Evangelical Is Not Enough 3

Thomas Howard opens the third chapter, Christian Worship: Act or Experience?, with a story of his time living in England and attending an evangelical church that was part of the Church of England. It was familiar to him in its evangelical belief. (For those who don’t know the Anglican communion includes both evangelical and anglo-catholic churches as well as just about everything in between.) But it was named after a saint (St. Andrew); was  eight hundred years old, with a history stretching back before the Protestant Reformation; used set prayers, also kneeling for prayer; and sang the Psalms. It was both familiar and alien to him.

I can’t say that I’ve had any similar sort of childhood or adult revelations. Although my childhood formation was not specifically Christian, it did include a broad exposure to lots of different sorts of Christianity within the context of modern Christian pluralism. Nor did I have any particular bias toward one form of Christianity or another, though as a child I tended to prefer (or at least I better remember) the beauty and symbolism of the liturgical traditions over the more iconoclastic forms of Christian expression. But I adapted easily and readily to all sorts of spirituality — Christian or otherwise. So the aspects of Thomas Howard’s narrative where he is surprised by his encounter with differences is a little hard for me to inhabit. I can understand it intellectually, of course, but I can’t really grasp the impact it had on him.

One of the first things discussed is the fact that this Anglican church knelt for prayer. Howard had always wanted to be in a corporate setting that knelt, but had been constrained within his evangelical context. Nor is it simply a trivial matter of personal preference. What we do with our bodies does not merely express something internal. Rather, the posture and movement of our bodies works the other way around as well. If we are still, that stillness can begin to percolate inwards. I liked the way he uses a hypothetical Tibetan lama to make that point.

The phrase worship experience missed the point. Worship, in the ancient tradition, was not thought of as an experience at all; it was an act.

The above, of course, ties directly to his title for this chapter. He continues with his encounter of antiphons, responses that his evangelical formation had always denigrated as rote. The vicar says, “The Lord be with you,” and the church responds, “And with thy spirit.” They are not rote at all, of course.

Love greets love. … Hell hates this. It can only hiss, Out of my way, fool. But heaven says, The Lord be with you. This is what was said to us in the Incarnation. This is what the Divine Love always says.

Howard is generous in his analysis of the reasons evangelicals may react against things like antiphonal responses and set prayers and corporate postures in innocence. I’m probably a little less generous, but that’s a failing of my character, I think. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

In the public order we are delivered from the small confines of our own breasts. We do not want intimacy here. The attempt to make public worship personal, intimate, and informal is misbegotten. It confuses the public with the private, and in so doing it betrays both.

The above is an interesting point. I had never really considered it in those terms exactly. But the thought rings true to me.

The worship of the Church is an act — a most ancient and noble mystery — and almost nothing is gained by endlessly updating it, streamlining it, personalizing it, and altering it.

I would go even further. Not only is little gained, but much is lost in the process.

Evangelicalism, stalwart as it is, had in effect left me with nothing but the Bible and the modern world. “Sola Scriptura!” we cried. But it is not sola scriptura. This is to ignore, with almost unpardonable hubris, the Church, full of the Holy Ghost, moving faithfully along through history. It is to pit the Bible against the Church, which is heresy.

And I would add that sola scriptura is a myth and a lie. No text means anything absent interpretation. The only thing accomplished in that claim is to pit your individual, personal interpretation against that of the Church. Though, to be fair, most people who claim to believe in scripture alone are not actually asserting their own personal interpretation of the text. Rather, they accept the interpretation taught to them by someone who, for whatever reason, they trust. The problem arises when a particular interpretation can be traced to a specific individual at a specific point in time (usually in the last five hundred years or so) and that interpretation contradicts the most ancient interpretations of the text and is either a novel interpretation or a new expression of an ancient heresy. Why would a reasonable Christian accept either one as true? Of course, I guess most people never trace the provenance of the interpretations they accept. They just trust those who passed them along to them.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted February 4, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Scott,

    Thank you for your comments at EE’s site and for this reflection on Chapter 3. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Sola Scriptura. I sometimes wonder why we fail to see that every reading of Scripture is in fact an interpretation and that the only question to be answered is whether or not it is the correct interpretation.

  2. Posted February 4, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. Even though I completed my lifelong journey of conversion to Christianity (at least in the sense that my identity became associated in some sense in my own mind with Christ — the journey is still ongoing, of course) in an evangelical SBC context, sola scriptura never really stood a chance with me. I was born at the leading edge of what came to be known as Generation X and my parents shared many of the attributes, especially the spiritual seeking, of ‘hippies’ though it’s not a label I ever recall them using for themselves. The only label I’ve ever been able to come up with for my childhood spiritual formation is ‘relativistic pluralism’ and from an early age I was an active participant in that formation. I’m not fond of labels (accept maybe the ones I create myself), but I’ve been forced to admit by sheer overwhelming evidence that my cultural formation was essentially ‘postmodern’.

    Among the attributes of that formation is an almost axiomatic acknowledgment that a text has no meaning separate from or independent of interpretation. Another attribute is a suspicion of overarching frameworks, especially when they try to mold and reshape things that don’t otherwise fit within the framework. Coupled with that was a long-standing interest in history, especially ancient history. With that mix, you can imagine how strange ideas like sola scriptura, ‘inerrancy’ (though I’m still not clear exactly what people mean by that term), and such looked to me. Since unlike most religions, Christianity makes specific historical claims, I turned to history to try to sort it out. You can imagine how that went, I’m sure.

    BTW, through blood and marriage, my family includes a number of active and faithful as well as lapsed Catholics. (My family is a rather diverse group spiritually.) Though my mother wandered spiritually (and in other ways) for a long time, quite a while back she settled into life as a devout Catholic. At present, she’s the principal of a mission Catholic school serving poverty-stricken Pine Bluff, AR.

    Me? I’m still trying to figure out what it means to follow this strange Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t feel any particular urge to convert to one specific tradition or another. In belief, I’ve discovered in the past few years that an awful lot of what I worked out for myself is more in line with Orthodox theology than anything else. On the one hand that was a huge relief. It means I wasn’t as strange and ‘out there’ as I was beginning to think I was. But that didn’t translate into a desire to run out and convert to Orthodoxy.

    I don’t really know what the future holds. But God has been patient with me and loved me for years, even when I thought I hated him. (In reality, I hated an image of him created by Christians who behaved in hurtful ways toward me.) And unlike many who confuse veneration and honor with worship in Christian discussions, I actually have worshiped other gods. A lot of other gods. I know the difference in a visceral way that most don’t.

    And when I pray, Lord have mercy, I trust that he will. Like Jonah, the God I am beginning to know is merciful and slow to anger. Unlike Jonah, I’m grateful rather than pissed off. But then, I’m more like a Ninevite than a prophet.

  3. Posted February 5, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Sounds like an amazing journey Scott. It is clear through your many comments at EE’s blog that you have spent a great amount of time exploring the Christian faith. I hope that you will continue the journey and draw even closer to God in the process.

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