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Who is Worship For?

In his Undergoing God, James Alison says a lot of provocative and important things, not least about the nature of worship. He details two different accounts of what worship is, which he terms “the Nuremberg” and “the un-Nuremberg,” drawing on the imagery of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. “The Nuremberg” form of worship consists in the crowd being whipped into a frenzy of devotion to the Führer on the basis of past humiliations and future threats which necessitate the loyalty and devotion of the populace. As such this form of worship is always centered on the reproduction of an in-group identity that makes enemies (i.e. the Jews) necessary.

What lies at the heart of this is that “In the case of Nuremberg, it was the party officials, for whom the faithful only had interest in as far as their mobilisation served the purpose of keeping party officials in power and wealth. The faithful had to be made ready to do things, or acquiesce in things, with which calm and unenthusiastic people might disagree. A quite specific set of desires was being put forward, and the faithful were being inducted into acquiring these as their own.” In short, this sort of “worship” is a form of utilitarian calculus centered in a discourse of power. The Führer needs the worship of the populace to get them to do what he needs them to do. The worship is all about the one in power, the one worshiped.

In contrast to this form of worship, which Alison thinks is at the heart of what usually passes for worship in the world, he offers a vision of “the un-Nuremberg”:

In the case of the un-Nuremberg we have something rather different: the “they” whose desire the faithful are being inducted into acquiring as their own is God, who has made his desire manifest. God has no desire for us to worship him for his sake; he needs no worship, no adulation, no praise, no glory. No divine ego is flattered, stability maintained, nor is any threatened petulance staved off, by our worship. No, the only people for whom it matters that we worship God is ourselves. It is entirely for our benefit that we are commanded to worship God, because if we don’t we will have no protection at all against the other sort of worship. . . .

In other words, True Worship is for our own good, no one else’s. It is the gradual process by which someone who likes us reaches us while we are in the middle of a Nuremberg rally, and gradually, and slowly gives us our senses, allowing us to stumble out of the rally, and walk away, being amazed at what it is we have been bound up in, and shocked at what we have done, or might have done as a result of where we were going. On learning to give glory to God, to render God praise, is our being given to have our imaginations set free from fate, from myth, from ineluctable forces, from historical grudges. It is a stripping away of our imaginations from being bound down by, tied into, inevitability, submission to power, going along with things. It is the detox of our Nuremberg-ed imagination. (p. 37-8)


  1. Brad A. wrote:

    I think this imagery is effective, and I can definitely see the “Nuremburg” type in my own experience and in what I study (especially when nationalism is involved in worship).

    A somewhat odd statement by him, though: “No, the only people for whom it matters that we worship God is ourselves. It is entirely for our benefit that we are commanded to worship God, because if we don’t we will have no protection at all against the other sort of worship.”

    I think it does matter to God, for true worship of God participates in the life of God and in the restoration of creation to God’s original intent for it. To what extent God “needs” that, I’m not competent to say; I rather assume God desires that, and I’ll refrain from psychanalyzing the Almighty.

    Furthermore, surely protection against the “Nuremburg” type of worship isn’t the only – or even a chief – reason for true worship. That suggests an original violence or conflict against which worship is merely put forward in resistance, rather than an original state of worship against which the “Nuremburg” type is an assailant or competitor.

    Not to take away from the larger point, but I thought this needed addressing.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  2. Brad A. wrote:

    That should read “psycho-analyzing” in the third paragraph.

    Wish there was an edit feature… :-)

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  3. roger flyer wrote:

    Nice post. Detoxification from Nuremberg is not always gradual, but sometimes is like being knocked off a horse.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  4. david wrote:

    Yes, I thought the post made a very good point about how we need true worship in order to avoid falling into a form of idolatry (Nuremberg worship). I think I agree with the point Brad A makes, that there must surely be more to worship than our psyhcological well-being. If that were the whole truth – and I know that it was never said to be the whole truth – then modern worship would be open to becoming even more self-centred than it quite often is.

    Saturday, July 25, 2009 at 6:49 am | Permalink
  5. Robby wrote:

    I found it interesting that he pointed out that Nuremberg worship was based on past humiliations and hope against future threats. I could not help but think about the function of penal substitutionary atonement and also the focus on the threat of hell that seems to be the primary content of popular Christian theology. This seeming expiation of guilt and protection against threats can easily be used to stir people into a frenzy and causes people to quickly acquiesce to some pretty precarious and inconsistent views.

    thanks for the great post.

    Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  6. Dan wrote:

    My first response to Alison’s thinking is Psalm 115 and related passages especially Jeremiah 10 (also Isaiah 46 & 1 Cor 12:2.

    Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  7. Chris Donato wrote:

    It should go without saying that just because a particular doctrine, or set of doctrines, can be used inappropriately, doesn’t mean said doctrines are themselves inappropriate.

    Alison’s clearly taking aim at what amounts to pagan worship (the appeasement of the gods) within the Christian church. All such guilt and threats have met their match in the grace of God in Christ, which is kind of the point of some of the doctrines you mention above, Robby (understood biblically, of course).

    Monday, July 27, 2009 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  8. Robby wrote:

    I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced that PSA, popularly understood, is biblical. Thats not to say the the language of sacrifice, propitiation and expiation does not exist. That language is definitely there, but I’m not sure we appropriate it accurately in understanding God’s activity through Jesus. in particular is our understanding of the propitiation of God’s wrath. When we speak about Jesus representing Israel (and all of humanity) and taking upon himself the wrath of God in our stead are we talking about that wrath as the threat of hell, or the bondage of death and exile? To me, the differences are significant – maybe I am not making necessary connections.

    2nd, is not PSA as a doctrine not based more upon western notions of punishment for breaching social contracts rather than the more biblical notion of regulating the covenant relationship that existed between God and the people of Israel? If that was not the original intention of those who first forged this account of atonement, I can definitely see it in the language of popular evangelicalism today.

    I really appreciate Hans Boersma’s critique of PSA and his attempt to reconstruct it as a doctrine within the framework of recapitulation. He says that traditional theories of PSA suffer because they are dehistoricized – they do not account for the particularity of God’s action through and in Israel; individualized – again, social contracts as opposed to regulating covenant community; and judicial – understanding our relationship with God with judicial and punitive metaphors is too reductive and misses the restorative nature of God’s justice. But what I cannot understand is how after dealing with those concerns you would still have a theory you could adequately call “Penal Substitution” left.

    So I’m interested in what you mean by a “biblical” understanding of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I am more than open to any reproval and would like to hear anyone’s thoughts and concerns.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  9. roger flyer wrote:

    Ditto for me…in a new post, provocateur?

    In my view, PSA is a wrong headed theory about the atonement that leads to a lot of other ‘heretical’ ideas about the nature of God, and consequently to fascist and some Nuremberg like behaviors (particularly among so called evangelical theologians and ‘pastors’ and flocks)

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 5:52 am | Permalink
  10. Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

    I agree, Robby, that Christ’s death (and much else about Christ) is largely abstracted from Israel’s history — by almost all Christians, evangelicals as well as mainliners.

    And without a deep familiarity with God’s relationship with Israel (and vice versa) — which is to say, without a deep familiarity with the OT — a just God who’s involved in creation seems like a monster.

    In order to reappropriate “violent” language (sacrifice, punishment, judgement, etc.), I think we need to relearn what it means for God to be involved in history.

    I think this means, first of all, examing our notions of a God who’s a priori non-violent, pacifistic, etc.

    Check out this essay:

    Here’s a quote:

    “God chooses to become involved in violence so that evil will not have the last word. In everything, including violence, God seeks to accomplish loving purposes.”

    In a violent world I think we need to ask ourselves what it would mean for God to get involved. For that we need to read the OT.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink
  11. Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

    I want to clarify this:

    “In a violent world I think we need to ask ourselves what it would mean for God to get involved. For that we need to read the OT.”

    I’m aware that Jesus Christ is definitively what it means for God to get involved in a violent world. But I think we need to be careful to let the OT help determine, by serving as theological context, the meaning of Jesus’ death, and not simply take Jesus’ death and say that all the divine violence in the OT was illusory. The latter tendency I think is exactly what leads to ahistorical, decontexualized understandings of the Jesus’ death, as well as historically to Christian anti-Semitism.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  12. Chris Donato wrote:

    “So I’m interested in what you mean by a “biblical” understanding…”

    I was actually thinking of Boersma when I wrote that. It’s just simply a matter of continuing to wrestle with the notion of divine violence and resisting the temptation to eschew it altogether: absolute hospitality is not an option in a dark world. “Even the hospitality of election in Christ,” Boersma writes, “has a particularity that entails boundaries and violence. …God’s hospitality in Christ needs and edge of violence to ensure the welcome of humanity and all creation (Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross, p. 93, emphasis mine).

    To be sure (as Boersma is careful to point out) such violence does not predominate, nor does it have the final say. But to give it over this side of Christ’s appearing would be to give it over to Christ’s enemies. “One cannot forever whistle “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own” (Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 180).

    All this to say, I’m not going to poo-poo on Anselm or the Calvinists, even if he and other popularizers of such theories relied too heavily on Western notions of retributive justice and a “strict economy of exchange” (i.e., it’s certainly much more than that, but it’s not less, either). There’s some deeply rich content in there, and I do think Boersma manages to extract the best from it.

    Finally, what is bearing the divine curse of exile if not taking upon one’s shoulders Gehenna itself, that place outside of the city where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth? In other words, surely exile is “hell” (again, biblically understood)!

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  13. roger flyer wrote:

    I will do some poo pooing

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  14. Chris Donato wrote:

    Roger, didn’t your mother ever tell you not to touch that shtuff?!

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  15. Robby wrote:

    “There’s some deeply rich content in there, and I do think Boersma manages to extract the best from it.”

    But the problem that I have with this extraction is that it seems that with what you have left its hard to use words like “Penal and Substitution” to describe this metaphor of atonement. Even if you do allow God to be a participant in violence, do you understand this violence to simply be retributive? I don’t know about you, but I do not. This picture of God is not compatible with the God revealed in Jesus. God’s actions towards his creation must ultimately be understood to be restorative. Second, Understanding Jesus’ sacrifice as substitution goes a little too far. I cannot see that Jesus died “instead” of us, but on “behalf” of us. There is a difference. i’m afraid that the idea of substitute has underwritten a tendency in communities that are predominantly shaped by PSA to disconnect their lives from the reconciling work of God in this world. since Jesus is substitute, we are no longer participants – in any degree – in the atoning work of God in the world. As representative we still have some degree of involvement particularly in the mission of the church.

    As for the issue of divine curse – if we are say that hell theologically understood functions as exile – and not eternal punishment – then I might be able to go there and agree with that.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  16. Robby wrote:

    And with that I want it to be said that I’m not interested in “poo pooing” on Anselm or Calvin. But as history will attest to I do believe that we will need to continually engage in reforming theology in faithful Christian community. Calvin and Anselm should be commended for their commitment to Christ, but we should also learn from their mistakes and insufficiencies, just as I hope others will learn from ours if Christ does not return before then.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  17. Zwingli 2.0 wrote:


    How do you see ‘judgment’ related to retribution and restoration?

    I agree that divine retribution doesn’t have much of a place in the Bible, but judgment seems to.

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  18. Robby wrote:

    Well, I’m a “hopeful” universalist (I am stealing this term. see “The Evangelical Universalist” by Gregory McDonald –

    The way I understand it is that if judgment will just simply result in the eternal punishment for some then you can describe judgment as retributive. I am hopeful that judgment will result not in the everlasting punishment but in the eventual reconciliation of all things in Christ. Therefore I see both God’s wrath and his judgment to be ultimately restorative.

    I feel like I’ve brought everyone off track with my comments and did not mean to sway from what was an already interesting topic. It just seemed to me that faith communities that struggle with idolatry – especially nationalism – seemed to be exclusively steeped in this metaphor for atonement where the threat of future punishment looms large (for the outsiders particularly) and the soteriological aim is reduced to cleansing of our conscience (glossing over past humiliations). It paints a very retributive picture of God which easily underwrites the participation of believers in activities and allegiances that are detrimental to holistic, biblical witness which proclaims God’s restoration of all things in Jesus (Acts 3).

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  19. Chris Donato wrote:

    I think that’s a fair assessment, Robby. The trick will be, as I alluded to above, not “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 11:41 pm | Permalink
  20. John Meunier wrote:

    “The Nuremberg” form of worship consists in the crowd being whipped into a frenzy of devotion to the Führer on the basis of past humiliations and future threats which necessitate the loyalty and devotion of the populace. As such this form of worship is always centered on the reproduction of an in-group identity that makes enemies (i.e. the Jews) necessary.

    I’m always edgy about folks who invoke Nazi comparisons to make a case. It tilts the scale from the beginning.

    Does this accurately describe actual worship? Is there “frenzy”? Is it based on “humilation” and outside “threats”? Is the point of it all creation of an identity?

    I have not experience this type of worship – as far as I can tell. I’ve seen pentecostal worship that could be described as frenzied, but it was not organized around themes of humilitation and threat, but rather hardship and reward.

    I’m just wondering if Alison’s admittedly useful comparison is too facile.

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 3:53 am | Permalink
  21. Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

    But I wonder if we (I’m not necessarily directing this to you, Robby) often focus on “final” judgment (as a result of the same ahistorical, decontexualized understanding of Jesus and Scripture generally), and lose sight of the fact that Israel’s history with God is a story of continuous acts of judgment and, to be sure, mercy.

    It’s as if we (in popular Christianity at least) displace God’s judgment to one big (horrifying) finale instead of seeing that he’s continually exercising judgment and mercy toward his people.

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 6:53 am | Permalink
  22. roger flyer wrote:

    You dissin’ my mama?

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink
  23. roger flyer wrote:


    Come away from that sandwich…?

    We know you love the PSA (by the way I think this is also the acronym for a certain prostate test…hmmm….?)

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 9:08 am | Permalink
  24. roger flyer wrote:

    Facile, maybe. Incendiary, yes.

    I think one of the points is that some are in and others are out. The ‘unsaved’ are objectified, must be converted. The others are condemned, must be saved like us. We must do this. We must do this… We must do this. Hail Jesus!

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  25. Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

    Have you experienced services like that, Roger? Geesh!

    As an Episcopalian, I’ve never been to anything quite like that.

    It reminds me of things I’ve seen on TV, though, like the folks from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

    I wonder whether “Nuremberg”-style worship is more of a straw-man than anything else.

    In my experience, most mainstream worship services don’t “hail” anyone or anything, except maybe the “liturgist” and occasionally ourselves.

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  26. roger flyer wrote:

    Hi Zwingli-

    The Nurembergian ideology is implicit in the PSA DNA.

    Have you never seen pentecostals waving American flags during worship? Or Israeli flags?

    Never seen pilgrims by the thousands move to the altar to receive Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade? (OK maybe it’s a l o n g
    stretch from there to Nuremberg…but still…

    Mainstreamers (if you mean Episcopal, Lutheran,UCC, etc) don’t seem to hail anyone or anything. Well said. Though not really recommended for a ‘worship’ service.

    Never been to Westboro Baptist in Kansas, but (I would assume) there are lots of places like it (not all Baptist)

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  27. Halden wrote:

    I think, if one were to read the whole article they would get more of a picture of Alison’s perspective. Certainly comparing anything to the Nazis is…questionable.

    However, I do believe he identifies a very real dynamic that goes on, even if not in such extreme terms. I experienced it at many a Christian summer camp growing up.

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  28. roger flyer wrote:

    Baptists and charismatics and pentecostals and messianic christians all have a burning desire (forgive the pun) to convert others…either to save them from hell or from themselves…

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  29. Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

    And I guess you see it too in some of the “masculine” Christianity movements that are keen on warrior language and “spiritual warfare” (even though that phrase has an ancient pedigree).

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  30. roger flyer wrote:

    Kum ba ya

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  31. Chris Donato wrote:

    I think you’re right, Zwingli 2.0. But “final” judgment must be maintained even when we recognize your point and begin to point out parts of the whole redemptive story. It seems real common for a theologian to write something like, “I don’t intend to swing the pendulum in the other direction, or undermine [insert particular orthodox perspective], but….”

    It’s pretty obvious (to me, at least) that when the judge appears, who is Jesus, especially according to the Gospels and Revelation (and St. Paul’s Athenian discourse), he will be separating, which, I guess counterintuitively, is itself an act of reconciliation. But that is not yet; God’s hand has been staid; today is the day to repent (to at the least stop following your own agenda and follow the Christ’s). And through such measures, God is reconciling “to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the Messiah’s blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:20).

    Sure, I’d like to be a universalist, but, like Von Balthasar, I can only dare to hope.

    Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 7:49 am | Permalink
  32. Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

    Agreed on all points!

    I was mostly suggesting that many Christians (myself included, but I’m working on it!) don’t have a good sense of God as a judge throughout salvation history, or even as judge in our own personal histories.

    As a result, when we’re confronted with God as “final” judge, devoid of much if any context, God seems like a monster.

    The best way, I think, to make the idea of divine judgment more intelligible (and less monstrous seeming!) is to immerse oneself in the context from whence it came — the OT story of God’s life with Israel.

    Without recourse to the Bible as a record of a historical process, in which Israel’s life with God changes and unfolds, we end up with terrifying, sometimes absurd abstractions, which I think is what a lot of contemporary western anti-Christian folks are reacting against.

    Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

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