COLUMNS

Volume 45 - Issue 2

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Praise and Polemic in Our Global Pandemic

By Daniel Strange

The ninety-second psalm is an oasis in our COVID-19 desert, a one-stop-shop, not merely for our survival, but for our thrival needs. The only psalm in the Psalter dedicated for the Sabbath day, it is for those of us feeling withered and weary, diverted and distracted. It is for those of us slowly slowing down, shuffling ‘Zoombies’, turning in tighter and tighter circles on ourselves and within ourselves. It is for those of us for whom every day has become Blursday. With a menthol freshness, this song wake-up-calls us to behold the Lord in rituals, rhythms and remembrances (vv. 1–5)—not simply out of duty but of out of joy, and to do so habitually and corporately. It amazingly promises that when we behold so we become, when we exalt (v. 8), so we are exalted (v. 10)—strong and fecund (vv. 12–14) with almost supernatural sensory perception (v. 11). Behold this vision of spiritual hydration:

12 The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;

13 planted in the house of the Lord,
they will flourish in the courts of our God.

14 They will still bear fruit in old age,
they will stay fresh and green.

In his commentary (which often reads like poetry), Derek Kidner titles these closing verses ‘Endless Vitality’, noting, ‘It is not the greenness of perpetual youth, but the freshness of age without sterility, like that of Moses whose “eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated” (Deut. 34:7); whose wisdom was mature and his memory invaluably rich. It is a picture which bodily and mental ills must often severely limit, but which sets a pattern of spiritual stamina for our encouragement and possibly our rebuke.’1 For Christian believers, this is a psalm whose promises are grounded and inviolable in the crucified, risen and exalted Christ, the One whose deeds make us glad, the One in whom there is no wickedness, the One who has defeated his enemies and scattered all evildoers, the mighty, righteous, flourishing One. What a refreshment in strange and sapping times! Having said all this, these aspects though are not really the focus of this Strange Times.

What I have found most interesting as I’ve reflected on this psalm in recent weeks is what has happened to my hermeneutic given my own particular cultural context. Certainly this psalm has much to say, and to say explicitly for all kinds of things. However, what I have been drawn to is rather what implicitly the psalm says against. Much of my thought here revolves around verse 8, which many commentators note both structurally and theologically is the heart and hinge of the psalm:

But you, LORD, are forever exalted.

What I have seen emerging more and more clearly from the page is a parenthesis which reads:

But you, LORD [alone, and not x], are forever exalted.

In other words, it is the polemic as much as the praise that has been impressed upon me and that I would like to unpack a little.

During the last three months, I’ve been trying to work through a COVID-19 conundrum that is both confused and confusing. On the one hand, and one might say ‘bottom up’, has been a flurry of grassroots and groundswell encouragement (if not really ‘excitement’) amongst some British Christians regarding the general public’s attitude towards prayer and church during the crisis. At first anecdotal (e.g., ‘we’ve had more Zoom guests to our service than normal’), some research has been undertaken which does make for interesting reading.2 On the other hand, and one might say ‘top down’, is the British government’s pronouncements and policies that, to my mind at least, have been thoroughly scientistic, immanentistic, disenchanted, and yes, ‘modern’. How do we properly account for both ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’? The societal spaghetti gets even more tangled when we note across the country acts and behaviours of both virtue and vice. We have witnessed, and continue to witness, much civic goodness, kindness and altruistic service. But we also have witnessed much virtue-signalling, judgmentalism, hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Herein lies the problem: the dividing line between the humane and the humanistic is a fine one. How do we know which is which?

At the level of sociology and phenomenology, teasing all this out in terms of the specifics of British secular religiosity is complex and will take time. Theologically though, the above picture is eminently explainable. Yes, COVID-19 has been disruptive but it doesn’t call us to scrabble around for a novel theological anthropology. It’s changed our human lives but not human life. It hasn’t eradicated the doctrines of total depravity and common grace. Indeed it’s highlighted once again that suppress as we might, we are worshipping creatures—homo adorans. Need I say more than present as evidence British Prime Minister Boris Johnston, who in his statement to the nation in early May stated, ‘We are shining the light of science on this virus, and we will defeat this devilish disease.’3

1. The NHS: Religion of the English

Shining the light of Scripture on our current crisis, I’m even more convinced (if that was possible) of a biblical theological anthropology that wishes to keep the heuristic tool of ‘idolatry’ firmly centre stage. In my wandering around and careful look at our objects of worship,4 there is one British example par excellence. On April 12th this year, broadcaster Piers Morgan tweeted this to his 7.5 million followers:

Most disgusting tweet of the Coronavirus crisis so far – & the bar was very, very low.

What could have provoked such an extreme reaction? It was a tweet from Andrew Lilico:

NHS worship is going to be even more insufferable once this is done than it was before, isn’t it?5

Britain’s National Health Service (the NHS) is the largest employer in the UK (with about 1.5 million employees), and the fifth largest in the world. It was the former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson who back in 1992 remarked, probably somewhat wryly, that ‘the NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion, with those who practise it regarding themselves as a priesthood.’6 In general, the public attitude towards the NHS in these last few months has taken its profile to a new level.7 There has been extensive media coverage every Thursday evening for the public’s 8:00pm ‘Clap for Carers’ with ‘Thank you NHS’ rainbow pictures displayed in homes up and down the country.

What I have found both fascinating and ironic is that the deployment of religious language to articulate and analyse the phenomena of NHS support has come from critics who are not Christians, some being prominently atheist. Historian David Starkey in a recent article states,

the C[hurch] of E[ngland] is dead; the new national church is the NHS.… And, what is worst of all, it is this capture of the English/British state by the transmogrified NHS … that lies at the heart of our disastrous response to the pandemic. We have committed national idolatry and we are paying the price.’8

Political commentator Matthew Parris has written on what he believes is the Government’s ‘near-ecstatic embrace of our national religion’:

Subliminally, political decision-making these last two months has been partly driven by a powerful political imperative to be associated with the National Health Service and to harvest some of the respect, even adoration, the NHS commands; and by an equally powerful political dread of being seen to have failed the NHS at a moment of danger.… Our health service enjoys a position akin to the Thai monarchy: no breath of complain, question, or even levity is permitted.

… And how about applause for the nation’s small shopkeepers and supermarket counter staff, largely unsung heroes? But no, a secular society whose first fear is death is making cathedrals of our hospitals, priestly vestments of personal protection equipment, and altars of ventilators. And cabinet ministers, knowing it, scurry to lead the congregation in prayer, hoping some of the divine authority will rub off on them.9

Of course, one’s response to all this is that ‘worship’ and ‘idolatry’ language is rhetorical, hyperbolic and to that end a superficial analysis on my part. Another response might be that in lock-down people just want to gather around a common cause and have a sense of identity—it doesn’t really matter what the focus is, any opportunity to come out of our houses and see the neighbours in our street. Yet another response might concentrate on the virtue-signalling and ‘slacktivism’ characteristics that might motivate such behaviour. While there might be truthful elements to such responses, I don’t think it takes away (indeed it supports) that we are in idolatry territory. As Jamie Smith notes, ‘when your ultimate conviction is that there is no eternal then you’re most prone to absolutize the temporal.’10 Continuing the medical theme, put through the diagnostic tests I use in my teaching in terms of identifying idolatry, this attitude towards the NHS passes with room to spare. Functionally, if it looks like an idol and quacks like an idol….

2. The Polemic in Our Praise

With this background noise, let’s return to Psalm 92. And I mean literal background noise. Imagine in Britain, my ‘secular’ ‘post-Christian’ Britain, my often fragmented and fractured Britain. Imagine that Britain where every Thursday evening for ten weeks in row millions of people have come out of their houses, clapping, cheering and banging all kinds of household items. Imagine that scene and then you read this:

A Psalm. A song. For the Sabbath day

1 It is good to praise the Lord
and make music to your name, O Most High,

2 proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,

3 to the music of the ten-stringed lyre
and the melody of the harp.

Within this context, note where we are pushed to put the stress as we read each line. Such an observation is not original to me. One of the most formative articles I have read in recent years is one I stumbled across a few years ago as I prepared for a lecture on idolatry in the book of Isaiah. In it, John Witvliet addresses Isaiah in Christian liturgy. The relevant section, and worth quoting in full, concerns the polemic function of praise:

Significantly, the context of the prophetic critique of idolatry helps us sense what to emphasize as we hear them—and as we sing them ourselves. Often we naturally approach a song of praise with a kind of blank-slate reading. We express our praise songs as ‘Sing to the LORD a new song’ (as opposed to simply speaking our praise) or ‘Sing to the LORD a new song’ (as opposed to singing some old songs). However appropriate those interpretations might be in other contexts, here the force of context conveys, rather, ‘Sing to the LORD a new song’ (as opposed to singing to idols or false gods). These are hymns offered as polemic statements; they are offered against the gods even as they are sung to YHWH. When we sing ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow,’ we are also saying ‘Down with the gods from whom no blessings flow.’ The polemic function of praise has been memorably described by Walter Brueggemann: ‘The affirmation of Yahweh always contains a polemic against someone else.… It may be that the [exiles] will sing such innocuous-sounding phrases as “Glory to God in the highest,” or “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Even those familiar phrases are polemical, however, and stake out new territory for the God now about to be aroused to new caring.’ When we sing our pretty songs of praise, it is as if we are singing ‘take that you false gods (!).’11

Therefore, returning to our climactic verse 8 of Psalm 92, ‘But you, LORD, are forever exalted’, note some undertones or overtones that we begin to hear,

‘But you LORD alone and not the NHS, are forever exalted.’

Certainly I think it is legitimate to read Psalm 92 in this way, particularly if, as some commentators note, v. 8 is a subversive re-appropriation of a pre-existing Ugaritic hymn to Baal.12

3. Finickity Pedantry?

Why make this point? Am I not being overly negative, churlish and just a bit grumpy? Am I not being an ignoramus forgetting the NHS’s Christian roots (Labour politician Aneurin Bevan, one its architects, famously called it ‘a piece of real Christianity’13), and more recent statements like that of Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who calls it ‘the most powerful and visible expression of our Christian heritage, because it sprang out of a concern that the poor should be able to be treated as well as the rich’?14 On both accounts, I really hope not.

In a heartfelt piece, the evangelical writer Nick Spencer acknowledges his thanks to the NHS and its workers who he has observed up close and personal in the last few months. 15 While he too notes the ‘religious’ overtones in the British attitude towards the NHS, he writes, ‘This might be the cue for a pious warning about idolatry. Perhaps, but not here and not now.’16 That Spencer holds back in his own article is perhaps appropriate, but here I’m happy (and not grumpy) to be a little pious in making two points, one ‘vertical’ and the other ‘horizontal’.

The Apostle Paul was distressed and provoked in Athens when he observed a city submerged in idolatry (Acts 17:16). His zeal for God’s glory imitates God’s zeal for his own glory, ‘I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols’ (Isa 42:8). I’m a Brit, so I don’t really do paroxysm, but I do shift uncomfortably in my seat when I see a photo of a huge holograph of the NHS logo emblazoned on the side of a church building. We are told in 1 John 5:21 to ‘keep ourselves from idols’. The pressure to go with the cultural flow, or more appropriate, be ‘pulled under’ by a cultural undertow is always strong. Such sirens are not simply intellectual but emotional, habitual and ritualistic. Psalm 92 reminds us that on the Lord’s Day we need to re-orientate and reset, remembering, in case our week has anaesthetized us, that the Lord is of first importance, He is forever exalted: ‘alone and not x’. I need a good weekly dose of polemical praise to stir me up to be more provoked and distressed than I often am.

In our imminent secular culture, the difference between thanking the NHS and our carers, and thanking God for the NHS and our carers is not finickity pedantry. Not only does this model the biblical pattern of thanksgiving (‘God, and not his gifts, is the primary focus of Pauline thanksgiving’17), but failing to give thanks to God is strongly linked with idolatry and the root of humanities sinfulness.18 As Peter Leithart concludes in his richly illuminative intellectual study of ‘gratitude’, it is a whole worldview of difference:

A social order that functions within the infinite circle of Christianity must take its cues from the church, which is the original community of absolute gratitude and focused ingratitude. If the church is going to play a central role in the renewal of modern society, it has to cultivate habits of ingratitude. Christians, and churches, must learn to renounce debts of gratitude, giving thanks only to God.19

I’m not saying here that Christians should not have participated in the weekly clap-for-carers. But we do need to ‘stop and think’ about these rites and rituals (cf. Isa 44:19). Because our culture is so fragmented and fractured, there are good and proper civic, communal and connectional reasons why one might participate and do so gladly. But might we think creatively of ways in which our participation might witness our thanks to God for our carers. How do we provide a Christian commentary that accompanies and wraps around the rite? Please let me know. More awkwardly, might we ask ourselves and our churches some hard questions if our hearts are more expectant, more excited and more moved by this act than we are in our weekly gatherings to worship the Lord.

Horizontally, in the long run, we will be found to be for more caring for our carers and for an institution like the NHS when we recognise its createdness and penultimacy. It’s obvious, but idolatry deifies and makes the peccable, impeccable. Making something an idol makes critique very difficult if not impossible. To continue the 1992 Nigel Lawson quotation, ‘the NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion, with those who practise it regarding themselves as a priesthood. This made it quite extraordinarily difficult to reform.20 Back to the present, here’s Matthew Parris again:

Overlooking the fact that other countries’ health systems seem to have done as well as or better than ours, we applaud from front windows or crowd on to Westminster Bridge (flouting health advice) to clap. Many find this moving. I find it as mawkish as teddy bears and flowers for [Princess] Diana. Of course front line NHS staff are dutiful and brave. The poor bloody infantry always are. The monolith they work for, however, has appeared slow-footed and logistically challenged, its command structure so tangled that nobody seems to know which levers are actually connected to anything. Are we clapping the bureaucracy when we clap?21

Moreover, if we believe that Christ has the right to be Lord of all, then not only do Christians have a duty to challenge areas where this rule is not respected, but accounts of anything in creation that do not relate that something to Christ and the Christian worldview are necessarily incomplete, and to that extent misleading. When put in its proper place, penultimate matters like the healthcare system of a society, are inextricably linked to matters of ultimate concern which for us are Christ shaped. However, contentious, complex and seemingly intractable these issues might be, we need to allow the Christian worldview to speak publicly into matters of healthcare provision, which of course historically it has. To continue to do so will need not only a great deal of biblical wisdom, patience, and imagination, but godly motivation fuelled every Lord’s Day by our corporate praise and polemic:

‘But you, LORD, are forever exalted’.


[1] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150, TOTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 337.

[2] See the research commissioned by Tearfund available at https://comresglobal.com/polls/tearfund-covid-19-prayer-public-omnibus-research/. Highlights include: Over two in five (44%) UK adults say they pray, including a quarter of adults (26%) who say they pray regularly (i.e., at least once a month or more often). A quarter (24%) of UK adults say they have watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown (on the radio, live on TV, on demand or streamed online). Over half (53%) of UK adults who pray say they have prayed about family during the COVID-19 lockdown. A third say they prayed about friends (34%), while over a quarter say they prayed about frontline services (27%) during the COVID-19 lockdown. Two thirds (66%) of UK adults who pray agree that prayer changes the world. A third (33%) of UK adults who pray say they prayed since the COVID-19 lockdown because they believe that prayer makes a difference.

[3] Matthew Parris has some helpful points to make on the current rhetoric of the using the definite article in talking about ‘the’ science: ‘Ministers Can’t Keep Hiding behind the Science’, The Times, 24 April 2020, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ministers-should-stop-hiding-behind-the-science-h6gklfg6b.

[4] Cf. Acts 17:23.

[5] https://twitter.com/piersmorgan/status/1249385441058598915.

[6] Nigel Lawson, The View from Number 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical (London: Bantam, 1992), 613.

[7] See the ongoing five year research project at Warwick University, ‘The Cultural History of the NHS’, https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/chm/research/current/nhshistory.

[8] David Starkey, ‘The NHS is the New Church—Militant and Triumphant’, The Critic, June 2020, https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/june-2020/the-nhs-is-the-new-church-militant-and-triumphant/.

[9] Matthew Parris, ‘The Difficult Balance of Public vs Political Agony’, The Spectator, 25 April 2020, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-difficult-balance-of-public-vs-political-agony.

[10] James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 29.

[11] John D. Witvliet, ‘Isaiah in Christian Liturgy: Recovering Textual Contrasts and Correcting Theological Astigmatism’, CTJ 39 (2004): 142–43.

[12] See Kidner, Psalms 73–150, 336.

[13] In a 1959 speech, extracts of which can be heard here: https://tinyurl.com/yausj4x5. I should note that in the sentence preceding the one quoted, Bevan also calls the NHS ‘a piece of real socialism.’

[14] Justin Welby, Reimagining Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 123.

[15] Nick Spencer, ‘Clapping for the NHS, Our New Religion’, Theos, 27 March 2020, https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2020/03/27/clapping-for-the-nhs-our-new-religion.

[16] Spencer, ‘Clapping for the NHS’.

[17] David W. Pao, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme, NSBT 13 (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 37.

[18] Cf. Romans 1:21. See Pao, Thanksgiving, 159–61.

[19] Peter J. Leithart, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 229. To explain what Leithart means here by ingratitude, ‘Jesus and Paul look like ingrates because they renounce gratitude. They look like ingrates because their gratitude is so big, so indiscriminate, that is confuses and destroys normal expectations about giving and receiving. They look like ingrates because they look past every benefit to thank a Divine Benefactor. Anyone who does not believe in that Benefactor is going to find Jesus and Paul deeply offensive, if not deluded’ (p. 77).

[20] Lawson, The View from Number 11, 613.

[21] Parris, ‘The Difficult Balance of Public vs Political Agony’.

Daniel Strange

Daniel Strange is college director and tutor in culture, religion and public theology at Oak Hill College, London and contributing editor of Themelios.

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