Counting Crows brought 1970 forward to 2002 when they covered the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi.” I remember hearing that song all over pop radio. The lines stick in your brain (as they must have done for Bob Dylan and Amy Grant, who covered the song as well): “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot/With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin’ hot spot/Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone/They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” (Which lyric, by the way, reminds me of this gem of pop Christian music.)
Don’t it always seem to go that way? You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. Something psychological happens when you take something or someone for granted and then, all of a sudden, the thing or the person is gone. Mostly we think of family, whether lovers, spouses, parents, or children, but I happen to be thinking of the liturgy. There is so much pressure on pastors and churches to give up the liturgy in favor of more user-friendly or missional “worship styles” and many have capitulated. Even those who don’t give in feel the imposed guilt and perhaps begin to question whether something else might indeed better serve people’s needs. This in spite of the fact that nearly the entire argument for doing something other than the liturgy is emotivistic. That doesn’t necessarily equate to emotional, although the emotions are often involved. It means that every single argument over what a congregation’s gathering ought to look like is reduced to how someone feels. It is the equivalent of saying “murder is wrong” because “I don’t like murder.” So: “the liturgy is good or bad” = “I like or don’t like the liturgy.” The entire quarrel (and that is what it often is) is reduced to gut-reactions and only then framed by some semblance of a rationality.
This is, I suspect, why people do not really want to hear rational arguments or serious reasons for doing things according to how they’ve been handed down to us. We are doing them, therefore they are ours to do with as we please. I have heard many, many arguments in favor of changing, doing away with, or alternating between the liturgy and self-produced or locally produced materials, but I cannot think of a single argument that has progressed much beyond “I don’t like this; I would like that better.” In addition to the emotivism that runs nearly every aspect of our consumeristic lives, there is an apparent unwillingness to understand the liturgy for what it is. Even apart from a grudging respect–let alone love–for the liturgy, I would settle for a basic understanding of how the pieces fit together and why things are the way they are. But those who are open to such understanding are primarily those who already appreciate one or more aspects of the (in my case) Lutheran Divine Service, and so they want to know more.
I know the original lyric is an environmental statement, but preserving the liturgy feels a little like lying down in front of a bulldozer as a way to keep the cultural vanguard from paving paradise to put a parking lot in front of the newest, nondescript megachurch. Everything else is already “pop.” How many radio stations play anything but popular music, regardless of the alleged genre? My daughter’s spring choir concert was made up completely of (mostly uninteresting) pop songs. “Radio” is virtually equivalent to “lowest-common-denominator,” but I don’t blame the stations; they’re simply playing what sells. And what sells gets played more often, and so more units sell. It’s all about taking the least number of risks to gain the greatest reward. And so the modern American church follows fast on the heels of the culture by producing what people want to hear, because they’ll buy what they want to hear (maybe they’ll even like us!), and if they don’t hear what they want to buy here, they simply go there. [And yet, even within such a consumeristic culture I think an argument could be made that we still need reverently liturgical churches, in the same way that there are one or two classical music stations in every market. After all, one has to find a market niche to fill!]
But I fear (tending, as I do, in the cynical direction) that this song might end, for most intents and purposes, the way that Counting Crows’ “Big Yellow Taxi” ends: “Listen, late last night, I heard the screen door slam/And a big yellow taxi took my girl away.” When the big, yellow taxi of culture comes and takes the liturgy away, probably to a docile euthanasia worthy of its distinguished age, the main lament I’ll raise is for my children or possibly (Deo volente) their children: that they never will have known the midwife who helped birth their faith and should have accompanied their growth and maturity. Instead, the eternal adolescence that attends every area of modern life will keep them, even in old age, slurping the slightly curdled milk of pop Christianity, never quite ready for solid food. (Which reminds me of another great Steve Taylor song.) But one can only subsist on such things for a limited time, until the scriptural and spiritual weakness and emaciation become apparent.
“Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone/They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”