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Book Review – By the Waters of Babylon


Book Review – By the Waters of Babylon

By the Waters of Babylon by Scott Aniol is the most exciting book that I have read in many years on the subject of Christian worship and culture. In this book, Aniol sets out to answer the question of how a Christian should respond to a hostile culture in both their worship and witness. In answering this question, Aniol sets the context within the modern “missional” understanding of cultural contextualization. In this context, worship is an authentic expression which is made relevant to the current culture in order to make it something which worshipers can both grasp with their minds and participate in with their cultural expressions. If I understand the Missional Church correctly, the thinking goes something like this: in the incarnation, Jesus took on the expressions of humanness in order to relate to His creation. In the same way, we must take on the expressions of our culture in order to relate to that culture. The problem with this, and most attempts at contextualization is that culture isn’t a Biblical category. It is taken from the secular discipline of anthropology and is influenced Herder’s concept of bildung , a sort of collective formation of experiences, practices and thought that exists in a group and give it a unique identity.

Rather than following the pattern of the philosophers and social scientists, Aniol searched the scriptures to identify how they describe the same phenomenon. Aniol concludes that the scripture defines these same concepts in terms of behavior (Gr.anastrophe). This is probably the best definition that I have heard from a Biblical perspective. When scripture describes what we might understand today as culture, it is always referring to the behavioral norms of the people in question. The beliefs of a group, Aniol argues, are the context in which their behavior is formed. Therefore, when considering a cultural expression of worship, the question shouldn’t be about the form necessarily as much as it should be about the beliefs that provide the foundation for the cultural expression. Our task then is to determine if the beliefs under the surface of the cultural expression and the resulting behavior are appropriate in light of Biblical revelation.

One of the things that I really appreciate about By the Waters of Babylon is the way in which the author defined the mission of God and the church. In a nutshell, Aniol says that God redeemed a people for himself so that he might create people to worship him… to give him glory. The church’s mission therefor is the same as God’s: through the great commission, the  church is participating in God’s creative act of creating worshipers for himself. As a church, we are tasked with spreading the gospel so that people might come to worship God. As we grapple with issues of the form of worship and its contextualization, the question then should be whether or not it corresponds with God’s mission as regulated by his word.

Aniol doesn’t go into much depth about the forms of worship and other questions which seem to occupy the minds of pastors today. However, he sets forth some very useful guidelines. When applied directly to worship, the questions then become whether or not our worship is regulated by scripture. How does scripture inform our use of cultural contextualizations? How does scripture inform the doctrine within our worship? What about our liturgy? If our first thought when contemplating the use of a particular element in our worship is about the cultural relativity of the element then we are on the wrong track. If however, our first question is about how scripture speaks to its use then we are well on our way to allowing our worship to be regulated by scripture. The other questions such as whether to sing contemporary songs, hymns, or Psalms… or what instruments are appropriate are not addressed in this book, but Aniol give plenty of scriptural principles for the reader to pursue these on his/her own.

Where to find By the Waters of Babylon:

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By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture (


About the author

By The Waters of Babylon

Scott Aniol is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas; he founded Religious Affections Ministries; he lectures around the country in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries; and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. Scott holds a master’s degree in musicology and a PhD in worship and ministry.






Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Kregel Academic & Ministry Publishing in exchange for an online review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

5 thoughts on “Book Review – By the Waters of Babylon

  1. Lorre

    Oh good! I thought maybe you stopped writing. I’m glad you are back and what about that new baby? I’m going out on a limb and guessing Jami has had her by now :÷)

    • Lorre, sorry for the delay. Yes, she was born 8 weeks ago!

  2. Ruby

    Culture as behavior. Interesting. I cant say that I can disagree. Just never thought about it before.

  3. Hector

    This sounds like such a thought provoking book. I never once thought about worship in this way. I just thought that it was something I do on Sundays to contribute to the worship of God. This has me thinking in a few directions right now.

  4. Ryan Smith

    Aaron I’m glad to see you are writing again. Don’t ever take a month off again okay? J/K! How’s the new baby? I like where the author seems to be going with this. I don’t have much flexibility in my denomination to get creative. Maybe we take the regulative principle too far but it sure makes it easy to know what to do on any given Sunday. I think we could benefit from this book. The problem that I see is that everything is so regulated that we don’t have any cultural expression at all except for maybe 16th century Geneva. And that as you well know was still very close to Rome. I’ll have to check this one out as well. Another book for my ever expanding list.

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