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A Difficult Worship

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November 14, 2010 Tags: Lives of Faith
A Difficult Worship

Today's entry was written by Susanne Antonetta. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

For the last several years, my husband and I have done something I would once have found quite improbable: attending an evangelical Korean church. Improbable because we are neither evangelical—or not in the sense that I understood it when we first went--nor Korean. Our adopted son is, and we knew several church members, who invited us so warmly we thought we could park our Catholic rear ends on the seats without offending God or human too much. I had a liberal Catholic suspicion of the word evangelical at the time, a holier-than-they-because-less-obviously-holy attitude. Too, the language barrier seemed absurd. Ultimately, though, I could write this about our church experience:

To be where we are feels more like prayer than prayer, and makes language seem an adding on your fingers, something to be used in order to be put out of the way. St John of the Cross wrote of God that ultimately, “even the act of prayer and communion, which was once carried on by reflections and other methods, is now wholly an act of loving.” It’s not new to think of mystical knowing and language as apart. It’s a strange premise to take to a church, with its sermon and print bulletins and writing on the wall. Still, if we understood the woman rising in her pleated skirt prayed for her job, it would still give little beyond the prayer of recognizing prayer: the face she hides behind her rounded oxblood nails, and her shaking shoulders.1

The whole thing has gotten me rethinking evangelism, a doubly difficult thing as I work, some of the time, in a West Coast academic setting, where to be Marxist is to be hip and to be Christian, an object of suspicion. The first evangelists were the apostles. And though to be “evangelical” has come to refer to the act of witnessing your faith to others, the first acts of the evangelists were following and listening--listening with the radical patience that takes you through years of struggle with words shaped by forces outside the squeeze of time and materiality that is our linguistics. Witnessing, preaching, came later, even after betrayal. Evangelism meant to be one of those who have lived the Gospels and come out the other side, and only then to tell the story. Though we struggle with our Korean and more and more comes through—let us pray and hints of the crucifixion—most goes through the ear darkly. It may be the most true evangelism we could strive for, this eager and bewildered listening.

Science, I think, can be understood as an evangelical stance toward the given world: listening, stumbling, and finally, an attempt to share a bit of the dim message this is what we are. I am not a scientist, but a passionate science student, and the paradoxes—parables perhaps more accurately—of science fascinate. As a child I was obsessed with the story of the coelacanth, the fish believed extinct for 65 million years found alive, and still Cretaceous after all these years, off the coast of Africa. Physicists argue the cosmos may be illusory.. A silky jellyfish, turritopsis nutricula, is effectively immortal, aging out and reverting to its polyp state ad infinitum through a process called transdifferentiation.

Writer Karen Armstrong claims that modern religious conservatism—often also called “evangelical”--has tended to separate logos, rational knowing, from mythos, the psychological and intuitive way of understanding the world by telling ourselves its story. Myth has its equal and valid truth—the fruit of knowledge may not have literally existed, but its bite carries a burden, as the J. Robert Oppenheimers among us would tell you. In denying the validity mythos carries in its own right, believers can force faith into fact: creation in six days, human-dinosaur cavorting a few thousand years ago, the solemn beauty of our planet’s forming itself converted to The Flintstones. I imagine science, like language, participates in both the realms of logos and of mythos and cannot be known fully any other way.

If our church services were translated into English, the act of translation would provide only a reflection--in a systematically different way of thinking--of meaning: a sort of mime. Yet poetry is translation, too. I wrote a poem spoken by an Italian beata, Ludovica Albertoni, whose statue I had admired in Italy. My Ludovica is obsessed with the fact of nuclear radiation and declares “I am myself/atomic.” She calls half-lives “the language of immortality & judgment/& purgatorial fire.” Like my beloved coelacanth, or the turritopsis, Ludovica sees half-lives dancing for us a world in which time is continuously shaken out, refreshed, all one. Her science is a glowing prism shedding light in many different directions at once.

Oppenheimer recognized the mythos inherent in the logos of his work, naming a test bomb Trinity and hailing nuclear success with a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” In his case, it was an erroneous mythos of power. Oppenheimer lived to regret his work; he had gone beyond evangelism—beyond the eager and bewildered listening to a perilous focus on that personal pronoun and what it could do.

Science and faith walk the same path, balancing knowing and not-knowing and remaining committed to listening, even when our God and our world breathe paradox and mystery. As it was for the apostles to wander, often bewildered, through their evangelism, ours is a difficult worship: information flowing in like a stream of language, and the near-impossible call to be still and let it form. Kitohamnida: let us pray.


1. "Hosts” Image. Vol. 65, 2010: 1, p.103

Susanne Antonetta is an award-winning writer and teacher, the author of three books of nonfiction (Body Toxic and A Mind Apart and the forthcoming Inventing Family) and four books of poetry, which she writes under the name of Suzanne Paola. She has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Orion, Seneca Review, and Image Journal, among other publications. She lives in Bellingham, Washington. For me information, see her website.

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conrad - #39851

November 14th 2010

And Kitohamnida to you too.

Mike Smuts - #40232

November 16th 2010

I can relate to this.  I believe that the mystery of our partial knowledge of God as in 1Cor.13:9-12 makes it necessary to always pray as a child who do not fully understand, but who fully trusts in Hom who revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. We too frequently boast our presumptious knowledge of God and in the process damage our humble worship of Him.

Let us not dissect God’s revelation of Himself through Scripture and Science in such a way that we end up with the the dead remains of what was once a living way of worship and adoration of our Lord and Saviour!

Let the mystery prevail and inspire!

R Hampton - #40277

November 16th 2010

I found it a fascinating read and would love to know more.

Susanne Antonetta - #40742

November 19th 2010

What would you love to know more about, I am wondering? As the author, I’d always be happy to write more . . .

R Hampton - #40757

November 19th 2010

...the experience of being in a Church with a different language and culture; feeling the Holy Spirit so strongly that it causes you to rethink Evangelicalism (the modern American form and the Original); the dichotomy of raising a Christian son with the help of a culture outside your own.

Gregory - #40767

November 19th 2010

Kamsahamnida, Susanne!

Let me share a small story too. I lived in Korea for about three months. During my time there I taught English in an ‘evangelical’ church at ‘Sunday school.’ I would go to the services before & then head way upstairs to teach (very young kids), then sometimes to eat with the congregation afterwards. Kind people of great faith, indeed!

The first (south) Korean President (1948-60) Syngman Rhee (Yi Seungman) was a Methodist Christian.

I have met many Koreans & make this basic observation: the word ‘evangelical’ to Presbyterian Koreans is often synonymous with ‘Christian.’ There are many Catholic Christians (majority?) in Korea also. But the ‘evangelicals’ are mainly the Protestants & the Protestants seek to emigrate more than the Catholics. (that’s not a scientific observation)

There are many, many Korean missionaries nowadays. In another city & country I lived in there were reportedly less than 300 Koreans living there, yet more than 10 Korean churches.

I’m curious, like R. Hampton, to hear more about your ‘rethinking Evangelicalism.’ After all, there are Catholic evangelicals too! ‘Evangelical’ to Koreans might have come to mean ‘too normal.’ But God Bless them for trying!

Susanne Antonetta - #40779

November 19th 2010

Fascinating questions & the subject of raising my son is endless . . . yes, Catholics are the majority in Korea, as I understand it. & yes, there is Catholic evangelism . . . it is not a term used often in Catholic churches in my experience, at least, it is used in a different way than the way I have experienced it in other Caucasian churches, where there seems to be a sense of putting pushpins in your map of the world as you claim places for Christianity . . . & I think what I want to probe is where my intellectual suspicion of that comes from, & how I have learned to lose that over time.

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