Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Liturgy That Gives Rest

Today’s snail mail brought an envelope from Regent College theologian J. I. Packer. Inside was an article clipped from The Anglican Planet. It was titled “Liturgy That Gives Rest.” There was also a note in Packer’s hand commending its author, Julie Lane-Gay.

The article had many good things to say about the Anglican service: Its historicity gives it a “tried and trueness,” for example, and its use of the lectionary means that “old women in India, the Queen of England and surfers in Queensland—we are all on the same page.”

But the article’s main point was about its restfulness. That’s a point I resonate with.

Ms. Lane-Gay writes:

My first Anglican service was quiet and calm. Instead of feeling that I had to conjure up enthusiasm, I felt like someone had handed me an antique pillow to cradle my weary mind and soul. I didn’t have to think what to say.

My own experience was different. I wouldn’t have compared the liturgy to a pillow. But I felt the same relief that I didn’t have “to conjure up enthusiasm.” Conjuring up enthusiasm—and godly grief and glorious rapture and even stillness—all of that was part of what I had been exhorted to do in the religion of my youth, a religion that owed much to American revivalism.

That side of revivalism placed the accent in worship on my feelings. Revivalism fed off of a cycle of duress and release, and it required that I feel the right emotions as we approached the transactional moments of worship. When it came time to (re)dedicate myself to Jesus, the moment was validated or invalidated by my feelings.

The liturgy taught me that there was instead one great transaction. It happened on Calvary. In the liturgy, we celebrate and memorialize that transaction together—together as a local congregation and together with Christians around the globe, together with Christians throughout history and together with those who have gone on to glory. Fortunately, that celebration continues in spite of whatever feelings I may have because the great transaction was completed before I ever experienced my first emotion.

The liturgy “did the work of worship for me,” writes Lane-Gay. She discovered this when “after ten years of marriage, flexibility, and professional success, parenthood upended [their] lives.”

The liturgy took on a startling new role: it did the work of worship for me. I did not have to think up my prayers or create my own confession—neither of which I could have done in my sleep-deprived state. It took the pressure off me to evoke certain feelings. I rested in the liturgy; I sunk deep. … I could say the words just as they were printed, … and leave the rest to God. I did not have to cajole myself into being joyful or thankful or contrite. I could just show up at church, baby in tow, burp stains on my shoulder and participate.

Seven years and three more children later, she writes about being “able to arrive at church and fall into a structure far bigger than I.”

That bigness is what draws me to the liturgy. There’s a bigness in the church's liturgy just as there’s a wideness in God’s mercy.

The liturgy must be seen as part of God’s mercy. It is not the words that do “the work for me.” God acts toward me in the liturgy. That is why in Morning Prayer we often say a paraphrase of Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall show forth thy praise.” Without God’s help, we can’t even start praising.

When worship loses its bigness, the sense of God’s mercy also contracts. But when we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we also know instinctively that the quality of God’s mercy is not strained.

* * *

Read Julie Lane-Gay’s full essay here.

Public domain image of 1596 Book of Common Prayer via Wikimedia Commons.
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why Evangelicals Are Reading the Bible with the Fathers

On October 29, the nation's attention was focused on Yankee Stadium and game two of the World Series. But at Wheaton College, several hundred people chose instead to crowd into Barrows Auditorium to mark the public beginning of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies.

Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, promised baseball fans he'd keep the Center’s inaugural lecture brief. In his short address, he dashed through the church fathers’ approach to interpreting Scripture, touching the bases at Isaiah 6, Matthew 5, and Job 14, before coming home with key insights on patristic exegesis.

In addition to relating the Fathers’ comments on these passages, Wilken explored why evangelical Protestants in particular should pay attention to writers like Gregory the Great, Augustine, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa, and why evangelicals are indeed beginning to realize “that the early heritage is theirs also.”

The large majority of Wilken’s graduate students over the past ten years have been evangelicals, he said. The success of the ambitious Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press) testifies to such interest as well. Now the opening of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies institutionalizes that interest—and in a first-rate location. .

First, Wilken posed the question, Why this renewed interest? Precisely because evangelical theology and spirituality are built around Scripture, and so were those of the patristic writers. You cannot read them without an open Bible in your hand. Their writings are shot through with Scripture. Evangelicals and the church fathers thus have a natural affinity.

Second, Wilken asked whether giving some priority to these early interpreters of Scripture isn’t at cross-purposes with the evangelical principle of scriptural perspicacity. Evangelicals have long taught that the meaning of Scripture is open to every Spirit-led reader, and that biblical interpretation must not be held hostage by church tradition. Isn’t the Bible intelligible without the Fathers?

Yes, of course, in a sense it is. But the Fathers help us go more deeply into the Bible, Wilken said. They teach us to read it more slowly and enter it more deeply. He illustrated this by looking at several passages through their eyes, showing the way in which they treated the Bible as a single, coherent book in which difficult passages are illuminated by other passages. Indeed, those other texts raise the questions that lead us deeper.

Thus Isaiah‘s report in chapter 6 that the prophet “saw God” is clearly in tension with passages (such as John 1:18) that suggest no human has seen, or even can see, God. The key, however, is found in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” By mining the notions in that passage, the Fathers were able, not only to explain in what sense some might “see God,” but also to point the way toward the ideal Christian life. Thus to see God is to be united to him through purity of life. Understand, said Wilken, that the Bible is not primarily about the head; it is about the heart.

Third, Wilken reminded us, the patristic writers were the best minds of their day. From their engagement with Scripture, they forged the language with which we express the Christian faith. To ignore their reading of Scripture is also to undercut the foundations upon which the great creeds were built.

* * *

The Fathers are replete with interpretations that diverge from the plain meaning of the text. This makes modern evangelicals nervous—though as Robert Webber has argued, because this approach is rich with imagery, it should have greater appeal to postmodern evangelicals. We have many ways of knowing, and imagistic thinking has been marginalized in some streams of evangelical theology.

Wilken made several key points about the Fathers’ nonliteral and image-laden reading of the Bible.

1. The New Testament authors clearly applied Old Testament texts in ways that departed seriously from the plain, surface meaning of the text. When Paul cites Psalm 19 in Romans 10 (“their voice is gone out into all the world”), he applies the Psalmist’s statement about the heavens to the preaching of the apostles. This runs against the plain meaning, said Wilken.

2. The books of Scripture do not bear their own significance. They must be united to something greater, which is Christ. Thus Paul interprets the creation of man and woman as a great mystery, which is Christ and the church; and he interprets the water-giving rock in the Sinai desert as Christ.

3. Typically, such creative renderings of the Bible are focused on the Old Testament. That is because the Old Testament text signifies Christ, but the New Testament text does not signify another Christ. It requires no allegory or analogy to reveal the Incarnate Word.

4. The Fathers also understood the interpretation of Scripture to require the reader’s participation in the spiritual reality of the text. Thus it is not enough to say that Christ was crucified. We must also say, “I am crucified with Christ,” and thus also I am raised with Christ.

* * *

All of this is new territory for many evangelical Protestants. It involves an ancient way of reading texts that is at odds with contemporary methods being taught in the classrooms of Christian colleges. Students will feel at first that the Fathers’ method places no limits on allegorical fantasy.

It will take some time for this kind of reading to take its place alongside our linguistic and historical approaches. Neither approach needs to edge out the other. But if we do not make an effort to imbibe the spirit of the church’s first interpreters, we can easily miss something close to the heart of Christian faith.

This entry is cross-posted from the Christian History Blog.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Does Hell Have a "Sorting Hat"?

I’ve been listening to Dante’s The Divine Comedy this past week. (The 1891 Charles Eliot Norton translation is this month’s free download from Christian Audio.)

One horrific scene in the Inferno struck me as a literary echo of a more lighthearted moment in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

In Rowling, there is a sorting hat. In Dante, there is a sorting monster.

In Rowling, the wizarding school Hogwarts is divided into four residential houses, and a magical hat assigns each first-year student to one of them. When placed on a student’s head, the sorting hat announces where the student belongs: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin.

In Dante, hell is divided into nine circles, progressing from circle one, populated by the virtuous pagans who lived without Christianity, on through the realms of the lustful, the gluttonous, the avaricious and prodigal, the wrathful, the heretical, the violent, the deceitful, and finally, in circle nine, the traitors.

How are sinners assigned to the proper circle? By the sorting monster named Minos. As Dante tells it,

Thus I descended from the first circle down into the second, which girdles less space, and so much more woe that it goads to wailing. There abides Minos horribly, and snarls; he examines the sins at the entrance; he judges, and he sends according as he entwines himself. I mean, that, when the miscreant spirit comes there before him, it confesses itself wholly, and that discerner of sins sees what place of Hell is for it; he girdles himself with his tail so many times as the degrees he wills it should be sent down. Always before him stand many of them. They go, in turn, each to the judgment; they speak, and hear, and then are whirled below. (Canto V)

Like C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling after him, Dante borrowed figures from pagan mythology and imported them into narrative contexts teeming with Christian figures and tropes. Pagan and Christian figures work in complementary fashion to represent longing and fulfillment.

The monster Minos was a mythical king of Crete who after death was said to become a judge of the dead in Hades. That much Dante borrowed. But the act of coiling his tail around himself the precise number of times needed to indicate the circle of hell to which the sinner is to be “whirled below” is Dante’s imaginative invention.

Hades is not Hogwarts and Hogwarts is not hell—indeed for most of Rowling’s series it is effectively defended against invasion by the forces of evil. But both the sorting hat and the tail of Minos represent an orderly universe. Each discerns the corruption or capability of the souls it examines and then places them where they are most suited—either to develop (at Hogwarts) or to suffer (in hell).

Both Dante and Rowling represent the longing for an orderly universe in which talent is cultivated (in the manner in which it specifically ought to be nurtured) and malfeasance is punished (in a manner most fitting to its perversity).

W. S. Gilbert parodied such an orderly universe in his song “A More Humane Mikado.” The “more humane” Mikado announces that instead of executions and arbitrary imprisonments, he will bring in a new order of criminal justice:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

All prosy dull society sinners,
Who chatter and bleat and bore,
Are sent to hear sermons
From mystical Germans
Who preach from ten till four.
The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies
All desire to shirk,
Shall, during off-hours,
Exhibit his powers
To Madame Tussaud's waxwork.

And so on with exquisitely devised punishments for ladies who dye gray hair yellow or puce, advertising quacks, music hall singers, and billiard sharps. The billiard sharps are forced to play “On a cloth untrue / With a twisted cue / And elliptical billiard balls!”

How exquisite was Gilbert’s sense of justice.

A longing for something like fitting justice persists throughout the Bible and the history of Christian thought. It is implicit, for example, in Christ’s parable of the servant who was forgiven much yet failed to forgive a much smaller debt. We enjoy the jailing of that unforgiving servant precisely because the longing and instinct for such justice is planted within us.

Without this same instinctual longing we would not understand the scandalous character of grace, illustrated the vineyard owner who pays the latecomers as well as those who have worked all day, the prodigal son who gets the fatted calf, and the prostitutes and tax collectors who enter heaven before the religious leaders.

A longing is evidence for the existence of what we long for—whether we lust for junk food or justice. The desire for ultimate justice is a pointer, a sign, a seed, a fragment of evidence that we do well to pay attention to.
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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Healing Power of Church Choirs

Okay, I’ll admit that I inserted church in that title because I direct a church choir, and I am zealous for the preservation of church choirs. I’ll explain more about that below. But let’s begin by recognizing that choirs—church and otherwise—have healing properties.

In his book Beauty and the Soul, Piero Ferrucci illustrates the power of music to heal by telling a story about a group of French monks.

Shortly after the 1960s liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, 70 out of 90 monks in a particular Benedictine monastery grew strangely ill. “They were lethargic, depressed, unable to carry out their normal tasks,” writes Ferrucci. Various medical experts came to study the monastery, but only one—a research audiologist named Tomatis—was able to identify their problem.

Only one thing had changed in their lives. Before the Vatican II reforms, the monks had chanted eight or nine times a day for 10 to 20 minutes at time. After the reforms, they hardly chanted at all. “Tomatis prescribed a return to the past order, and within weeks all the monks recovered,” Ferrucci reports.

* * *

What are we to make of this story? Scientifically, it is hard to say. But it provokes several key ideas.

First, monastic chant—although it is sung in unison--creates a kind of interpersonal harmony. Good unison singing attunes us not just to notes but also to the rhythms of a group. When we sing together, we breathe together. We become something organic. Ferrucci reminds us that singing in chorus is a social activity and that “there is no better example of social inclusion” than a chorus.

Second, chant is meditative. Meditation on a deeply spiritual text, such as the psalms, canticles, and ancient hymns, attunes us to truth. When we are out of tune with truth, we become dis-eased. We can only be healthy when we are in tune with the truth.

Third, singing is physical. Those who don’t do it much may not realize how important posture and breathing are to proper singing, but there is certainly a heathful property to practicing the proper postures and diaphragmatic breathing demanded by singing.

* * *

Ferrucci writes that since Tomatis’s experience with the monks, many studies have been done that demonstrate the link between healing and singing in chorus. He goes on to list the many healing uses to which music is now put in hospices, in psychiatric wards, in pain management programs, and in neonatal care units.

Remember the title of Ferrucci’s book: Beauty and the Soul. While we can quantify the aerobic benefits to body tissues that proper breathing brings, beauty eludes measurement. But surely beauty is as important as any other factor in music’s healing power.

* * *

Now let me explain why in the title of this post I modified choir with the word church: “The Healing Power of Church Choirs.”

As more and more of our churches allow praise bands to edge out church choirs, they are not merely replacing the old-fashioned with the contemporary. They are not merely exchanging one cultural style for another.

When worship bands edge out church choirs, they are also robbing one segment of the congregation of the healing power of choral singing. In addition, they are depriving the whole congregation of the unique support a choir provides for the singing of the gathered people of God. Many praise bands discourage congregational singing, whether because of the sheer volume of their playing or because of the solo performance style of the music they lead. A good amateur church choir, properly located in an acoustically vibrant worship space, can provide incredible encouragement to the less trained singers in the congregation.

Preserve our church choirs. They are important for the emotional, social, and spiritual health of our congregations.

* * *

Beauty and the Soul will be published by Tarcher/Penguin on August 20. Order it here.

Image: the children’s choir in which the author first learned to sing.

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