Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Baptist Theologizes the Liturgical Year

Every week my desk at Christianity Today is flooded with review copies of new books. Most look a bit too familiar, modeled on other books the way the house-brand raisin bran at your grocery store is modeled on the name-brand versions by Post and Kellogg. They’re probably serviceable, but they really don’t grab your attention.

Last Monday, there was a book that caught my attention for its originality: The Rhythm of Doctrine by John E. Colwell. The book is subtitled, A Liturgical Sketch of Christian Faith and Faithfulness.

The book caught my attention, first, because the author is trying to organize a systematic theology around the seasons of the church year. I don’t know of anyone else who has done this, and Colwell says it’s such an obvious idea that “someone must have adopted this approach previously.” Except that neither he nor I know of such attempts. Most systematic theologies are organized around the three major sections of the Creed: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Occasionally someone tries a different organizing principle. James McClendon tried organizing a systematic theology using ethics as his starting point back in 1986. And Tom Finger tried to organize a systematic around eschatology in 1985. But these are highly unusual departures.

But it wasn’t merely novelty. Colwell’s effort caught my attention for several other reasons.

One of those is that I am interested in narrative approaches to theology. And the seasons of the church year are the chapters in the story of salvation. At their best, narrative approaches to theology help us understand God in more dynamic terms than many systematic theologies do. The Bible tells us (in the words of G. Ernest Wright’s 1952 monograph) about “the God who acts.” This notion is born out in the preaching of the apostles as recorded in Acts. Their sermons are a recitation of the mighty acts of God, leading up to and culminating in Jesus. Or in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prophets introduce us to the God who brings deep pathos to his interaction with a suffering world. In other words, it is through narrative that we best convey knowledge of the God who interferes in human history because he cares deeply.

The third thing, however, that caught my attention is that John Colwell teaches at Spurgeon’s College in London. That’s a Baptist institution, I thought. What’s a Baptist doing organizing his theology around the liturgical calendar. That’s what an Anglican or Lutheran might do. Or perhaps a Methodist. (The closest thing to this effort is Geoffrey Wainwright’s Doxlogy: The Praise of God in Worship (1980). But what’s a Baptist doing writing about such things?
Colwell’s answer is very personal.

I write as as Baptist and some may expect me to conform to this non-conformity of neglect. I write, moreover, as one who teaches in a college founded by a Victorian Baptist preacher who was notorious in his distaste for liturgy.

That's exactly what was puzzling me. So why did Colwell turn to formal liturgy with its prescribed prayers, its creeds, and its set rhythms of devotion?
More than any other factor, it was the experience of wrestling with the crushing darkness of clinical depression that drew me to a more formal devotional life: when you really cannot pray yourself, when every form of ‘felt’ experience has fled, when you are despairing of yourself and despairing of God, then the prayers of others become precious. … I discovered the prayers of the Church, some ancient and some contemporary, that expressed concisely and profoundly what I would have wanted to pray myself if I had been able.

I read that passage just a few days before hearing the revelations about the spiritual dryness of Mother Teresa. Perhaps you’ve seen the news stories. Clearly, without set practices of devotion, she could not have persevered in her saintly work.

And then I thought of how I begin each morning’s prayers. Using an abbreviated form taken from the Book of Common Prayer, I always begin morning devotion with these words from Psalm 51: “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” When I say those words, I realize that I do not pray. God prays through me. I cannot pray. I need God to “open my lips.” And then the Spirit helps me in my weakness.

I’m glad that in their “crushing darkness” John Colwell (and Mother Teresa) have learned to rely on the prayers of others. For Colwell and for me, that has meant learning to rely less on self and on feelings and to enter into the larger prayer of the church, which organizes itself around the chapters of the story of salvation. And that is what section four of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future invites us to: “Therefore, we call Evangelicals to recover the historic substance of worship of Word and Table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God's saving acts.”

* * *

How well does Colwell carry out his attempt to organize a systematic around the church year? And what are the strengths of such an approach compared to the traditional way of writing theology?

Those questions will be the subject of future blog posts. Stay tuned.
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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Worshiping with Broken Appliances

About the time she turned 40, my wife said, “It’s not the aging I mind, it’s the way the appliances keep breaking down.”

Does the way appliances fail right after they go out of warranty send us a subliminal message about the human condition?

Whatever the subtle symbolism behind that observation, the Neffs have now had another spate of appliance breakdowns. Appliances don’t fail only when they go out of warranty. They can also sense when you’ve got guests on the way.

And so, with three out-of-town guests in our home, our KitchenAid food processor flew apart in the middle of kneading bread and had to be replaced by a new Cuisinart.

Our electronic bathroom scale just gave us a blank, glassy stare. And when I replaced the batteries—nothing.

We received a recall letter from Maytag, saying that our dishwasher might burn our house down.

And then, after I rinsed the dinner dishes, the garbage disposal emitted an unearthly racket and jammed. All my efforts to follow the manufacturer’s instructions couldn’t remove the mystery object that had frozen the disposal. But probing its interior with my fingers and peering into it at an awkward angle, I realized what had happened. A piece of the exploding food processor had flown into the drain opening and waited for the opportunity to cause mischief.

In Romans 8, Paul reminds us that the whole creation has been “subjected to futility” but that in the end, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

Whether it’s a series of minor mishaps (like our appliance breakdowns) or serious catastrophes (like the collapse of a Minnesota bridge or a Utah mine), we know that the physical breakdown of creation is paralleled by the spiritual collapse of the human race. And we know that restoration awaits both God’s creation and God’s children.

* * *

How do we worship when our world keeps breaking down?

Those of us who practice Ancient Future worship often engage in some of the most glorious services to be found this side of the coming kingdom. That’s because we know that our Eucharists are anticipations of the eschatological Marriage Supper of the Lamb and that somehow (as our Orthodox friends have taught us) in this meal, heaven is opened to earth and earth to heaven.

In 2005, Colorado pastor Kevin Navarro published The Complete Worship Service with the subtitle “Creating a Taste of Heaven on Earth.” Bob Webber wrote a foreword to the book, and summarized its main point: “Not just the songs we sing but also the hospitality, the atmosphere, the teaching, the Eucharist—all these and more constitute a taste of heaven.”

Charles Wesley wrote about our heavenly worship in “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”: “Changed from glory into glory /Till in heaven we take our place, / Till we cast our crowns before thee, / Lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Navarro’s book is devoted to helping us toward the state of being “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” But at one point he warns: “As glorious as our worship services can be, we need to remember that even in the most holy place on earth, the creation is still in labor.” We will never be fulfilled until heaven, he writes, and “the complete worship service is created to help us long each week for what is yet to come.”

And so worship is about “longing.” Section 4 of the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future deplores the forms of worship that “do not adequately proclaim God’s cosmic redemption” because they treat the self as the source of worship or regard God as an object of the intellect.

The remedy, according to the call, is “worship that sings, preaches and enacts God’s story.” By proclaiming God’s story, our worship can “narrate the world” so that our people experience a longing for the world to come. And by knowing where we are in God’s story, in the already but not yet, we can put the failures of appliances and people in perspective and be strengthened by a foretaste of the redemption for which we long.

* * *


Good news about our garbage disposal and bathroom scale. A friend was able to dislodge the piece of broken food processor from the garbage disposal. And the bathroom scale mysteriously healed itself. For the moment, however, our dishwasher remains a menace.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Crappyjack Spirituality

I learned a new word this weekend—“crappyjack.” Catching up on some of my favorite podcasts while doing my Saturday errands, I heard “A Way with Words” host Grant Barrett report on the new words contest held at the recent meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America.

“Crappyjack” was introduced into the discussion by Erin McKean, chief consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press. Somebody had made up the word during a kind of parlor game at an event she had attended in New York City. The word is obviously modeled on “crap” and “Cracker Jack,” and the definitions she gave were “any kind of food you eat that is bad for you” and “anything you can buy in a crinkly package in a convenience store.”

Right after the session in which someone made up “crappyjack,” an 89-year-old Anglican nun spoke about spirituality. “She managed to use the word ‘crappyjack’ eight times in her talk,” said McKean, taking it from its new but literal meaning to a spiritual meaning. Spiritual crappyjack, she said, is stuff “you bought ... for a quick spiritual fix and then the experience left you hollow and queasy.”

McKean said that everyone listening to that 89-year-old nun knew immediately what she was talking about. That’s because there is a long history of spiritual crappyjack—stuff that promises a lot, is kind of showy, and even, perhaps, gives you a quick rush.

What are the warning signs of spiritual crappyjack? Besides the vacant feeling that follows the empty promise, section 5 of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future notes these marks of fraudulent spiritualities: “legalism, mere intellectual knowledge, overly therapeutic culture, New Age Gnosticism, ... dualistic rejection of this world, [or] narcissistic preoccupation with one’s own experience.” So when one of more of those start showing up, it’s time to turn back to the biblical story and the context of the church.

The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future urges “catechetical spiritual formation of the people of God that is based firmly on a Trinitarian biblical narrative.” It continues, “We are concerned when spirituality is separated from the story of God and baptism into the life of Christ and his body. ... These false spiritualities are inadequate for the challenges we face in today’s world. Therefore, we call for a return to an historic spirituality like that taught and practiced in the ancient catechumenate.”

There’s some fancy language in there, but here are the key words: “based firmly on a Trinitarian biblical narrative” and tied to “the story of God and baptism into the life of Christ and his body.” What have you got there? A church context in which people are trained to understand the story of God’s work for the redemption of the world according to the theological consensus that developed in the first five centuries.

Bob Webber’s 2006 book The Divine Embrace unpacks those ideas (book excerpt here; buy the book here). Read it if you haven’t already done so. It's not crappyjack.

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