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Lectionary vs. Series Preaching: Which is Better?

by Drew 5 Comments
Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Should the preacher follow the lectionary or preach topically, via series?

This is not a question with which every preacher is faced.  It’s largely a Mainline Protestant debate; Catholics and Orthodox follow pre-selected readings each week for the homilies that are attached to the primary liturgical action of the eucharist, while Baptists, charismatics, and “non-denominational” traditions are often completely unaware of what the lectionary is, much less its possible benefits.  In the gray zone are Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, and perhaps a few others – I’m not as familiar with typical Lutheran practice, while most Episcopalians I know are strict lectionary preachers.

As a United Methodist, the lectionary is encouraged – particularly in seminary and at the denominational level – but it is certainly not required or even especially encouraged by our bishops and other supervisors.  Indeed, most of the pastors who are held up as exemplars for us rank-and-file preachers are almost exclusively series preachers.  Often these are folks like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter who have cut their teeth on the series ethos that dominates most church planting models.  You might find lectionary preaching at large, downtown “First” or “Central” UMCs, but I’m comfortable saying that the vast majority of our largest and fastest-growing churches see much more series/topical preaching than lectionary-based preaching.

Which is better?

In some ways, this is a foolish debate, a faux war akin to the “left Twix vs. right Twix” commercials.  There are benefits and drawbacks to both.  Some contexts lend themselves more to one or the other.  The giftedness, training, and method of preparation of different preachers will also have a role in which style best fits the voice and skills of a particular proclaimer.

If I’m honest, I think lectionary preaching is harder – but I tend to preach in series.  I like the long-term preparation I can put into series preaching, and I the musicians with whom I lead worship appreciate knowing, far in advance, my texts and themes.  For my first couple of years in full-time ministry, I preached almost exclusively lectionary, but since then, I’ve preached mostly series.  I tend to follow the themes of the liturgical calendar – hope and promise in Advent, discipleship and the cross in Lent, etc. – but without tying myself to lectionary texts.

Is this, in some ways, a false divide? Yes. One can certainly plan sermon series based on the lectionary.  I’ve done this in two ways: a) looking ahead for 4-6 weeks and seeing if a thread emerges from the various lectionary texts onto which I can hook, or b) sticking with a particular book for a period of time and making it a series on Mark, or the Psalms, or 1 Timothy, etc.  I’ve enjoyed both, and commend both methods to you.  But of course even this kind of planning, via, the lectionary, takes away some of the benefits for which proponents of the lectionary advocate.

Major benefits of both kinds of preaching:

Lectionary Benefits

  • Challenge of being confronted with a text (or texts) rather than choosing them with a particular reading in mind
  • A plethora of liturgical, preaching, and other resources (many of them free)
  • Follows the liturgical calendar
  • Broad ranging texts across both Testaments
  • Week-to-week planning enables easier flexibility if something happens that necessitates homiletical flexibility (such as a sudden loss in the community or a national tragedy)
  • Revisiting the same texts every three years demands creativity and a depth of exegesis that can be lacking in other forms

Series Benefits

  • Ability to build on themes over a period of time
  • Freedom to preach texts not included or marginalized by the lectionary
  • Ability to tie preaching themes to the rhythms of time other than the liturgical (a New Years or Back to School series, for instance)
  • Long-range planning is (arguably) easier
  • Can speak to particular needs in a sustained manner (i.e. recovery, eschatology, theodicy, rather than waiting for them to pop up or twisting lectionary texts to find them)
  • Easier to communicate content and ethos to unchurched people

My own take is that lectionary preaching lends itself best to liturgical contexts.  There is clearly, from what we’ve already said, a correlation between liturgical worship and lectionary-based preaching.  Why might this be? Certainly a strong tether to the church calendar is part of it.  But also, lectionary preaching, which via most teachers is often tied strongly to just one text, lends itself naturally to the shorter 8-12 minute homilies one finds in more liturgical contexts – churches where, to be blunt, the eucharist takes precedence over proclamation.  More Protestant contexts where the preached Word is emphasized often expect sermons of 20-30 minutes, or even longer, which tend to range over a variety of Biblical texts rather than simply mining one pericope.

Which is better – for you, for your context? Should our bishops, synods, and denominational offices take a harder stand on this?

I won’t presume to answer the question for you, but I would conclude by offering this: try a kind of preaching that is outside your comfort zone, that stretches you.  Are you a series preacher? Make yourself stick to lectionary texts for a month.  Are you a lectionary preacher? Use the somewhat bland summer months to try a series, even if it is crafted from the lectionary readings themselves.

Both forms of preaching can be God-honoring and transformative to the listeners.  Both can also be dreadfully dull springboards for eisegesis, therapeutic indulgence, and personal agendas.

Which works best for you? Why? Where do you see excellence in series preaching? Who are our examples of quality lectionary preachers? Join the conversation below!

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The Priority of Worship

by Drew 2 Comments
Catholic_monks_in_Jerusalem_2006

Franciscan monks process in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Abraham Sobkowski via Wikimedia Commons.

Why do followers of Jesus make worship a priority?  The answer is actually not so simple as one might imagine.

Is it a nice addendum, a window dressing to our private devotions and Bible study?  Is corporate worship an aesthetic experience tacked on to the “real” discipleship of service and witness?  Is our praise and preaching, our confession and communion really just a nice – but ultimately optional – show?

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick takes on this line of thought, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, in a post which I would commend to your reading.  He notes,

Worship is reduced to preparation for the “real” Christian life, which is about Christian character, helping people, etc. Thus, worship is where we sort of plug back into the charging station so that we can go out and do the “real” Christian stuff.

How often do we talk about worship in just this way – as a shot of espresso to give a jolt to our “real” life of service and work – and not as a priority of Christian faith?  We talk about worship “feeding” us.  We drive home from worship reflecting on the day’s sermon as if we are judging an episode of Big Bang Theory or Scandal: “That one didn’t really do it for me” or “Wow! Today was a good one.”

Moreover, how many Christians treat worship attendance as something that is only important when there are no other options?  Studies show that while the numbers of those claiming Christian faith are relatively stable, worship attendance continues to decline in frequency even among church members.  (Carey Nieuwhof outlines some reasons for this here.)  For even serious disciples, worship seems to be sliding down the scale of importance.rohr quote

Sometimes we denigrate worship out of a kind of inverted piety.  For instance, I’ve seen the Richard Rohr quote to the right making the rounds on social media of late.  Leave aside that all of these three points are false dichotomies.  The first line actively discourages worshipping Jesus in favor of “following him on his same path.”  This is precisely the kind of move Fr. Damick notes: a supposed priority of witness, of Christian action, over worship.

The problem with this is that gathering to worship is a significant act of worship itself.  The word “worship” comes from “worth-ship,” that to which we ascribe worth.  By gathering to worship, we show our neighbors, our children, our friends that God has worth.  As I outlined as part of a larger argument about online communion, Christians have noted for centuries that simply gathering for worship is itself a crucial act of worship.  Fr. Damick strikes a similar chord:

So the most significant witness a Christian can offer is actually his worship, because it is that worship which is the height and purpose of the Christian life. How he treats others (and all other forms of non-worship activities) is important, but it is important because it points people toward worship.

Christianity is not reducible to activism. Worship doesn’t support witness. Witness supports worship.

Quite simply, worship is the incomparable priority for the people of God.  The gathered community of praise and thanksgiving is not an option or an addendum; our purpose in corporate observance is not merely to an “experience” of enjoyment or fellowship or a jolt to our private spiritual journey.  We worship in this life to prepare for unceasing praise which will shape our lives in God’s Kingdom.

do not neglect churchI close by revisiting the Rohr quote above.  The choice is not between worshipping Jesus and following Jesus.  We worship Jesus because we follow him, for who else has the words of life? (John 6:68) Besides, we may find, as the disciples on the road to Emmaus discovered, that when walk with Jesus, we are drawn to worship almost without knowing it.  After Jesus’ resurrection, Luke tells us in Acts 2:42

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (NRSV)

Note the early devotion to worship as both word (“apostles’ teaching”) and sacrament (“the breaking of bread and the prayers”).  To be a follower of Jesus is inextricably bound up with worship – not listening to music in one’s car, or communing with nature, or meditation – but seeking the Triune God together through communal praise.

From the very first days of the Christian movement, disciples have assembled (“ekklesia“) for worship.  What chiefly separated Christians from their pagan neighbors was not loving the poor or forgiving each other.  What made the early Jesus movement unique – and thus, from time to time, a target of the Empire’s violence – is that they gathered to worship a carpenter who died and was resurrected.  They prayed to him, they sang about him, they read about him, and they ate his body and drank his blood (which is why some pagan critics said the early Christians were cannibals).  The worship of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit was a priority.

In the coming century, as increasing Western secularism, spiritual individualism, and a growing reliance upon technology for community conspire to make corporate worship less attractive, it’s possible that the primary distinction between a disciple of Jesus and a lukewarm believer – or between a follower of Jesus and the spiritual tourist or mildly theistic activist – will be the priority of worship.

Perhaps we are already there.

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Strangers Before Schism

broken chalice

“Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”

 -Hebrews 10:25, CEB

Before the breakup comes the distancing; before the divorce comes the separation.  In the following selection, Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware gives a broad overview of the tensions leading to the Great Schism between East and West in his classic text The Orthodox Church:

“In the last resort it was over matters of doctrine that east and west quarreled – two matters in particular: the Papal claims and the Filioque. But before we look more closely at these two major differences, and before we consider the actual course of the schism, something must be said about the wider background. Long before there was an open and formal schism between east and west, the two sides had become strangers to one another; and in attempting to understand how and why the communion of Christendom was broken, we must start with the fact of increasing estrangement.” (44)

It is often noted that the bitter fruit of schism was nurtured in a soil of linguistic and cultural differences exacerbated by political infighting (crusades and iconoclasm didn’t help, either).  But Metropolitan Ware points out a deeper, broader reality: before a formal split over matters of doctrine and ecclesiology, came something diabolically simplistic: strained relationship.

It’s no accident Paul spends much of his letters simply exhorting the Corinthians or the Ephesians to act like Christians towards others in the assembly.  The quality of our relationships with one another in the Body of Christ is a significant barometer of our relationship with Jesus.  When our relationships suffer, the Church hurts.  Estrangement eventually broke the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

orthodox church wareWe could likely note similar trajectories in other splits: between Protestants and Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans, and, more recently, liberals and fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention.  But differences over non-essential matters in theology, ethics, and polity do not have to divide.  In the context of estrangement, however, it’s all to easy for differences to turn into division, for distance to become divorce.

I raised an off-handed hypothetical in a previous post elsewhere, wondering whether or not various groups in the UMC at present worship different deities.  The same might be wondered aloud for loyal PCUSA folks versus their PCA neighbors, or LCMS and ELCA folks. I meant, and mean, no offense; I am genuinely attempting to find an explanation for the current fractures, which are so vitriolic and raw that they surely go deeper than mere disagreement.  Whether raising this hypothetical is an unfair cause or unfortunate symptom of such strained relationship, I leave for wiser minds to decide.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of something I heard Metropolitan Kallistos share with an evangelical audience.  He quoted a Catholic Cardinal who suggested that, to work towards unity (for which Christ himself prayed), we must love each other.  To love each other, we must first know each other.  We might add: to get to know each other, we must meet each other.  I know too many Protestants who’ve never asked a Catholic about their beliefs; I’ve met too many Episcopalians who’ve never had a conversation with a fundamentalist.  Such widespread ignorance of our neighbors shows that we take Jesus’ prayer far too lightly.

This is why I appreciate and invest in projects like Conciliar Post and Via Media Methodists, places where sincere attempts are made toward healthy dialogue about the disputes that threaten to, and in some cases have succeeded in, bending and then rending the Body of Christ.

It’s entirely possible that we might be the generation that rebuilds Christian unity over cups of coffee, lunch meetings, and late-night porters.  At the very least, when we stop meeting together in such ways, when we give up on the hard work of relating to each other, we remove vital tendons and sinew from the Body of Christ.

This is a good reminder of why a ritual meal is at the heart of our faith.  The people we sup with most often are likely the people to whom we are closest.  That’s why the Eucharist, rightly celebrated, is at the heart of any effort towards establishing and sanctifying our full, visible unity in Christ.  As Brian Wren reminds us in his marvelous hymn,

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

P.S. Here’s a great lecture on the state of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue today, for those who might be interested in prospects for healing the Great Schism that’s lasted nearly a millennia.

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The Gift of Silence in a Wordy World

by Drew 3 Comments
Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Political ads. Music blaring.  Advertisements. Phones dinging and ringing with texts, tweets, and emails, and notifications from a hundred different apps.

How do we cut the noise?

The Psalms encourage us to meet God in silence: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

But stillness and silence are in short supply these days,  This is important because the noise, the wordiness, the verbosity and constant buzz of our world directly impact our ability to live in peace with God, each other, and ourselves. St. Philotheos of Sinai reflected many centuries ago:

“Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (Jas. 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul?” (“Forty Texts on Watchfulness,” Philokalia: Volume III London: Faber & Faber], 17)

On the recommendation of my friend Isaac Hopper, I recently read a great little book for creatives called Manage Your Day-To-Day. One of the chapters dealt with silence, and encouraged creative people (and I would think it beneficial for anyone) to intentionally cultivate silence each day.  The benefits in mental and emotional health, creativity, engagement, and clarity – if this chapter is to be believed – are manifold.

We live in an over-connected world, with messages constantly bombarding us.  The urgent always demands to be  addressed immediately, which puts the critical and the important off to the side.  But without silence, we cannot differentiate between them and hear the voice of our own priorities and values.

What if you took 10 minutes to just unplug each morning before the day’s demands come at you? That might be prayer, or meditation, or thinking through the day.  Or, perhaps, you could cut five minutes from lunch and just find a quiet corner in which to reset?  Increasingly, if we are ever going to experience silence, we will have to intentionally seek it out.

Silence truly is golden, but we spend most of our days courting the din of tin.

But silence is a gift that is free; you don’t have to buy it or earn it, you only have to unplug.

How does your day-to-day routine benefit from silence? Do you find silence difficult or uncomfortable? How can we cultivate more silence in our lives and our childrens’ lives? Leave a comment below!

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Fear of God as the Pathway to the Love of God

love the harbor“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practice ithave a good understanding.
    His praise endures forever.” 

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;  for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1)

Are love and fear opposites?  In the popular sentimentality of the 21st century West, fear is on a spectrum “negative” emotions to be avoided at all costs (including sanity, truth, and virtue).  Christians often like to quote 1 John 4:18 as evidence that our faith should have nothing to do with fear. Others seem to base their whole faith on fear, reducing the gospel to fire insurance.  But a more nuanced, canonical approach reveals that the Bible is not as paranoid about fearing God as we modern Christians are.  Taking a more holistic view thus undercuts

  • Fundamentalist Christians, who use texts like Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 to justify a fear-based approach that is both effective and damaging.  I can’t tell you how many times I “got saved” as a youth because a preacher scared the hell out of me (literally) and sent me careening toward the altar convinced that God hated me.  It’s important to remember that the only people Jesus scared were the uptight religious folks and authorities of empire; the fundamentalist wing of Christianity tends to do the opposite: apologize for empire and religious authority while putting fear into the common folks and ignoring the plight of the poor and marginalized.
  • Progressive Christians, who use texts like 1 John 4:18 as proofs against fear having any kind of role in the Christian life.  It’s common to hear progressives talk about their “conversion stories” (meaning their transition out of conservative Christianity) as a move from a “fear-and-law-based” faith to a “love-and-grace-based” faith.  While I am sympathetic to this journey because it is similar to my own, the truth is that too often Christianities that are solely focus on “love” have such a Westernized, emotive view of love that it tends towards cheap grace and even pantheism.  If God is love, and love costs nothing and elicits no response, then discipleship, worship, mission, evangelism matter little.
  • Cultural Christians, who have neither fear nor love for God.  One significant strand of this is described well by Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Cultural Christians are those who identify as Christians but have no active relationship with God and/or a faith community; they may pray when the chips are down and go to church at Christmas, but day-to-day their decisions and actions are governed by something other than the Triune God.  They have neither fear nor love for God, but might occasionally try to use God to get what they want.

But can we get to the love of God and wholly bypass fear? St. Isaac the Syrian suggests this is impossible:staniloae

Just as it isn’t possible…for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear. We can cross the tempestuous sea placed between us and the spiritual paradise only with the ship of repentance, borne by the oarsmen of fear. If these oarsmen of fear don’t handle the ship of repentance well, by which we cross the sea of this world toward God, we will be drowned in it.  Repentance is the ship, fear is the rudder, love is the divine harbor. So fear puts us in the ship of repentance and we cross the tempestuous sea and it guides us to the divine harbor, which is love where all those who labor and have been enlightened by repentance arrive. And when we have reached love, we have reached God. And our journey has ended and we have reached the island which is beyond this world.

In his classic work Orthodox SpiritualityDmitru Staniloae expands on this by noting that the fear at issue is chiefly fear of a lower love of God, or fear of remaining egotism which would keep us from reaching the harbor of pure love (Wesleyans would call this Christian Perfection, the East would call it theosis or union with God):

The will for a greater love will keep us on board and help us to steer a straight course. It will keep our heads above the giant waves of evil and the egotism which rises up within us. It will lead us straight ahead. Only in the vessel of repentance do we constantly pass over the sinful waves of egotism, which tend to rise up from deeply within us and beneath us. Only by it are we always above ourselves and moving onward from our present position, moving closer to full love, closer to the paradise where the tree of life is, in other words to Christ, the source of love which feeds our spirit. (2)

I love the vision of the life with God as a journey.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Eastern spirituality reminds us that there are “many danger, toils, and snares” on the way to the full love of God. (3)  A proper and holy fear of failing to reach “perfection in love” and thus the fullness of the life God intends to give us seems, as St. Isaac suggested, a part of our pilgrimage we cannot avoid if we would reach that harbor for which we were made.

What do you think? Does fear have a role to play in our journey towards a full love of God? Are repentance and fear necessarily linked? How would you preach or teach this journey? I’d love to have your feedback below.

Notes

  1. Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; 1 John 4:18.
  2. Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 140-141.
  3. “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton.
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Incarnation Roundtable (#ICYMI)

by Drew 0 Comments

cpost

Some young Christian thinkers have an interesting project going over at Conciliar Post.  They are hosting regular “Roundtable” posts on major points of Christian doctrine or church practice, featuring voices from a wide swath of Christian traditions.  It’s refreshing to see such effort put into substantive engagement with doctrine and church teaching.  Clickbait and fluff are the stock-in-trade of the blogosophere, and Jacob Prahlow and the team over at CP should be commended for offering something so against the grain.

I was honored to be asked to contribute a Wesleyan voice to the latest Roundtable discussion which focused, appropriately enough given the time of year, on the Incarnation.  You can read my  Wesleyan/Methodist offering, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican perspectives, here.

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Recovering the Church Fathers

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/All-Saints.jpg?resize=560%2C377&ssl=1

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, by Fra Angelico

The Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church have – rather providentially happily – been the subject of a bit of a renaissance among Christians in recent decades.  This recovery has been spurred on by the ecumenical movement (which, in part, moved forward by looking back), and by the awakening, in some corners of Protestantism, of a desire to recover the roots of Christian worship and thought.  But how do we re-appropriate them today? Is it simply a matter of dusting off old books, that we might quote the occasional Augustine or Chrysostom and sound informed? Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in a book I cannot recommend enough, says this misses the point entirely:

A mere reading of the Fathers, useful and essential as it is, will not suffice.  For even patristic texts can be made, and are often made, into “proofs” of theological systems deeply alien to the real “mind” of the Fathers.  The “patristic revival” of our time would miss completely its purpose if it were to result in a rigid “patristic system” which in reality never existed.  It is indeed the eternal merit of the Fathers that they showed the dynamic and not static nature of Christian theology, its power always to be “contemporary” without reduction to any “contemporaneousness,” open to all human aspirations without being determined by any of them. If the return to the Fathers were to mean a purely formal repetition of their terms and formulations, it would be as wrong and as useless as the discarding of the Fathers by “modern” theology because of their presumably “antiquated” world view. (145-146)

I am grateful to professors like Warren Smith and others at Duke who taught me to appreciate the Fathers, not just as part of the “history” of the Church, but as vital conversation partners today.  Fr. Schmemann has provided me with an excellent reminder that we are meant not merely to “use” or “reference” the Fathers to further our own theological and ecclesiological agendas, but to pray and think with them: lex orandi, lex credendi.

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A Prayer From Libya: Dancing With the Angels

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St. Thalassios the Libyan

St. Thalassios was the abbot of an Orthodox monastery in Libya and a contemporary of the great 7th century figure St. Maximos the Confessor.  In volume II of the Philokalia, we find a stirring prayer included in his treatise On Love, Self-control and Life in accordance with the Intellect:

“Christ, Master of all, free us from all these destructive passions and the thoughts born of them. For Thy sake we came into being, so that we might delight in the paradise which Thou hast planted and in which Thou hast placed us.  We brought our present disgrace upon ourselves, preferring destruction to the delights of blessedness.

We have paid for this, for we have exchanged eternal life for death.  O Master, as once Thou hast looked on us, look on us now; as Thou becamest man, save all of us.  For Thou camest to save us who were lost.  Do not exclude us from the company of those who are being saved.  Raise up our souls and save our bodies, cleansing us from all impurity.  Break the fetters of the passions that constrain us, as once Thou has broken the ranks of impure demons.  Free us from their tyranny, so that we may worship Thee alone, the eternal light, having risen from the dead and dancing with the angels in the blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.  Amen.”

As a Wesleyan, I am quite drawn to the Orthodox language of “those who are being saved” (and of course, such language is Pauline also).  The emphasis on salvation as a path rather than an achievement is sadly overlooked in much of the Western church.

I also love the image of Jesus victoriously dancing after the resurrection, and bidding all to join in his “blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.”  I know many Christians for whom Jesus and dancing are opposites!

I was reminded of one of my favorite hymns, The Lord of the Dance, which I was blessed to hear in worship this past Sunday. No, not the Irish dancing guy.  But here are some Irish guys, not dancing, but singing it quite well:

It also seems appropriate to offer a prayer from Libya asking for deliverance from destructive passions, which have been on display so tragically in Libya and across the Middle East.  May Christ, the Lord of the Dance, free us from love of self and slavery to sin, and may he teach us instead to join in the blessed, eternal, life-giving dance.

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Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation

 

The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.

Thoughts?

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