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60Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living Godhttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/04/elizabeth-johnsons-quest-for-the-living-god
Sat, 02 Apr 2011 12:52:09 -0400
Last week a controversial book of theology was condemned by well-established critics who cautioned the public that the book did not present Christian doctrine in an accurate, biblical, or traditional way. As news of the book’s official condemnation spread, book sales spiked.
This has nothing to do with Rob Bell or
; that’s old news. This week’s controversy is deep inside Roman Catholic territory, as the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine issued
a twenty-page statement
detailing how Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God
fails to line up with Roman Catholic teaching. The best
early coverage of the story
is in the National Catholic Reporter, and the
boost to Amazon sales
is reported by Commonweal. Neither of these magazines, to put it delicately, was likely to have taken the bishops’ side against any theologian, but their reports are the best place to pick up the story.
, the chair of the committee (Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington) explained why it took four years for this investigation and warning to appear:
First Steps Toward a Theology of Californiahttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/03/first-steps-toward-a-theology-of-california
Wed, 09 Mar 2011 23:30:44 -0500
There’s an exciting new project called
Theological Engagement with California Culture
that is taking its first steps toward coming to terms with the entity that is California.
Of course I think it’s exciting; it’s partly my idea to get this thing going. I’ve lived in California a long time now, and am a native (though I spent some formative years “back East,” as we say “out here”). But the project has finally gone from being a mental hobby to being an interdisciplinary collaborative project that is getting traction.
call for papers
to gather submissions for a proposed session at the national ETS meeting in San Francisco in November 2011 (Richard Mouw is already committed to present at it), and initial plans for a series of conferences and consultations.
]]>Reclaimed: The Theology of Adoptionhttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/01/reclaimed-the-theology-of-adoption
Fri, 28 Jan 2011 20:15:45 -0500In 1864, Scottish theologian Robert Candlish gave a series of lectures in Edinburgh on the theology of
the Fatherhood of God
. As he ended those lectures, he said “I do so with the feeling that, however inadequately I have handled my great theme, I have at least thrown out some suggestive thoughts, and in the hope that more competent workmen may enter into my labour and rear a better structure. For I cannot divest myself of the impression that the subject has not hitherto been adequately treated in the Church.”
Candlish knew his church history well, but it seemed to him that the church fathers had not adequately described the adoption of believers into God’s family, because their best energies had (rightly) gone toward establishing the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. And the reformers, in (rightly) securing the believer’s justification by faith, had not allowed “the subject of adoption or the sonship of Christ’s disciples... to occupy the place and receive the prominence to which it is on scriptural grounds entitled.” Candlish intended no insult to the fathers or the reformers: “Their hands were full.” And until the Trinity and salvation by faith were in place, the theology of adoption didn’t have a chance.
But now, Candlish argued that the time had come to investigate the theology of adoption by the Father more fully:
]]>Why No Narnian Nativity?https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/12/why-no-narnian-nativity
Tue, 28 Dec 2010 05:07:50 -0500I know the
Chronicles of Narnia
are not straightforward allegory, but I also know that the stone table of Aslan is the cross of Christ (depending on what the meaning of “is” is).
And without any cramming or reductionism, astute readers can follow the imagination of C.S. Lewis as it maps out the coordinates of theological truth and reality in his fairy-tale land of remythologization: Creation and eschatology, objective redemption and individual salvation, the role of the law in the Christian life and obedience to the words of a written revelation are all expounded in Narnian idiom. In none of these cases could we simply have predicted how Aslan would act out the part of Christ in the land of talking animals. But he does it. There are even complex combinations of the major Christian ideas in Narnia, like the way Lewis puts the epic battle of the church militant into
the space between the death and resurrection of Aslan
But what I wonder about lately is, why didn’t Lewis provide a Narnian placeholder for “The Grand Miracle,” the incarnation? Maybe I’m only wondering because the Narnia movies have now become a Christmas event. But doctrinally and spiritually speaking, isn’t it interesting that Lewis didn’t provide an Aslan-Becomes-Talking-Animal storyline? What we get instead is the rumor that “Aslan is on the move” in fulfillment of the prophecies. Father Christmas even shows up, which (as Tolkien pointed out) makes no sense whatsoever. But no nativity!
In one sense, how beautiful the elements of the nativity story could have been, transmuted into fairy tale and populated with Narnians. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine where Lewis could have stopped if he had taken the first step down that road: At the first mention of baby Aslan as a divine-feline lion cub, you’d have to provide a mother, and soon you’d have the whole lineage of feline David scratching at the stable door. It just wouldn’t work. The fantasy world would collapse under the pressure of parallelism.
But Lewis was clever, and his baptized imagination would probably have found a way around that mythopoeic challenge. I think there is a properly theological reason for the lack of a Narnian nativity. The real impossibility is a Narnian incarnation (try saying that three times fast). Aslan may be how Christ appears in a world of talking animals, but at those key points where Lewis has to indicate how Narnia is related to the real world (England = “the real world”), he gives priority to the real world precisely because Christ is actually incarnate in this world. Lewis’ mind seems to have repelled the idea of multiple incarnations of the one Son of God all over the multiverse. In the Space Trilogy, for example, younger planets are populated by humanoids instead of walking celery sticks, because it just wouldn’t be appropriate for intelligent life to be brought into being in vegetable form once the incarnation happened on that one silent planet. And in Narnia, Aslan is on the move, conducting business with the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, but not becoming Lion to save Lionkind. The word did not become Lion. He was already Lion. And he was already something else, which he had already taken on in our world: human. But in the fullness of Narnian time, he was on the move.
]]>Getting Along with NT Wright, Without Really Tryinghttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/11/getting-along-with-nt-wright-without-really-trying
Wed, 24 Nov 2010 15:48:50 -0500
I was driving cross-country in the summer of 1995, at a time when the music of Hootie and the Blowfish was inescapable. My wife and I listened to the radio from Kentucky to California, and the soundtrack assigned to us by American pop music was song after song from the multiplatinum album
Cracked Rear View
. Now, I happened to like the band’s acoustic-stadium sound, and Darius Rucker’s über-masculine vocals. But it didn’t matter whether I liked it or not, I was getting it from both speakers no matter what. Hootie’s dominance was unquestioned: At best, DJs could manage to alternate one song by somebody else in between songs from Hootie. Change the channel, more Hootie. At one point (somewhere in New Mexico?), a DJ shouted, “This is Hootie’s world, and the rest of us are just livin’ in it!”
The theological Hootie of our age is NT Wright. He’s everywhere. Multiplatinum, hit singles, the whole package. I happen to like his work, but it doesn’t matter if you like it; you’re getting it from both speakers anyway. This is NT Wright’s world, and the rest of us are just livin’ in it.
I skipped last year’s Wheaton Theology Conference (probably the best annual theology conference anywhere in the US) because it was all about NT Wright. But then the main program of the national ETS conference was also all about Wright, so there was no avoiding it. Change the channel, more NT Wright. The ETS event was exquisitely well planned, with dueling plenaries and an extended panel discussion. Look elsewhere for commentary on the event: Summaries of what went on in Atlanta are available at reputable places, including here at
Here in Hootie’s world, I’ve had to develop a few rules for how to keep livin’ in it. I want to make a few brief, impressionistic remarks about Wright’s work, and I want to have the freedom to speak irresponsibly —in a certain sense which I will now define. By “irresponsibly” I don’t mean gossipy or overblown or inflammatory comments. I would prefer to avoid both sin and boorishness. But I want permission to speak irresponsibly in the sense that I haven’t read most of Wright’s work, and haven’t paid close attention to most of the controversy surrounding his views. I didn’t even attend all the ETS sessions where he and his interlocutors mixed it up.
Over the past few years, as an informed Christian person who just isn’t devoting scores of hours to tracking this massive discussion, I’ve developed some rules for getting along in the age of NT Wright. As I listened to the panel discussion among Wright, Schreiner, and Thielman, I thought about how I’d been processing the Wright I’ve read over the years, and a few things became clear to me. Here are my new, modified rules for “livin’ in Hootie’s world.”
1. NT Wright is more helpful than I thought.
Tom Schreiner spent a good ten minutes in his plenary address listing the many ways in which NT Wright’s work has been helpful. This wasn’t just the obligatory lip service before a mainly critical presentation; it was sustained, specific, and heart-felt. Schreiner nailed it: NT Wright has presented the world of biblical history in a gripping and fascinating way. He has struck a great balance between historical responsibility, open to academic and even secular standards of investigation, and a faith-motivated reading of the Bible as a Christian believer. His book on the
Resurrection of the Son of God
is masterful in this regard. Here is an Anglican on the side of the angels when it comes to most biblical issues. And every time Wright spoke in Atlanta, he did that Wright thing: taking any particular passage and putting it in a breathtakingly large context, teasing out the historical, cultural, and hermeneutical threads that make you look at the passage anew. This is Bible scholarship in the grand style, and I love it. The church has a desperate need for a few Bible scholars who know their technical stuff but who also know how to ask the big questions and point us to the big picture. Wright is one of our best, page after page after page.
2. I should try not to think about NT Wright himself.
The reason I had sort of forgotten how helpful NT Wright is, is that his relentless airplay had distracted me from Wright’s arguments and made me look at Wright’s public persona. That public persona is not something I enjoy. Wright the public speaker comes across to me as smug. He is at his worst in the field of controversy, where he indulges in describing his critics as people who just don’t quite believe in heliocentrism. He constantly complains that anybody who disagrees with him hasn’t read him fairly. Hardly the
happy warrior of Wordsworth’s poem
, he tends to adopt a Nixonian tone (“The media’s out to get me... they even attacked my little dog Checkers!”). His book on
is vitiated by an “everything everybody has ever believed about heaven is wrong, and only I speak unto you the truth” tone of voice. It just makes my eyes cross; I can’t read on.
So far my rule of thumb has been that NT Wright’s big books are great, but his small books are to be avoided. That’s still not a bad guideline: make some time to study through any of the Wright books that top 500 pages, and you’ll get a blessing. The smaller books (where he can’t show all his work) give him too much opportunity to indulge in cutting a figure, in putting himself out there and invoking his own credibility. From these performances I will avert my eyes when possible. Life is too short, and reading time too precious, and the big books too good, for me to read the little ones with the regrettable passages. Your response to the Wright literary persona may be different; I admit this is subjective. But in the future, I’m not going to let my Wright annoyance factor cheat me out of benefiting from Wright’s plentiful good stuff.
3. NT Wright’s big idea is smaller than I thought.
Somewhere in the second hour of panel discussion, it became clear to me that what Wright is insisting on in the justification debate is that there is such a thing as conversion, getting saved, and being forgiven by God, but the
word-group doesn’t refer to it. Here is a parallel: There is such a thing as growing in grace as a Christian, moving on from being oppressed by sin to living in victory over certain sins. The New Testament knows of that process and progress. But it doesn’t call it sanctification, as Protestants tend to in popular discourse. In other words, the
word-group doesn’t refer to it in the NT. “Sanctification” in the NT tends to refer to a divine action in which he sets something apart for special use, or renders it appropriate for God’s presence. Now, I’ve noticed that, but I don’t correct people when they say things like “After being justified, do you go on to make progress in being sanctified?” I especially don’t correct them over the course of thousands of pages in which I warn them that they are seriously distorting the biblical message and are enslaved to traditions. Again, I speak here as somebody who is barely paying attention, so I could be wrong about everything. But I have provisionally made a different decision about how much it matters that the
word group does not map onto traditional Christian usage in a straightforward way. I decided it is not one of the major issues facing us today. I’m well aware that New Testament experts speak with greater precision than the rest of us about things like this, and I’m glad that they have epic battles amongst themselves about very precise matters. I want to learn from them, and to be accountable to them as the relevant experts. But precisely because there are hundreds of such arguments, I don’t norm all of my communication by the standards of that guild.
4. NT Wright is definitely not helping me think about justification.
I’ll keep listening to the ongoing discussion, because I don’t really have a choice with the way the airwaves work. I’m on a long drive and NT Wright and his critics are what’s on the radio. But when I do make time to read Wright on justification, or New Perspective on Paul stuff in general, I can never quite keep the tune in my head long enough to hum it afterwards. I might just be too dense and too hidebound to be talked out of the rut I’m in. I might be one of those benighted souls who can’t quit thinking the sun goes around the earth (as portrayed in the opening pages of Wright’s
book). But I might also just be persuaded by something more like the classic Protestant interpretation of Paul’s writings, as represented by its current advocates who have studied this more responsibly than I can.
I wasn’t able to stay for all of Tom Schreiner’s paper on justification, so I asked a friend at the conference to tell me the bottom line. “The bottom line?” he said. “Basically, it turns out that what you think justification is, is what justification is.”
Thu, 07 Oct 2010 05:06:33 -0400
Seems like there’s a whole lot of Newman talk going on around here lately. It’s like he’s been beatified or something! I can’t exactly get behind that, but I can add my admiration of Newman’s Christian intellect to the chorus.
There’s something I read in Newman some time ago, early in seminary I think, that has stuck with me ever since. I know it’s important to me because I’ve mentally cataloged it with some mnemonic shorthand. As it turns out, I’ve mis-remembered it slightly, but here it is.
I recall Newman talking about the Trinity, and saying that the doctrine had to be presented in such a way that it wasn’t just a set of notions gathered together in the mind, but a real, living idea embraceable by the imagination.
It’s not just for students, he said: It’s for the young, the unlearned, the busy, and the afflicted. The main truths of Christianity, not least the Trinity, are for these people: Not just students, but also for the Young, the Unlearned, the Busy, and the Afflicted. That struck me. I took the first letters of the nouns and put them in my mind: YUBA. Young, unlearned, busy, afflicted.
Since then, YUBA has been a constant check-point for me. Am I as a theologian spending my time on things that could only matter to students, scholars, and savants (SSS)? Or are the theological truths I dedicate my work to the kind of things that can matter to kids, to people without formal education, to people who have to put in full days at hard jobs, and to people in pain?
]]>I Guess That’s Kind of My Pope Therehttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/09/i-guess-thats-kind-of-my-pope-there
Mon, 20 Sep 2010 04:40:41 -0400
I wasn’t able to follow all the news, never mind all the news-analysis and pundit chatter, about the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK this past week. I knew it was happening, and had a sense of its historic character. I saw some headlines about the major events and reactions.
Rolling around in the back of my mind has been that constant blogger’s question, “Do I have anything worth saying about that?”
I never gave it my full attention, but the possible-blog ideas that came into mind were all pretty Protestant. No fan of the Oxford Movement or its effects, I felt a little irked about the symbolic date chosen for the Newman Beatification. All the ceremony and pageantry of papal visits leaves me cold. I have a lot of sympathy for Roman Catholic culture at the popular level, but the official stuff makes me feel belligerently low-churchy. The tension surrounding a face-to-face meeting between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury made me think of about fifty punch-lines for fifty snotty jokes. In general, as a deeply satisfied free church evangelical Protestant, a lot of funny quips have flashed through my mind. Hate to waste funny quips.
But then I couldn’t ignore the “protest the pope” invective, which got louder and more insistent. Protesters making up nasty slogans, holding up signs with “messiah” mis-spelled, voicing their outrage that things like Popes are permitted on their British soil. I don’t even want to describe the scope of these things. It has been extremely ugly.
And through all this, Benedict’s leading message has been a high-level critique of the aggressive secularism that has such a death-grip on the British mind. It’s a powerful argument, and he’s honed it very well over the years. I’ve been reading Benedict since he was Ratzinger; since he was just a theologian. Of course he’s said lots of other, capital-R capital-C Roman Catholic stuff, but the main point he’s been driving home has been his sustained, principled critique of the secular ideology of the contemporary world.
It seems to me that my interests are being represented by the Pope. What I mean is, the reproaches that fall on him are also directed at me and mine. When the tribes of village atheists come out to the streets with their postmodern versions of “écrasez l’infâme,” they are not upset about the things that divide my Protestant principles from his Catholic commitments. These semi-literate stepchildren of Voltaire simply hate religion, period, and want it all to go away. They lash out at the Pope because he’s famous, he’s said Christian things in public, and now has dared to come near enough to yell at. That’s mere Christian hate there.
So here’s what I learned from the public reaction to the Papal visit. I have a lot of objections to the distinctive elements of Roman Catholic theology. It occurs to me to blog them, or say them, or bring them up on this occasion. But that would be stupid. The Pope protesters are protesting me and my church as well. He’s using his platform to deliver my message to that hostile crowd, and I’m grateful for that.
Besides, when the last king is hung with the entrails of the last priest, I would rather be found among the blessed dead than in the howling crowd trying to shout “sola scriptura” over the deafening roar of “to hell with religion.”
]]>More Gnostic Than Thouhttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/09/more-gnostic-than-thou
Tue, 14 Sep 2010 05:18:56 -0400
This is an attempt to revisit the terms of a contemporary theological cliché.
I don’t know who invented the argument that anybody lower than you on the sacramental realism scale is supposed to be called gnostic, but it’s an argument that has caught on. Any defection from high sacramentalism is gleefully identified as matter-hating, body-denying, salvation-by-cognition, capital G, gnosticism.
Once people glimpse the connection, they tend to be hooked. They see ironies everywhere in low-church observances. The charge of gnosticism has never made much sense to me, because it explains too much and seems to offer a glimpse into the secret motivations of the opponent. Plenty of people claim their opponents are gnostic, but nobody ever claims for themselves the badge or category of gnosticism.
The great, quirky, brilliant, and flawed Anglican theologian Austin Farrer set out to be gnostic, and on his own terms, he succeeded. But his terms were the opposite of the gnosticism we hear noised abroad in our day.
Farrer (1904-1968) was an Anglican priest who served as Fellow and Chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford from 1935-1960, then as Warden of Keble College from 1960 until his death in 1968. He was a close friend of C.S. Lewis (one of the witnesses to Lewis’ marriage to Joy, and the officiant at her burial).
It was about 1927, when Farrer was just a 22-year-old Oxford student (Baillol College), that he indulged in a binge of reading about the gnostic socio-cultural milieu from which early Christianity emerged. He wrote a series of wild letters to his Baptist father and some friends, in which he speculated that “the atmosphere in which the early Church grew up was indeed one of mystery, that St. Paul was not a rationalist, and that the original meaning of the sacraments and the incarnation should be considered in the light of Gnostic logic.” (Most of these quotes are from the Farrer biography
A Hawk Among Sparrows
]]>Donald Bloesch (1928-2010)https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/08/donald-bloesch-1928-2010
Fri, 27 Aug 2010 14:12:52 -0400(Apologies for
from my home blog, Scriptorium Daily. I thought the passing of Bloesch ought to be noted over here for the audience at First Things’
blog as well.)
Donald Bloesch, evangelical theologian, died this week. He was a unique figure in twentieth-century theology, and now that he has passed from the scene, what strikes me about his work is his noble isolation. I don’t mean that he was personally lonely: by all reports he sustained many close friendships, and inspired long-term loyalty and affection in those who knew him. But Bloesch ran several paces ahead of the pack, and had to make his own way.
Bloesch (whose oddly-spelled name is easy to pronounce: just remember that it rhymes with “keepin’ it fresh,” “nativity creche,” and “the word became flesh”) made his most influential contribution to theology by publishing the two-volume
Essentials of Evangelical Theology
in the late 1970s.
stood alone for a long time in the evangelical field: where else could you find a comprehensive overview of all the major doctrines, written from an evangelical point of view, in dialogue with the great tradition and with recent mainline theology, and put forth in an active voice by a living theologian putting his own name on the line?
may not have been perfect, but it became an inescapable reference point for serious evangelical theology for years to come. It was as if he wrote for an audience that didn’t exist yet, and when that audience came of age and started looking around for books of doctrine, there was Bloesch waiting for them.
Obviously a man with a rigorous work ethic, Bloesch wasn’t satisfied with writing one systematic theology. He went on to produce the seven-volume
series, a more elaborate account of the whole field of doctrine. Again, what evangelical theologian has produced seven volumes like this? What’s remarkable about Bloesch is not that he kept winning the theology races; it’s that he was often the only runner on the course. Evangelicals produced good single-volume overviews of theology, and good introductory textbooks, and good studies of individual topics. But who cranked out seven volumes of consistently high quality doctrinal studies as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first? Bloesch alone.
(Well, okay, maybe Carl Henry. But his project had a different focus, clustered around issues of authority and culture. Bloesch was a theologian’s theologian.)
Donald Bloesch hasn’t founded any school of thought, and there are no identifiable “Bloeschians” in the next generations. He is one of the most important evangelical interpreters of Karl Barth, cautiously and consistently interacting with Barth’s thought during the decades when the slightest whiff of Barth’s influence was enough to get a theologian invited to leave the Evangelical Theological Society. Bloesch’s attempted resolution of the quandaries of evangelical Barthianism was only satisfying to a small minority. Anybody who was worried about the way neo-orthodoxy destabilized the doctrine of Scripture was probably just as unsatisfied by Bloesch’s account as they were with Barth’s own (here I raise my own hand, as politely as possible).
But even when it comes to the influence of Barth, Bloesch’s main contribution was to mediate to evangelical readers the determined Christocentric impulse. From first to last, Bloesch was focused on Christ as the main thing. He brought this from his own evangelical background, cultivated and elaborated it in dialogue with Barth, and channeled it to evangelicals for decades.
Bloesch also planted his feet in a mainline denomination (the United Church of Christ) and stayed there for his whole career, even as that denomination continued its intentional move deeper into liberalism. Sticking with his liberalizing denomination was a major decision for Bloesch’s legacy: One could wish that every mainline denomination had an evangelical voice like Bloesch’s in it somewhere, bearing witness for decades. When the history of the UCC is written, it has to include the fact that its most distinguished theologian in the late 20th century was blatantly evangelical. On the other hand, staying in the liberal mainline ensured that Bloesch was always at the margin of the central institutions of evangelicalism, unable to benefit fully from those strategic alliances and cooperation.
Donald Bloesch had an intellectual style that focused on staking out positions and contrasting them with alternative positions. Page after page and decade after decade, he generated a lot of slogans and labels in an attempt to capture the sort of theology he was doing. At one point he dubbed his approach “fideistic revelationism,” and distinguished it from mysticism, rationalism, fundamentalism, experientialism, relativism, etc.
Refusing to choose between liberalism and fundamentalism, he nevertheless expressed his preference for a kind of Christianity that preserved the doctrinal deposit of orthodoxy: “In liberalism truth is dissolved so that only an amorphous experience remains. In rigid orthodoxy truth is frozen into a formula or credo. But there is hope that it can be brought back to life.”
Ultimately, Bloesch’s favorite name for his kind of theology was the one he gave to the first volume of
: A Theology of Word and Spirit. “To speak of Word and Spirit,” Bloesch said, is
]]>Hey Everybody, Let’s Sursum a Little Corda, ‘kay?https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/08/hey-everybody-lets-sursum-a-little-corda-kay
Mon, 23 Aug 2010 14:30:44 -0400
Last week, pastor Trevin Wax posted
an interesting blog entry
about the way serious preaching demands serious presentation. Specifically, Wax is watching a trend of churches “focusing on the centrality of the Word in worship,” and noting that it clashes with the contemporary “chatty, street-level style of worship” marked by “casualness and novelty.” “Form and content mirror one another,” notes Wax, and when they clash, “something’s got to give.”
When the people of God are gathered to hear the word of God, the informal, “Hi there folks!” is not the right way to start a service. Wax uses the memorable analogy, “It’s like eating steak on a paper plate.”
It would be easy to miss the point, and to settle into the well-worn rut of worship wars. The gravitational pull of the old liturgical-versus-nonliturgical black hole can already be felt. But that wasn’t Wax’s intention, and it isn’t mine in bringing this up. Low-church evangelicals may or may not be trending toward more traditional liturgical forms, I don’t know. Hunter Baker
, and Hunter Baker sees the future.
The big question for me is, how does a church send the signal to its Sunday morning congregation that it is serious about what it’s doing?
As a free church evangelical in suburban southern California, I participate in the general trend of casual service-openers. I think it’s a great, culturally appropriate way to start out a gathering. I suppose we could bang a gong, or plunge the sanctuary into darkness, or bring up the music to a dramatic opening. But it seems more normal and natural for somebody to go up front and say nice human things like “Hello” and “Welcome” and “Have a seat, let’s get started.” That’s how the indigenous peoples talk in my country, and that’s how church starts.
But here’s the key: At some point in the service, and it has to be a pretty early point, one of the ministers presiding over the worship service needs to get our attention and let us know that we’re doing a very serious thing. We’re going to worship God together. We’re going to hear his word proclaimed and applied. We’re going to place ourselves under the authority of that word and take the consequences of admitting we are not our own. We’re going to pray with one another, to try to say and hear the things we most need to say and hear. The prophet Isaiah is going to shout at us from across the centuries! The apostles are going to tell us what they saw and heard and touched! God himself will speak through his own holy word.
This is church! We’re not messing around.
Happily low churchy guy that I am, I am always straining my ears to hear the modern version of the ancient anaphora, the
, the pastor’s call to the congregation to “Lift up your hearts!” It doesn’t usually happen in the first sixty seconds in the kind of church I’m at home in. It usually waits. First we say some normal, hospitality-minded words of welcome; and then some normal, information-distributing words of announcements; and maybe even some normal, defenses-lowering words of casual friendliness. Maybe even a joke, maybe even a quick reference to current events.
’s coming. One of the pastors is going to do something to send the signal that we are approaching the holy. There will be some summons, some expression of an intentional elevation of our minds and hearts to consider the things above, where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father. And when that happens, we all know we’re officially having church.
Just like all the millions of believers snoozing and waking their way through a more formal Sunday liturgy, I can’t promise I’m always catching all the cues that are being sent to me. And I can’t promise that everybody in the congregation is catching the same cues I am. Sometimes I know to lift up my heart at the sound of the first serious quotation of Scripture. Sometimes it’s the opening prayer, or the tone of the first words after the announcements. Often it’s the drum or the bass guitar in the first song that gets through to me at a deeper level. My pastor is especially good at calling us to stand up together and sing, and the way to the heart is often through the feet. After more than a decade in a stable, healthy church, sometimes I get the
just from seeing the face of a faithful preacher or worship leader, regardless of what words he’s saying. He gets the benefit of me remembering that time he spoke the word of God to us six years ago.
I’m no liturgist or worship leader; I’m an amateur and a lay participant at all that stuff. I don’t have real opinions about it, and wouldn’t expect anybody to listen to me if I did. But here’s what I know for sure: The message we gather to hear on Sunday morning is serious business, and the medium needs to fit the message. The call of
sounds a lot of different ways, but it’s got to be heard every time we gather. I am always listening for it, because I always need to lift up my heart to the Lord.