Saturday, July 28, 2007

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Liturgy

The American religious heritage, by and large, is anti-liturgical. Not just non-liturgical, but against it. As far as I can tell, this has deep roots not only in the (especially) Scots-Irish Presbyterian past of the nation, but also in the early political turmoil of secession from Britain. I think that this is why both Anglicans and Roman Catholics had a harder time finding acceptance in the "New World" than Presbyterians. The liturgy of both those "high" churches was indelibly linked to their politics. Anglicans = head of church is king of England, whom (as you might recall from history class) was not a favorite to early Americans. Catholics = head of church is Pope, another obvious connection due to the decidedly Protestant flavor of America (to this day even). Many Protestants reacted so strongly against these liturgical traditions as to deny any liturgy at all. However, just like the Campbellite movement, which claimed "No Creed but Christ" follows their own formalized statements of faith, non-liturgical Christians follow their own liturgies. A liturgy is technically nothing more than an order of service in a formalized worship setting. So whether it is the "Our Father" or "3 hymns and a sermon", it is still a liturgy. If we are going to meet together to worship, we are going to have a liturgy, implicitly or explicitly. Liturgy is an inescapable concept. In other words, it isn't a question of "liturgy or no liturgy", but what, or rather whose, liturgy it is. Here is where the political background of the Presbyterian reaction to liturgical traditions shines the strongest. It has to do with what exactly, apart from the technical understanding, liturgy is.

I've become more and more convinced over the past couple of years that humans attain knowledge through stories. I cannot here defend the idea, but there is plenty of good reading out about it nowadays. Our actions tell stories, have backgrounds that explain them, and subvert or clarify larger stories that others tell. This is what story-telling looks like at an individual level. However, once individuals come together as groups, they start to tell similar stories (or vice versa--I'm not intending to start a "chicken-egg paradox" here). These founding myths, or worldviews, color how people relate to each other. There are always those elders, who are well versed in the traditional stories, who have power in the community precisely because they tell the "authorized" versions of the stories. Hence the clash of Jesus with the scribes, Pharisees, and priests--an unaccredited upstart retelling Israel's story not centered around Torah, but around himself! The book of John basically seems to revolve around this story-telling clash, hence the judicial feel of the book. But to return to the point, the story-tellers of any group rule that group. Liturgy, conceived as the weekly (or preferably daily in the family setting) retelling of God's story, is intimately connected to power. What version of God's story are they telling? Is it the "authorized" version, the "orthodox" version? In other words, who is telling the story and why do they have the right to tell it (II Corinthians is taken up with whether Paul was an authorized story-teller)?

To return briefly to the political climate, if the American people, recently freed from British rule, submit to British liturgy, what does that say about this people? The British would still rule. If Protestant people, separated by the Reformation gulf, returned to Catholic liturgy, what does that say about this people? The Reformation would be over. Interestingly enough, because of the secularization of the American Protestant tradition, nationalist politics has controlled the liturgy ever since--the main mantra, of course, being "religion is a private affair, with no place in the public square" (it even rhymes).

However, this story, the story of God's dealings with the world, is too important to just be left in the hands of others, no matter how well intentioned they might be. Ephesians 4 has an interesting passage in which it says that some are called to be pastors, teachers, evangelists (traveling story-tellers), etc. so that the people of the church might do the ministry. "Ministry" has never been intended to be relegated to a professional class. It is the bread-and-butter of the everyday Christian, not just those who hold a "degree". What if the American political story was changed? What if someone were to say that the American Revolution was anti-Christian (and, therefore, morally wrong)? Wouldn't that person run the risk of being labelled as "un-American" (leniently) or even suffering physical harm (severely)? Why? Because they are messing with the founding story, what gives this country its legitimization, not just for existence, but to continue its course in the present and future.

How about if someone told the story of God that synthesized pagan philosophical beliefs with the very Jewish roots of Christianity? What if they changed the story from God saving his creation from ruin-by-sin to say that God's intention was to take his people out of created reality (presumably to become ontologically one with the uncreated) and destroy this creation? Needless to say, those who control the story control the Church.

Stories give meaning, purpose meaning, to our lives. Our communities live on stories, but what stories are they and who is telling them? More importantly, possibly, what legitimizes someone as being an "authorized" story-teller, whether you want to call them apostle, elder, pastor, evangelist, or heretic?

This is what gives liturgy its power. The story of God is retold weekly in worship services all across the world. It is a story that deals with very historical events, from the creation of the world through the call of Abraham and on to the death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus. Even so, it has great applicability today and all Christians should be concerned with the story they are hearing. Is it the true story or an imitation? And how would we know the difference?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Christological Confessions

I've been studying christology intensively for about 7 or 8 years now. It is a hard subject, since most statements made both by popular writers and even scholars are shallow, content-empty, or closetly heretical. Also, if the party line (whatever the individual heresy hunter defines that line as--it is frustratingly flexible) is not toed (or towed), then you are liable to come under some sort of judgement, whether personal or ecclesial. Thankfully, I've had good friends come along side me during this journey who have been patient and attentive, while still holding to their own views. To all of you, many thanks, especially as I went through the whole spectrum of both 'orthodox' and 'heretical' views (those words are especially tricky to define, and impossible to enforce).

At its base, who Jesus is is simple. Jesus is the human being anointed by God to be the means by which he would set the world to rights. However, from here either speculation or nuance usually takes over. I remember when I first started this study how I balked at speculation (and still do). I read in a premier church history that the Fathers had based their doctrine of the Logos (the 'word' from John 1) on a Greek, mostly Platonic, understanding. In other words, due to what I surmised as the anti-semitism of the post-apostolic church, the Fathers effectively threw out the Old Testament in order to co-opt pagan Plato (this is a gross oversimplification, I realize). I opted to go the way of nuance instead, even though I didn't know it.

Christology becomes nuanced when the themes and images of the Bible start to be allowed to play through the interpretations of Jesus offered by the apostles and other New Testament writers. You have Incarnational imagery, which is a broad category, encompassing Logos ("the word became flesh"), Torah ("I am the way..." see my second post on this blog), and Temple ("dwelt/tabernacled among us" "the fulness of God dwelling in him", etc.). You have Davidic imagery ("Son of David" and "Son of God"--meaning the king of Israel, the one who represents Israel, who early in Exodus is called the "son of God"), this encompasses the Messianic themes ("Son of Man", the Servant from Isaiah). You have, as NT Wright points out in his The Climax of the Covenant, Incorporative themes: (Jesus sums up Israel's destiny by taking the Torah's curse, the new people of God--made up of Jews and Gentiles--act as the resurrection body of Jesus on earth, so to speak of them is to speak of what "Jesus continued to do and teach", also note how Temple themes work so well with ecclesiology). Lastly, you have Agency themes: Jesus having the role of God himself, which is what led to later developments in Trinitarian thought. Jesus did what God said he himself would do. All of these things are interconnected. It is difficult for me to separate them into these "neat" categories. It is much like a tapestry, beautifully woven to lead to worship and imitation.

Which brings me to what I think is the biggest christological insight: what God did in Jesus, he intends to do in the renewed human race. The glorified man Jesus is the prototype, or new Adam, of what the human race is supposed to become. I think you can go so far and say that this was God's plan all along, but that might be more speculative. That is the genius of Incorporative christology: Jesus was filled with the Spirit, so should/will we. Jesus was delivered from the clutch of death, same eventually for us. Jesus glorified in his physicality, so also we. Obviously, though, as the book of Hebrews might point out: he is preeminent because he is the pathbreaker, the author and finisher, and great high priest. The renewed humanity is "of the Messiah" and will always be known that way. In other words, even Incorporative christology allows for demarcation. The many (the people of God) are not collapsed into the one (Jesus), even though the link between them is hard to fully define. Same with classical trinitarian thought according to the council of Chalcedon.

"I believe in Jesus of Nazareth, God's Son..."

Monday, July 16, 2007

The End of History

The end of history has been the end-goal for the Christian Church almost since its inception. I say 'almost' because neither Jesus nor any of the apostles believed in it in the way we do. All that rich, eschatological language is metaphoric for very this-worldly events. I can't say more about that here, but there is plenty of good scholarly work about apocalyptic language and how the proper meaning of it has often been left behind.

When the Bible speaks of the "new age" or the "new heavens and new earth" it isn't imagining a place where there is no time. Being time-bound is part of our creatureliness, to transcend time (which doesn't make much sense anyway) would mean to no longer be human, but instead to be God (who has never been bound by time). Ah, here's the rub! Athanasius said it best in his On the Incarnation of the Word of God: "God became man, so that man might become God." Under the influence of pagan thought, as the Church steadily came under once the apostles were out of the way, the Church gradually lost touch of what the New Creation was to be about and why it is important that we are, and remain, human. Nowadays this translates to popular preachers and laity hoping for the end of existence as we know it--becoming disembodied souls who are eternal. In other words, to be as God.

However, being time-bound is a good part of being a creature. Our finiteness allows us to develop and mature, to become more conformed to the image of the Son of God. We need the ability to look back upon the past and not know all the details of the future. Otherwise, we are not human. The point of the incarnation, the resurrection, the ascension, and the parousia is to make us more, not less, human. What, then, does the Bible look forward to when this age fully ends and the next one finally supercedes it?

Not the end of history, the end of time, but the end of death. The structure of time is not corrupted by the Rebellion, but rather the direction that it takes. Instead of time being a blessing to mankind, time in which to laugh, love, build, plant, and harvest; it is instead a curse, a looking forward to its end in our individual lives. Instead of growth, there is decay. Is this time's fault? No, it is the curse of death. Death is the ultimate dehumanizer. When we die, we effectively become sub-human. That is why there is so much emphasis on resurrection in Scripture. Not the transcending of time or finitude, but instead transcending the ultimate limit of death, so that our humanness can flourish and God's good created world can finally prosper.

--To Anna and Paul--