For most of my conscious life I have listened to other Americans complain about having to drive across Nebraska on I-80. As soon I tell non-Nebraskans that I am a Cornhusker they have two comments: 1. Your football team isn’t what it used to be; 2. I-80 is the most boring part of their drive across the country. Ok, I-80 across Nebraska is a little plain, pun intended. The Eisenhower administration didn’t want exciting interstates. They were as much for winning the Cold War (and landing bombers, if it came to that) as they were about your trip to grandma’s house. 80 follows the Platte River and it is flat. People will often contrast their experience of the mountains, in contrast to the prairies. As a plainsman I appreciate the mountains (who doesn’t?) but I think the Christian life is more like Nebraska than it is like Colorado.
For many Christians the Christian life is the quest for intense, mountain-top emotional experiences. The assumption is that these sublime experiences are the norm and that those less exciting periods of life are abnormal, inferior, disappointing, and perhaps a sign of some spiritual failure. When people say, “we really worshipped today” what they are sometimes saying is, “We had an intense emotional experience during worship.” Since the First Great Awakening (18th century), and particularly since Charles Finney’s (1792–1875) practice of and Lectures on Revival, North American Christians have come to expect the unexpected, an intense emotional experience in worship. That’s what many congregations seem to mean by “revival.” That’s why, in so many services, congregations sing carefully coordinated songs designed to produce a certain affect and effect. Christians sometimes become addicted to the experience of euphoria produced by such use of worship music. When people say, “God seems to have left me” what they may be saying is, “I’m not having the sort of intense experiences I expect a Christian to experience.”
We search for sublime religious experiences in other ways too. That is part of the allure of conferences. There’s nothing wrong with a good conference but a well-organized conference with outstanding speakers and highly skilled, practiced musicians and/or singers is, by definition, unusual. It’s not the norm. A conference is like an all-star team in comparison to your hometown ball team. The all-star shortstop never misses a grounder. He always makes the double play. Your hometown shortstop, however, has lost a step (or maybe he never had it) and he’s in an uncomfortably long hitting slump. The all-star team is only temporary. It’s not meant to be permanent. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The issue isn’t really music and conferences but our dissatisfaction with the ordinary. Does the New Testament promise us that the Christian life is a series of extraordinary emotional experiences? I don’t see it. Yes, there are extraordinary, objective miraculous acts of the Spirit (e.g., in Acts) and there is clear witness to the supernatural work of the Spirit in the apostolic congregations (e.g., 1 Corinthians) but it’s not obvious that we’re supposed to experience the same thing today—I understand that’s a matter of considerable debate but the idea that the NT phenomena are unique is not a revolutionary view in the history of the church—or that those acts by the Spirit, in the church, had a great lot to do with emotional experience. The clearest NT instruction about the nature of the Christian life, which seemed to have the post-apostolic life of the church in view, is, in fact, rather ordinary. Christians are to love God and their neighbors, honor and pray for the king, and fulfill their vocations in this world quietly and pursue godliness. I suppose there’s a sense in which, when Christians do those things, it is extraordinary but now we’re using the word in a different sense.
Our expectation that the Christian life is a series of intense emotional experiences has much more to do with the 19th century than it does with the New Testament, Patristic Christianity, medieval Christianity, Reformation, or post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. In most of those periods, our best writers weren’t generally counseling believers to seek the unusual or the extraordinary. There are exceptions, to be sure, but that’s just it. They were exceptions.
I don’t mean to say that our Christian life must be relentlessly boring. It doesn’t but I do think that we probably need to recalibrate our meters. There is beauty along I-80 in Nebraska. If you look carefully among the trees between the road and the Platte River you will see deer. If you look carefully enough, at the right time of day, you might see quite a few. Deer are beautiful—unless, of course, they run in front of your moving vehicle. I enjoy watching the old barns, Aermotor windmills, and cattle as we go by. The song of the Western Meadowlark has a remarkable way of cutting through the wind and the sound of tires on the pavement. It used to be that near Grand Island one might see a bald eagle. It’s not the dramatic beauty of the Rockies (the mountains not the ball club) but it is beauty. There are striking scenes among the buttes along Nebraska highway 71 between Colorado and Scottsbluff. There are great vistas of canyons, hills, and prairies along US 136 and US 34 in southern Nebraska, just above the Kansas line. It’s there but one has to know where to look for it.
The mountains are breathtaking and memorable but they are more the exception than the rule. The Christian life is more like a quiet state highway on the plains interrupted by quiet small towns, a few stop lights, followed by more highway. It’s occasionally striking but mostly it’s ordinary and that’s fine. Ordinary is alright.