Thinking Out Loud

August 22, 2017

Church Life: Special Music

In a majority of the middle part of the last century, a feature of Evangelical church services was “the special musical number” or “special music” or if the church didn’t print a bulletin for the entire audience, what the platform party often logged as simply “the special.”

While this wasn’t to imply that the remaining musical elements of the service were not special, it denoted a featured musical selection — often occurring just before the message — that would be sung by

  • a female soloist
  • a male soloist
  • a women’s duet
  • a men’s duet
  • a mixed duet
  • a mixed trio
  • a ladies trio
  • an instrumental number without vocals

etc., though usually it was a female soloist, who, in what would now be seen as an interruption to the flow of the service, would often be introduced by name. “And now Mrs. Faffolfink, the wife our beloved organist Henry, will come to favor us with a special musical number.” This was followed by silence, with the men on the platform party standing as the female soloist made her way to the microphone. (We’ll have to discuss ‘platform party’ another time.)

While the song in question might be anything out of the hymnbook, these were usually taken from a range of suitable songs from the genre called “Sacred Music” designed chiefly for this use, compositions often not possible for the congregation to sing because of (a) vocal range, (b) vocal complexity such as key changes, and (c) interpretive pauses and rhythm breaks. These often required greater skill on the part of the accompanist as well.

A well known example of this might be “The Holy City” which is often sung at Easter, though two out of its three sections seem to owe more to the book of Revelation. “The Stranger of Galilee” and “Master the Tempest is Raging” are two other well-known examples of the type of piece. Sometimes the church choir would join in further into the piece. (The quality of the performance varied depending on the capability of soloists in your congregation.)

By the mid-1970s commercial Christian radio stations were well-established all over the US, and broad exposure to a range of songs gave birth to the Christian music soundtrack industry. More popular songs were often available on cassette from as many as ten different companies. Some were based on the actual recording studio tracks of the original; some were quickly-recorded copies; and some of both kinds were offered in different key signatures (vocal ranges.) Either way, they afforded the singer the possibility of having an entire orchestra at his or her disposal, and later gave way to CDs and even accompaniment DVDs with the soundtrack synchronized to a projected visual background.

Today in the modern Evangelical church, this part of the service has vanished along with the scripture reading and the pastoral prayer. If a megachurch has a featured music item, it’s entirely likely to be borrowed from the Billboard charts of secular hits, performed with the full worship band.

This means there is an entire genre of Christian music which is vanishing with it. This isn’t a loss musically — some of those soloists were simply showing off their skills — as it is lyrically. The three songs named above were narrative, which means they were instructional. They taught us, every bit as much as the sermon did; and were equally rooted in scripture texts. The audience was in a listening mode, more prepared to be receptive. Early church historians will still despair over the passive nature of listening to a solo, but I believe the teaching that was imparted through the songs was worth the 3-4 minutes needed.

My personal belief is that this worship service element will return, albeit in a slightly different form, as congregations grow tired of standing to do little more than listen to pieces they can’t sing anyway because of vocal range or unfamiliarity. This may be taking place already in some churches.

We’ll be better served when that happens.

 

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July 27, 2017

Resenting the Church’s Wealth

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:34 am

Before leaving Austria’s Melk Abbey, I persuaded my wife to buy two small postcards. It was a rather strange place to make our only abbey/cathedral/church expenditure because she was not terribly impressed with this particular excursion.

She found it extremely opulent and it was such a huge contrast to the simple crucifix that we had seen in the museum. The two postcards were meant to ask the question, “How did we get from this to this?” In other words, how did the death of the simple, peripatetic rabbi as a common criminal lead to the layers and layers of gold which adorned the worship space?

One answer that was given us on another tour was that the churches and cathedrals “must outdo the palaces” because “God deserves better than the King.”

Just ponder that for a few minutes…

…I wonder to what extent the average person at the time of construction could come to resent the church’s wealth? When your family is living in a cold and damp hovel in the middle of cruel winter and you’ve had to skip supper because the rats have eaten the food you had set aside to cook that night; and then you look out the window and see this gigantic gold-topped cathedral being built just a mile or two from your home, do you start to wonder about the equity of all things? Or do you in fact the connect the dots as we did and wonder how the simple story of the teacher who told his closest disciples to carry no bag for their journey and focus on building heavenly treasure gave way to stained glass and organs and statues and twelve libraries?

Fast forward to 2017. Are things much different? Do people resent the church’s wealth today? When your family is living in subsidized housing and the landlord refuses to fix the hot water heater and you’ve had to skip dinner because the refrigerator is empty, the Food Stamps/EBT debit card is missing and the only friend who might help you out is in lockup for DUI; when you look out the window and see the megachurch on the other side of the freeway which now prevents you from seeing the sunset; do you start to wonder why that huge building needs to exist at all while you go hungry? Do you connect the dots and wonder how the story of the Nazareth carpenter who preached the Sermon on the Mount and told the rich young man to sell everything gave way to an air-conditioned house of worship with 2,600 plush seats and a fully equipped children’s ministry center and state-of-the-art sound and lighting?

Are we still trying to outdo the palace?

March 10, 2017

House Party: Barbecue, Pool, a Movie, and “We’re having a guest preacher.”

It’s a summer weekend. You invite a few friends over to use the pool, enjoy a barbecue, and watch a movie on DVD. Oh, and you’ve also invited a preacher who will sit everyone down in the living room for a 40 minute sermon. Wait, what? Wouldn’t an Amway Ambush be better than listening to a sermon?

While your swim, burger, and film night might include comfortable chairs, popcorn, refreshments, etc. in 2017, inviting a preacher might have been the equivalent type of party in the 18th century.

Victorian ParlourWhile reading 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas a few years ago, I encountered the term parlor preaching, or if you prefer, the more Anglicized spelling, parlour preaching. Apparently William Wilberforce’s family would have John Newton over for the evening as a guest speaker. If magicians can do parlor tricks, I suppose pastors can parlor preach.

A short trip to a few search engines later, I am not a whole lot wiser on this subject. How widespread was this type of social event? Was it the province of the aristocracy or upper class, or could anyone commission the pastor for a thousand words of exegesis and exhortation?

Though it seems to harken back to a long bygone era, I love the concept. I just can’t see anyone pulling this off successfully today, especially if you get the kind of preacher whose voice raises when he gets passionate. The sermon, as an art form is slowly fading. Rhetoric in general is getting lost in a world of txt msgs and 140-character Tweets. Most party invitees don’t want to arrive at your home only to find they’re at church.

With the absence of information we have to do some guessing. My money’s on this phenomenon as being more church service than small group, but as one-off event. A theological education was highly prized and respected, so the type of interactive format we enjoy in small groups wouldn’t be as likely to occur. You certainly would never offer an alternative view and you might not feel comfortable asking a question, either. At best, you’d save it until afterwards when tea was served.

But it could have resembled house church. There would be a piano in the parlor (aka ‘front room’ or what we would call the ‘living room’) so possibly there could be some singing, with the latest worship songs being transmitted from place to place via printed sheet music (no doubt, CCLI song #5) followed by something the preacher had prepared. Start time and dress would be less formal than Sundays and probably children (if present) would be free to sit on the carpet.

Again, I’m making all this up because there is very little corroboration online for this. If you know differently, please fill the rest of us in.

We do this today, sometimes inviting friends over to watch a sermon podcast, though we have the freedom of hitting the pause button. Today, we don’t expect our pastors to be suburban circuit-riders, in fact pastoral home visitation in general is going extinct, a topic for another article, I suppose.

Still, I would love to travel back in time to be part of one of those informal house meetings; a kind of house concert with a spiritual orator instead of a singer. I’ll bet the preaching would be first-class.

March 2, 2017

Christians Should Study Mormonism

A reader wrote asking if I’d ever reviewed any books by Denver Snuffer. I get requests to review self-published books all the time, but this time I found the name intriguing and next thing, I was reading a number of articles on his blog. He’s written a number of books, and has an additional website commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. According to my contact, “He was raised baptist and is now an excommunicated Mormon.  He’s a lawyer who is qualified to practice in the Supreme Court.” But it was this article below, which I thought readers here might find interesting.

 

Christians Should Study Mormonism

by Denver Snuffer

Between the death of Christ’s apostles and the Council of Nicaea, Christianity changed dramatically. It is impossible to account for all that happened to cause the changes. Although some of the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Christian leaders before Nicaea) have been preserved, the records are wholly inadequate to understand everything that happened, and why it happened.

A new religion rarely appears in history. When one does, it presents a unique opportunity for us to study the process.

Religions begin with an inspired leader whose confident vision opens new light and truth into the world. If there is no new vision then the religion won’t survive. But an original, inspired leader is difficult to replicate. Within a short time, the founder’s work is overtaken by others. Their insecurities and fears leave them without the confidence once present at the foundation. Believers donate, and contributions aggregate. A new generation of believers begin to notice the wealth of their movement, and aspiring leaders who would never sacrifice their name, reputation, security and lives are drawn to management, seeking personal benefit from the institution. Bold claims become hollow echoes, and leaders’ insecurity results in defensive and protective steps. Instead of moving forward with inspired new light and truth, the established religion fears and fights against threatened losses.

William James explained the process:

A genuine first-hand experience like this is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn. The new church, in spite of whatever human goodness it may foster, can be henceforth counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit, and to stop all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration. Unless, indeed, by adopting new movements of the spirit it can make capital out of them and use them for its selfish corporate designs!” (The Varieties of Religious Experience, being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902, Lectures XIV and XV: The Value of Saintlessness.)

Mormonism was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith who claimed that ten years prior to founding a church he had been visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ. In the intervening years between the first visit and the time a church was organized, Joseph claimed to have been visited by an angelic messenger who delivered to him a new volume of scripture, the Book of Mormon. He claimed to have received revelations before founding the church, and then many more after its organization.

mormon-article-3-2Whether you believe Joseph Smith’s claims or not, he and his followers give a unique opportunity to witness how founding a religion sets in motion a series of predictable events that happen every time a new religion begins. Perhaps the best way to decipher the transition of Christianity from the original Primitive Christianity to its replacement, Historic Christianity, is to study Mormonism. Similar to the way the Primitive Christian church passed away after the death of the apostles, Mormonism has passed away following the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The same process was at work in both.

Primitive Christianity and Mormonism set out to change the world, and after some initial success, both enjoyed worldly success. Their success diverted attention from saving souls to managing people and property. Paul observed, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Tim. 6:10.) A new religion is not profitable for the first believers. They are persecuted. They sacrifice their lives and property to follow what they believe to be God’s burden laid on them. Because of their sacrifices, they have faith and know they please God. Without sacrifice, it is impossible to obtain the faith required for salvation. Founders make sacrifices, successors enjoy the fruit of those sacrifices.

In time, the founding gives way to popular approval. John Wesley observed the price that is paid for popular acceptance is the loss of the Spirit.

“It does not appear that these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were common in the Church for more than two or three centuries. We seldom hear of them after that fatal period when the Emperor Constantine called himself a Christian;… From this time they almost totally ceased;… The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other heathens…. This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian Church; because the Christians were turned Heathens again, and had only a dead form left. Churches all come to depend on money for survival.”

Churches, like the men who belong to them, are just as vulnerable to the “love of money” which leads to “all evil.” People can have the gifts of the Spirit, or they can acquire riches in this world, but cannot have both.

Catholicism grew wealthy from the offerings of its members. When it owned most of the European lands and ruled over all people within Roman Catholic boundaries, it was cold, corrupt, violent and cruel. The transition from persecuted minority to dangerous majority took three centuries. With that status the original was lost.

Mormonism has followed the same path and achieved the same end in less than half the time. If a Christian wants to know how Primitive Christianity was lost to apostasy, the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is where it can be found. Mormon beliefs are so unstable that they now “unequivocally condemn” 10 of the first 11 of their church presidents, including Brigham Young, John Taylor and David O. McKay.

In order to progress forward, we must go back. Since we have no way to recover enough information to understand Christianity’s trek from Jerusalem to Rome, Mormonism allows Christians a view into the transition from Nauvoo to Salt Lake. Both paths followed the same tragic topography.


Go Deeper: In a more recent article Denver Snuffer draws a parallel between the time of Irenaeus and the doctrinal path of Mormonism. Check out Christian Apostasy.

October 31, 2016

Luther and the Lion – The Totally True Story of Halloween

I know I ran one of Aaron’s posts just 9 days ago, but this one seemed so timely. Click this link to read at source.

It all started almost 500 years ago. Once upon a time there was a little boy named Martin Luther.

wittenberg

Martin was very poor, as were all the boys in his village. They were poor because every year a scary Lion from Rome would visit and take all the village’s money. Lion would go into All Saints’ Church (or All Hallows’ Church), stand at the top of the bell tower, and mightily roar,

“I am Lion! Hear me roar!
Give your gold! Give me more!
I won’t stop until you do!
You won’t sleep until I’m through!”

This scared Martin and all the children very much. So every year the families would go to All Hallows’ Church one by one and knock on the door. Lion would make them say “Purgatory or treat,” because if the village did not give Lion his treats, he would not give them indulgences.

Martin decided that he had had enough of this. He decided that he would stop Lion. That year, Lion came at the time of the harvest and locked himself in the church and demanded his treats, roaring,

“I am Lion! Hear me roar!
Give your food! Give me more!
I hold the Keys, I stand on the Rock!
Until you admit it, I won’t stop!”

Martin knew he would need help to stop Lion, so he went to visit his friend Calvin. Calvin was a sad and lonely boy who spent most of his day reading books, but he was very smart and clever.

calvin

Martin knocked on Calvin’s door and said, “I am going to stop Lion and kick him out of our village! You are so very clever. What shall we do?”

Calvin opened the door and said,
“Silly Martin. You can’t stop Lion.
He’s so very strong, it’s not even worth tryin’.
If God wants to do it then in time He will,
And if He does not then I won’t waste my skill.”
For Calvin was clever and very well read,
But also quite lazy, and left not his bed.

Martin needed someone else to help him to stop Lion, so he went to visit his other friend Wycliffe. Wycliffe was clever but moreover quite active. Wycliffe had learned to speak Lion’s language and secretly shared Lion’s books with the villagers. Surely he would help!

wycliffe

Martin knocked on the door and said, “I am going to stop Lion and kick him out of our village! You are so very clever and active! What shall we do?”

zwingli

But it was not Wycliffe who came to the door.
“I’m so very sorry, but please stay outside.
I’m sorry to say that my brother has died.
We did not pay Lion so he’ll come for us,
But it was nice to meet you. My name is Jan Hus.”
Wycliffe and Jan – They were both bold and smart.
But sadly for them, Lion’s teeth were too sharp.

Martin started off, but before he could go
Jan Hus said, “There’s one little thing you should know
My brother found out, before he got sick,
The Lion is lying – Purgatory’s a trick!”

Martin was very sad. He simply had to stop Lion but Wycliffe was gone, Jan would be soon, and Calvin was just too lazy. Martin almost gave up but then, on the last day in October, he had a brilliant idea!

“I can’t outsmart Lion. He can’t be out-dared.
But what if, I wonder, he were to be scared?”

So Martin went to visit his last friend, Zwingli. He knocked on the door and said, “Zwingli! I am going to stop Lion and scare him out of our village!”

zwingli-not-hus

Zwingli opened the door and asked, “How?”
Martin explained how they’d chase out the Lion.
Martin would dress up and then terrify him!
They took to the kitchen and chopped up his hair
And made him look sickly, his head’s top was bare.
Lion would run, thinking Martin a nut,
For no one is sane who has that hair cut.
Lion would tremble and Lion would flee
And the people of Wittenberg would then be free!

Dressed up as a complete lunatic,  Martin went to All Hallows’ Church. Lion roared from the tower,

“I am Lion! Hear me roar!
Give your soul! Give me more!
I don’t care if there’s a recession!
I have apostolic succession!”

luther

Martin knocked on the door, refusing to stop
Until Lion arrived on the 95th knock.
The doors opened wide with an ominous creak.
And Lion growled out, “Purgatory or treat!”
“Trick or treat!” The bald boy said,
Yelling quite loudly and showing his head.
The Lion was frightened, his eyes filled with dread.
“What is wrong with your hair!?” He shouted and fled.

Then Martin called out to the people nearby,
“Good news, everyone! Purgatory’s a lie!
We’re saved from our sins only by grace
And the Righteous, from this day on, shall live by faith!”

The people of Wittenberg shouted and applauded and that winter was the most joyful winter in years! Lion tried to come back every year, but the people of Wittenberg would knock on All Hallows’ Church’s door dressed as monsters to scare Lion away. They named the day “Hollowe’en,” after Lion’s hollow doctrine. In later years, they discovered they could scare Lion using images carved into hollowed-out pumpkins. Calvin always left his house a mess of pumpkin guts, but his brother Jacob was always there to clean up Calvin’s messes.

Wycliffe and Jan were gone, but the village built a library in their honour and filled it with all kinds of books! Martin and Zwingli remained good friends, but occasionally disagreed over the health benefits of juice and crackers.

And for the next 499 years, the village was free and happy and peaceful, apart from the occasional party on Azusa Street which the village was mostly okay with it. And that’s the true story of Halloween.

door

Happy 499th birthday, Protestantism!

 

 

September 29, 2016

From the Archives: Delving into the Classics

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:06 am

September, 2008: This week my kids and I are “binge reading” a number of devotionals from a collection by A. W. Tozer, one of the pioneers in the Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination. His final pastorate was at the Avenue Road* Church in Toronto, Canada, which continues to this day as Bayview Glen Alliance. Tozer is one of a number of classic reads, in a list that includes D. L. Moody, George Whitfield, Watchman Nee, Jonathan Edwards, E. M. Bounds and others. 

[Note: In the eight years since this was written I have come to learn, that by classic, many would assume the writings of what are termed “The Early Church Fathers.” Although Tozer, who was still writing within the last century, is pictured here, I actually mean people of his generation and writers from antiquity.]

What is it that’s different about reading classic authors like these?

Language
– Right away you notice that they speak with a different voice, and having studied the Philosophy of Language, I know that our use of words shapes our understanding. There is also a greater economy of words on some points, but there is laborious repetition on others, so that we don’t miss something profound. Clearly, the did understand some concepts somewhat differently than many of do today; and the “spin” on some Bible passages is distinctive by our standards.

Intensity – These classic writers endure because they were passionate about living the Christian life to the nth degree. There is an urgency about their writings that is sorely lacking in some modern Christian literature. Were they preaching to the choir, or were they voices crying in the wilderness? Probably both, and with the same message for both.

Response – They wrote in response to the issues of their day, some of which are unknown to us now, but some of which are strikingly similar to the issues of our day. There was a concern for a general apostasy, a watering-down of the gospel and of Christian ethics. Is this just preacher rhetoric, or are things truly deteriorating with each successive generation? Or do Bible teachers and preachers just get so “set apart” that they start to view both the church and the world less charitably?

Wisdom – These books represent the cultivation of much wisdom in an era that wasn’t full of the distractions of our era. While we will inevitably turn back to our modern writers; there is much to be gained from seeing how scripture was interpreted in a previous century. They did their homework so to speak, and interacted with others who were on the same path of study; and some of them were simply a few hundred years “closer to the story” than we are today.


What classic authors do you enjoy?

*Gotta love the redundancy of the name, “Avenue Road.” Still exists, running parallel to Toronto’s main drag, Yonge Street. (Pronounced “young street.”)

July 12, 2016

Retro Reviewing: Pagan by Frank Viola and George Barna

Filed under: books, Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:15 am

In 2008, books about ecclesiology were selling briskly. Bloggers were consuming and recommending books about the church and church planting at rates never before seen, and the market included both clergy and laity, with the latter group feeling empowered to take an interest in a subject previously left to the professionals. (Historically in North America, while you might need theological degrees to be the pastor of a church, the work of planting includes colorful stories involving all types of people.)

paganPagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices was an important book during this time. The Tyndale House-distributed title with the bright red cover was presumably an update of a previous edition in 2002. According to what I wrote at the time, George Barna’s contribution was added for the revised edition. I have to assume that included much of the research; up to 25% of each page contains exhaustive footnotes. Those notes give the book an academic air, but in the end, especially re-reading this today as I’ve been doing, you realize that some of what is being offered up is based in opinion; specifically a preference for less-institutional, more organic worship setting, specifically the house church type of gathering. The book seems to want to call for a more radical paradigm shift than is realistically possible across the entire spectrum of churches.

In 2008, the market was ripe for a book like this. It was a time for deconstruction, and many were re-inventing the wheel. The terms emergent church and emerging church were on everyone’s lips, as was the idea of being missional, but this book doesn’t necessarily go there, since many emergent forms consisted of a blended worship which continued to incorporate the very traditional elements the book decries as rooted in medieval Catholicism, academia and even forms from other religions.

Where the book shines however is in terms of giving us an historical understanding of why we do the things we do.  The use of church buildings. The sermon form. The robes and vestments. The clergy. The paid church staff. The Choir. Our expression of Baptism and Communion. Christian Education.

In 2016, as I’ve gone through it again, I believe the book continues to speak into our tendency to do church as it has always been done. Reading it eight years later provides a different lens however; many models were considered and not those churches which were implemented succeeded. Rather, the book inspired church planters to take a salad bar approach, to pick and choose which elements they wished to refine or delete altogether. 

However, this time around, I also got more of the sense of walking in on a heated argument; a reminder that there are two sides in a debate, the other being traditionalists. It could be argued that we came through this micro-period in church history and not much changed. Or, it could equally be argued that in 2016 we have a much greater variety of churches doing very different types of things, and giving expression to their worship in unique ways. 

For the latter group, the book Pagan may have been a big part of that.

 

June 23, 2016

The Labyrinth

LabyrinthOne of the Anglican churches in the town where I live has a labyrinth in the field behind the building. I remember the first time I saw it, probably well over a decade ago, and thinking it a rather odd sight for a Christian place of worship. Wikipedia (linked above) offers this origin:

In Greek mythology, the labyrinth (Greek: λαβύρινθος labyrinthos) was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur eventually killed by the hero Theseus. Daedalus had so cunningly made the Labyrinth that he could barely escape it after he built it.

Later on the article states

Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth). In their cross-cultural study of signs and symbols, Patterns that Connect, Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter present various forms of the labyrinth and suggest various possible meanings, including not only a sacred path to the home of a sacred ancestor, but also, perhaps, a representation of the ancestor him/herself: “…many [New World] Indians who make the labyrinth regard it as a sacred symbol, a beneficial ancestor, a deity. In this they may be preserving its original meaning: the ultimate ancestor, here evoked by two continuous lines joining its twelve primary joints.”

Almost as a postscript, the article ends with a section headed “Christian use”

Labyrinths have on various occasions been used in Christian tradition as a part of worship. The earliest known example is from a fourth-century pavement at the Basilica of St Reparatus, at Orleansville, Algeria, with the words “Sancta Eclesia” at the center, though it is unclear how it might have been used in worship.

In medieval times, labyrinths began to appear on church walls and floors around 1000 C.E.. The most famous medieval labyrinth, with great influence on later practice, was created in Chartres Cathedral.  The purpose of the labyrinths is not clear, though there are surviving descriptions of French clerics performing a ritual Easter dance along the path on Easter Sunday.  Some books (guidebooks in particular) suggest that mazes on cathedral floors originated in the medieval period as alternatives to pilgrimage to the Holy Land…

I’m sure my Baptist friends, if I had some, would be more strongly shocked and possibly even repulsed at the idea of such a very non-Biblical thing being part of the structure of the church. Nowhere do the scriptures suggest the construction or use of such. It’s very foreign to our experience…

300px-Labyrinth_at_Chartres_CathedralIn the bookstore where I work a couple of days a week there are two aisles at the front, three in the middle and one at the back. Occasionally, when there are no customers (which is an increasingly common problem) I will pick up a book, kick off my shoes, and start walking up and down the aisles forming a somewhat random pattern of circles. I’m able to read and walk at the same time without serious injury; although this practice of pounding bare feet on a thin carpet supported by a concrete floor may have led to my current symptoms of plantar fasciitis. For some reason, I find I make great progress reading this way, not unlike the times as a teen I would play improvisations on the piano while studying the geography or chemistry textbook for an exam. Either the rhythm of this type of activity, or the built-in distraction helps me focus.

I wonder if there’s any real difference between what I do at the store and the Anglicans who walk the labyrinth?

We can be so quick to criticize; so hasty in our judgment that we don’t realize we are often doing the same things only differently; or with different terminology. I could just as easily pace the floor and meditate on a passage of scripture or even pray (keeping my eyes open of course so I don’t crash into a display of coffee mugs.)

I’m sure the focus of the labyrinth at an Anglican or Episcopalian church is prayer and meditation. Those are good things, right?

Still…this is clearly an extra-Biblical practice. I also wonder if the more things we add on to the elements of church life, instead of creating forms and devices that aid people in spiritual disciplines, we simply have layered on another disciplines, and thereby robbed people of the more basic approach to prayer and meditation. (Heck, my imaginary Baptist friends really don’t like that last word, either.)

The other challenge is the possibility that a few people make some of these practices which lie on the fringes of the Christian life more central than they need to be. It can be for some an obsession, or a ritual which obscures more important things we ought to be doing.

I’m quite sure there are Evangelical equivalents.


Top image: St. John the Evangelist Church in South Lancaster, Ontario. I tried to find one for the church where I live, but this one is similar.

Bottom image: Wikipedia

March 19, 2016

Jesus For President (It’s better than some of the current options)

While I’ve re-run many articles over the course of the blog, book reviews have not been among them. Book mentions are usually unique to a particular time and place and only relevant while the book is new. The attention of reviewers and readers alike then moves on to whatever is next.

But I was drawn to this short review because the book is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in this an election year; not to mention the release of a 10th anniversary edition of the author’s first book The Irresistible Revolution. So grab some cooking grease to power the bus engine as we head out on the road once again…

“Growing up we were taught to sing the exciting songs of Noah and Abraham and little David and Goliath. But we were never taught songs about debt cancellation, land reforms, food redistribution and slave amnesty. We don’t know if it was just hard to come up with words that rhyme with “debt cancellation” or if folks were hesitant about venturing into the ancient (and sometimes boring) world of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy… Whatever the case, these books are where some of God’s most creative and exciting ideas come alive.”

Jesus for President pp 57-58

About fifty years ago elementary school students had something called ‘readers’ which contained base materials for a variety of subjects. Each page brought some new adventure, they were the equivalent of a variety show for students with poems, psalms, pictures, maps, science articles, biographical stories and fiction. Basically, everything in it but the kitchen sink.

I’ve just finished reading Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. Like Shane’s previous book, The Irresistible Revolution, this book has everything but the kitchen sink, too. 

This book begins with an overview of the early Jewish history as recorded in the Pentateuch. There is also a great deal of focus on Constantine’s influence on the Church in the 300s. Constantine, a hero to some for his legitimization of Christianity, isn’t doing well on review these days. (See Greg Boyd’s The Myth of an American Nation for more of this, or listen online to some of Bruxy Cavey’s teaching at The Meeting House in Oakville, ON www.themeetinghouse.ca or check the blogsphere for reviews of The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. etc.)

But kitchen sink style, Claiborne and Haw then move on to practical ways that the Church can make a difference especially in terms of the environment, the economy and creating equity. They don’t stop at stamping out poverty. They want to stamp out affluence, too. In some respects, they could have got two very different books out of this, but their understanding of Israel’s history, their interpretation of Christ’s teaching, their take on the first few hundred years of Christianity; all these provide context for where they see the church today. In other words, first you get their motivation, then you get their methodology.

Like the school readers of old, you’re left with a primer on social action, with every page yielding something new. (And the visual dynamics of each page help, too.) And not one paragraph, not even one sentence in the book is theoretical. It’s about living all this out on a daily basis. 


Keep up with Shane and partner-in-crime Tony Campolo at RedLetterChristians.org

A year after this was review was published, I later covered the Jesus for President DVD which is still widely available. You can read that review here.

 

 

January 25, 2016

Appreciating the Wisdom and Knowledge of N. T. Wright

I realized this weekend that I need to honor a promise to do this review, and it needs to be done in a timely fashion, even if I haven’t come close to finishing.

However, I am also well aware that by requesting an academic book for review, I am officially in over my depth, which partially if not fully explains why I am still only about a quarter of the way through its 378 pages. My reason for wanting a closer look at this book was singular: A fascination with the author’s intellect and wisdom.

N. T. Wright - Paul and His Recent InterpretersN. T. Wright‘s Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Fortress Press, 2015) is actually a sequel to another volume, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and one of several concerning the Early Church apostle which forms his Magisterial series.

It’s specific purpose is to flesh out the teachings of a handful of Bible scholars from other generations while at the same time paying specific attention to where these stand in relationship to some of the more recent views about Paul which have occurred in our own time.

So the book falls into a category somewhat parallel to literary criticism that we might call theological critique. (Maybe they do call it that… remember, I’m in over my head.) There are however sections which would be more accessible to the lay-reader, provided they had overcome the $39 price point for this academic paperback.

For example, he begins with the conjecture as to what we might think if Paul’s writings had just been located in a type of Dead Sea Scroll discovery. We would see that he writes much about ho theos — the god — and this requires of us to wonder (a) What this divinity has done, and (b) What it is intending to do.

He then notes that Paul’s writings have been shelved in the area of Biblical studies whereas his writings have truly impact a vast array of categories such as Ancient History, Middle Eastern Culture, Politics and Philosophy to name a few. But with his writing simply shelving Paul under “Religion” limits the scope of his full impact and runs the risk of doing what the BBC in his own country does, placing religious writings in the same realm as fiction.

These moments were among the more accessible to me, and there are similar moments as I press through the book, but as I continue further, I realize that the primary prerequisite for reading this work ought to be some familiarity with the writers under the microscope; names familiar to academics and theologians but not to the average browser in the Christian book shop, or most readers here.

Still, I am struck by the mind of N.T. Wright and his authority in this particular area of study and New Testament studies in general. (His initials are so appropriate.) We need his voice to be heard, especially at a time when modern scholarship is deconstructing so many of the New Testament’s epistles and leaving people confused as to what Paul actually said or meant.

 

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