Tuesday, December 23, 2014

22 December: A True Story

Last night out of nowhere I was confronted by a teenager and two younger kids at my door, caroling. The boy looked right at me as he sang, the girl showed signs she might break out and dance, the older one stood free of self-consciousness. When I asked if they were from our neighbourhood, to my surprise they named another, much less affluent, one. When I gestured to see if I could find something like the figgy pudding they had asked for, to my chagrin they showed no interest in a reward and turned cheerily away. Normally I find caroling very awkward, but this one will stick with me; this time felt like gospel.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement

'The processes that generate church growth, internal strength, and vitality in a religious marketplace also internally homogenize and externally divide people. Conversely, the processes intended to promote the inclusion of different peoples also tend to weaken the internal identity, strength, and vitality of volunteer organizations.'

That's a quote from Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's Divided by Faith, which Scot McKnight utilizes to introduce his book: A Community Called Atonement. The context of the quote is the observation that 90% of American churches contain 90% people of the same colour.

McKnight suggests that those 'processes' have much to do with the way churches 'package' the 'gospel' (p. 5). In this book McKnight does not fully address our church-dynamics but aims to bring a full-bodied approach to understanding the gospel so churches can think straight.

One way to talk about how we understand the gospel is to talk about 'atonement', or, the question of how the gospel works' (p. 1). Any attempt to do this must be done with a certain 'postmodern humility,' McKnight believes, because we can only reach into God's side of the story by use of metaphor, and because we can only speak of our side from within our limited contexts. Since no biblical or traditional atonement metaphor appears intent on supplying a comprehensive or exclusive account of the gospel of Christ, instead of looking for a 'winner' McKnight makes the not-so-modest attempt to hold them all together (ch. 11).

The attempt is an interesting one, and McKnight does it well. He begins in part one with Jesus, humanity as the image (or Eikon) of God, with sin and eternity, and with church and Christian practice--the idea being that the gospel is all about these things. In part two he examines the different 'moments' of the atonement--from Christmas to Cross to Easter to Pentecost--arguing that none says all that needs to be said, and giving a compelling picture of the gospel and its intended effects.

In part three McKnight examines the different ways the gospel story was narrated early on--first in the implications of Jesus himself (who framed the events of passion week in terms of Passover and liberation), then in the explanations of the apostle Paul (which serve up a well-told account of today's debate about 'justification'), and then in the reflections of early church theologians Irenaeus and Athanasius (who spoke of it in terms of God's 'recapitulation' of dead humanity).

Rather than put them in competition, after a short synopsis of atonement theories, McKnight coins a phrase which he thinks sums them up: The accomplishment of the gospel is 'identification for incorporation' (107). Whether we're talking about Jesus ransoming from death, satisfying his own judgment of sin, substituting as a punishment for sin, representing us before God, recapitulating us to our proper life, or even providing a moral example of self-giving love, it all adds up to identification for incorporation:

'Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is.' 

As McKnight explains it, Jesus' death on the cross (and perhaps descent into hell) are the extent of God with us; his identification 'all the way down' (110). Furthermore (to use a Barthian turn of phrase), Jesus' resurrection and sending of the Spirit are the extent of us with God; an incorporation into God's own life which goes all the way into eternity and all the way into our lives here on earth.

Normally a book on the atonement might end here, except that McKnight wants to stress the point about incorporation; about our side; about atonement as an act of God which has personal and social implications in the here and now. These implications are not subsidiary byproducts but constitutive elements of the work of the gospel (126). That's not to say that the effect of the gospel depends upon our enactment of it, but that there is a 'potential performative reciprocity in the redemptive work of God' (29).

In other words, the gospel gives birth to a new humanity--on earth as in heaven--complete with new fellowship, just praxis, and mission for a whole world. Thus the book's title: implying that atonement does not end at a divine declaration of our 'savedness' but enfolds us as participants in ours and creation's redemption.

This is all well and good--and I do recommend the book highly--but I was left with a couple practical concerns. The first is that forgiveness is considered synonymous with reconciliation (30). If you think about the difference between forgiving someone and healing a relationship with them, you will recognize how that conflation of terms might collapse the participatory action of this newfound atonement community in all kinds of unhelpful ways.

The second concern can be seen if we go back to that first quote above. If attentiveness to our gospel 'processes' are important, I think there are problems implicit in the conclusion. At some point late in the book the language begins to slip so that those who are being atoned become not only participants but agents of God's atoning work. 'Missional work is atoning', McKnight will say in one place (134). Or 'the local community offers atonement,' he'll say in another (154). In other words, it is not just God doing the atoning anymore.

This isn't really what McKnight means--at the end of his book he's really just trying to point us in the right direction and isn't going into a lot of detail. It is a concern of trajectory, however, and not a small one. If our gospel-talk removes attention from God as the primary ongoing author and perfecter not only of creation but of our lives of faith, then the mission will curve in on itself. We've seen this time and time again, and that's what the initial quote was addressing. If not in the homogeneous enclaves of market-driven church growth movements, then in the colonialist enterprises of global mission efforts--we say 'thanks for the gospel, God, we'll take it from here.'

McKnight doesn't intend to leave it that way, in fact the final chapter talks about baptism, Eucharist and prayer, but these are not drawn out in the ways that make them so crucial. I hope this leaves readers of McKnight's very good book begging for something more; something to answer that quote with which we began; something to say what kind of a community the atonement has made.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Appreciating the Book of Common Prayer: Building from rather than dismissing it

Last week as I shared what I appreciate about the Book of Common Prayer (see parts 1, 2 & 3), there was to be no implication that it should be the modus operandi for all worship and prayer. I would suggest, however, that all corporate worship aspire to its achievements.

It is a sad day indeed where confession is replaced with self-expression, creed with sentimentality, and thoughtfulness with spontaneity. It is a sad day, also, when traditional liturgy becomes meaningless rote and rhythm, all but left for dead as it rolls off our tongues.

That's why I appreciated the effort put into it by our student-leaders at Trinity College last week. I was particularly moved to prayer by the leadership of Denis Adide, who took the closing intercessions of the BCP and added to them creatively so that we came to those same-old lines with renewed theological attentiveness, personal conviction, and global concern.
The steps leading from Stoke House
down to the Chapel at Trinity College Bristol
Previously I mentioned these intercessions (shown below in italics) as a fine lead-up to the Collect for Peace, but now read them with Denis's additions. You'll see what I mean, and you'll see what is possible when you make the most of your liturgical sources rather than dismiss them in favour of pure spontaneity.

After the Lord's Prayer, the leader, standing, prays:

Because at times we, knowing you are King, 
do not relinquish the thrones in our hearts; 
recoil from the lepers; hide from the sick; 
approach your table with contemptuous hearts;
ignore your voice as it leads us from temptation delivering ourselves into evil:

O Lord, shew thy mercy upon us. 
(All) And grant us thy salvation.

For reminding us by her presence that we are not sovereign and pointing us to the fact that the earth is yours. That she responds by your Spirit to the office you have called her,

O Lord, save the Queen.
And mercifully hear us when we call upon thee.

Because it is a broken people that you choose to reach into a broken world, pour your Spirit in abundance and teach your church to break, so that what is from heaven may flood the earth. Give wisdom, integrity, faithfulness:

Endue thy ministers with righteousness.
And make thy chosen people joyful.

Because it is in a broken world that you begin your work, where broken people reject you to reject their own brokenness, stand with the persecuted and the oppressed:

O Lord, save thy people.
And bless thine inheritance.

As the two hundred school girls nestle among thorns far away from home, or the refugees flee the Islamic state: fathers bury sons; daughters become orphans; the sword is wielded hastily and our rivers turn to blood. We plead:

Give peace in our time, O Lord.
Because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.

Peace in our time may not quench the desires that return us to that tree of disobedience. Search us and know us, test us and know our thoughts, uproot the wickedness that nestles deep:

O God make clean our hearts within us.
And take not thy Holy Spirit from us.

(Thank you to Denis for permission to publish this prayer)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Appreciating the Book of Common Prayer: Collect for Peace

This week as we've been utilizing the Book of Common Prayer for our morning prayers at Trinity College, I've been expressing appreciation for some of its particular qualities.

Thoughtfully prepared corporate prayer has become more and more important to me in recent years. That's not to say I always want to go to prayer. Far from it. Some days it feels like a downright chore. But even then, what gets me there is that I want to want to pray, and on arrival there are certain things I especially want to want to pray.

Aside from the Lord's Prayer, Gloria Patri and Te Deus Laudamus, the part of the BCP I anticipate most (which does appear in other liturgies as well), is the Collect for Peace. 

For those unfamiliar with a 'Collect', it is a prayer from the leader at the end of the service which gathers up or 'collects' the intercessions and prayers and confessions that have gone before. There are several, but the Collect for Peace goes like this:

The Collect for Peace, from the Book of Common Prayer
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The lines I particularly appreciate are those which--in the midst of a turbulent, fragmented world--lead me to confess God as the 'author of peace and lover of concord,' and to confess my own 'perfect freedom' as a life lived in service to that God.

On the face of it, the Collect for Peace could seem to heighten adversarial attitudes, but I don't read it that way. Rather than pretending one has no adversaries, the prayer leads us to be honest with ourselves. In the same breath as it renounces fear, the prayer entrusts defense into divine hands rather than taking it upon ourselves.

Furthermore, right before the Collects there are a series of short responsive prayers which focus our prayers for society, the church and their leaders, as well as for ourselves. Read responsively, they say:

Shew thy mercy upon us. And grant us thy salvation.

O Lord Save the Queen. And mercifully hear us when we call upon thee.

Endue thy ministers with righteousness. And make thy chosen people joyful.

O Lord, save thy people. And bless thine inheritance.

Give peace in our time, O Lord. Because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.

Make clean our hearts within us. And take not thy Holy Spirit from us.

In my next (and last) post in this series, I'll share how one of our students at Trinity College helped us make sense of these potentially arcane-sounding lines. But for now let me highlight how this rapid succession of beautiful prayers leads poignantly into the Collect for Peace:

As we pray for our leaders we pray for ourselves, and in this we pray for mercy, we pray for 'peace in our time', and we confess that there is 'none other that fighteth' than God.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Appreciating the Book of Common Prayer: Te Deum Laudamus

This is the chapel at Trinity College Bristol
There's a lot to like about joining with others for morning prayer; about installing a communal liturgy of confessions and readings into the rhythm of your life. And as far as that goes--as noted earlier this week--there's a lot to like about The Book of Common Prayer.

For instance, consider this excerpt from what we prayed today: The Te Deum Laudamus [O God, we praise you]. I won't add much commentary since it speaks for itself, but please just notice the flow.

It builds to a crescendo and hits most or all of the essential notes of worship along the way. It gathers up the pray-er with all creation, calls to mind the great cloud of witnesses, confesses the being and works of the Triune God, and then at its climax prays for mercy and safety from sin.

In the midst of it all there are lines you could chew on the rest of the day--such as 'thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb'--and lines that are so simple--such as 'we acknowledge thee to be the Lord'--that you'd almost forget to say them (to your peril) if not for morning prayers.

Te Deum Laudamus.
WE praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
    All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.
    To thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
    To thee Cherubin and Seraphin : continually do cry,
    Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Sabaoth;
    Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory.
    The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
    The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
    The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
    The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge thee;
    The Father : of an infinite Majesty;
    Thine honourable, true : and only Son;
    Also the Holy Ghost : the Comforter.
    Thou art the King of Glory : O Christ.
    Thou art the everlasting Son : of the Father.
    When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man : thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb.
    When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death : thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
    Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
    We believe that thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
    We therefore pray thee, help thy servants : whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
    Make them to be numbered with thy Saints : in glory everlasting.
    O Lord, save thy people : and bless thine heritage.
    Govern them : and lift them up for ever.
    Day by day : we magnify thee;
    And we worship thy Name : ever world without end.
    Vouchsafe, O Lord : to keep us this day without sin.
    O Lord, have mercy upon us : have mercy upon us.
    O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us : as our trust is in thee.
    O Lord, in thee have I trusted : let me never be confounded.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Appreciating the Book of Common Prayer

To my joy, in Morning Prayer at Trinity College this week we're using the Church of England's 17th Century Book of Common Prayer. It's not that I don't appreciate the updated mainstay, the 21st century book of Common Worship--I like that too--but I love the BCP.

This is what we used for morning prayers at King's College while I was studying in Aberdeen--when I was learning to make communal liturgy a central part of my daily life--so there is a degree to which the BCP simply holds significance of continuity for me. But it's more than that. The words and prayers are particularly rich.

Not just because they are in old English. To be honest that really doesn't do that much for me. I remember the KJV from my earliest years, but I was largely brought up on (and sometimes had to fight for) the NIV, so there's little nostalgia-factor in the thees and thous.

Don't get me wrong, there is something sometimes important about conforming one's prayers to the language of people long gone--but saying things like Sabaoth and Cherubin and which art in heaven are not the only reason I like the Book of Common Prayer.

No, for me it's just that there's a series of wonderful lines that are so significant I find myself actually looking forward to them. This week I'd like to highlight a few of the words I find myself hanging on, beginning with the simplest of them all:

world without end

This comes as part of the recurring Gloria Patri, which says in full:

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost; 

as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.

This is always a highlight of morning prayer. We say it all together, some with the sign of the cross, and it makes an important declaration for the day.

The refrain is familiar enough in other contexts as well, including Common Worship where it says 'Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever. Amen.'

Clearly the BCP version is not much different--except for these three unique aspects:
  1. The first time it is said is typically call and response, with the leader calling us to worship with the first part, and the congregation joining in for the remainder;
  2. it says 'Glory be' rather than simply 'Glory', which makes it feel like a confession befitting any emotional state one might be in on any given day; and
  3. it ends with those three evocative words which are everlasting in scope but no less creaturely and profound. They call me to look forward with hope, not to escape into an ethereal 'plan B', but into Emmanuel's fulfilment of the Creator's plan A.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

A Problem with the Problem-oriented Gospel

'[S]oteriology will be cautious about ordering its material around some theme (such as 'facing' or 'hospitality'), or as a response to a perceived problem (such as 'violence'). Thematic or problem-oriented presentations are commonly nominalist and moralistic, since their centre of gravity lies not in the irreducible person and work of God but rather in some human experience or action of which all theological talk of salvation is symbolic. Soteriology must fall under the rule which governs all dogmatic work, namely 'the claim of the First Commandment'. To speak of dogmatic soteriology as biblical reasoning is to press home the noetic application of that claim.'

- John Webster,
'"It was the Will of the Lord to Bruise Him": 
Soteriology and the Doctrine of God'

Monday, December 01, 2014

Vonnegut, on writing

Kurt Vonnegut, waving like his gnome.
'When I complained about being paid fifty dollars for an article that had taken me a week to write, he said I should take into account what it would have cost me to take out a two page ad announcing that I could write.' 

'The most radical, audacious thing to think is that there might be some point to working hard and thinking hard and reading hard and writing hard and trying to be of service.'

'Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. The world is a slightly different place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that.'

- Mark Vonnegut, speaking about his father Kurt