While on vacation recently, I read John Updike’s novel Terrorist, published in 2006. I have enjoyed Updike’s work over the years. I like the pace and rhythm of his storytelling, not to mention the complexity of his characters.
Described by one critic as “perhaps the most essential novel to emerge from the events of September 11th,” Terrorist is the story of Ahmad Ashmawy, an American-born teenager and Muslim who finds himself becoming increasingly alienated in the midst of what he perceives to be the rampant materialism and hedonism of American culture. His distaste for the American lifestyle soon becomes a disdain that renders him highly susceptible to a terroristic ethos. In the novel, Updike offers an intriguing and disturbing glimpse of the formation and cultivation of a terrorist. That may not be a story that any of us wants to hear. I wonder, though, if we can afford NOT to hear such a story.
At one point in the novel, Ahmad visits a Christian worship service and is greatly troubled by what he perceives to be a lack of reverence for God’s holiness. The narrator describes Ahmad’s worship experience in this fashion:
The church is nearly full, and none but the front pews, apparently the less desirable, are empty. Accustomed to worshipers squatting and kneeling on a floor, emphasizing God’s height above them, Ahmad feels, even seated, dizzily, blasphemously tall. The Christian attitude of lazily sitting erect as at an entertainment suggests that God is an entertainer who, when He ceases to entertain, can be removed from the stage, and another act brought on.
Ahmad’s discomfort at Christianity’s tendency to reduce worship to simplistic “entertainment” resonates with me. Gravitation toward superficial titillation in worship (or, to put it crassly, a fondness for cheap liturgical thrills) is an issue with which I personally struggle as a pastor whose vocation, in many ways, revolves around the responsibility of helping people to worship well. This is not an issue of “contemporary” versus “traditional,” by the way. All styles of liturgy have the potential to become distorted in such a way that entertainment or spectacle is valued over authentic reverence.
I do not mean to overstate my concern here. It is true, after all, that, unlike Islam, the story at the heart of Christianity is the story of an incarnate God, a God who is among us in a way that is transformationally relational and personal. Therefore, we rightly reject the idea that God is unreachably distant. My fear, however, is that we often jump to the other theological extreme. We often reduce our incarnational theology to an eagerness to make God into something idolatrously cozy and selfishly personal—a divine grandparent who coddles us, winks at our misbehavior, and serves up comfortable grace like warm apple pie.
Could it be that we have allowed God to become so familiar, so common, that our worship is often more about our personal proclivities (or entertainment) than it is about making ourselves available to the scandalous, unsettling, and transformational presence of the Holy Other?
Ahmad did not sense genuine reverence in his experience with Christian worship. I suppose that we might be quick to dismiss his observations as nothing more than the biased critique of an ungracious Muslim.
But does he have a point?