Emergent '05 San Diego - The End.
"I'd Like the Blessing, Please, but Not the Mark"

The Esoteric: Friend or Foe?

Esoterices-o-ter-ic, adj. 1. Intended for or understood only by a particular group.  2. a. Known by a restricted number. b. Confined to a small group.

Years ago, the senior pastor of the church I was leading worship for would periodically have me remove certain songs from our list, citing they were too esoteric.

To this day, I still struggle with this.  I understand the limitations and hazards of so-called Christianeese and how it alienates people, and yet I've also seen the dangers of overly secularizing our worship experience, where we end up losing a sense of the holy, the numinous, the mysterious, the supernatural.

And so I put it to you: if something is considered esoteric, should it be rejected?  Or should such things be simply explained and then cherished, or neither, or both, and why?


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Much of Jesus' teaching was esoteric - intended to be cloudly to some of his audience. Though this served a particular purpose in his context, I think the esoteric aspects of the Gospel/kingdom should be kept and even exalted in our gatherings. In my experience it creates a hunger and interest on the part of those seeking. It can create an awareness in some that they do not yet know Jesus (in a very good, preparatory way), and their ignorance can compell them to continue seeking.

I would also say that we should make our teaching/worship understandable, and not create unnecessary barriers to understanding the truth.

All knowledge/experience/art is esoteric, even within Christian ranks. The mature Christian has esoteric knowledge and experience that the new believer does not. And there are levels beyond that. Paul's famous man who was caught up to the third heaven witnessed highly esoteric things that are inexpressable.

As far as censoring Christian works, I am all for it! But what we should be censoring out is the lowest common denominator junk rather than the highly esoteric stuff. Th esoteric gives us all something to aim for, especaially if it is beyond our ken. I think this is one of the problems with evangelical Christianity: It has a penchant for exalting common knowledge while rejecting hard-earned, unconventional wisdom. That makes for dull disciples who plateau in the Faith far too early (and often.)

I visited an evangelical Christian bookstore, part of a very large church, looking for a book by Watchman Nee. The clerk told me they didn't carry Nee because the pastor considered him a heretic. I was dumbfounded. I pressed a bit more and found out this was because the pastor did not understand a lot of what Nee was saying. Well, that certainly is no reason to censor Nee! In fact, maybe we should be reading him more!

But this can go too far, too. The charismatic movement has become overwhelmed with what I consider to be a "mystery cult" personality. You've got big names like Rick Joyner joining up with the secret Knights of Malta group and preaching a gospel founded on the Arthurian legends! That's how one goes astray by focusing solely on esoteric knowledge to the exclusion of everything else. So there can be some dangers.

Christian-ese has more to do with the expression of knowledge than the knowledge expressed. It's a matter of vocabulary. To an extent I think it we should be on the alert. New vocabulary and new ways of expression are essential to vibrancy and life. We need not purge our lives of the old expressions, for with explanation and historic context they provide a valuable connection across time. However, we should not resist new expressions, for they are signs of new life.

With the use of esoteric language comes the real and sometimes accidental (but no less harmful) danger of in-grouping and out-grouping. If the esoteric is used (intentionally of accidentally) to divide people into groups, then you're looking for trouble.

But that risk alone is not a reason to chunk the esoteric out the window. It simply must be understood as a risk and carefully managed.

The judicious use of the esoteric can produce rich meaning which perhaps could not experienced in any other way.

So, there is no sense in getting rid of it and there is no sense in flippantly using it either. There must be a benevolent intent with its use.

Great thoughts, everyone! It seems that you all are fairly agreed that a "balance" of sorts is needed when dealing with the esoteric aspects of our faith. I like the way Chris put it: "There must be a benevolent intent with its use."

I'm intrigued by Bald Man's observation that esoteric language may be "signs of new life." I'd like to hear some more about that, Cory.

New life, "abundant life," Christ-life ALWAYS gives birth to "new songs," to fresh creativity. These "new songs" are by definition esoteric when they are first birthed. The language, music, imagery, etc. are often understood only by the creator; and sometimes not even the creator, but Creator-God alone. As the "new song" is sung, it becomes understood by more of the community, eventually moving from the realm of the esoteric to the realm of exoteric, the common and public.

If you buy into the first couple assumptions, I think the rest follows pretty cleanly.

"Remove certain songs..." Like what? Now I'm really curious!

I strongly agree we need to remove songs today, but b/c of how selfish and egocentric most contemporary music is today. And in America, we definately need to get rid of all references to 'warfare'.

The Church isn't the only organization that struggles with it's own language. Most professions do: healthcare, entertainment, journalism, etc.

So Benjy, are you saying that songs with esoteric lyrics "may" be alright (unless they're war-themed)?

Ok, and now that I think of it -- what if "war-themed" songs make more sense to people living within the military culture (e.g. armed services). Would they be okay for them at the same time they're not okay for other folks?

Okay, I like this one. Couple of thoughts.

I also have heard this one as well:"We need to have more theology in our songs." (Referring to hymns and other gospel songs.) like 'In the Garden'". That's funny to me.

Michael Green said "Let our preaching be the explanation of our worship." Gnaw on that one.

Whatever song(s) we do, let it engulf us in a lavish worship of Him. It's all about Him. I think "seekers" will see more of "who we are in our relationship with Him" rather than picking apart song lyrics. (I could be wrong.) If anything, it would prompt them to ask some questions. It's hard, because people like me were raised in Christianity, so it is difficult at times to know what "seeker" actually thinks. Sometimes we are so assuming what they need or want. The best thing we can show them is that our God is worth loving and serving in our speech and worship. Just be "real and authentic".


But one of the tasks the Church has been given by the Lord is to destroy the works of the Enemy and to take back what he and his demons have taken.

I cannot think of anything more militaristic and war-related. We are in a real battle. If anything, we need MORE warfare teaching and music.

We ARE a holy and righteous army!

DLE - I've been thinking about this, and I have to both agree and disagree with you. We, God's church, are an army. We are in a battle against the powers of darkness. These are true, but we do not fight as the world fights. Our tactics and weapons are not the weapons of war, but rather the impliments of peace. Our enemies bring their swords; but we have beaten ours into plows. They lash out, striking us with the left jab; we turn our head so they can connect with the right cross. Our enemies seek to kill us while we are willfully taking up our crosses to die.

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