Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Mighty Cantata

Lutheran churches were celebrating Reformation Sunday this past weekend, and I was blessed to hear J. S. Bach’s eight-movement cantata based on Martin Luther’s hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) the way Bach intended—in the context of a worship service.

The Neffs met up with their friends Mark and Nina Moring at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, for a splendid service of evening prayer complete with choir, orchestra, organ, and professional soloists.

In our time, Bach’s cantatas are usually performed as concert pieces, as if they were mini-oratorios, small-scale versions of Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah. But that is not at all what Bach had in mind. He wrote these pieces to be paired with sermons as musical expositions of Scripture.

Robin Leaver explained it all in issue 95 of Christian History and Biography: The Gospel According to J. S. Bach. In an article entitled “Sermons that Sing,” the Westminster Choir College musicologist described how this unique musical genre functioned in 18th-century Lutheran worship.

“These services were long,” writes Leaver, “lasting up to four hours—with a complex liturgical order based on Luther's evangelical reinterpretation of the traditional Mass.” (Fortunately, the service we attended on Reformation Sunday lasted just an hour and fifteen minutes.)

Leaver explains:

[T]he cantata was closely connected with both the reading of the Gospel and the sermon. The simple sequence was this:

Gospel, Nicene Creed, Cantata, Hymn, Sermon.

The portion from one of the Gospels appointed for that day was read. The choir responded to the Gospel, affirming the faith by singing the Nicene Creed in Latin. Then the choir and instrumentalists performed the cantata. The whole congregation responded by singing in German the hymn Wir glauben all' an einen Gott ("We all believe in one true God"), Luther's rhyming, metrical version of the Creed. After this second affirmation of faith came the sermon, a detailed exposition and application of the day's Gospel reading. The cantata therefore stood in the middle of a sequence that began with the Gospel reading and ended with the sermon. Like the sermon, the cantata was also an exposition and application of the Gospel of the day.

The cantata was thus a theological commentary on Scripture and even an exhortation to faith and perseverance. In the Ein’ feste Burg cantata we heard, God’s strength and sure victory are repeatedly invoked to urge the believer to be steadfast in fighting the devil.

The bass soloist sings:

Consider well, O child of God,
This love so mighty, which Jesus hath
In his own blood for thee now written;
By which he thee
For war opposing Satan’s host,
Opposing world and error,
Enlisted thee!
Yield not within thy spirit
To Satan and his viciousness!

The soprano (representing the Christian soul) then responds to God with this invitation:

Come in my heart’s abode,
Lord Jesus, my desiring!
Drive world and Satan out,
And let thine image find in me new glory!
Hence, prideful cloud of sin!

I’m sure the poetry is better in the original German, but you get the picture. This pattern of exhortation and faithful response repeats throughout the full range of Bach’s cantatas.

Leaver’s article gives examples from various Bach compositions of the many inventive ways he used both musical and literary techniques to drive home a gospel truth and evoke both the terror of God’s judgment and the comfort of his grace.

Bach’s—and Luther’s—message is ultimately about God’s triumph. As the libretto of Ein’ feste Burg tells us:

Who hath to Christ’s own bloodstained flag
In baptism sworn allegiance
Wins in spirit ever more.
All that which God has fathered
Is for victory intended.

* * *

Professor Leaver’s full article is available online, but only to ChristianHistory.net subscribers. You can sign up for a mere $12 a year (surely you can afford a paltry dollar a month).

Or you can order a print copy of Christian History & Biography issue 95 for $5.00 plus shipping and handling.

Listen to the first movement of J. S. Bach's Ein' feste Burg.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Science, Sex, and Stars

Just over a week ago, TIME’s David Van Biema wrote about vampirologist Anne Rice’s latest book, which recounts her return to faith: Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. Like every good evangelical, I love a conversion story.

Van Biema called the book “catnip for devout Christians” and offered this evaluation: “Rice's conversion is disorganized enough to sound real, her eagerness to embrace confession and discipleship is inspiring, and her arguments in a passage on ‘Christmas Christianity’ suggest Rice could rival C. S. Lewis as a popular apologist for the faith.”

One thing Rice said, however, sounded very unlike CSL.

Centuries ago the stars were sacred. A man could be burnt at the stake for declaring that the earth revolved around the sun...Now the Christian world holds the stars to be secular...Is it not possible for us to do with gender, sexuality and reproduction what was long ago done with the stars? To realize that...new sources of information on them may be as valid as the information given us long ago?

Now, unlike much of Rice’s mystery-laden account, that paragraph struck me as very modern—appealing to science to help us desacralize gender, sexuality, and reproduction. Once again, as it has done so often in the drama of modernity, science is called on to play the role of savior from intellectual and spiritual darkness.

It is certainly true that science has taught us some things about sex. If you read Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response, you’ll find careful research that debunks earlier misbegotten understandings of how our bodies work. But how does that sort of thing desacralize sex?

Rice’s comment about the stars reminded me of an essay by Michael Ward in the January/February 2008 issue of Books & Culture. In “C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem,” Ward writes of Lewis’s interest in astrology.

[T]he pre-Copernican model of the cosmos was a Christian model not despite, but because of, its acceptance of astrological influence. Lewis valued its astrological aspect not because he considered astrology to be literally true, but because astrology represented a spiritual reading of materiality.

“A spiritual reading of materiality” is precisely what Anne Rice seems to lack. Sexuality and stars are whatever science can describe them to be. Here’s more of Michael Ward on CSL:

Since the Copernician revolution, the heavenly bodies had been steadily evacuated of spiritual significance until they were regarded as no more than large aggregations of rock or gas. Readers of Narnia will remember an exchange in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" during which Eustace is rebuked by Ramandu for claiming that "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas": "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of." Because the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos viewed the planets as more than merely material it was a model worth keeping in mind. It was, in this sense, a more Christian model than the Newtonian or Einsteinian versions which have succeeded it.

How ironic it is that Anne Rice seems to be succumbing to modernity even as she returns to Christianity. As an author of vampire novels, Rice is no stranger to mystery and otherness. Nothing archetypal should be alien to her. Maleness and femaleness have long resisted being reduced to reproductive mechanics, no matter how precisely Masters and Johnson could articulate the exquisite engineering of human sexuality. Someone with Rice’s romanticism should not be blind to that fact.

But these days, sexuality has been the victim not only of scientism but of legal reductionism. Just two days after Van Biema posted his comments on Anne Rice, the Connecticut Supreme Court struck down state law that provided gay couples with all the legal privileges and protections of marriage, while preserving that term for heterosexual unions.

In the court’s opinion, the modernist myth of progress trumped old-fashioned sensibilities: “Our conventional understanding of marriage must yield to a more contemporary appreciation of the rights entitled to constitutional protection.” Where Rice called on Science, the Connecticut justices invoked Progress.

Indeed, it was one of the Court’s dissenting voices that offered an appeal to science, or at least “biology”:

Justice Peter T. Zarella … argued that the state marriage laws dealt with procreation, which was not a factor in gay relationships. “The ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its basis in biology, not bigotry,” he wrote.

That’s not exactly an appeal to transcendence, but it is a kind of common sense. Unfortunately, the law is stuck in modernity and cannot desacralize the Myth of Progress or abandon the Worship of the Goddess Science. More unfortunately, much of the church seems stuck in the service of the same idols.

In Ancient-Future Faith, the late theologian Robert Webber recognized the importance of changing our communication style in the postmodern context--in part to allow us to remystify evangelical religion. This changed communication style includes “the rediscovery of ‘imagination,’ ‘intuition,’ and a sensitivity to ‘spiritual realities’” (p. 24). Webber then worked out how this communications revolution applied to worship and the recovery of the classical sense of mystery.

These same requirements should apply in the church’s approach to sexuality. Sexuality is, in a frequent Webberian phrase, “more than” what science can analyze and describe. It requires an understanding of symbol and a willingness to let the imagination and intuition loose to play.

That will lead some to the Dionysian feast and others to the joys of Christian marriage. Can we judge like Lewis that in sex, as in astronomy, a spiritual vision is superior to scientifically induced blindness?
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Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Church's Greatest Ornament

Here's a striking statement I heard today:

“Music is well or better able to praise God than the building of the church and all its decorations. It is the church’s greatest ornament.” —Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky

Source: Naxos Classical Music Spotlight podcast, “Rachmaninov Vespers, Academy of Choral Arts, Moscow,” September 8, 2008 (approx. 10 minutes into the audio file).You can subscribe to Naxos podcasts here or through the iTunes store. You can stream all podcasts at Naxos.com by registering to become a member. Read more!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In Summary: Third Annual Conference on the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future

The third annual conference on the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future concluded today. Here is the text of the summary I gave those attending the meeting at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. If you were unable to attend, perhaps this quick round-up of the presentations and discussion will be helpful.

* * *

I recently attended a conference where Muslim and Christian leaders spoke together about their faith. The Muslims were pointed and crystal clear. Unfortunately, the Christians, by and large, failed to present the core of our faith with a comparable crispness. National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson was one glorious exception. Unfortunately, a very prominent Christian preacher left the most lasting impression. He stated that he had more questions than answers about the Christian faith and that we needed to reframe the gospel in terms of the human need for self-esteem.

By contrast, I have relished the past two days as core elements of the faith embodied in the biblical narrative were compellingly presented over and over again.

We’ve been talking about the church as the continuation of God’s narrative. God’s story didn’t stop with the end of Scripture, because just as the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus and ignited the apostolic church and inspired the New Testament writers, he continues to shape the events of the church as it acts as the agent of God’s in-breaking kingdom.

Howard Snyder (Tyndale Seminary, Ontario) kicked off our explorations by looking at the church in five historical periods and examining three aspects of each: the narrative, the redemptive plan, and the way in which the church was most visible. I was particularly struck by his statement that during the first few centuries the church and mission were one. The church didn’t have a mission; the church was mission.

In the panel discussion that followed, Dan Williams (Baylor University) and Chris Hall (Eastern University) asked whether Howard quite had the story right, suggesting that he was mirroring the traditional evangelical account of the early church’s decline and (much) later restoration.

I think many of us have been influenced by that narrative of decline and restoration. I know that I was raised to think that the post-apostolic church fell almost immediately into apostasy and did not experience significant restoration until Luther went to his workshop to find a hammer and some nails. But even if you read the story differently from the way Howard does, you’ll have to agree that his is about the most generous version of the decline narrative you could find. He highlighted genuinely redemptive moments and movements in each of the major eras of the church’s narrative.

Then Jenell Williams Paris (Messiah College) took us through three narratives about the church to examine the way we deal with “the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.” As an anthropologist she helped us think realistically about the church, and she prodded us to think about how best to integrate the good, the bad, and the ridiculous that already exist in our churches. It is not our responsibility to spin the story so that God looks good, she told us. Bad, said Jenell, is never for nothing but always works to advance the narrative towards its proper climax.

David Fitch (Northern Seminary & Life on the Vine Christian Community) challenged us to recover from our Niebuhrian hangover and to look at the ways that capitalism (as a set of values) governs the way we do church. Particularly, that set of values creates and inflates inappropriate desire, and it engenders a greed for numerical growth that distorts ministry. The panelists disagreed sharply about capitalism, but all agreed that if you were to substitute a word like, say, “marketing” for “capitalism,” it would definitely describe the false narrative that the contemporary church has written into its script. The church, all agreed, needs to engage in forming its members spiritually with God’s narrative, and so help them resist being formed by the marketing or capitalist narrative they hear shouted at them every day. In particular, direct engagement with the poor will help believers resist being squeezed into the world’s mold.

Last night, D. H. Williams led us through a description of the early church’s ways of reorienting new believers away from the multiple religious and philosophical stories of Greco-Roman pluralism and providing them instead with a core story that would be a foundation for their lives. Dan gave us a reading of this catechetical process that accented core doctrine. The beginning of catechesis, he said, was focusing the believer on God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and not on the believer’s experience or personal journey. Earliest Christianity was a teaching church. In our panel discussion, we clarified that this did not mean merely abstract doctrine, but rather the complex of revealed truth, moral practice, and ritual experience that provided an irreducible foundation on which to build Christian lives.

And now this morning, Rick Richardson (Wheaton College) has turned our attention to mission. He has given us a rich survey of the origins and various streams of missional church thinking. He has warned us of the dangers of each stream, and he has suggested how we might discern a given congregation’s best approach to mission.

Two of Rick’s remarks caught my attention. First, Rick said that whenever we recapture the eschatological emphasis of Jesus, the missional identity of the church is renewed. Second, Rick suggested that just as we discover our spiritual gifts by using them, a church can discover its missional DNA by expressing it.

* * *

That’s it for this conference, except for some important thank-yous:

Special thanks to Chris and Brian Monroe who have webcast and live-blogged this event. Last night when I got home, I found a message from the Wright family, living in Afghanistan, who wished they could have been here at the conference:

“Many thanks for the live webcast!!!!!” they wrote. “Though I'd like to be in Chi-town, it is good to enjoy the thoughtful discussions from the comforts of home. Blessings! [signed] jdw”

And so I want to give a shout-out to the Wright family in Afghanistan and to all the others that joined us via webcast.

Thanks to our publishers, InterVarsity Press and Baker, who have published so many of the books that feed the Ancient-Future movement with insights. And let me also mention Zondervan, which is in the process of bringing out a 30th anniversary edition of Bob Webber’s 1978 book, Common Roots, the volume that started it all.

Thanks also to Northern Seminary and President Alistair Brown for hosting us, to Phil Kenyon and Ashley Gieschen for the incredible detail work they have done, to Karen Roberts and the worship team, to sound engineers Chris and Sheldon, and to all our panelists and presenters. Without any of these, our conference would have been much the poorer.

Plans for next year’s conference are still in the works. We’ll be sure to e-mail those who attended this and previous conferences when we develop the plans.
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Thursday, October 9, 2008

AEF Conference Begins Tonight with Webcast

Ancient Evangelical Future friends Chris "Desert Pastor" Monroe and his son Brian will once again be providing video of the AEF conference. This year, however, they'll be providing a live web feed. I'll embed the code here, and hope that tonight, when I'm away from my computer and emceeing the program, it all works for you.

Tonight's speaker is Howard Snyder, author of the 1975 classic The Problem of Wineskins: Church Stucture in a Technological Age. The program gets started about 7:00 PM Central with a time of worship, welcomes, and introductions followed by Howard's address and a panel discussion.

Thanks to Chris and Brian for making this event available to our web audience. Read more!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Where the Psalms Meet Heavy Metal

I've come to believe that even heavy metal is kind of like praying the Psalms, where you are crying out in a loud voice and moving through moments of great passion.

Those are the surprising words of renowned Chicago violinist and one-time prodigy Rachel Barton Pine. Besides being a Bach fan, Pine is a speed metal devotee. She had her dressmaker sew the logos of Led Zeppelin, Rush, ACDC, Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeath, and Slayer on her violin case. (Check out her album Stringendo: Storming the Citadel for a taste of her string interpretations of headbanging rock.)

On second thought, Pine’s comparison between the Psalmist’s cries of anger and anguish to metal music shouldn’t surprise us. Chicagoans will remember that when Pine was 20, the rising star’s violin case got caught in the doors of a Metra train. She was dragged some distance and one leg was severed by the train’s wheels.

I’m sure that both those metal bands and the Psalms connected to the emotional hell of her period of accident and recovery. I met Pine earlier this year at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel where we were both participating in a performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ. I offered the spoken meditation on “Into thy hands I commit my spirit,” and Pine played in the string quartet. Haydn’s music also touches the deepest moments of anguish and suffering. Violist Richard Young, who has been playing the piece for decades, told me after the performance that Pine had captured the work’s spirit perfectly.

Pine talks about her faith in God and its place in her music in a wonderful human-interest piece by Chicago religion journalist Judy Valente. The piece ran on this morning’s "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly." If you missed it, you can watch the video on their website.

The closing words belong Rachel Barton Pine:

The one thing I've learned is that the way to get through challenges is just to ask God not to change what's happening, not to make it OK, but just simply to be with me, be with me in the worst of times and to be with me in the best of times.

Related links:
Rachel Baron Pine
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly
The Vermeer Quartet
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jesus Creed vs. Out of Ur: Emerging Church Lives

A few days ago, a staff-written post for the Out of Ur blog operated by Christianity Today’s sister publication Leadership declared the emerging church “dead in nomenclature—if not in spirit.” (See “R.I.P. Emerging Church: An overused and corrupted term now sleeps with the fishes.”) The anonymous blogger began by talking about the death of the term “emerging church,” but before long seemed to suggest that the movement itself was over. “As the emerging church rides off into the sunset,” the writer said, new networks were taking its place.

The blog post irritated a lot of folk, not the least North Park University professor Scot McKnight.

Early, very early, yesterday morning (12:30 AM, to be exact), McKnight posted a response to Out of Ur’s insinuations on his Jesus Creed blog. Ur seemed to say that not only “the word ‘emerging’ was dead but also the emerging church … Tommyrot!," Scot said.

You can feel the heat of Scot’s vehemence.

Scot took a deep breath, counted to ten, and then explained. Terms don’t make a movement. And terms don’t end a movement. And Scot is really, really tired of explaining all the terminological nuances within the phenomenon called “the emerging church." He has certainly been one of the most articulate observers of the movement.

As he explained in his 2007 Christianity Today article, there are five major streams that flow into Lake Emerging. People swim in different streams, some (like Scot) in more than one. If the term is dying, the currents are still there. If it isn’t Lake Emergent, Scot and friends will still swim in Lake Whatever. People are forever doubting the usefulness of labels like "conservative," "fundamentalist," "evangelical," and "feminist." After a while, all movement labels carry excess baggage. They create general impressions that often do not fit the people who are conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical, feminist, or even "emerging."

Nevertheless, Scot says, a lot of young church leaders are rightly concerned about the evangelical turn to neo-fundamentalism, and they are looking for ways to present a perishing world with a holistic gospel.

Scot admits (as Out of Ur suggested) that a new network is being born, but it is “not a sister/brother alliance” of Emergent Village. It's not there to take the place of the emerging streams. Instead, the new network will focus on evangelism, a dimension that has been weak in some emerging churches. Scot and friends are building the new evangelistic alliance on the foundations of the classically evangelical and seriously holistic 1974 Lausanne Covenant. That's a good place to start, because doctrinal questions and rumors that circulated around Emergent and emerging have weighed down some noble efforts. The Lausanne Covenant is as sound as doctrinal statements come. The new network shouldn't have to rebut rumors about flawed doctrine.

Scot promises to reveal more details of the new network soon. Read his entire reply to Out of Ur here.

Forget labels, do ministry.
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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Early-Bird Conference Savings Extended Just a Few More Days

Here’s an opportunity to save some money and advance God's kingdom at the same time.

Earlier this week, Northern Seminary president Alistair Brown announced an extended deadline for the early-bird registration for the Ancient Evangelical Future Conference.

That reduced price of $94 saves you nearly $50 off the full price of $140. But that reduced price is only good until Friday. Take advantage of it here. (If you're a student, you can save even more.)

I expect the conference to be a challenging, stretching, inspiring, enabling time for those who care about what God is doing through the church. Here’s the description of speakers and topics I posted earlier:

Discovering Your Church’s Missional DNA

Rick Richardson, director, masters in evangelism & leadership, Wheaton College
§ Missional is the new code word in the theology and praxis of ecclesiology. But how do we become genuinely missional and not just rhetorically missional?
§ Rick Richardson will help you understand what God is doing in restoring the missional identity of the church, and where your church—with its unique missional DNA—might fit.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ridiculous: The Church Visible
Jenell Paris, professor of sociology and anthropology, Messiah College
§ We need an authentic common sense approach to connect the AEF Call to “take seriously the visible character of the church” with what can be observed in the everyday life of our congregations.
§ Jenell Paris will help you think about how your congregation incorporates the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. She will help you consider the unique stories of your congregation, and how those stories fit with the larger story of the church.

Can the Church and Capitalism Get Along?
David Fitch, founding pastor, Life on the Vine Christian Community and prof. of evangelical theology, Northern Seminary
§ Despite the benefits they bring us, capitalism and consumerism distort the church, its fellowship, its spiritual formation, and its mission. How do we shape a community of Christ that is in capitalism, but not of it?
§ David Fitch will offer some basic practices we can adopt to protect our churches from being squeezed into capitalism’s mold.

Tracing the Church’s Journey
Howard Snyder, prof. of Wesley studies, Tyndale Seminary; former prof. of history & theology of mission, Asbury Seminary.
§ The twists and turns, the highways and detours, of the church’s journey through 2000 years of history and a slew of cultures clarifies our present challenge.
§ Howard Snyder will help you think about how that journey will help your congregation effectively come to grips with its own story and mission in light of “God’s narrative” and the biblical story.

Preserving the Church’s Story
D. H. Williams, prof. of patristics & historical theology, Baylor University
§ If the church forgets its story, it will be shaped by the world’s stories. We can easily lose our identity and our mission.
§ To prevent such loss, the ancient church developed a systematic approach to Christian education. It aimed to preserve its message by teaching its story. Because many of its members were illiterate, the church’s message had to be preserved in the minds and hearts of its members.
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Friday, September 12, 2008

Conference Preview: The Church, the Continuation of God's Narrative

I am getting increasingly excited about the third annual conference on the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future, coming up October 9-11.

In the past few days, our speakers have given us glimpses into what they’ll be sharing with us. I think you’ll find this material thought-provoking and equipping for ministry.

Check out these previews:

Discovering Your Church’s Missional DNA
Rick Richardson, director, masters in evangelism & leadership, Wheaton College
§ Missional is the new code word in the theology and praxis of ecclesiology. But how do we become genuinely missional and not just rhetorically missional?
§ Rick Richardson will help you understand what God is doing in restoring the missional identity of the church, and where your church—with its unique missional DNA—might fit.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ridiculous: The Church Visible
Jenell Paris, professor of sociology and anthropology, Messiah College
§ We need an authentic common sense approach to connect the AEF Call to “take seriously the visible character of the church” with what can be observed in the everyday life of our congregations.
§ Jenell Paris will help you think about how your congregation incorporates the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. She will help you consider the unique stories of your congregation, and how those stories fit with the larger story of the church.

Can the Church and Capitalism Get Along?
David Fitch, founding pastor, Life on the Vine Christian Community and prof. of evangelical theology, Northern Seminary
§ Despite the benefits they bring us, capitalism and consumerism distort the church, its fellowship, its spiritual formation, and its mission. How do we shape a community of Christ that is in capitalism, but not of it?
§ David Fitch will offer some basic practices we can adopt to protect our churches from being squeezed into capitalism’s mold.

Tracing the Church’s Journey
Howard Snyder, prof. of Wesley studies, Tyndale Seminary; former prof. of history & theology of mission, Asbury Seminary.
§ The twists and turns, the highways and detours, of the church’s journey through 2000 years of history and a slew of cultures clarifies our present challenge.
§ Howard Snyder will help you think about how that journey will help your congregation effectively come to grips with its own story and mission in light of “God’s narrative” and the biblical story.

Preserving the Church’s Story
D. H. Williams, prof. of patristics & historical theology, Baylor University
§ If the church forgets its story, it will be shaped by the world’s stories. We can easily lose our identity and our mission.
§ To prevent such loss, the ancient church developed a systematic approach to Christian education. It aimed to preserve its message by teaching its story. Because many of its members were illiterate, the church’s message had to be preserved in the minds and hearts of its members.

* * *

The conference is fast approaching, so register right away.
Read more!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Three Little Pigs and the Life of Faith

Public radio raconteur Garrison Keillor grew up fundamentalist. So it was not surprising to hear him say in a recent News from Lake Wobegon segment (the quote is about 13 minutes in):

I used to think that faith was sort of like a building block, and you’d put all these blocks together, and you’d build a house sort of like the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down.

When I heard these words in Keillor’s comfortably weary voice, I thought of several friends who had grown up fundamentalist—including Bob Webber. Keillor’s metaphor (the brick house of the three little pigs) is defensive. It was a fortification, a bulwark against big bad wolves.

Webber also used defensive language when he described the theological system he picked up in his education and carried with him into his early years of teaching. Here are sentences and fragments from the opening chapter of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1985).

… I was being swept away into evangelical rationalism…. Christianity was no longer a power to be experienced but a system to be defended. … My study of the Bible now turned into a defense of its inspired authorship.

… I was asked to teach a class called Christian Doctrine. Here’s my chance, I thought, to give them the goods, to show them how rationally defensible the Christian faith is and how reasonable it is to believe in the Christian system of things. …

I also thought I could rationally defend the Scripture as God’s mind written ….

I derived a great deal of security from my system. …

Keillor and Webber shared a defensive notion of faith as their starting point. The next step for Keillor was surrender.

I used to think that faith was sort of like a building block, and you’d put all these blocks together, and you’d build a house sort of like the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older, and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender. (Italics supplied)

Webber recalled his frustration in trying to prepare a chapel sermon for Wheaton College students, one that would deliver the answers Christianity had to offer to the questions of a world in despair. But Webber found the answers he knew so well to be “so cold, so calculated, to rational, so dead.” He crumpled up those pages of his sermon manuscript and threw them into the wastebasket.

I dropped back into my chair and sobbed for several hours. I had thrown away my answers. I had rid myself of a system in which God was comfortably contained. I had lost my security …

Both Keillor and Webber believed in a defensive faith that gave them a sense of security. Both Keillor and Webber abandoned a defensive posture and left the security of a system. But then their stories diverge.

Keillor again:

And now I get older, and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender. It’s a matter of just giving up and just leaving that house, of just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude, maybe that’s all you need.

Keillor replaces brick-wall security with stepping out into a cold, rainy, doubt-filled, confusing world, while (presumably by sheer will) “trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude.”

That, of course, raises questions like these: Hope for what? Hope in what? Hope in whom? Gratitude for what? Gratitude to whom?

Webber also left the secure system. But his leaving was about seeking God. And that did not mean aimless wandering while willing yourself into hope and gratitude. Instead, Webber began a purposeful search and immersed himself in the study and experience of worship.

While the world may be cold and rainy and confusing, Webber discovered that abandoning the security of his defensive theology brought him into a greater community. His house, he discovered, wasn’t the only one. There are many mansions. There were people he hadn’t seen while living defensively. By leaving his secure box, not only did he experience God, he met others who experienced God: especially the venerable fathers and mothers of the early church and many contemporary believers whose traditions differed from his but which complemented his.

That is my experience as well. Leaving my little brick house did not mean being attacked by the big bad wolf. It meant discovering other houses, other people, other communities that (to shift the metaphor) presented a rich tapestry of faith.

But that tapestry, both Webber and I discovered, is not entirely woven of rationalist threads. Some of its fibers are images. Some are songs or poems. Some are inexplicable experiences. Some are miracles. Some are mysteries. Woven together they present us with a picture, an icon, of God. They do not contain God, but reveal him in glimpses. And that is something that brick walls can never do.

* * *

Be sure to register for the third annual Ancient Evangelical Future conference, October 9-11, featuring Dan Williams, Howard Snyder, Janell Paris, Rick Richardson, and David Fitch.

Read more!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rescuing the Lord’s Prayer from Sentimentality

First, a word of explanation: I use DVD movies in 30-minute segments to distract me while I daily exercise my creaky body on my creakier classic Nordic Track ski machine.

On a recent Saturday morning, I finished watching a vampire movie (or what seemed like a parody of one) and began watching Ken Curtis’s Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer for People with Cancer.

The contrasts between the two movies are many, but I want to focus on a few important things. In the vampire movie (as in all vampire movies) Christian symbols like the cross and holy water are treated as magical talismans against the evil power of the vampires. In some vampire lore, you can destroy one of those undead bloodsuckers by holding up a crucifix and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. These are regarded as potent weapons, but not for any particular reason. They are on the same level as garlic and sunlight as tools for defeating vampires.

Curtis, the founder of Christian History magazine, doesn’t want us to think of the Lord’s Prayer as a talisman—as something that, if we keep repeating it, would magically keep the cancer at bay. Instead, he treats the Lord’s Prayer as one of God’s ways of helping us see the world differently, see it through God’s eyes. When we understand in our depths that we are commanded to address God as “our Father,” understand deeply that God is our Father, we see the world differently precisely because we know we are not alone.

The classic vampire movie will include at least one scene in which the potential victim is isolated, caught alone in a dark alley or dank cavern or some other place where her screams will not be heard as she comes face to face with the thing that threatens to drain her life from her. Cancer is a vampire that catches us vulnerable and alone. It drains away our life and eats away at us.

In the classic vampire tale, there is also a rescue. At the crucial moment when the vampire is about to feed on his victim, the hero arrives, armed with knowledge and a crucifix and holy water. The message is this: If you’re alone, the vampire will get you. But if you’re with the hero, you’ll be safe.

Curtis wants us to know we’re not alone, that we’re not waiting for the hero to arrive, but that the rescuer is always with us. And we see that by seeing the world through the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Near the end of his life, when cancer was eating at his pancreas, Bob Webber once again wrote about the importance of seeing the world in the framework of God’s story, not our own. The point is explicit in the title of Who Gets to Narrate the World? (IVP, 2008). But the same point runs through all his writings. Whether he is writing about worship or spirituality or evangelism or theology, Bob stressed that in a properly conceived Christian life, we don’t read God’s story through the lens of our own, but vice versa.

Here for example, is how he put it in The Divine Embrace (Baker, 2006). The fundamental error in medieval mysticism occurred when the focus shifted from God to self.

Spirituality, which was once a contemplation of God’s saving acts, now contemplated the self and the interior life. What was once a journey into God became a journey into self. … [S]pirituality now focused on the experience that occurs inside ‘my story.’ … God’s cosmic story of redemption was exchanged for the drama of redemption that takes place within me, which is different from witnessing to God’s saving acts, which embrace me and I in turn embrace. [51]

Curtis makes the same point about the relationship between our story and God’s. He shows his viewers a Tom Clancy novel. Here’s a 1200-page novel, he says. He rips out a page and holds it up to the camera. This is your life, your story. You can tell some things about the larger story from it, but you can’t really make sense of them unless you have read the whole novel.

Your story only makes sense when you understand it as part of God’s story, as part of his plan to extend his rule over on everything in the cosmos.

While standing on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, Curtis highlights the radical nature of praying for God’s kingdom to come. In the section of the video titled “The Prayer That Could Get You Killed,” he says:

This prayer for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done is nothing less than subversive. … Think of the implications in Jesus’ time. And incidentally, they’re just as incendiary today. The Roman Empire … ruled with an iron fist. For a peasant carpenter from up in Galilee to come here and teach his followers to look and pray for another kingdom, that could easily be seen as seditious and treasonous.

Well, not just “seen” as seditious. It was and continues to be seditious and treasonous, as the early Christian martyrs found out.

A few other things I appreciated about Ken’s video:

* He stressed the communal nature of the Lord’s Prayer—both its history as a communal prayer and the implications of the first person plurals in the prayer itself: "Give us ... Forgive us ... Deliver us ..." We’re not in this (the cancer) alone, but can have others interceding with us.

* He chose to shoot the “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” segment of the video in front of the infamous security barrier that walls out Palestinian terrorists along with all the productive Palestinian workers and former Jerusalem residents who need to commute regularly from Palestinian territory into Israel. The wall is a potent symbol of the enmity that can only be healed by the mutual forgiveness the prayer teaches us.

Kudos to Ken Curtis for producing a video meditation on the Lord’s Prayer that taps into its revolutionary nature. Cancer sufferers (for whom he produced the video) and all the rest of us do not need to sentimentalize these familiar words. We need to feel the radical intimacy with which Jesus framed the “Our Father.” We need to see the grand subversive vision embodied in praying for God’s rulership. We need to experience the humility that can lead to restored relationships. It’s a grand prayer, and Ken has helped to rescue it from sentimentality and familiarity.

* * *

Don’t forget to register for the Ancient Evangelical Future Conference, October 9-11, 2008.
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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Radical Snyder

On one shelf in my basement office, four potent books sit side-by-side. They were written by Howard Snyder between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s. All of them were published by IVP, where I worked from 1981 to 1985. All of them liberated me from institutional Christianity. The books are:

* The Problem of Wineskins (1975)
* The Community of the King (1977)
* The Radical Wesley (1980)
* Liberating the Church (1983)

Ironically, these four sit right next to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, which is as soft-headed and accommodating as Snyder’s books were clear-eyed and iconoclastic. Howard is a great thinker in his own right. But the contrast with Schleiermacher makes him look even better.

Tonight I was perusing phrases I had highlighted in The Community of the King. Here are a few that still jump out at me three decades later.

The genuine demonstration of Christian community is the first step toward accomplishing God’s cosmic plan. This is miracle, and miracle attracts.

The Church most transforms society when it is itself growing and being perfected in the love of Christ.

The task of the Church … and its place in God’s cosmic design is first of all genuinely to be the redeemed, messianic community, and secondly to do the works of God and carry on the works of Jesus. In truly being the community of Jesus’ disciples the Church commits itself to a pattern of corporate life and a way of relating to one another which is a rejection of, and therefore a challenge to, the social and political structures of the world. In this way the Church’s very existence becomes both prophetic and evangelistic.

Evangelism [in the book of Acts] was not merely something that individual Christians did; rather it was the natural result of the presence and influence of the Christian community in the world. The community gave credibility to the verbal proclamation.

The first task of every Christian is the edification of the community of believers. If we say that evangelism or soul winning is the first task of the believer, we do violence to the New Testament and place a burden on the backs of some believers that they are not able to bear. … [It] ignores the biblical teachings

[B]iblical evangelism must be church-based evangelism. … [T]he Church is both the agent and the goal of evangelism.

Howard’s books from that period were radical. Being intensely scriptural, they cut to the root. They liberated from false consciousness encouraged by institutional Christianity. They were--they still are--empowering.

* * *

Remember that Howard Snyder is speaking at October’s Ancient Evangelical Future conference. The theme is the church. You really ought to be there.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

David Fitch: Can the Gospel Be Too Big?

David Fitch is one of the speakers at October's Ancient-Evangelical Future Conference (you really should come hear him). David leads a double life: He is both a professor of theology who is a church planter. He is a church planter who is a professor of theology. But despite the double life, he's no Jekyll and Hyde. David brings a consistent vision to both pastoral and professorial roles.

David contributed the most recent essay to Christianity Today's Christian Vision Project series, which CT made available on its website yesterday. Here's how he begins his article:

Missional Misstep
Emphasizing the big gospel can make it hard to communicate any gospel.

Can the gospel be too big? For some of us in the missional church movement, this question borders on heresy. We regularly caution that the gospel is not only about what Jesus can do for me. It is primarily about the transformation of our very way of life into God's mission for the world. We resist any temptation to turn the gospel into anything that might be too "user friendly." The mission of God (missio Dei), so we proclaim, must be all-encompassing, and we must become participants in it.

Yet for all the good in this approach, there may be another heresy beneath the surface.For in protecting the bigness of the gospel, we risk making the Christian life inaccessible to those outside of it. As a result, amid the current swell of appreciation for missio Dei theology in American churches, and the outcries against a gospel that has become too small, I find myself concerned about the ways we may unintentionally be making the gospel too big.

Read the rest of David's article here.
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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biology Class for the Church

Howard Snyder will be speaking at October's Ancient-Evangelical Future conference. This year's topic is the church. And since Howard and his friend Daniel Runyon wrote a provocative book on the church in 2002, I thought I'd post my six-year-old review of the book. There's plenty here to chew on. But I'm confident that at the conference Howard will be giving us still more to digest.

Here's the book review, which originally appeared in the November 2002 issue of Christianity Today. The book is, unfortunately, out of print. But copies are still available at Amazon.com.

Biology Class for the Church
Howard Snyder maps the genome of the body of Christ
By David Neff

Some radicals are unbalanced. Others help us regain our balance.

Howard Snyder—whose prior books include The Problem of Wineskins (1975) and The Radical Wesley (1980)—helps us maintain theological equilibrium by constantly testing the state of the church against the teaching of the Bible. He sounds radical because he thinks that somehow, in the power of the Spirit, we can live out that teaching.

Snyder's latest book, Decoding the Church (Baker, 208 pages, $14.99), elaborates the familiar biblical metaphor of the church as a body using contemporary concepts: DNA and ecological systems.

When the apostle Paul writes about the church as a body, his main messages are diversity of gifts and interdependence of members. He secondarily draws out the related notions of unity, growth and maturation, and reconciliation.

In Paul's thought the body is not a simile for the church. The church is not merely like a body. The church does not merely resemble a body in its diversity, unity, and interdependence. It is the body of Christ, who is its head. Every member of the body is, in a mystical sense, a part of Christ.

For 50 years, we have known scientifically what Paul presumably didn't (though it extends his thought nicely). We know that every cell in the body shares the same genetic code. The DNA in the head is the same as the DNA in the toes and the elbows.

Snyder wants to join the DNA metaphor to Paul's body metaphor as a way of saying that the reality of the church's relation to Christ is deeper and more complex than we might think.

DNA is, as Watson and Crick announced in 1953, a double helix. Snyder asks whether our churches have been operating with only half their DNA. He takes the creed's four classic marks of the church (one, holy, universal, and apostolic) and asks whether there isn't a second scriptural strand that intertwines those attributes (diverse, charismatically gifted, locally contextualized, and prophetic).

Any careful reader of the New Testament recognizes those factors as characteristics of the church. Snyder claims, however, that the first strand of DNA tends toward the institutional and hierarchical. That may be natural, since they were historically codified during a time when the church was having to define itself in response to heresies. And since heresies tend to arise in independent, prophetic, charismatic, local contexts, arguments from universality and apostolicity came in handy. One, holy, universal, and apostolic do not need to be instruments of institutionalization, but diverse, gifted, contextualized, and prophetic are good reminders of the organic (body-like) nature of the church.

(Snyder seems to love lists of four. After devoting one chapter to diverse, gifted, contextualized, and prophetic, he spends an additional chapter on missional, alternative, covenantal, and Trinitarian. Did the church's DNA just become a triple helix?)

Snyder offers an even bigger challenge to most churches when he urges the claim of Benjamin T. Roberts (principal founder of the Free Methodist Church) that preaching the gospel to the poor is a mark of the church. Here, historically, are Wesley and Whitefield. Here, historically, are William and Catherine Booth and Francis of Assisi. Here today are Howard Snyder and Ron Sider and a host of faithful urban congregations.

So if it doesn't seem obvious that ministry to the poor is an indispensable mark of the church, think again about the church's universality. Is universality merely a geographic and ethnic concept? Or is it socioeconomic as well? If the gospel is truly for all, we must consider the geography of social class and power as well as the geography of countries and cultures.

Functional structures
Snyder is convinced that church structures either help or hinder the mission of the church. ("Structures, though purely functional, do reinforce values and worldview assumptions.") Churches may successfully carry out God's mission in spite of bad structures, but why not lay aside every weight to run with patience the race?

None of Snyder's DNA factors automatically yield better ways of structuring churches. That takes godly experimentation in community. Thus Snyder's coauthor Daniel Runyon strings a running narrative through Decoding the Church: a tale about "Heartland Church," its pastor, and key lay leaders. The storytelling is neither Salinger nor Steinbeck, but it effectively portrays the necessarily serpentine process of self-discovery. In these narratives, the pastor does not go to a megachurch conference and come back with a winning formula. Instead, the parties work their way through life crises while listening to Scripture. Ultimately, the people and their church are transformed.

Snyder lists three places not to look for helpful structures—megachurches, microchurches (house churches), and business models. He calls them "dead ends, or worse." Yet even at his most negative, Snyder is not a thundering Savanarola, but a Saint Paul showing a more excellent way. And he shows his balance by pointing to exceptions and possibilities. For example, Snyder says, large urban African American churches often do not share the typical problems of other large churches. And, Snyder admits, " 'dead' structures" have historically been "the incubators of fresh forms of renewal."

Hierarchy phobia
Snyder reserves his strongest antipathy for hierarchical thinking about the church. Hierarchy "seeped into biblical interpretation and ecclesiastical practice and overwhelmed the more radical, subversive New Testament teaching," he writes. Snyder makes Aquinas the heavy, citing Colin Gunton: "Aquinas implies … that the hierarchy of the church—[consisting of] an ontological grading of persons—is modeled on that of heaven." Then he calls hierarchy "an instrument of oppression," which supported "social inequality and privileged interest." The Bible, he says, "gives many examples of hierarchy, but it never teaches that hierarchy is normative for society or church."

Before readers can reach for their Bibles to prooftext him into a corner, Snyder makes several defensive moves. First, he defines hierarchy narrowly in ontological terms (hierarchy implies inherent degrees of value and perfection). Second, he distinguishes such hierarchies of being from the functional and relational authority proper to family, church, and other social groupings. Parents' authority over their children is a matter of responsible loving, not of higher value. Third, in discussing the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being (an "inadequate principle of coherence"), he allows that it is "attractive," primarily for its "instinct of connectedness" and because it guards the truth of "ordered relatedness."

Everything is connected
For Snyder, "ordered relatedness" finds better expression in ecological thinking, in seeing the natural world, the church, the family, and society as interdependent systems of complex organisms. The philosophical intuition that follows on the empirical observation of such systems is: "Everything is significant simply because it connects with everything else—even if we don't yet understand the connection."

It's not hard to see where this leads. Thinking about church in an ecological way prepares us to minister to those who cannot reward us in return and to listen to those without specialized knowledge or social position.

Jesus pointed to the child as the model of faith. Paul said his message was "not in plausible words of wisdom" but "in weakness." God chose "what is weak in the world to shame the strong … what is low and despised in the world … to bring to nothing things that are." Jesus taught us to serve "the least of these, my brethren" in prison, poverty, hunger, or thirst. The poor are not always right or righteous (that is the error of some liberationists), but they are always important to God (that is the truth taught by John Wesley).

The ecological impulse helps us regard all of these as significant. It goads us to value interdependence over institutions. It leads us to treat authority as functional rather than a matter of inherent value. All of this is for the health of the church.

Nobody's perfect
So what are the book's weaknesses? First, the book's final leg is a disappointing attempt to grapple with issues of globalization. Snyder rightly insists that the church must deal with this economic, cultural, and technological phenomenon. But he stumbles, for example, when he announces that "digitization reinforces the tendency of contemporary culture to value quantity over quality." Say what? Digitization is all about quality. What every digital technology, from DVDs and HDTV to digitized facsimiles of ancient manuscripts, aims at is to ensure faithful reproduction of the original.

Second, many readers (most pastors are intuitives) will wish that Howard Snyder would just get them started on thinking about an idea and let them run with it. Snyder references the DNA idea throughout Decoding the Church, and the entire second half is an episodic reflection on ecological systems. Readers can easily become impatient, either running ahead of the authors down obvious paths, or feeling irritated at yet another application of DNA that doesn't especially illumine.

Third, for all its savvy about the church, the book lacks any reference to baptism (by which believers are incorporated into Christ) and the Lord's Supper (by which they are spiritually nourished). The themes expounded in Snyder's treatment of the church as an organic system rather than an institution potentially say much about how we profit from these sacraments/ordinances and how they strengthen our relationship to God and our fitness for his mission in the world.

Fourth, because Snyder has immersed himself in these contemporary symbols of DNA, ecology, and globalization, he occasionally lapses into jargon. It is remarkable, I suppose, that he doesn't become completely mired in jargon. Yet the following paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:31 seems stylistically almost unforgivable: "Synergize the many things you do in the one direction of the kingdom of God."

But what are those flaws next to this book's power to provoke discussion and action? Buy this book, and give it to your pastor. If you are the pastor, give it to your lay leadership—or to the officers of your denominational judicatory.

Make them all stop promoting programs or seeking quick fixes and start thinking organically and ecologically. This is the truest sentence in the book: "Think of the church organically, and it focuses on what makes for healthy life."

Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Clippings Ecclesiological #1: For the Sake of Sinners, Not the Smug

The topic of this year's Ancient Evangelical Future conference (October 9-11) is "the church [as] the continuation of God's narrative." So I'm collecting clippings ecclesiological as I run across them.

Here are a few memorable lines on the church from American Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor, borrowed from Martin Marty's Context, which in turn borrowed them from an article by San Francisco archbishop George Niederauer in America. (Don't tell me you've never borrowed anything from Martin Marty.)

You have to suffer as much from the church as for it. The only thing that makes the church endurable is that somehow it is the Body of Christ, and on this we are fed.

And then ...

The operation of the church is entirely set up for the sake of the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.

Archbishop Niederauer also offered this insight from T. S. Eliot, which he thought dovetailed with O'Connor's view of the church: Eliot said that "modern people do not like the church because

she is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ancient-Future Books on the Digital Trail

Today a reader named o1mnikent tipped us off to the fact that Logos Bible Software is planning to produce an electronic version of Bob Webber's Ancient-Future books: Ancient-Future Faith (1999), Ancient-Future Evangelism (2003), Ancient-Future Time (2004), and Ancient-Future Worship (2008). Read my review of the most recent volume here.

Logos is currently taking preorders at a special price of $44.95. When enough people have preordered, the set will go into production (available either on CD-ROM or as a download). The progress bar on their website looks like they have about 1/4 to 1/3 of the orders they need to proceed.

Note 1: o1mnikent is one of the bloggers who maintains the delightful "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks (which documents exactly what it says) and earlier blogged briefly on the annoying phrase "a whole nother."

Note 2: The planned Logos set comprises the four volumes that actually have Ancient-Future in their titles, but Bob originally intended The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (2006) as part of the series. The book's copyright page lists The Divine Embrace as part of the Ancient-Future series, but I'm told the publisher thought a book titled The Divine Embrace would sell more copies than something called Ancient-Future Spirituality. If you missed that book, you should read Patricia Raybon's review for Christianity Today.
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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sermon: The "Ruulaship" of God Makes Settled Things Strange

I don't preach very often anymore. My role in leading worship is musical now--facilitating the congregation's worship in song by leading the choir and playing the pipe organ.

But today I preached, just to help out my pastor who was coming back from vacation and didn't want to spend his last week of vacation preparing a sermon.

I want to share that sermon with you because it illustrates a basic principle that Bob Webber wrote about in Ancient Future Worship: All of our worship should tell (and, if possible, perform) God's story as we know it from the biblical narrative. Bob's conception of what this means was expanded by a renewed engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures as he was writing this book.

Many sermons fail to range widely enough in the biblical story for the congregation to remember that they are living out part of a bigger narrative. A sermon should help believers see how their stories are expanded by God's story. A sermon should not squeeze God's story into the narrow confines of the believer's life narrative.

And so I offer this sermon as one humble effort to model that. Note the use of the Old Testament as well as the eschatological perspective. The prescribed Gospel reading for the day was the familiar list of what seem like miscellaneous kingdom parables from Matthew 13: The kingdom of heaven is like (a) a mustard seed, (b) yeast, (c) a man who finds buried treasure, (d) a merchant who finds a rare pearl, (e) a net full of fish, both good and bad.

I hope you find this helpful.

The Ruulaship of God Makes Settled Things Strange

A Sermon Preached July 27, 2008
at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
Glen Ellyn, Illinois

G. K. Chesterton once said that "the function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange."

And that is true of Jesus' parables as well. The stories he told and the analogies he drew were not designed "to make strange things settled," but "to make settled things strange." That was why most people became puzzled or angry at his teaching. It didn't confirm their prejudices--which is what we expect religious or political leaders to do for us.

Now these parables, these comparisons or analogies--especially the ones we have heard these past three weeks from Matthew 13--are so familiar to us, we have heard them so often, that we may need a little help to see how they "make settled things strange."

So let's take a closer look. Each of these parables begins the same way: The kingdom of heaven is like ...

* The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure.
* The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.
* The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who finds a very special pearl.
* The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
* The kingdom of heaven is like a net full of fish--some kosher, some not kosher.
* The kingdom of heaven is like this: a man sows good seed in his field, but an enemy comes by night and sows noxious weeds. The man's servants want to pull up the weeds, but he counsels them to be patient and wait for the harvest.

It is important to understand that the central point of Jesus' preaching was about "the kingdom of heaven" or "the kingdom of God." The central point of Jesus' teaching was not Love (though he had a lot to say about love) or Inclusiveness (though a lot of welcome will flow from Christ-formed lives) or Social Justice (though Jesus' followers will be responsible for righting a lot of wrongs).

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

That is in chapter 4. When we turn to chapter 5, we hear Jesus begin his most famous sermon with these words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven belongs to them." The Sermon on the Mount is punctuated with references to the kingdom of heaven. And in chapter 6 he teaches his followers to pray, "Your kingdom come."

The phrase "kingdom of heaven" or "kingdom of God" is overly familiar to Christian ears. So let's use different words: instead of the word "kingdom," let's use the word "rule" or "reign" or "government." We do that, because "kingdom" can sound like we're talking about the territory a king rules over. But Jesus is talking about the act of "ruling." I like the way the West Indies Bible Society's planned Jamaican patois translation renders the Lord's Prayer, "Mek yu ruulaship kom." We can use that word for God's kingdom: Ruulaship.

Let's imagine ourselves living in Palestine a very long time ago, dealing with a series of foreign armies occupying our land and extracting taxes that keep us from eating the fruits of our labors. We are hungry and poor because of the Romans. And before them the Seleucids. And before them the Greeks. And before them the Persians. And before them the Babylonians. And before them the Assyrians. It seems like our entire history has been a history of oppression and occupation.

But our prophets have told of their visions that some day we wouldn't be ruled by foreign tyrants. We would someday be ruled by a king on the order of the great king David. And this king would bring the ruulaship of our God instead of tyranny. He would throw off their yoke of oppression. He would bring freedom, would this king, this anointed one, this Messiah. He would bring in "the reign of God."

This hope sustains us. It sustains us while our priests connive and collaborate with the Roman oppressors. They'll get what's coming to them, we know, when the Messiah comes.

* * *

Unfortunately, some people just can't bide their time. They think they can bring in the rule of God by fomenting a revolution. They believe that God wants them to draw a little blood just to get the revolution started. Once they put their lives on the line, they know God will finish the job. These firebrands are called Zealots. And among Jesus' followers, there are some Zealots.

Into this political tinder box, Jesus comes preaching that the rule of God is very near, that it is right now beginning in our midst. Good news. The time has come! Finally!

But then he starts talking weirdness. We are expecting a revolution, and he tells us that it's not going to be like that. I can just hear the disciples talking among themselves: "What's he been smokin'?"

The rule of God, he says, is like a mustard seed. A very tiny seed that eventually grows into a towering bush, but it does so quietly, unobtrusively. The rule of God, he says, is like yeast. You put it into a lump of dough, and the dough grows. But it works quietly, gently permeating the whole mass of dough. The rule of God, he says, is like a man who finds a treasure buried in a field. He keeps mum about it until he can buy the field and quietly take possession. Talk about it too soon, and the treasure will belong to someone else. The rule of God is like a merchant who finds the perfect pearl--but doesn't let on until he pulls all his assets together and makes the purchase.

All of these analogies emphasize the quiet, unobtrusive, gentle nature of the way the kingdom comes and grows.

God's rule does not come in obvious ways. The treasure is hidden. The perfect pearl is rare. The mustard seed is tiny. The yeast is almost invisible. You have to wait patiently for it to show itself.

You have to be observant, very perceptive to notice the first signs of God's rulership. And you have to be perceptive to even understand Jesus' teaching. Indeed, Jesus says, there is a gift of perception. Right here in this same chapter of Matthew, Jesus' disciples ask him why he is teaching in parables. And he says, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. ... [then, quoting Isaiah, Jesus says,] For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; ... But blessed are your eyes, [Jesus tells his students] for they see, and your ears, for they hear.'

You have to pay close attention. That same message is found in last week's lesson about the man whose wheat field was sabotaged by an enemy who planted weed seeds. The weeds were of a sort that looks just like wheat when it is young. Only after weeds and wheat have grown can you be sure you can tell them apart. So the owner of the field counseled patience. Lesson? Even when we're paying attention, we can't tell who around us is wheat and who is weed. The seemingly fine upstanding citizen may prove to be a rather nasty piece of work in the end. And the ne'er-do-well may turn out to be a rare perfect pearl. So be patient and pay attention, because as God's rulership arrives, things are not always as they seem.

This is really hard for us to hear in 2008 in the United States of America. We are a polarized nation. We feed on vicious rhetoric about our political leaders. Cable news shows mercilessly mock the candidates and perpetuate rumors. We repeat stories, spreading them across cyberspace, because they say what we want to hear rather than what we necessarily know to be true.

This is also hard for us to hear because we inhabit a culture of bigness. We are used to our country being the first, the fastest, the richest, the most resourceful, and the most bountiful. But then we get trapped in a credit crunch or a fossil-fuel crunch, and we are at a complete loss. We don't now how to do with less. We don't know how to see the beauty in the small. We are blind to the small ways God wants to work, his almost invisible, yeast-like manner that he uses to bring in his justice and his rule. The rule of God doesn't arrive in a gas-guzzling Hummer. It may just arrive on a donkey.

Let me quote from my friend Andy Crouch whose book Culture-Making has just been published. In a forthcoming interview in Christianity Today, Andy compares a Tower of Babel model for cultural transformation with an approach based on the Incarnation:

When God chose to intervene in the world, he thought it best to start in a pre-technological, modestly literate backwater town of the Roman Empire. And it’s the best because the revolution God was introducing to the world was designed precisely to undermine Babel’s idea that humans will scale up and, through homogeneity and technology, take over. The Babel story is not about love. Love is always small. So a cultural transformation that is going to eventually reseed the whole world with the fruits of love is going to have to start in a particular place and time with ordinary people.

* * *

But just when we're ready to think that God's work is always done in quiet, gentle ways, over long periods of patient waiting, Jesus takes us once again by surprise. When all is said and done, he says, there'll be hell to pay. In last week's lesson, Jesus tells how the owner of the field counseled patience until harvest time, but then he said that there will be a day when God's angels gather the wheat-people into God's barns, but they will throw the weed-people "into the blazing furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."

And when Jesus tells the story of the big net full of fish, he says, "This is how it will be at the end of time. The angels will go out, and they will separate the wicked from the good, and throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."

When Father Matt asked me to preach this week, and I teased him: "You just don't want to have to preach about hell," I told him.

Behind my teasing is this fact: Contemporary Americans don't want to hear about judgment and final punishment. We value a gospel of tolerance, and we want God to be just like us. A recent Pew study showed that fewer and fewer people believe in ultimate punishment. Especially when compared to the persistence of belief in heaven. In a general population sample, 74% (nearly three quarters) said they believe in a heavenly reward. While a significantly lower 59% believe that there is a hell. But we don't need to listen to polls. We need to listen carefully to what Jesus says.

God isn't tolerant, Jesus tells us. And he shouldn't be blandly tolerant. We are the ones who have become hardened to the pain and suffering of others--as long as the suffering isn't in our back yard. But God cares passionately about the things that hurt the creation he loves. He is not indifferent to evil. Judgment is not the bad news that puts the good news into sharper focus. It is not merely the logical "other side of the coin." Judgment is itself part of the Good News. God passionately loves his creatures and he will "deliver us from evil."

And so there will be justice, Jesus says. But it is God's justice in God's time and in God's way. Please note that these images do not speak about eternal, conscious torment. Jesus' paints a picture of destruction and disposal, as when the harvesters take the wheat to the threshing floor, and separate the grain from the chaff. They store up the grain and throw the chaff into the fire. That's a picture of disposal, not punishment. Likewise, with Jesus' saying about the dragnet that pulls in a whole host of fish, some of them kosher and edible, others not. He draws a picture of separation and disposal. There will be wailing and grinding of teeth, but that is the weed-people's response to exclusion from God's bright future. Our God does not torture.

Now in the story of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus names two groups who will be thrown into the furnace. First: the people who cause others to stumble. That is, those who draw others into destructive behaviors that ruin relationships and families and health and economic well-being. You could come up with various examples, but a few years ago I heard one that to me seemed an apt illustration. I met a banker in Dubuque who told me how right after the riverboat casinos came to that fair city, the default rate on mortgages simply skyrocketed. Behind that default rate, you can easily imagine, are a lot of ruined families and broke breadwinners suffering from a gambling addiction. Do you want God to turn a blind eye to those who prey on the weakness of others and entice them into trouble?

The second category Jesus mentions are the people who promote a lifestyle of lawlessness. Jesus is not talking about those who, like all of us, stumble from time to time and do things we know we shouldn't. Jesus is describing those who thumb their noses at God's way of life. The word "law" has taken on some very negative connotations in Christian parlance, but Jesus is teaching in a Jewish setting, where the word "law" actually stands for something very positive: God's wisdom about right living that fosters human flourishing. Do we really think God should bless those who obstinately refuse his wisdom for living?

These people, Jesus says, will get what's coming to them, but you, he says, you, my followers, will shine like the sun in your heavenly Father's realm. The time for comeuppance is not now, and you are not the agents of justice. That is for the angels of God at the end of the age--after the mustard seed has grown into a bush and after the yeast has permeated the lump of dough.

And so as Jesus uses these parables "to make settled things strange," he gives us three unsettling gifts:

* First, he gives us eyes to see the unexpected, to see the hidden and surprising ways God works.
* Then he gives us patience, for having seen God at work, we know we can trust him to finish what he starts without our untimely interference. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:6, "The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ."
* And then third, he gives us hope of justice. The meek will indeed inherit the earth, and not just the dirt. Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake--that is, because they stood up for justice--will inherit the kingdom of heaven. The poor and those who mourn--they too can have a confident hope of justice.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.

* * *

Information on Andy Crouch's Culture-Making is available here and here and here.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: The Urgency of "Ancient-Future Worship"

Almost 20 years ago, I met the late dean of historical theologians, Jaroslav Pelikan, at a conference at Carthage College.

“Do you know what you evangelicals need?” Pelikan asked me.

“What?” I said, taken aback by his forthrightness.

“You need to stop being so Jesus-centered.”

I was too stunned to say much.

Seeing my confusion, Pelikan explained: “You evangelicals need to be more thoroughly Trinitarian.”

That was the extent of our conversation, but I’ve been thinking about it since that 1991 encounter.

If I read Bob Webber’s posthumously published Ancient-Future Worship (Baker, 2008) correctly, I believe Bob would agree with Pelikan.

Pelikan did not, of course, mean that evangelicals should actually talk about Jesus less, love him less dearly, or follow him less nearly. Pelikan meant rather that we should regard him in his proper context as the second person of the Holy Trinity. If we forget to understand Jesus in his Trinitarian context, we forget the cosmic purpose of Jesus’ incarnation and we collapse God's grand mission in Jesus into one or another form of religious individualism. Jesus came to save me from my sins, yes. But the mission of the Trinity is to restore and renew the entire creation to fellowship with the divine community of love.

In his latest volume on worship, Webber moves into this Trinitarian territory.

The book is subtitled Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative. God’s narrative begins before the creation and stretches infinitely into the future of a restored creation. In worship, my own narrative—my story about the genesis of my troubles and my renewal of hope for a life freed from failure—should never become the narrow frame into which we squeeze God’s story. Rather, our stories are to be caught up into God’s story and find expanded meaning there.
Evangelicals—indeed most Western Christians—think about the biblical story like this: Creation, Sin and Fall, Cross and Redemption.

But in some of the church fathers, there is a different framework: Creation, Incarnation, and Eschatological Re-Creation. Webber turns especially to the second-century bishop Irenaeus and his theology of recapitulation to underscore this way of framing God’s story. (If you need a quick refresher on the theology of recapitulation, see my October 2007 blog post “What’s the Fuss about Recapitulation Theology?”)

If the middle term of our three-part story is Sin and Fall, the focus is on us, the problem-makers. But if the middle term is the Incarnation, the focus is on God, the problem-solver. In chapter 4, Bob's hip-pocket history of “How the Fullness of God’s Story Got Lost,” he writes about the neglect of the Word in medieval Western worship.

By the late medieval period the service of the Word with preaching was infrequent. The Mass was generally reduced to the eucharistic prayers. Because the Word was dropped and the focus [of] the Mass centered on the death of Christ, the whole story of God was not proclaimed in worship. The story was reduced to the death of Christ, his suffering, and the salvation that was brought through the sacraments.

The Reformers tried different correctives to this hypersacrament- alism. But the Reformation liturgies retained one thing that distinguished them from the ancient church: “Worship now places greater attention on the individual’s condition before God. The vision of God to reclaim the whole world and redeem all flesh and matter through the victory of Christ over sin and death scarcely appears.”

Webber's purpose is to get us to reclaiming this larger vision. He does this by

* showing us from early church texts that the renewal of all things in the Incarnation and the restoration of all things through Christ’s victory was the common theme of early church worship.

* asking us to be Old Testament Christians as well as New Testament believers. This requires that we know the Hebrew Scriptures as background to the New Testament, but it also demands that we imitate the apostles by reading the Hebrew Scriptures as foreshadowings of what would happen in the Incarnation.

* calling us to stick to the basics of worship
Word and Table. We must especially resist the idea that music is a fundamental element of worship, as many contemporary evangelicals have come to believe. Music can play an important role in worship, but unlike Word and Table, it is not of the essence. When people seek the presence of God in music, writes Webber, rather than in the Word or the Table, the accent shifts to the activity of the self in worship ("I will praise you," "I lift your Name on high," etc.).

* inviting us to return to the ancient patterns of prayer that frame our petitions in the light of what God has done. Because this kind of prayer arises out of God's story, it does not grow out of our own needs of the moment or those of our friends. Thus we remember to pray "for the whole state of Christ's church and for the world." If God has demonstrated his love for the whole world, we can do no less than to pray big prayers for the whole world.

Ancient-Future Worship is a grand summing up of Bob's increasingly urgent word to the church. His message is not optional. The breadth of the church's vision and the scope of its mission depend on understanding the mission of the Trinity as it seeks to restore and recreate not just us but the entire cosmos.

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