What is worship?
I have seen a lot of things which are called “worship,” that are less than inspirational. A visit to a large Church in America might expose you to a carefully prepared performance by talented soloists, backed by professional musicians who are paid to play at their “church gig” every Sunday. Some of the worshippers in the audience are emotionally connected, especially if the band is singing their favorite worship song that they have heard on the local Christian radio station. Others are less engaged, staring at the cellphones.
Yet, if we step back, the word “worship” is not just a Christian word. In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about idol worship…worshipping false gods. If you look at the Old Testament law, you will see that the moral prohibitions seem to be overshadowed by God’s desire to be worshipped above all others. One look at the first three of the ten commandments will illustrate this.
But what does idolatry look like? In Buddhist and Hindu temples, you can still find examples of the idolatry of the Old Testament world. Millions of families around the world regularly lay fruit, rice, or money to the altar of a statue of a god, then bow in worship. They believe that this god will repay them with supernatural blessings.
In some societies, God was not replaced with a statue, but with a man. We can see that in the Old Testament story of Daniel and King Darius of Babylon. Daniel’s refusal to worship Darius resulted in a death sentence (or at least that is what was intended).
In the vast history of Asia, there have been many kings and emperors who were considered gods by their people… worthy to be worshipped.
I grew up in a Christian context. Because of this, I had no experience of what it must feel like to worship a man as a god. As a teen, I read about the Japanese worship of Emperor Hirohito as a God during World War II. To me, it just seemed silly. I thought, “Why would anyone worship a man?”
Yet, my eyes were opened to this concept when I read the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang.
To put it lightly, Wild Swans is a fascinating book unlike no other. There is a reason why Oprah Winfrey listed it as one of the “most addictive books over the past 25 years.”1 The book is the memoir of three women… the author, her mother, and her grandmother. Through the lives of these women, you see the big events of 20th century China unveiled through three women’s eyes.
The grandmother, Yu-Fang become a concubine, the property of a local warlord, when she was only 15 years old. Her feet were bound, as was the custom at that time. And she has a front row seat the anarchy and chaos of early twentieth century China.
The author’s mother, De-hong, gives us an account of what it was like to live in the horrific Japanese occupation of Manchuria. The Japanese rulers were replaced by the Russians, who were replaced by the Chinese Nationalists, who were replaced by Mao’s Communists.
Eventually, Dehong ends up working for the Communist underground and marries a communist party official, the author’s father.
As Jung Chang tells her story of being raised in the home of Communist officials with strong ties to Beijing, we run across a curious chapter entitled “Father is Close, Mother is Close, but Neither is as Close as Chairman Mao.” This chapter contains some amazing insights into what it is like to worship a man as a god.
This worship was institutionalized. As a child, Chang remembers listening to peasants who were guest speakers at their school, explaining they were starving under the nationalists, and how Chairman Mao fed them. Her school occasionally served a “bitterness meal” of bad tasting food to the children. They were told that this is what people ate before Chairman Mao liberated China. It was so horrendous that the author actually vomited when she ate it.
Mao enshrouded himself in mystery. Since there was no television, most people only heard his voice on the radio. He only met with a select few staff members in person. This mysteriousness played into his deification.
Under Mao, any books or other media from the west were destroyed. Hairstyles and dress became drab and utilitarian. Her school day began each morning with an assembly to be taught the works of Mao. Schoolchildren were then sent around the town to pull up any grass or flowers from lawns, which Mao taught was a bourgeois habit. Large houses that were taken away from their owners during the communist “land reform” were turned into museums of re-education. Anyone who was suspect of being unfaithful to Mao was sent there.
Through lessons, experiences, and propaganda, this little girl became fully dedicated to Mao. When she was overwhelmed with love for Chairman Mao, she told herself “How can children in the Capitalist world go on living without being near Chairman Mao?” 2
Chang eventually joined Mao’s Red Guards. This was a group of teenagers who were totally sold out to serving Mao. Some roamed the land, beating up government officials and schoolteachers if they were seen as a threat to Mao (I have a Chinese friend who remembers the Red Guard coming into his second-grade class and beating up his teacher). Although Chang did not get involved with the violence, she did have a close friend who attempted suicide when her family was accused of being capitalist sympathizers.
Chang writes… “Like many Chinese, I was incapable of rational thinking in those days. We were so cowed and contorted by fear and indoctrination that to deviate from the path laid down by Mao would have been inconceivable.”3
Why did the Chinese follow Mao as a god? Chang gives insight into this…
“For two thousand years, China had an emperor figure who was state power and spiritual authority rolled into one. The religious feelings which people in other parts of the world have toward a god have in China always been directed toward the emperor. “
This reminds me of the story in the Old Testament when Israel wanted a King. God warned his people that this was not a good idea. Kings have a tendency to want more and more power. It is not a stretch to see how they can eventually want to be worshipped.
So what is the Heart of worship?
As Christians, we need to understand that all humans have a tendency to ascribe ultimate value to people, places, and things. Worshipping God is not about mumbling the words to hymns or the latest praise songs. It is an unfaltering dedication that affects our lives 24/7. Worship is not an experience, it is something like an obsession. True worship is transcendent. It is a relationship with Christ where obedience to God is the “default.” As Paul puts it, Worship is being a “living sacrifice.”
2 Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, (New York: Touchstone, 2003), 272.
3. Chang. 304