CategoryThe Church

The Focus of Worship

Chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford

Traditionally, Christian worship has been arranged around two things, the Word and the sacraments.  These were the means by which human worshipers interacted with the transcendent God.  In churches with the more contemporary feel, a new means of encountering God has been given center stage.

In the Roman Catholic worship service, the sacraments are emphasized–particularly the Eucharist.  The primacy of the Eucharist is obvious; the altar from which Holy Communion is served is front and center.

After the Reformation, the new forms of Christian worship still emphasized Word and sacraments, but their importance was inverted.  The sacraments, reduced to two, were moved to the side.  The pulpit upon which sits a huge Bible takes center stage.

From Sacrament and Word to Band

More recently, North American Christianity has apparently undergone another reformation; this one much quieter than the first, but it is not insignificant.  The modern church has cleared the stage of the Word and Sacrament and replaced them with the worship band.  Some might argue that the Word and the sacraments are still central, it’s just that the physical representations of these things needed to be moved to make room for musicians and instruments; it’s not a shift in meaning, but merely a physical shift made from practical considerations.

My core assumption here, and why I think all of this matters so much, is that the physical environment and liturgies of worship have profound effects on the worshipers. and how they think about the God who we worship.

When the Word is the focus of worship we find a very active God.  In the scriptures, God interacts with his creation and with his people.  He speaks, breaths, commands, warns, condemns, promises and whispers.  He causes water to come from rocks and turns it into blood.  He makes walls fall and curtains tear.  Jesus is the Word made flesh; he healed, walked (even on water), taught, ate, fed, died, rose and ascended.  The Holy Spirit is also active as we read scripture.  He guides, comforts, indwells, guards, intercedes, baptizes, restrains and combats. God is active in the sacraments as well.  In baptism, he makes promises and in doing so he creates a people.  In Communion, Jesus extends the elements to us and says “take and eat,” “take and drink.”  When the Word and sacraments are central, and properly understood, we cannot help but understand our God to be active in worship, and in our lives.

Human beings are shaped by worship, especially through the things that we repeat every Sunday.  With the weekly repetition of the Eucharist, Catholic worshipers come to the profound understanding of the unifying presence of Christ in his body the church and the Grace we receive by his death.  With the Protestant emphasis on preaching, the weekly reading and exposition of scripture help the faithful to understand the centrality of the Word in our life.

When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.  Or at least there is a danger that something very important could change.

Properly understood, the Word and the sacraments point to Christ and they present our interaction with an active God. When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.
Who is active in the singing part of the service?  It seems to me the human beings are the primary actors, and this is a problem.  We can be receiving a weekly reminder that God is passive. One might argue that, just as in the sacraments, both God and humanity take part.  But this isn’t so obvious in practice.  Singing is something we do–we are active, but we think of God as listening–possibly smiling during the choruses or seriously nodding if the song has a confessional element.  When worship is primarily singing, God is relatively passive.

Things get worse when the band steps out of the worship leading role into a performance role making both God and congregants passive.  Now the musicians and singers are the only ones doing anything in worship.  Almost every worship leader that I know would recoil at this suggestion because they are forever on their guard for this shift, but just because they don’t intend it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t or it cannot happen in the minds of the congregants.  It really is a no win situation; if the worship leaders are not a little animated then it seems like they are not engaged and worship lacks energy, but if they move around a little bit, they are accused of drawing attention to themselves.  Perhaps this conundrum is a symptom of the deeper issue.  That the worship band shouldn’t be front and centre in the first place.

The problem is that from the central position, the Praise and Worship band is almost identical to secular performance bands.  It’s a minuscule shift, then, for the congregation to move into the role of the audience.  This shift isn’t unavoidable, but it requires some deliberate effort from the individual worshiper to experience the Sunday worship music in a different way than they would a concert.  And churchgoers aren’t usually doing this work.

I am certainly not saying that singing praise and worship songs in church is a bad thing, we may have gained much with this shift in focus, but perhaps we’ve lost something too.

I’m not sure where to go from here, but I have some discussion questions that might help us address these issues.

  • How can we do communion and baptism in ways that help us to see God’s activity in them?  If we’re calling them ordinances instead of sacraments, should we rethink that?
  • Can we put the table, the font and the pulpit someplace on the stage, with the praise and worship band?
  • And can we preach from something other than a music stand?
  • How can we do worship music in such a way that it’s as unlike a rock concert or dance club as we can make it? Can mix our volumes in such a way that the voices of the worshipers are heard?  Can we reduce the lighting on the musicians?  And can we turn down the bloody bass!?

This last point will be the subject on my next post:

 

 

 

Infant Baptism and Individualism

A few weeks back, we attended the parish Communion service in the Bath Abbey.

Two children were baptized in the service.

Baptism services always get me thinking.

While I attend a church that practices only believer baptism, I think that infant baptism was practiced in the New Testament church and is therefore biblical.  I concede that the scriptural support of infant baptism is contestable, but what is incontestable is the practical superiority of infant baptism as a ritual that prepares us to resist modern idolatries.

The community dimension:

On two occasions in the service, once from the altar and once from the Victorian baptismal font by the entrance of the sanctuary, the officiant emphasized the community of believers that was at that moment gathered around the child.   This community is to be “the resources and support” to the parents of those about to be baptized.  The importance of the community and its relationship to the child about to be baptized is central to the ceremony.

All those assembled made a solemn promise to meaningfully participate in the raising of these children in the faith.  The parents did, of course, but godparents were commissioned as well, adding another layer to the community.  I found it fascinating that the godparents made the same promises as did the parents. They didn’t just consent, but acknowledged their inadequacy by saying,  “With the help of God we will.”

Interestingly, the vows made by the community were almost exactly the same as those made by the parents and godparents.   They promised to “welcome and uphold” those about to be baptized, to “pray for them” and “draw them by example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ.”  They too acknowledge their limitations by promising, “With the help of God we will.” So many people are committing to these children, and they just lay there oblivious to it all.

Imagine the impact of this ritual over the life of the Christian.  Every baptism service is a reminder of the same basic truths:

  • That every adult within the community has the responsibility in drawing the individual into the community.
  • That human effort alone is insufficient to draw the individual into the flock.
  • That the body of Christ, comes first– the eye is there for the body, not the body for the eye.
  • That this is all about Grace; I was welcomed into the family of God, and I could do nothing but drool.

Where churches practice believer’s baptism, a “baby dedication” replaces baptism to commemorate the inclusion of the child in the church community.  While the congregational will often make a promise, the focus of this, usually casual, event is on the commitment of the parents.  In the believer’s baptism, the role of the community is as a passive observer as the baptism is the result of the individual’s decision to follow Jesus.  As in modern culture, in the modern ceremony of baptism, the role of the larger community is diminished and that of the individual is expanded.

Through baptism, individuals are not choosing God, rather, God is building a people.
The God Dimension:

The Liturgy of Baptism we followed in Bath Abbey begins,  “In baptism the Lord is adding to our number those he is calling.”  The idea here is that through baptism, God is building a people.

The liturgy begins with the recognition that baptism is about what God is doing.  God is very active in baptism; he’s not just adding; he’s also calling, helping and giving.

The liturgy declares that faith is a gift. A gift needs a giver. God is the giver and the gift is underserved. All Christians believe this, but human helplessness is better illustrated a drooling baby than a 23-year-old who has finally decided to follow Jesus.

The hebdomadal dimension:

Baptismal Font in St. Gile’s Church, Sidbury

This is a rare word that means weekly.

When you enter the Bath Abbey or any Anglican church, you walk past the baptismal font.  It’s very large and it’s been there hundreds of years. The members of this church were likely baptized at this very font.  But even if they were not, every week when they gather to worship, they walk past this physical reminder of their own baptism–they are reminded again of the basic truths inherent in the service of baptism in the Church of England.

I might be an exception, but the presence of the font in every church I entered, reminded me of my own baptism into a community that in its largest sense, includes the Anglican worshipers in the churches I visited this summer.

I think that a weekly reminder of God’s grace and the community of faith might be a powerful corrective to the idolatry of individualism that so dominates our thinking in the modern church.

Obviously, my argument here will not convince any believer baptists to become baby baptizers, but regardless of who we baptize when (let’s put baby dedication into here as well), we need to be deliberate about emphasizing God’s actions and the important role of the community going forward.

Truth is a Fad

On a recent trip to downtown Vancouver, my wife and I popped into Christ Church Cathedral on the corner of Georgia and Burrard.  I find it hard to resist a cathedral and always try the doors to see if I can get a look inside.  The door was unlocked and a pleasant woman offered to answer our questions.  I asked about the beautiful interior and she was delighted to tell us about the recent renovations.  There was even a photo album.

The original church was filled with local cedar, but in a previous renovation, the original wood had been covered.  The red cedar ceiling had been covered by fiber-board.  It was the same story with the floor.  With this new renovation, the foul fiber-board and hideous carpeting had been removed and the original red and yellow cedar, covered up for decades is once again gracing parishioners and visitors with its beauty.

Why had the natural wood of the ceiling and floor been covered in the previous renovation?  It seems preposterous that anyone could think that fiber-board and carpeting were an improvement on the natural cedar, but they apparently did.

Changing Fashions, Changing Ideas

This got me thinking about change, more specifically, changing tastes.  It’s a truism that fashions change, but they don’t just change; they change radically–what is all the rage in one time, is hideous and vile in another age.  This is true whether we are talking about clothing, church interiors or ideas.

The second truism is that we are completely aware of the first truism.  We are somehow convinced that the way we think at the present moment is, at long last, the end of changing “truth”–with today’s thinking, we have arrived.

Previous generations had it wrong, but we have figured it out.  As dumb as it seems now, there was a time when it was generally thought that wood ought to be covered by synthetic materials, and in fifty years the congregation will likely vote to cover the wood with synthetic polar bear fur.  So goes fashion.  So also go our ideas.

The Fashion of Truth

I look at some of the ideas that are spreading throughout culture, replacing the old ones, and I think they are beautiful changes.  Others are more like ghastly fiberboard and anemic pink carpeting obscuring beautiful red and yellow cedar.   And we take these new ways of thinking as absolute truth.  Consequently, in our conversations and disagreements, we condemn those with whom we disagree as bigots and freaks and ogres.  Given that our most recent truth is just a phase, perhaps we ought to be a little less certain about everything–a little less venomous.

In our conversations and disagreements we must remember that the way we think today, is a fad. Consequently, we ought to be a little less certain about everything--a little less venomous.

Doomed to Relativism?

I believe that there is something under the intellectual fads and whims of our culture that never changes.  Core ideas like courage is better than cowardice and it’s evil to harm a child for one’s own pleasure and the ocean is sublime.

Just because it’s new and in fashion, doesn’t mean it’s objectively true.  I say objectively because, although I’m not entirely sure which ideas are cedar and which are fiber-board, I firmly believe that there is an objective truth.  We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, we will continue to believe that we create our own reality, but I hope at some point we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.  And rip up the pasty carpet to expose the rich wood beneath.

We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, but at some point, we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.

From the Pew: Reflections on the Reformation

Reflections on the Reformation in the Cathedrals 

When I am in Europe, I worship with the Roman Catholics.  On a recent trip, my wife and I attended services in the cathedrals of three different cities–Salzburg, Vienna and Prague.  Because I speak neither German or Czech, I didn’t get much out of what was said in the sermon, but I did walk out of each service having learned something very important about our Lord and Saviour, His Grace, my faith, our worship–all of which have a little something to do with Protestantism and the Reformation.

Salzburg Cathedral  from exquisite beauty to holiness.

The interior of Salzburg Cathedral is beautifully ornate, but not gaudy.  From my humble pew, I looked up and was overwhelmed, and I realized that the encounter with holiness, is facilitated by exquisite beauty.

My church at home is very nice, but the priorities are different–utility and stewardship are the guiding principles for construction–and the comfort of the congregants.  The seats in my home church are very comfortable. Even in this most beautiful of cathedrals, one always sits on very hard wooden benches.  The back is set at almost 90 degreed to the seat.  The seatback is capped with a board upon which the kneeling parishioner behind you can rest his elbows, so you can’t really lean back.  These were definitely not designed with my comfort in mind.

It begins to dawn on me that very little thought has gone into my experience of this service.

The music that Sunday morning included an organ, a small orchestra, and more than one choir.  These are located behind and above me so I can’t see the musicians.  Obviously, the music is not performed for me–I am graciously allowed to listen in.  In my home church, it’s not about me either, but the excellent praise band occupies the same place as would a performance band would, so I have to do the work of remembering that they aren’t there for my listening pleasure.  I sometimes forget.

Pretty much everything in any church service is directed toward the worship of the triune God, but in Salzburg Cathedral, it was so obvious.  The building and the music represent the very best of human achievement, and none of it was for me.  That I can see, hear and enjoy them is pure grace.

 

St. Augustine in Vienna – where divine Grace intersects with nature

The Hapsburgs were christened, married and buried at St. Augustine so this cathedral has seen a lot of pageantry and ceremony over the years.  The mass still reflects a polish and flair consistent with this history.  I particularly noticed this in the treatment of the elements of the Eucharist.

In all Catholic services, the host, what we call, “the bread,” is treated with a great deal of respect.  When congregants enter the door, they make the sign of the cross, and they genuflect before entering the pew.  Both these actions are directed toward the host.  Before, during and after the Eucharist, the actions of the officiating priests all reflect the veneration of the host.  This reverence is seen in every Catholic service. In the mass at St. Augustine, all this was done with particular precision and flourish.

This elaborate treatment of the Communion elements is easily explained.  Jesus Christ is present in the elements.  From the New Testament until the sixteenth century, all Christians believed that those who partook of communion somehow received the body and blood of Jesus.  Exactly how this happened was an unfathomable mystery, and according to the church fathers, it was supposed to remain that way.  In 1215, against the warnings of the church fathers, the church accepted transubstantiation, that is, the conversion of the communion elements into the body and blood of Christ, as the explanation for Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.  Protestants reject transubstantiation as the explanation for what happens in Communion, but some of us have duplicated the error of the Roman Church in 1215; we attempt to explain “the unfathomable mystery.”

The explanation for the unfathomable mystery is that there is no unfathomable mystery—the elements are just plain ol’ bread and wine.  These are “just symbols” of the body and blood of Christ, and the entire point of the celebration of the Last Supper is to remember this past event.  This explanation is a result of the modern tendency to separate the physical from the spiritual, to the detriment of both.  The physical elements, then, are reduced to mere “crackers and juice,” and the spiritual dimension of the meal is reduced to mere remembrance.

What God did through the death and resurrection of Jesus is inseparably physical and the spiritual.  The sacrament by which we remember this redemptive work is not simply a physical symbol, but also an actual spiritual event where Grace intersects with nature, in which a rational human eats and drinks in faith and so, encounters the divine.

Does that sound a little perplexing?  It ought to be.  That’s why it was called an “unfathomable mystery.”  While I watched the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I was impressed with the mystery and wonder of it all.  I thought I could bring some of this  wonder to my own participation in the Lord’s Supper.

 

St. Vitus in Prague – The Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy

St. Vitus has a commanding view of Prague.  This Gothic structure stands within the castle complex situated on top of the highest point, so it is visible from anywhere in the city.

Getting into the service was a little bit tricky because church officials stood at the door to prevent tourists from entering the church before mass, while at the same time allowing worshipers to pass.  We fell into both categories, I suppose, but we entered unimpeded because we approached the door with the confidence of a parishioner.  Other camera-toting tourists would have to wait in the long line until the last mass was over.

This was the oldest of the cathedrals in which we worshiped on this trip; parts of the structure date back to the 14th century.   The age of the church facilitated a connection to the medieval worshipers who also looked up into these same ceiling vaults.

I couldn’t understand the homily, so I looked at the windows.

Highest and most central in the central window was a depiction of God the Father embracing his crucified son.  Beneath these dominant figures were haloed, major saints.  All these figures were attended to by angels which were arranged according to their heavenly status.  Beneath these were even smaller images of other saints.  From my position in the pew, I looked up to them all, reinforcing my place in the hierarchy of the universe.

I’m way down here—the least of these.

This is a good position for a North American Protestant to be in every now and then.  The window presents a medieval reality—a hierarchy.  I am a product of the Reformation and the ensuing centuries.  So is my church at home.  I was recently disturbed to hear a church leader describe the Reformation as a holy response to church corruption.  He implied that God’s endorsement of this step toward purity was certain.  It is certainly true that corruption pushed Luther and others away from the Roman Church, but we tend to forget that it was also a movement toward something else.  It was a step toward freedom—freedom from authority, and would eventually lead to one of our cultures most serious idolatries.

The Reformation was the first major step toward this freedom that continues to this day.   Rebellion against the authority of the pope was followed by rebellions against monarchies in 1640, 1776 and 1789.  In 1882, Nietzsche’s madman, declaring that “God is dead,” captured the spirit of our rebellion against the authority of God.  The last century has seen freedom spread into all different directions—and some of these are very good directions.  But have you noticed how much we talk about Freedom these days?  We sing its praises between innings at baseball games and before NASCAR races— it is now linked with military power and has become the reason we have fought all our wars.   Freedom–individual freedom—has become our god, submission has become sin.  Any form of authority is evil—even that of our biology.

In the absence of this hierarchy, we have placed the autonomous individual at the top of a flattened, dark and lonely reality.  This is why individualism ultimately leads to despair.  Individualism dominates Western culture and has seeped into our churches as well.  It is countered by the windows in St. Vitas.  Looking up at the window I experience my smallness through awe, rather than loneliness, and see that the cosmos is full of light and love.

C. S. Lewis says that the medieval model, as presented in this stained-glass window, has a “serious defect,” that being “it is not true.”  Nor, he goes on to say, is any model “true.”

The cathedral and mass do not necessarily represent a wholly true view of reality, but they do represent a different reality from the modern ideas that are woven into the fabric of our Protestantism.  We might benefit from the admission that some aspects of worship in the cathedral do a little better job of engaging our imagination and allowing us to experience the significance of things.

Biblical Inerrancy: The Spoken Word or Revelation of God?

Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), I don’t recall ever hearing the term “inerrancy,” not from the pulpit, and not in catechism classes or at youth conferences.  At Calvin College, I stayed up many nights until 3 am discussing all sorts of theological issues, and I don’t think a single one of them had anything to do with biblical inerrancy.  I didn’t know that in 1978 there had been a major conference that generated The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  You’d have thought that this sort of thing would have trickled up the highway to my dorm room by 1980.  It didn’t.  And it didn’t really come up in the following decades either.

Now, I hear the term inerrancy a lot.  Part of the reason is that I go to a different church, but it’s also because the internet has me reading what other Christians are writing.  I get the sense that those who use the word inerrancy, read the Bible differently than I do.  I struggle with embracing the idea of biblical inerrancy, not because I think the Bible is wrong, but because of something else.  I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read James R. Payton Jr.’s Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010).

Inspiration or Revelation?

Biblical inerrancy is a bigger deal for some Christians than for others and it comes down to what you think the Bible is, revelation or inspiration.  Of course, it’s both.  It is not an either/or proposition. But they are not the same things, and one will be often (perhaps inevitably) be subordinated to the other.

After reading Payton’s book, I realized that in the CRC, as I experienced it, the Bible was revelation, more than inspiration: God reveals himself through his creation–general revelation.  He reveals himself through the written word–special revelation.  And he reveals himself through his incarnate word–his Son.  God reveals himself.  Biblical inerrancy isn’t much of a concern for those who see the Bible as revelation because the focus is on the relationship between the readers and the person we find in its pages–inerrancy is not descriptive of a relationship.

The inerrancy of scripture is necessary and logical when we see the Bible as inspiration, or “the inspired Word of God.”  In this view, God speaks to us through scripture, and because he is all knowing, and doesn’t lie, anything contained therein is objectively true.  The Bible is, therefore, inerrant.

The inerrancy of scripture is logical if the Bible is inspired. But is this primarily what it is?

These different views of the Bible have a long history. According to James R. Payton Jr., the Reformers saw the Bible as revelation.  Later, after the Reformers passed on, the Protestant scholastics emphasized the divine inspiration of scripture in order to defend Protestant ideas against Catholic attackers, who used scholastic methods to argue—a “fight fire with fire” approach.  Because of its emphasis on objective truth, the Bible as inspiration is a more useful tool in such debates.

To illustrate these different approaches, Payton uses the analogy of studying a frog:

One way is to watch frogs for hours on end, the other is to dissect the frogs.  The Reformers watched the frogs, and they kept doing so, repeatedly and at great length.  The protestant scholastics dissected the frogs and probably came to quicker conclusions about what could be said about the frogs; the frogs never jumped again, though.

These contrasting approaches have resulted in different views of scripture that are still with us today.

Although Christians generally believe that God had an active role in shaping scripture, the degree to which He was active in the process is a subject of debate.  Was it 100% God, or were the historical human authors significantly responsible for the contents?   Zondervan’s Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy explores some of the main points on the continuum.  Where you end up on the continuum has something to do with how much you take the idea of revelation into account to shape your ideas of inspiration.

Another essential question is, what is it that God inspired?  Did he inspire the text, the authors, or the overall sense or spirit of scripture?  If one starts with the primacy of revelation, the spirit or sense of scripture is the object of inspiration.  When inspiration is the starting point, the object of God’s inspiration moves from sense toward text.  And again, if God actively inspired the text of the Bible, then it can’t possibly contain erroneous information–it must be objectively true.

Those who are concerned with inerrancy will usually include the text as one of the objects of God’s direct inspiration.

Informational or Relational?

When we think of the Bible primarily as revelation, we are emphasizing the relational dimension of scripture.  The Bible is a revelation between persons–God and his people.

When we think of the Bible as the Word of God.  We think in terms of God speaking to us through scripture, telling us things that we need to know.  Scriptures are thought of, primarily, a source of true information.

Is the Bible, primarily, the Spoken Word or the Special Revelation of God?

Is the Bible the Word of God, or it a Revelation of who He is?
James R. Payton Jr. says that the emphasis on the inspiration of scripture leads us to a “depersonalized” reading of the Bible.  It can have a significant effect on, among other things, the way we understand sin and faith. With a relational reading of the Bible, sin is understood as unfaithfulness to God and the effect on this relationship is like that which occurs in any broken relationship—estrangement.  These terms describe a personal relationship.  The Bible as inspired text may result in a depersonalized view of sin.  Sin is thought of as an infraction against God’s divine law and the effect is guilt.  The terms, and the feelings they describe are less personal.

How one understands faith is also affected by the relationship of revelation to inspiration.  The relational understanding of faith is thought of as “cleaving to God.”  The more depersonalized approach understands faith as the acceptance of right doctrine.  Both perspectives are found in the Bible; they don’t cancel each other out, but the emphasis of one idea over the other is not without effect.

One last example, on which I have previously written.  Do the sermons in your church end with applications or implications?  It’s not so much the word, as it is the idea behind the word.  The term application implies an impersonal adhesion of the object to the subject.  We stick the lesson onto the listeners like a band-aid onto a scraped elbow.  It makes the recipient feel better, but it doesn’t do much else.  Although implication suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, it is usually a better term because the clarity of the application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth, either factual or moral, to information.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story of the Bible and into a relationship with the person of God behind the scriptures.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story and in so doing, I encounter the truth.

There was a long stretch in my life where I hardly read the Bible at all.  My problem was that I thought of the Bible as if it were primarily informative and the reason for reading it was to acquire the right knowledge. I didn’t feel as if I needed more knowledge than I could glean from sermons and books about the Bible.  I’m much more inspired to read the Bible when it is about a person-to-person relationship, about finding in its pages the God who made us and loves us and seeks a relationship with us.  I have a strong desire for this relationship.

Is the Bible more like an encyclopedia or a letter from a loved one?
It’s sort of like the difference between reading an encyclopedia and reading a long letter received from a distant and cherished friend or lover.  Are the contents of each true–inerrant, if you will?  Sure they are, but it is not the veracity of the information in the love letter that motivates you to devour every word–even the description of yesterday’s weather.

 

Microwave Chicken Teriyaki Jesus

I really liked Bryan F. Hurlbutt’s book Tasty Jesus. In it he asserts that Western Christianity holds to various cameos of Christ that aren’t accurate. This is because we tend to reconfigure Jesus to suit our personal preferences. In order to make complex cultural and philosophical ideas accessible, Hurlbutt uses food analogies to illustrate the shortcomings of five most significant “christological malformations” in the Western church. His analysis of these is thorough and nuanced.  But I’m wondering if, perhaps, there is not a configuration that might be added to his list, and a food analogy that would challenge the view of Christ held by many of the readers of this book: Modern evangelicals.

First, here are Hurlbutt’s five predilections that wield a lot of power in the Christian West:

  1. Theological liberalism has largely naturalistic roots and, consequently, has stripped Jesus of his deity. This is the “creampuff Jesus,” tasty, but of no nutritional value at all.
  2. Fundamentalism is a response to theological liberalism. It tosses out the creampuff, but keeps crossing things off the menu–out with the potatoes, pasta and bread. This no-carb approach eliminates important parts of a balanced diet.  Ultimately, this approach is  spiritually toxic.
  3. More recently, postmodern ideas have influenced ideas of Christ–the core of this stance is relativism. Like a meal at a smorgasbord, this version of Christ can appeal to many diners because it makes no absolute claims. Have some pork chops, top them with ice cream and vegetable soup–whatever.
  4. Gourmet Jesus is the Christ of those who believe in the prosperity gospel–God wants you to be rich. The Biblical promises of spiritual or eternal flourishing are understood to mean material prosperity–God’s wants you to eat lobster thermidor. He clearly says so in the Bible, if you take a few verses out of context.
  5. Pop-culture Jesus–this is a “shallow and spurious” Jesus. Gastronomically, this is the homogenized Jesus, heated to the point where anything dangerous or confusing has been eradicated.  It’s the opposite of the delicious unpasteurized cheese you can buy in Europe.

These are Hurlbutt’s five. There might be a sixth cameo of Christ that is significant enough to be added to this list. It is the view toward which many of the readers of this book might lean.

I called this group Modern Evangelicals.  These terms are so overused that their meaning has become unclear, so let me explain who I’m talking about.  They lean toward Conservatism.  They fall somewhere between the mainline denominations and the Emergent church, of which Hurlbutt is quite critical.  They aren’t like the traditional mainline churches for they have left behind traditional liturgies and no longer hold strictly to their traditional theologies.  Because they are Modern, they take a rational approach to reading the Bible and are suspicious of the magical and mysterious, for instance, they might think of Communion as “just a symbol.”  Paradoxically, they place a high value on the symbolism of believer baptism.  They tend to emphasize the transcendence of Christ and the Bible, perhaps at the expense of their incarnational natures.

They will be quite happy with Hurlbutt’s five cameos because they are not particularly guilty of these. Just as it’s easy for Canadians to see peculiarities in the American view of the world (and vice versa), to which they are themselves blind, so too Modern evangelicals can easily see problems in the Liberal or Fundamentalists stance, but fail to see the plank in their own eye.

What is the gastronomic analogy that might get at some of the limitations of the Modern evangelical take on Jesus?

A microwave Teriyaki Chicken dinner.

It is an individual serving, efficiently prepared with the modern convenience of a microwave. It’s slightly exotic–it’s teriyaki, after all–but it’s largely Westernized. The ingredients are theoretically tasty and nutritious, but the effects of mass production and microwaving have removed most of their structure, taste and probably nutrients. It’s convenient, only requiring a few minutes to prepare and eat–ideal for busy people on the run. Even if you ate it every day, you could do worse–it’s probably healthier than any of the other five diets.

Now, I know plenty of evangelicals that do not have the microwave teriyaki chicken image of Christ. For these, the analogy would be more like a healthy, well-balanced dinner–an herb-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, steamed asparagus and a  small, sweet dainty for dessert. But I think even this more robust and balanced picture, as compared to the microwave meal, reveals the limitations of the evangelical Christ.

What would be the best gastric analogy for the real Jesus?

I think it would be a family meal, something Middle Eastern. My daughter told me about the meals she ate in Israel. These were family meals. They ate fresh pita and hummus, tzatziki, olives of course, lentils, roasted vegetables, lamb on skewers, lamb in grape leaves. Importantly, this is a balanced meal. But the contents, especially the spices–cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, thyme–were strange to her western palate. She had to humbly look to her hosts, even the children, for some indication of how to eat it and what to put with what. She wasn’t confident; she wasn’t certain. She was repeatedly surprised–sometimes delightfully, at other times, unpleasantly by the flavour combinations. This meal was full of grace and love–the family that prepared it, pulled out all the stops because there were guests at the table. My daughter felt so blessed that such a sacrifice would be made for her.

No analogy can ever begin to capture the true Jesus, but I do think that even evangelicals need to think, not only about other, clearly problematic predilections, but also their own reconfigurations of Christ.

A Case For an Explicit Liturgy

Liturgy 1When I was in about grade 4, I was bored in church. There was a long sermon and long prayers and a whole bunch of singing and some recitation that held little meaning to me. It just kept on going and going, on and on. I remember thinking that if I knew where we were in the service, I might it would be easier to endure. Since my father was the minister, I had an in. One Saturday, I asked him if he could write out the order of events in the upcoming service. He smiled and directed my attention to the familiar bulletin. One of the pages was entitled, “Order of Worship” and beneath this was written, in order, all the elements of the service. These included “Call to Worship,” “God’s Greeting,” “The Law,” “Call to Confession,” “Prayer of Confession,” “Words of Assurance,” “Congregational Prayer,” “Offering,” “Sermon,” “Benediction” with hymns of praise, adoration, repentance and thanksgiving, in appropriate places. I had no idea that every service proceeded through the same elements each week.

The “Call to Worship” always kicked things off. A Bible passage was usually read, different every week, but they all communicated that we are sitting in church that morning, not because we decided to come, but because we responded to a call. The one who calls us to worship is none other than the Triune God. I’ve noticed that without this sense of calling, I can easily fall into the mistaken idea that my arrival signals the beginning of worship.

“God’s Greeting” — It’s his house and as a host he greets us. The weekly repetition of this element reminds us that this building is not just bricks and mortar that we assembled and pay for with weekly payments to the bank. We were drawn in by God, and he welcomes us as host–in this sense we are on holy ground. Lots of churches do the horizontal greeting, congregants to each other, but without the vertical greeting coming first, isn’t the whole experience flattened?

The “Call to Confession”: This is a weekly reminder that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness. It is followed by the “Prayer of Confession” which is an acknowledgment of this fact. The Good News is that these are followed with the “Assurance” that God forgives. The Catholics do this individually. When I was a kid, we did it collectively. Nowadays, we do this occasionally–usually with a song. Does it pass unnoticed those unfamiliar with liturgical confession.

Prayer — my new church is good at this. The church is open for prayer on some weekdays. There’s a prayer room and there is communal prayer and the elders do a lot of praying. Prayer is a strange activity, when you think about it. We are talking to someone who appears to not be there. It is an enchanted activity.

Rituals and practices effect us on a deep level–they can shape who we are. When we weekly hear God call us to worship, we begin to learn that worship doesn’t start with us. When we regularly hear God greet us, we begin to learn that we are in His house, not He in ours. When we confess our sins, and are forgiven, we learn the gospel. When we sing and pray to someone we can’t see, we believe it because we are doing it.

We don’t learn it in an intellectual sense. Very little of this occurs on a level we are aware of. Modern churches, like modern society, is very rational and emphasize knowledge and information with occasional forays into apologetics and worldview. These things are important, but our identity lives much deeper than these. Far deeper than the mind, deeper even than the heart. The Hebrew believed the soul was in the gut–that’s the level where we are shaped.

Worship services can shape us. Do you think they might be able to do so even more effectively with explicit liturgies?

This post was inspired in part by Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith. I strongly recommend it for church leaders.

 

Church and Enchantment

Liturgy 1When I compared the church services of the Christian Reformed Church I went to as a child with the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church, I didn’t understand why a graphic I found in a textbook said that my church, with respect to the presence of the Spirit within the physical elements of the service, was half way between these older churches and the newer Evangelical denominations. I figured the CRC (and every other “mainline” church) was way more like an evangelical church that one of the big three/older denominations. I mean, I didn’t see a whole lot of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a CRC church service.

Then I began to regularly attend a modern Evangelical church. I have begun to understand that chart. I can see the difference between my new church and my old church, some of which, makes my old church seem pretty silly, but still, there’s something that I miss.

When I was a kid, there was a big Bible on the pulpit in the front of the sanctuary.   I now know that it’s position declared the centrality of God’s word, but even though I was very young, I got a clear sense that this Bible was holy in some way. This Bible was ever used; the minister always read out of his much smaller personal Bible. The fact that it wasn’t read added to the sense of importance, rather than detracted. It was as if it was too holy to touch.

When I was about five years old, I entered the sanctuary with some other children. I felt compelled to gaze at the power and mystery represented by the Book. I’m not sure how it happened, but while I was looking, the water glass tipped and spilled all over the Bible. Although very young, we all knew the seriousness of this act and bolted from the church.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I was visiting with a seminary classmate of my father’s who recounted a time when he was a young guest pastor at a mainline church. Before he started to preach, he closed the pulpit Bible and arranged his noted on top of it. Following the service he was chastised by an elder of the church who informed him that that Bible had been sitting open on the pulpit for over 50 years. It had never been closed.   Now on one level, it is ridiculous to take offense at the closing of a book, but on another level, this book was clearly far more than a composite of paper, leather and glue.

At my new church we recently had a guest speaker who was asked about the differences between our western churches and those of India where he grew up. He offered several differences; one of them had to do with our treatment of our Bibles. He said that in India, the Bible would never be placed on the ground and we do in Western churches and homes.

In my new church, there is no pulpit Bible, actually there is no pulpit, just a music stand. Most people, including me, read the Bible on an electronic device. Other people place their Bibles on the ground when they sing. The pulpit Bible of my youth was not treated with reverence just because it contained the revelation of the Most High God, but because it was more than just a physical thing–it was an enchanted object.

There aren’t too many enchanted objects in our churches anymore. Is this a problem?

Has Something Been Lost in Our Worship?

Liturgy 1When I was a university student, I came across a graphic which put the major denominations on a continuum from Roman Catholics and Anglicans on the one side, to the Evangelical denominations on the other. I’m not exactly sure of the exact wording, but my recollection is that the continuum compared the degree a denomination was open to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a church service (what Owen Meany would call “hocus pocus”). The mainline churches, like the Christian Reformed Church to which I have belonged since birth, was right in the middle.

At the time, I didn’t understand how exactly the church of my youth was at all open to the Holy Spirit in the physical elements of liturgy. It was nothing like the Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic worship services I had attended over the years. These services were full of mysterious objects and activities that I don’t understand or appreciate, but I definitely got the sense that the physical elements were infused with a mystery, and power.

I once went to a Greek Orthodox on a Sunday morning, but hadn’t bothered checking when the service began, so I got there about an hour and a half too early. Although the pews were completely empty, there was a lot of activity behind the heavily iconic screen in the middle of the sanctuary. The priests were chanting and praying and doing things with the Bible and candles and incense and I don’t know what else. What struck me was the lack of an audience. Adorned in their priestly vestments, they were going through all sorts of complex ritual and there was no one there to see it. Or was there? It’s interesting that as much as we talk about God being the centre of worship in our protestant churches, our rituals suggest otherwise. In the churches I’m familiar with, the worship starts when the congregants show up and not before.

Besides meaningful interactions with God and preparing themselves for their role in the service, I think the Greek Orthodox priests were also engaged in activities that prepared the physical space for worship. It makes some sense that you can’t just have people walk into a place and start worshiping the Almighty, Triune, Creator God. I was thinking about the space of worship in the church of my youth. Back then it was called a sanctuary. I know that the worship space in many churches today is called an auditorium.   Labels make a lot of difference. A sanctuary is a sacred or holy place. An auditorium is a place where you hear things. Notice how the first suggests the presence of the holy and the spiritual in the physical space, where the second places an emphasis on human activity; humans making noises and hearing them.

I’m glad my new church doesn’t call the space we gather for corporate worship as “the auditorium.” But what about the sense of holiness for the space in which we worship?  I wonder if we have gone too far in the last 500 years.

 

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