Evangelical Protestants Moving to Liturgical and Sacramental Traditions

My past few weeks have been enriching in a way I never could have anticipated. I mentioned at the end of my last post that I would be sharing my thoughts on the ecclesiological and theological investigation I have felt the Holy Spirit calling me to undertake. This will be the first post in a series of reflections upon what I’m learning and the books I would (and would not) recommend.

church and candlesFirst, I need to backtrack nearly two years to an article published by The American Conservative in January of 2014. It is entitled, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: Is the High Church the Christianity of the Future?” When I read the piece, my heart resonated with the sentiments about the yearning for liturgical, holistic, mysterious, beautiful, and <gasp!> sacramental worship. I was struck by the descriptions of Protestant Evangelical Christians making a gradual, thoughtful, and dramatic move to traditions that were very different (understatement) from what they were familiar with. Another interesting thing to note is that, when it comes to the many atheist-to-Christianity stories that I encounter, nearly all the converts choose liturgical, sacramental traditions. I wanted to better understand why this is. 

I began asking some very specific questions about church traditions other than my own and my long-held assumptions about their practices and theology. Does it matter to God how we worship Him in the corporate and private setting? Should worship practice be fully incarnational by engaging all of the human senses–sight, smell, touch, sound, taste? Does tangible symbolism have an important place in worship? What was worship like in the early church, and what was the theology behind their ritual? To the extent that we can know how early Christians worshiped, should we emulate them? Is there a biblical basis for preserving early tradition? Is there such thing as a “worshiping community” that goes far beyond what I’ve always thought that meant?

The more I research and study, the more I’m beginning to suspect that the answer to many (all?) of these questions may very well be “yes.” 

I’ve returned to the American Conservative article a few times over the past months, and I’m doing some in-depth theological and historical research, but I’ve also recently begun reading book-length accounts written by Evangelical Protestants who have made the move to liturgical, sacramental traditions (such as Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism). I’d like to offer a mini-reflection on the books I’m reading, each in a separate post. Please note that I will not be commenting very much on theological differences between church traditions at this point. I wish to be as responsible and thoughtful as possible by examining such issues from different perspectives prior to sharing my conclusions. 

Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Church by Robert Webber 

When I first began reading Webber’s book, which was written several decades ago, I was worried that it would be a bit dated, only in terms of its evaluation of the current attitudes and dynamics in Evangelical Protestantism. Turns out, most of his insights about church culture and worship practice are still very relevant. A convert to the Anglican church, Webber recalls his longing for a spiritual identity with deep historical roots and the desire to become acquainted with the teachings of the early Church Fathers. He talks at length about “Christ-centered worship” as opposed to “me-centered worship,” which I really appreciated.

In terms of liturgy, this quote beautifully sums up Webber’s view: “Weekly worship and the calendar of the sacred year gives direction and definition to my spiritual life. I no longer walk alone as in a lone-ranger Christianity, but I join with millions of Christians around the world in a weekly and yearly devotion that defines our existence in the world” (Kindle loc. 605). He describes sacrament as “a way of encountering the mystery” of the Almighty. “On occasion,” he says, “a red flag goes up in response to such words as liturgical or Eucharist. But these words go back to early Christian vocabulary, and they carry many connotations…signs like water, bread, wine, oil, and the laying on of hands are visible and tangible meeting points between God and people. They are the points of intersection between God’s action and human faith.” In my 30-some years in the Evangelical Protestant church, I’ve witnessed the laying on of hands and oil anointings only a handful of times; Webber’s words made me ask myself why such practices seem (in my church experience) to be limited to special occasions (new ministry commissions, for example) or extreme situations (grave or chronic illness). Moreover, why is Communion not a weekly expression of worship in many Evangelical Protestant churches? There is such richness in these things. 

I learned quite a lot from Webber about the Anglican view of worship practices and had some misconceptions corrected. My one criticism of the book would be that I think he is a little too hard on the intellectual element of spiritual formation; but I think he does this as an over-correction of his former attitude of extreme rationalism. I came away inspired to further investigate Anglicanism (which, by the way, was the church tradition of C.S Lewis, and many other luminaries of the faith). 

Bottom line: This is a quick read with many good insights, and the author has a charitable attitude (that’s important!!!). 

In my next post, I will offer some thoughts on  Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Peter Gilquist. 

 

The Island of Misfit Joys: Church Culture and Christian Intellectualism

2015 has been a year of paradox for me. It has been a season of personal growth that has brought unprecedented intimacy with God, yet the result of that intellectual and spiritual development has deepened an ever-present sense of aching isolation that I experience within local church community. As a student immersed in the world of Christian academia, I hear similar confessions from my peers, who are scattered around the country. When we gather in video hangouts, online discussion forums, or annual meetings, the conversation and fellowship is so very rich, and we openly express our gratitude for the level of community modern technology has made possible. But at the end of the day, it isn’t quite the same as being able to gather with kindred spirits, in person, on a regular basis, and we talk about that fact with sad resignation.

At the conclusion of the last live class session of my fall semester (a course on Christianity and philosophy of fine art), my professor remarked how much he hated that we couldn’t all get together for coffee and discussion; it simply isn’t possible when individual members are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. I got a bit of a lump in my throat when he said this, as it hit a sensitive spot. I long for a local community of like-minded Christians, people who appreciate the enormous spiritual value of loving God with the intellect and thus prioritize the cultivation of the mind. I imagine long, philosophical and theological discussions in artsy coffee houses, group outings to hear scholarly lectures, and book studies on everything from the early Church Fathers to current theological debate and matters of ecclesiology.

The picture in my mind is a romantic ideal, no doubt; but it seems to me that something closely akin to it should be present in Evangelical church culture. Unfortunately, many (if not most) of us who are shaped this way struggle with feelings of isolation and lack a genuine sense of personal belonging within our own church community. We live with the unrequited desire for the reciprocal sharing and celebration of the joys we find in honoring God our Creator through the intellectual pursuit of truth about Him, the world, mankind, and the journey towards the New Jerusalem. All too often, we are (inadvertently) made to feel as if these are misfit joys unique to more bookish believers. “How do you have time to read so much?” “That kind of stuff goes right over my head.” These are the kinds of statements I hear often. Finding just a few people interested in the work of committed, ongoing study and dialogue is incredibly difficult; responses to invitations tend towards “I just don’t have time for that in this season of life. My family is so busy!” (Which reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which the master demon emphasizes that busy-ness is the best soul poison. The fact is, we make time for what we value.) 

This situation has led me to wonder how church culture might differ in this particular regard among the various branches of Christendom. I’ve never questioned whether or not my life-long church tradition is the one in which I, a person with these kinds of tendencies, can best flourish as a Christ follower. However, several events over the course of this year have raised nagging questions in my mind: Are there church traditions that place more of an emphasis upon intellectual development in Christian living and as a form of worship? Is the unrelenting feeling of unsettled-ness/odd-duckie-ness something that some Christians should simply endure as a personal burden and do their best to influence the community they’re in, or is it an indicator of truly being misplaced? I don’t have answers to these questions right now, but I do strongly sense that the Holy Spirit is leading me into deeper theological and ecclesiological investigation on these matters. To what end, I cannot yet say. 2015 has been a year of emerging questions, so 2016 will likely be a year of exploration and hopefully, one of revelation.

In the near future, I will begin a blog series based upon the reading I’m doing along this journey. My hope and prayer is that it will be a help to other believers dealing with similar uncertainties about being in community, about spiritual formation, and about church tradition. 

“A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.” –Proverbs 16:9

 

Bishop Robert Barron on Atheism and Philosophy: “Give me a break!”

This is an excellent short video from Bishop Robert Barron in which he addresses the statistics presented in the popular media concerning theism, intellectualism, and academia. What I love about Bishop Barron’s approach is how he gets right to the core of the issue and exposes erroneous claims for what they are.  He defines the terms clearly and concisely, and points out the mistakes in reasoning frequently made by opponents of Christianity. I particularly love his utter intolerance for the farcical arrogance that has become so common in pop atheism.

A Science and Faith Resource You Don’t Want to Miss

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J. Warner Wallace’s latest book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, is an exciting recent addition to the short list of science and faith books I regularly recommend to those desiring a strong, reader-friendly introduction to the issue of science and Christianity. It contains many of the same topics that are addressed in other scientific apologetics offerings, such as the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning argument, the origin of life, and the problems of consciousness, free will, and morality. However, this isn’t your average, dime-a-dozen pop apologetics book; far from it, in fact.

What makes this book so unique (and incredibly entertaining, to boot) is how Wallace frames the entire discussion as a detective’s investigation into the question: Was the origin of the universe an “inside job,” or is the likely suspect something—or someoneGCS-Closing-Argument-Illustration-05-1024x874—outside of the “crime scene”? In other words, does the universe have a transcendent cause, and if so, who or what makes the list of likely suspects? The use of homicide case summaries as analogies for examining the scientific evidence related to cosmic and biological origins and helpful, appealing illustrations on nearly every page make this book as enjoyable as it is informative.

Wallace’s book is well researched; it presents the arguments in a comprehensible fashion and includes counter-arguments and relevant scientific and historical context for the supporting evidence. For example, in the opening chapter, he outlines the observational evidence for an ultimate beginning of the universe, including not only the better-known research of Edwin Hubble, but also the related work done by physicists and astronomers such as Vesto Slipher, Georges Lemaitre, Arno Penzias, and Robert Wilson. Readers without a science background need not be intimidated. The crime scene investigation parallels Wallace constructs greatly aid the reader in understanding the significance of the scientific evidence for the over-arching argument. 

There are several other features of the book that are both fascinating and useful. For instance, there are “Expert Witness” sidebar profiles scattered throughout. These are short bio sketches of leading scholars in the different fields being explored, including some of their scholarly achievements, key arguments, and notable publications. Among others, Robert Pennock, Paul Churchland, Leonard Susskind, Paul Davies, and Roderick Chisholm are profiled (but I must say that I especially loved seeing Dr. Mark Linville included, since he’s my dissertation director).:-)  In addition, there are other sidebar boxes, such as  “A Tool for the Call-Out Bag,” which describe crime scene investigator techniques and how they are analogous to what scientific investigators do, and “Our  Emerging ‘Suspect’ Profile” boxes that sum up the accumulated evidence and preliminary conclusions as the chapters progress.

If you don’t already own a copy of God’s Crime Scene, I highly recommend it as an engaging and  worthwhile addition to your personal apologetics library. It would make a wonderful gift this Christmas season, particularly for college students, parents of teens, church leaders, and anyone in lay ministry who deals with questions pertaining to science and faith.

Check out the book trailer—->

God’s Crime Scene by J. Warner Wallace from J. Warner Wallace on Vimeo.

 

Mankind: The Artist, the Revolution

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton argues that man, as a species, is different in kind,  not just degree, from all other living creatures. Man’s origin, he says, is one of the grand mysteries of the cosmos, along with the birth of the universe itself and the emergence of the first life. Mankind, endowed with rationality and free will, exploded onto the scene and “a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable…not merely an evolution, but rather a revolution.”

Chesterton rejects the “gray gradations of twilight” suggested by materialist accounts of evolutionary gradualism in favor of a human nature that was mature at first appearance. It is important to be clear on what he was and was not claiming here. He is unconcerned with the question of whether or not any sort of evolutionary process produced the biology of Homo sapiens; he is defining human nature as the entire package, which includes our rationality and awareness of transcendentals, such as objective morality and the inherent value of human beings. 

cave art 1Chesterton points to the character of famous ancient cave art in order to support his assertion. Instead of the crude, simplistic scratchings of the so-called “caveman,” the paintings and sketches were “drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.” Contrary to the materialist narrative that conceives of human beings as a product of gradualism in every respect (physical bodies and mental capacities) this artwork tells the story of a mind very much like contemporary man’s. “So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past,” says Chesterton, “that human character is quite human and even humane. It is certainly not the ideal of an inhuman character, like the abstraction invoked in popular science.” He concludes that the common caricature of ancient man, the brutish, uncivilized caveman, is unsubstantiated legend, and that the earliest available evidence of artwork points to a distinctively human nature. 

Chesterton’s point goes beyond the fact that artistic activity can only be carried out by creatures with rationally-informed will; the inherent desire to create art for its own sake—the “impulse of art” as he calls it—further highlights the distinctiveness of man. Unlike any other creature of the animal kingdom, man is a creator, not only for utilitarian purposes, but for the simple joy of celebrating the wider creation through artistry. Chesterton is convinced that, as part of a wide gulf of separation, “art is the signature of man.” With his trademark wit-laced wisdom he argues that:

The very fact that a bird can get as far as building a nest, and cannot get any farther, proves that he has not a mind as man has a mind…But when he builds as he does build and is satisfied and sings aloud with satisfaction, then we know there is really an invisible veil like a pane of glass between him and us, like the window on which a bird will beat in vain. But suppose our abstract onlooker saw one of the birds begin to build as men build. Suppose in an incredibly short space of time there were seven styles of architecture for one style of nest….Suppose the bird made little clay statues of birds celebrated in letters or politics and stuck them up in front of the nest…we can be quite certain that the onlooker would not regard such a bird as a mere evolutionary variety of the other birds…

As with the appearance of human nature, such a bird would be a true revolution, not just a slightly more advanced bird. Chesterton is not merely arguing that the lower animals don’t do what humans do, so humans must be special. He’s also suggesting that if the bird scenario occurred, we would think something dramatic had happened that had suddenly produced a very different kind of creature. This is the situation with man and any of his alleged precursors. 

The anthropological evidence that has arisen since Chesterton’s time further supports his argument about human distinctiveness and the sudden appearance of human nature. Prominent evolutionary anthropologist Ian Tattersall is convinced that no human ancestor “produced anything, anywhere, that we can be sure was a symbolic object” and “even allowing for the poor record we have of our close extinct kin, Homo sapiens appears as distinctive and unprecedented…there is certainly no evidence that we gradually became who we inherently are over an extended period, in either the physical or the intellectual sense.” The materialist explanation involves a sudden, dramatic genetic event that produced what some evolutionists have termed “the dawn of human culture,” an event which included the rapid emergence of language and symbolic activities such as art. Tattersall admits that how this “almost unimaginable transition” from hominid to human beings with symbolic capacities is a matter of pure speculation. Darwin claimed that man gained such cognitive aptitudes through a process of sexual selection followed by social and cultural evolution; but Tattersall points out that this “explains neither why the highly social apes haven’t developed a more complex theory of mind over the time during which they have been evolving in parallel with us,  nor why the archaeological record seems to indicate a very late and essentially unheralded arrival of symbolic consciousness in just one lineage of large-brained hominid.” (See Tattersall’s book, Masters of the Planet, pp. 142, 207, 213, 214.)

It seems that the materialist has only speculation to prop up a presupposition–that man is nothing more than a highly evolved animal. However, the Christian humanist can more fully account for the remarkable revolution that is mankind by way of the doctrine of the imago Dei, and this is precisely Chesterton’s point. Man alone, as the crown of creation, bears the image of the good Creator and thus has within himself unique capacities, including the ability to create beautiful, meaningful things for their own sake.

Horror and Holiness

I have often wondered why many churches do not have portrayals of the crucifixion on prominent display. I’ve heard remarks about how the empty cross (which is quite pervasive) is a symbol of Christ’s work for us and of His definitive victory over suffering and death. This is a wonderful sentiment. At crucifixionthe same time, I think crucifixion imagery is a powerful representation of the costliness and horror of sin. Prior to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for the redemption of mankind, animal sacrifices were performed by God’s priests. I can only imagine the full-on sensory assault of that experience: the death of an innocent animal, the sight and smell of the flowing blood, the smell of the burning meat, the pungent smoke rising from the altar.

Ritual animal sacrifice is no longer required for atonement, but I believe we still need frequent sensory reminders of the nature of sin and its blight upon our souls. As Christians, we are indeed a redeemed people, destined to spend eternity in the presence of our Savior. Yet in the here-and-now, we’re carrying out the work of sanctification that prepares us for our place in the New Jerusalem. What am I being sanctified from? What is it that needs purging from my heart every single day that I walk the earth in this not-yet-glorified body, in this imperfect state of my soul, that I may be more like my Savior?

In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis brings before the mind’s eye vivid imagery of human sins such as pride, selfishness, unforgiveness, hatred, and cruelty. The observer grieves for those who are obliviously steeped in the cesspool of sin.  One of the over-arching themes of the allegory is that Heaven and Hell cannot be married–they are fundamentally divorced. It is the cosmic contrast of the two that needs to be continually before our mind as we live out our faith, and consciousness of sin is critical, just as our recognition of God’s holiness is.

As a mainstay of our spiritual formation, we should  meditate upon the doctrine of sin and make sincere lamentation a major part of our devotional life.  We must understand the seriousness of sin and its spiritual ramifications. I’m reminded of David’s hauntingly sorrowful song of contrition in Psalm 51, how he implored God to cleanse him, to restore his soul.  I endeavor to be more repentant, and I find that a better understanding of the horror of sin is necessary.

But here’s the wondrous thing: The more deeply I meditate upon my fallen-ness and the filthy ugliness of my sin, the more acutely I sense the resonance between my redeemed soul and the Lord Jesus Christ. In contrasting the monstrosity of my daily rebellion with God’s holiness, the purity and beauty of His nature and the undeserved robe of righteousness he has enveloped me in stand out in sharp relief, so preternaturally clear in my mind that they seem almost tangible. My desire for Christ-likeness is intensified , as is my gratitude for his saving grace.

For me, crucifixion imagery has a special poignancy, and it has become more prominent in my private prayer practice as I make entreaties for forgiveness: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.