Humility in the “Worship Wars”

In his outstanding book, Tempted & Tried:  Temptation & the Triumph of Christ, Russell Moore meditates on narcissism and humility.  He takes disagreements about musical styles in worship as an example of how we can exalt our personal preferences to the level of divine revelation …

“We need more worship wars, not fewer:  What is the war looked like this in your congregation–the young singles petitioning the church to play more of the old classics for the sake of the elderly people, and the elderly people calling on the leadership to contemporize for the sake of the young new believers?  This would signal a counting of others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), which comes from the Spirit of the humiliated, exalted King, Christ (Phil. 2:5-11).  When I insist that the rest of the congregation serve as backup singers in my own little nostalgic hit parade of back-home Mississippi hymns, I am worshiping in the spirit all right, but not   the Holy Spirit.  I am worshiping myself, in the spirit of self-exaltation.  The church negates the power of the third temptation [of Christ–to accept control of the world from Satan’s hands] when we remind ourselves that we all have this devilish tendency and cast it aside whether in worship planning or missions or budget decisions” (Tempted & Tried, 150).


Incarnational Ministry Needs Ascensional Ministry

Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann

J. Todd Billings recently wrote about “The Problem with Incarnational Ministry.”  I just finished Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful collection of essays on liturgical theology, and true to form, Schmemann refused to keep his comments within proper bounds.  What I love about Schmemann is that he knows that liturgy affects all of life, and so his writings abound with practical applications of his theology.  The end of the essay, “Sacrifice and Worship” nicely complements what Billings was getting at:

“I have never considered the secular view simply atheistic, but a denial of the sacrifice:  of the holy and the whole, or the priesthood as a way of life.  The secular idea is that everybody needs religion because it helps to keep law and order, comforts us, and so on; it is that point of view which denies levels.  But the whole terminology of the early Church is of ascension to another level:  “He ascended into Heaven.”  Since He is man, we ascend in Him.  Christianity begins to fall down as soon as the idea of our going up in Christ’s ascension–the movement of sacrifice–begins to be replaced by His going down.  And this is exactly where we are today:  it is always a bringing Him down into ordinary life, and this we say will solve our social problems.  The Church must go down to the ghettos, into the world in all its reality.  But to save the world from social injustices, the need first of all is not so much to go down to its miseries, as to have a few witnesses in this world to the possible ascension” (pg. 135).

For more on the theology of ascension, and the key role it played in Calvin’s theology, check out Julie Canlis’s Calvin’s Ladder:  A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension.  It’s a fantastic study!

Liturgical Didacticism vs. Liturgical Doxology

“It became a tendency in Reformed liturgies to have lengthy prayers, including the prayers of consecration.  Prayers can express the sense of mystery, as the ancient Eastern anaphoras do.  Prayers can also be used to explain away mystery–to articulate doctrine so precisely that there is no ambiguity left concerning the liturgical action or the attitude of worship.  Luther shared with the other reformers a concern for intelligibility in worship, and the elimination of those ritual acts that too easily lent themselves to superstition.  Unlike many of the other reformers, however, Luther also had an appreciation for the mystery of Christian worship–the sense that the reality being addressed in worship, or addressing the worshipers, is ‘beyond reason’ and can only be apprehended by faith.”  (Frank Senn, Christian Liturgy, 303.)

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals – Review

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary RadicalsCommon Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an exciting book! I came to it with hardly any background knowledge on who the New Monastics are, and I think that served me well. I see this text as a healthy injection of ancient wisdom into the postmodern church. This book breathes a freshness and a vitality that are missing from the more traditional churches that have never abandoned the historic liturgies. In many ways, familiarity breeds contempt. I won’t accuse any churches of having contempt for their historic liturgies, but there definitely seem to be churches that take their liturgies for granted. The New Monastics have stumbled into these ancient practices, somewhat like the children in “The Secret Garden,” and are helping to shake up the Church, forcing us to re-examine the central things. What does it mean to worship? What does it mean to live in community? How does God want us to use our resources? Some of the answers given by the New Monastics may sound a little too “politically correct” for some people, but I believe they are basically on the right track. God has a way of messing with our traditions, and our assumptions.

I encourage anyone unfamiliar with “liturgy” to pick up this book and give it the benefit of the doubt. This book is meant to be used in community, in prayer with other people. Use it to give some form and purpose to your small-group worship time. Best of all, the book is filled with Scripture, rather than someone’s pale imitation of Scripture. The lectionary is also helpful, as a guide to reading the Bible together in community. I appreciated the quotes from saints and heroes of the faith. They are truly inspiring. Walking in the footsteps of Christ can be lonely, difficult work, and this book is encouragement for the journey.

(Also check out their website for daily prayer:

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The Sacred Meal – Review

The Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices SeriesThe Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices Series by Nora Gallagher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found Gallagher’s book simultaneously illuminating and infuriating. To start on a positive note, Gallagher definitely has a gift for writing. I’m used to reading fat books by scholars on this subject, but Gallagher brings a lot of wit and earthy wisdom to this topic. And, I’ll certainly agree that the scholars have muddied the waters quite a bit. Jesus told us to do something really simple, but we’ve managed to fragment this sacrament of unity into a hundred thorny questions. Gallagher’s catchy metaphors appropriately turn our attention away from whatever might be going on “inside” the bread, and she exhorts us to remember that “we” are the Body of Christ, when we gather as the Church. When we take communion, she exhorts us to “Look around you,” something I’ve said when I’ve administered communion. Don’t try to conjure up some deep, mystical experience–just look around at all other messed up people that God is in the process of healing. Gallagher has many wonderful stories about her experiences with partaking, and administering, communion–stories about real people being transformed by ancient rite. She helps us to look at this “ancient practice” from lots of new angles, and I think much of what she says is spot on and quite helpful.

But … there were a few parts which made me gag a little. I think Gallagher is far too quick to buy into the neo-liberal reading of Jesus which highlights Jesus’ supposed critique of “empire.” Now, I freely confess that we should do more to care for the poor. I confess that our government is not righteous. I acknowledge that there are more than a few unsettling analogies between America hegemony and the pagan Roman Empire. But, I’m just not convinced that this is the right way to read the Jesus narratives. However, I will agree enthusiastically with one of Gallagher’s conclusions: “So part of waiting in Communion is examining what we did last week to find the kingdom of heaven in our midst and to help others find it” (pg. 37).

A quibble–I didn’t really buy her imaginative reconstruction of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28). I find Kenneth Bailey’s interpretation much more convincing (see Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, ch. 16).

Lastly, I believe Gallagher goes too far in her desire to be inclusive and welcoming. She writes: “Communion is so important to me that I don’t think there should be rules about who can take it and who cannot” (pg. 88). Now, I fully applaud the motive here. I’m trying to write a dissertation on some of the reasons why churches should celebrate the Supper more often. It’s important to me. But not more important than the Word of God. Gallagher doesn’t want to create “rules” about who can, and who can’t, take Communion (pg. 89). The only problem is that the Apostle Paul lays down some pretty tough rules in 1 Cor. 11:27-32. Perhaps Gallagher has some exegetical reasons for why Paul isn’t setting up some sort of “fence” around the Table. If so, it would have been nice to have those reasons summarized. She also appears to drive off the cliff of tolerance when she writes: “Thieves are welcome here, and embezzlers; so are murderers and prostitutes and sex abusers and those who have been or are abused … Everyone.” (pg. 92). Now, I agree that no sin should keep us away from the Table, but I would add that no sin we “repent” of, should keep us away. What about 1 Cor. 5:11? When Jesus refused to condone the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, he did not just dismiss her sin. He commanded her, “Go, and from now on sin no more.” (Jn. 8:11). The Eucharist is medicine for sick souls, and repentance (the process of turning away from sin) must be part of how approach the Table (Ro. 6:22).

I’m thankful to Gallagher for writing this book, and for forcing us to re-think a ritual that so many of us take for granted.

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Review – Great Lent

Great Lent: Journey to Pascha Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is another liturgical classic from Alexander Schmemann. He helpfully explains the principles behind the development of the Orthodox Church Year, and shows how all of our worship leads up to Easter. You don’t have to be Orthodox to profit from this book, as Schmemann is generous with criticisms of his own tradition, as well as the Western tradition. He closes with practical observations on how to focus on God in the midst of our busy, frentic, and secular life-style. This is the main point of the book–how to bring every area of our lives under the Lordship of Christ. At times, Schmemann sounds quite Reformed … or is this just basic Christianity?

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