Kent tells me that John Webster once described another notable theologian as a swashbuckler, who swings into an orderly room, waves his sword around, before diving off the ship, leaving everyone else to wonder: “What just happened?” In a brilliantly insightful podcast with Lincoln Harvey, the same swashbuckling theologian is described as getting things wrong almost all the time, “but for all the right reasons.”
Who is this disruptive and, potentially, off-base theologian? None other than the late Robert Jenson.
I’ve not read enough Jenson to say he is almost always wrong. But I have read enough to admire the way he turns things about in ways unexpected and fresh, and with a determination never to let theology become less than it ought to be. This is on full display in the book reviewed below.
How does a pastor help Christians become “fit for their purpose” as disciples, citizens of the Kingdom of God? This is the question that drives Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent book Hearers & Doers. The answer he offers is not more programs, more staff, or more lights and screens. Instead, he suggests a deeply Protestant “diet”: Scripture and doctrine.
The last four months have undoubtedly raised new questions for pastors, questions about ministry in general, and the tasks of ministry in particular. One of the most pressing questions for me has been about preaching. In my specific context, we’re emerging from fully digital worship to a hybrid with outdoor, in-person worship, and a livestream for those who need to maintain social distancing. Another significant change is the need to include children as part of the hearers of my preaching since we are no longer offering children classes during the sermon. What should my preaching look like? How must I adapt to this new situation? How do I think about who I am preaching to? And what might I say to people in this strange season of life?
Fortunately, I am not facing these complicated questions on my own. Four books, kindly sent by their respective publishers for review, have provided wisdom for these odd times.
Two Observations About Symbols in the Christian Community
Let’s talk about symbols. What are they? How do they attain their meaning? And what do they do to people?
Christianity uses a great deal of symbolism in its private and communal worship. Crosses are displayed in and around Christian places of worship (except some churches who deem the symbol too off-putting for seekers). The ichthus, a simple fish outline, is a popular symbol for bumper stickers. Many ornate sanctuaries are highly symbolic, with engravings on altars and pulpits and colorful vestments. Animals, flowers, shapes, and lighting all communicate symbolically.
These symbols are incredibly useful in worship because symbols point to stories and events that give meaning to our faith. In our sanctuary, an illuminated cross is suspended high above the stage at the front of the sanctuary. Every time a congregant looks at that symbol, they either consciously or subconsciously, recall the twofold event of Christ’s death and resurrection. Our worship is only meaningful so long as we remember that particular story, which gives the symbol of the cross its meaning, and which in turn gives meaning to our worship and lives.
Here’s a fascinating thought experiment that may help one to realize the complexity of how symbols become meaningful. Try thinking about the cross as a symbol prior to Christ’s death and resurrection. Fleming Rutledge has explained how horrific, how brutal, how unrelenting death by crucifixion was. Prior to Christ’s death and resurrection, and years of celebrating that story, the cross was utterly irreligious. “The cross is ‘irreligious,’” Rutledge writes, “because no human being individually or human beings collectively would have projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man” (The Crucifixion, p. 75).
My buddy, Elisha, wrote a new song for our congregation to sing. He thinks we often dwell too much on what’s wrong and bad in the world, in such a way that we forget what God said in the beginning: “it is good.” You won’t be able to forget it once you hear this irresistibly catchy tune. Enjoy! (And share if you do enjoy it!)
My latest review for Christian Century is live on their website. It’ll be out in print with the next edition. This time I’ve gotten a chance to read Garrett Green’s news book Imagining Theology.
The concept of imagination has been a focal point for me because it’s been a focal point for many of my teachers. I’d not read Green before, but he’s been working on this stuff for years. This book spans his career and, while I found some of his essays less compelling than others, I found his faithfulness and his creativity to be a great joy.
From the review: “Paul tells the Corinthians to be of the same imagination just before he describes how God turns wisdom and foolishness inside out: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (NIV). Imagining Theology tells the story of one theologian who allows his imagination to be captured so that he may see the power of God at work in the world.”
I know it’s been quiet in our little corner of the internet. I’ve been using most of my creative energy to compose meaningful worship opportunities for my church community and to work toward transitioning back into “the new abnormal” for our in-person activities. Kent and others have been swamped with their own transitions into digital teaching.
But, I am eager for the weeks and months to come. I just finished a lovely book by Baylor University Press that I’ll review shortly, with several other book reviews forthcoming. I know Kent intends to share a review of a volume about COVID-19. He shared a few quotes he was ruminating on. It’ll be of great interest to many.
In the meantime, here’s a video I made with some dear friends and congregants. As a celebration of the fruits of the Spirit, this song concluded our Pentecost worship. And, though I didn’t realize it when I chose the song, I want the song’s roots as an African American spiritual to make it a sign of solidarity with the black community’s ongoing work for justice. May God bless them, and may I learn to stand in solidarity with them more intentionally.
By the way, the arrangement is based on Josh Garrel’s rendition on his newest album, “Peace to All Who Enter Here.” It is an incredible album. Go listen to it here.
Good evening, friends. I hope you’re hanging in there. All is well with us. As our tulips grow weary, the dogwoods, redbuds, some lilies, etc. are bursting forth in glorious color and aroma. What a gift.
Anyhow, I am also delighted by the magnificent bloom of opportunities to engage in worship and theological learning with folks who you would otherwise, most of the time anyhow, need to pay tuition or airfare to hang with. I thought I’d highlight some of those opportunities along with other resources I’ve been enjoying in these troubling times.
Enjoy. And, please, share more in the comments below.
Just a few days ago, Jessie (my wife) and I were talking about what happens when someone dies. (Nothing like a light conversation just before bed, right?) There is a tension in Scripture on this point. “The dead cannot sing praises to the LORD,” the Psalmist declares, “for they have gone into the silence of the grave.” This seems pretty clear. At least until the Spirit gives John a glimpse of heaven, where the dead from the Great Tribulation who are crying out praises to God, waving palm branches. What should we do with this tension?
Perhaps intimidated by the imposing Church Dogmatics and unsure where to start, many would like to be more familiar with Karl Barth’s theology. My dear friend Stanley Hauerwas and I have have decided to do a series together on Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline to introduce folks to Barth’s thought in an accessible form and forum. Despite Dogmatics in Outline only being 153 pages (less than 2% the length of CD!), Stanley described as the most influential theological book of the twentieth century.
The sessions will be hosted each Tuesday in May from 10-11am on Zoom (details below). Stanley and I will talk about what Barth is doing in the chapters and what those chapters have to do with our theology today before taking whatever questions participants might have. All are welcome regardless of whether they’ve been reading Barth for years or this is their…
For those of us in the midwest, one of the greatest gifts we’ve received during the quarantine are sunny and at-least-it’s-not-freezing days. We may not gather with loved ones but we can enjoy the sunshine, the blooming tulips and daffodils, and that comforting aroma that comes after the spring rain.
Braver souls than me, however, tell me there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. One dear friend is trying to spend several hours outside every day this year. (She started in JANUARY.) Regardless, whether you’re a fair-weather outdoors person or an every-day-outside person, this liturgy is for you.
Gather the few things you’ll need and find a place to pray and celebrate. Your backyard is great. A park is perfect. Deep in the woods or on a suspension bridge over a river would be just right. Get outside, somewhere with birds singing praise and the trees clapping their branches. Make the outdoors your living room for this time of prayer. After all, a garden was our original living room, wasn’t it?
May the Lord bless you as you pray!
(Click here for a downloadable, printable PDF of the liturgy.)
I hope all of you found ways to celebrate (and to continue celebrating) Christ’s victory over death. This morning, as I imagined what worship might look like this Sunday, I revisited some of the creeds and definitions from my own tradition that articulate who Christ is and what Christ accomplished. The one that caught my attention was Question 52 from the Westminster Larger Catechism, which says:
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. I’m hopeful your church communities are creating opportunities for communal worship and that you are participating. If you’d like an additional opportunity, I am including links to my church’s morning at-home guided worship and to a hymn sing my church is hosting via live stream.
May resurrection light shine deeply into your hearts today.
Megan Condry, youth and children’s director at St. Peter’s First Community Church, offers us another living room liturgy. This one is especially helpful for Holy Saturday, in the silence of waiting for Christ’s resurrection. It is, however, also a beautiful liturgy for use regularly throughout the year.
Silence. Quiet. Rest. These are not words we are familiar with in our fast-paced, frenzied, and busy world. Faster, louder, more seem to be the resounding phrases around us rather than quietness, rest, and solitude. The challenge of silence is not a new one for us and yet God makes it clear throughout His Word that it is through rest that we find our strength in Him alone. “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ But you were unwilling,” (Isaiah 30:15). The way is simple and the instructions clear, but are we too unwilling? Does the fear of silence keep us at bay? Do we wonder if we can afford to take time to rest in God with all the other demands of our time? Are we unsure about what to do when trying to spend time in quiet with God? Do we worry about the things God might want to share with us so it is easier to just keep moving along? All those thoughts can keep us from God but we know through the Bible, through the experience of believers throughout time, and through our own quiet moments, that it is in our moments connecting with God that we find peace, hope, direction, and real rest. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).