-yard line, it was bedlam! Of course I had known that for some people the attraction of sports teams is all consuming, but before that night I had not felt it. Sensing the crowd’s enthusiasm got me thinking about why people give themselves to their hobbies, sports teams, and favorite rock groups, or, to take another example, why they find such deep meaning in works of art.
For me these reflections connected with a growing awareness of the way the Spirit of God works in the larger culture, through what in Scripture is called the wisdom tradition, what Augustine referred to as the motivation of love, or what medieval humanists called a “theologia poetica” (literally, poetic theology). All this led me to develop a method of describing and celebrating God’s work of drawing people to himself in the midst of what they love and enjoy.
Our longings are all misdirected in one way or another, but the fact of desire, I believe, is placed in us by God. As the famous medieval theologian Bonaventure put it, desire is the movement of the soul toward God. In my book I wanted to ask: how can the many longings of our everyday life be captured and disciplined to move us toward God? And, to put the question another way, why is it that our worship so seldom accomplishes this exercise and discipline of desire?