Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

Posted: February 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

The tenth and final chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Envoi, stresses that all Christians engaged in this discussion are, or should be allies, and not enemies. While some embrace modern Christian divisions and pluralism (unfortunately including my own SBC denomination as illustrated in a recent issue of the SBTC Texan), most Christians recognize the wrongness of the place in which we find ourselves. We know what the Holy Scriptures say about divisions, about love, and about communion, and we recognize that we’ve fallen so far that it’s hard to even tell how to begin to heal all that we have done. Howard suggests three things that must be accomplished if we are ever to return to something like what we should be as the Church.

First, Howard suggests we must return to the episcopate. “Pastors need pastors.” Having largely been a part of loosely association congregational churches, I sense a great deal of truth in that. As you study the history of the Church, you cannot help but be struck by the way the bishops held us together through their communion with each other. Oh, there were bad bishops. And there were times that the people (the laos) had to stand against and reject heretical bishops — even meeting in the fields rather than in the church. But those form the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time the bishops were the glue. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s vision of the fullness of the Church (it’s catholicity) centered on the bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people largely held true for many centuries. Until we all begin to return to that vision, catholicity will certainly remain out of reach.

Second, Howard insists the Eucharist must return as the focal point for Christian worship. Again, I think he’s right. That has always been the center of Christian liturgy. Always, that is until recently when some turned the liturgy of the Word into the focal point. That was an error of enormous proportions and impact. It turned our worship into something like the synagogue worship of rabbinic Judaism or the mosques of Islam while simultaneously making it less than either.

And third, Howard suggests that a return to the Christian year would be beneficial. It would put us back on the same ground, telling and living the same story, redeeming time and making it present. And we would all be doing it together.

Howard’s book has been a good, easily read introduction to the deep history and practice of the Christian church. I have a hard time judging how well he speaks to his target audience of evangelicals. Even though I’ve lived among the evangelical tribe for years, I’m still often surprised by them. I suppose I am one since I can’t really say that I’m anything else, but I’m still often bemused.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 9

Posted: February 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 9

Thomas Howard’s ninth chapter, The Liturgical Year: Redeeming the Time, focuses on the Western version of the Christian calendar. (I’ll note here that it’s different from the Eastern version.) I believe evangelicals struggle with this idea because they have some confused ideas about the nature of time from a Christian perspective. For instance, I hear things like “when time will be no more” and I wonder what is even meant by that.

Time is fundamentally the ordering of events, an expression of doing one thing and then another. I don’t get any sense from Scripture that we will stop doing things, rather the eschaton paints a picture of man restored to his proper function and vocation. Time is a part of creation and like all creation, God is concerned with redeeming and restoring time. Time too will be made new.

And as in everything in Christianity, we are engaged in the business of making present, of manifesting, what will be in the present. A part of that process is to begin to reorder our lives into God’s time. We will all order our lives in some way. The question is never if we will do it or not. The question is rather how we will do it. And the Christian year provides a redemptive answer to that question.

Let us once again build time around that which is eternal, Christ and His kingdom, and not merely around that which is passing away.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 8

Posted: February 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 8

The eighth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book is title, The Eucharistic Liturgy: Diagram and Drama. He opens the chapter with the idea that the drama of the liturgy unfolds a diagram of the gospel to the literate and illiterate alike. There is, of course, some aspect of that associated with liturgy, and for a while I focused on that aspect of it alone. The first part of the liturgy was certainly where the curious could hear and see the gospel proclaimed and the catechumens could be taught while the center of the liturgy (the Eucharist) was performed with only the baptized present.

However, I don’t believe that’s the entire story of the drama of the liturgy, just an aspect of it. The center of the liturgy, I believe, is making present the Kingdom of God. It’s the place where what will be true for all creation in the eschaton is brought into the present and manifested in its fullness. The Christian liturgy is not an act that portrays truth. Rather, it reveals the truth about reality that we do not often see.

Howard then walks through the various parts of the Roman Catholic Mass. I’m pretty familiar with the Mass, so I somewhat skimmed that part of his book. I did like the way he discussed intercessory prayers for the dead, especially these points.

And where else but in God’s hands is the fate of anyone, living or dead? … God is the judge; we are priests, part of whose ministry is to offer prayer for all people.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard evangelicals describe prayer for creation as part of the priestly ministry or work or vocation of the royal priesthood of all believers. But my experience is limited, so I could have missed it. And, of course, we are dismissed from the liturgy charged to carry out our priestly vocation caring for God’s creation. I liked the way Howard captured that as well.

All in all, if you’re reading the book and are unfamiliar with Christian liturgy, it’s a pretty good introduction.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 7

Posted: February 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 7

Thomas Howard’s seventh chapter, Table and Altar: Supper and Sacrament, focuses on the Eucharist (the Thanksgiving) of bread and wine, body and blood. He opens the chapter with a strange statement that the word sacrament does not appear in the Bible. As I read the chapter, I thought perhaps he meant that the Thanksgiving, the “breaking of bread”, or the various other ways Scripture refers to what many Protestants call the “Lord’s Supper” is never specifically called “sacrament”. If that is the case, he’s probably correct (though John 6 strongly implies it at least). If that’s not what he meant, then I don’t understand his statement at all.

For those who don’t know, “sacrament” is the anglicized version of the Latin word “sacramentum”. Sacramentum was the Latin word chosen to translate the Greek word “mysterion”. And mysterion certainly appears quite a bit in the Bible. So I was left rather confused by Howard’s unqualified statement.

Mysterion is used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, the future reality of creation’s experience of God has broken into the present in Jesus. And, as Howard points out, “remembrance” as used at Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist carries the additional meaning of making the past present again in the moment. So in the Eucharist, we always have the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection rushing forward into the present moment as the future of the eschaton rushes back (from our perspective) into the same moment.  In the Eucharist, we do not live somewhere between two moments in time, past and present. Time instead collapses into the mystery of Christ’s body and blood, which makes all things new.

Howard points first to John 6 for the theology of the Eucharist, and that is always where we need to begin. It is, after all, the eucharistic chapter in the theological gospel just as John 3 is a starting point for the theology of Baptism. I’m familiar with the way John 6 tends to be “spiritualized” in evangelicalism. But Howard is correct. That explanation falls apart in the narrative of the text. If the “spiritual” meaning were what Jesus had in mind, his followers would not have all been so offended. As it is, he is left with only the Twelve by the end of the text, and they hardly offer a ringing endorsement.

Howard then traces a bit of the history of Christian writing on the Eucharist, which continues almost without interruption on the heels of the text of the New Testament. In my series on Baptists, Eucharist, and History, I covered the first couple of hundred years or so of Christian writing on the topic in a fair degree of detail, more than Howard has room to do in a section of a chapter.

However, Howard does later try to discuss the Eucharist using the categories of “natural” and “supernatural”. Those have never seemed to fit the sort of relationship between creation and God as glimpsed through Jesus to me, and I’m even less comfortable with that way of dividing reality after reading Fr. Schmemann. I would say a better description of the mystery is that it involves the union of the matter of the created world (bread and wine) with the divine reality of the Body and Blood of Christ without diminishing or destroying either. It is the union toward which we are striving and for which we consume our Lord.

However, I do agree with the overall arc of the chapter, even if I was inclined to quibble in a few places.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

Posted: February 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

The sixth chapter in Thomas Howard’s book, Ritual and Ceremony: A dead Hand or the Liberty of the Spirit?, opens with the note that when the early Christians met for worship, everyone present was a full participant.

Bishops, priests, deacons, and laity were the four orders in the Church that we glimpse in the New Testament and in the writings of the men taught by the apostles.  … It [worship of the Church] is an act, to which we come as participants, indeed as celebrants, if the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means anything.

I noticed early on that evangelicals called everyone priests, but seemed to have no conception of what it meant to be a priest. In a typical evangelical service, the laos or people, the first order of the royal priesthood of all Christians, effectively have nothing to do but be present, perhaps sing a few songs, and give money. There is no sense in which they are celebrants or even participants.

Howard also notes than until recent times the center of Christian worship was always the Eucharist. In much of evangelicalism, that has changed, so much so that the Eucharist, even in a diminished form, might be celebrated as infrequently as once a year.

It’s a common evangelical objection that ritual is boring and empty. Howard turns to C.S. Lewis to respond to that. After quoting Lewis, Howard comments on what Lewis had written.

Lewis touches here on something profound, which does not always present itself easily to people like us who are keen on expressing themselves and who have been taught that freedom lies in getting rid of structures. It is an idea especially difficult for people whose religion has taught them that structures are deadening. That ritual might actually be a relief, and even a release, is almost incomprehensible to them. That the extempore and impromptu are eventually shallow, enervating, and exhausting seems a contradiction to these people, who so earnestly believe that nothing that does not spring from the authenticity of the moment is actually fruitful.

As Lewis points out in this same context: “The unexpected tires us; it also takes us longer to understand and enjoy than the expected. A line which gives the listener pause is a disaster … because it makes him lose the next line.” Any Christian who has tried to stay abreast of impromptu public prayers will testify to the truth of this observation.

Of course, all of us build and follow a routine in the activities of our life. The routine may vary somewhat over time, or for other reasons, but then every liturgy has some variation within its structure. And the truth is that even the most “unstructured” worship will still operate within some defined framework. Even Quakers sitting in a room waiting for the movement of the Spirit are enacting a ritual, one that they will repeat time and time again.

I’ve never had a problem with ritual or ceremony myself. Again, I was not formed within an evangelical context and I don’t really grasp their aversion to and futile attempt to escape ritual, even after fifteen years as one. So in many ways, this chapter had relatively little to say to me, certainly little that was new. But Howard’s approach was more one of encouraging people to recognize the way ceremonies of all sorts permeate our lives and experience; trying to help them move beyond their cultural gut reaction against formal ceremony in worship. It’s hard for me to judge how effective the chapter was, but it seemed like a good approach to me.

I’ve noticed that evangelicals seem to have an aversion to the sign of the cross that has never made any sense to me. I liked the way Howard described one aspect of it at the end of the chapter.

By making the sign of the cross with our hands we signal to heaven, earth, hell, and to our own innermost beings that we are indeed under this sign — that we are crucified with Christ.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 5

Posted: February 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 5

Thomas Howard’s fifth chapter is titled: Hail, Blessed Virgin Mary: What Did the Angel Mean? Oddly, to my mind, he uses that introduction to explore how marriage is both a spiritual and physical union in a way that is intertwined and inseparable. He then builds on that to show how the foundation of Christian faith, flowing from the material and earthy sacrifices of Torah, did not become something ethereal and spiritual. No, the origin of our faith lies in a messy gynecological reality of real child-bearing, wombs, and physical birth. The root of our particular faith begins in the mystery of the Incarnation.

I agree with pretty much everything Howard writes as he explores the above in length. But then I’ve never had any bias against honor or reverence toward Mary or, indeed, any of the saints. If what Christianity (and Christ) says about the nature of reality is true, then all of that naturally flows along with it. But I was not shaped as an evangelical. I gather Howard felt it necessary to approach Mary somewhat obliquely, disarming mental traps, rather than tackling the matter directly.

The Christian piety that has been afraid almost to name, much less to hail, the Virgin and to join the the angel Gabriel and Elisabeth in according blessing and exaltation to her is a piety that has impoverished itself. Stalwart for the glory of God alone, it has been afraid to see the amplitude of that glory, which brims and overflows and splashes outward in a surging golden tide, gilding everything that it touches. … A Christian devotion afraid to join the angel of God in hailing the Virgin as highly exalted is a devotion cramped either by ignorance or fear.

I do find that I prefer to emphasize the particular nature of what Mary accomplished through her ‘Yes‘ to God flowing from the ancient title Theotokos (God-Bearer) more than emphasizing her state as Virgin. But neither do I reject or find either one troublesome. I suppose, even after a decade and a half, I still don’t understand that visceral negative reaction by evangelicals.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

Posted: February 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

The fourth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Prayer: Random or Discipline?, is devoted to his encounter with the Christian discipline of corporate set prayers that began when he returned to the University of Illinois for graduate studies. He began attending the daily Office of Evening Prayer at a small chapel across the street. He describes the building and makes the insightful comment that all buildings are icons. Indeed they are. In fact, I would say that everything we make, to one degree or another, is an icon of something. It seems wired into our being. That, of course, is the doom of every effort we might make at iconoclasm, even if iconoclasm were not itself a denial of the Incarnation. Howard points out again the essentially Buddhist or Manichaean nature of iconoclasm in general and its Christian manifestations in particular. There is also a false dichotomy and an improper perspective of creation that is manifested when beauty is pitted against faith or against “works” or against humility and simplicity.

Before I continue with my thoughts on Howard’s writing, if anyone is looking for something to read on prayer written by an evangelical, there are two books I would recommend (and they are the only two evangelical books on prayer I’ve read that I would recommend). The first is Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight. The second is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. (Obviously, the latter is on the spiritual disciplines in general and not focused solely on prayer, but it does cover the discipline of prayer well.)

Howard, flowing straight from the criticism of set prayer normally found in evangelicalism, immediately addresses the accusation that such repetition must become routine, bleak, and dead. I found myself nodded at the parallel he chose.

Yes, indeed it does dry up and die, if there is no taproot of life irrigating it. Just as the utter sameness of marriage dries up and dies if love departs, so will any routine. To the libertine accustomed to woman after woman, the man who returns day after day, year after year, to the same spouse, with no variety, appears unfortunate in the extreme. We must ask the man himself how things are. He will tell us that routine is the very diagram of peace and freedom …

Indeed. Interesting is a good term for describing far too much of my life. So much so that even when I was young I understood intuitively and immediately that the wish, May you live in interesting times!, first was a curse and then why it was a curse. This year my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. I’ve found tremendous “shelter from the storm” in the peace and freedom and safety of our marriage.

Howard then notes a fact that has long confused me. In their rejection of set prayers, evangelicals are rejecting the very practice of Jesus, the disciples, and the church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As I delved into Christian belief and practice, I never was able to understand how they did so.

Evangelicalism, encouraging a spirit of individual responsibility before the Bible, had made it possible for me to discount centuries of Christian practice.

Basically, if an interpretation of the Scripture of the New Testament that shows the practice of set prayers is not obvious to an individual’s own interpretation (or that of their interpreter of choice), set prayer can be disregarded, even if that particular interpretation is at odds with the overwhelming majority of historical Christian teaching and practice. (Apparently, the practice in the Old Testament or even what Jesus himself practiced makes no difference since that’s “judaism” and as such has been abolished.) I have to confess that I still don’t really grasp the nature of the mental gymnastics required for that particular chain of reasoning. I do grasp that an overriding focus on individualism seems to be the culprit.

As Howard practiced a daily office, he came to a realization that is perfectly consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian practice.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that once a day, far from being too often for devotion, was not enough.

Indeed. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Lawrence myself.

Howard next reflects on the way the discipline of prayer (a rule of prayer as it is often called) actually enables a person to pray consistently. The structure and order of the rule frees us to pray. Inevitably, if we approach it as an individual practice, it becomes subject to our moods and whims. Almost all of us will not always feel like praying. And even if we try to make ourselves pray, we’ll find we have nothing to say. Making prayer a rule using set prayers does not ensure that we will pray. But it does not place the burden entirely on our own mood and ability. It helps us make prayer a habit rather than something we struggle to do.

Howard notes that some people can pray freely every day of their life. Some people truly can be consistent with a daily free form quiet time. He even says that as far as he knows, his own father was such a man. But, Howard says, “He was an extraordinary man.” Most of us are not so extraordinary. It’s not just Howard and me. I’ve listened to youth and adults both describe their difficulties praying regularly and consistently over the long haul. This is a problem that permeates evangelicalism and other “enthusiastic” movements. And we do people no favors when we keep prescribing the same solution — an approach that has already failed them multiple times. Instead, we place a crushing load on them.

Howard describes in some detail a particular order of prayer. It’s worth reading, but there are many prayer books available. The first thing is to begin to pray using some sort of prayer book. You’ll still slip in and out of the habit of prayer. The merciful Lord knows I constantly fall away from my own rule of prayer. It’s not some sort of magical panacea. Consistent prayer is hard. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s called a discipline. It requires much effort to pray when you’re tired, when you’re irritated, when you feel distant from God, when you’re angry at God, when life grows hectic, or in a host of other life situations. Set prayer does not make prayer easy. Rather, it makes prayer possible.

I am thankful to the ancient Church for its wise and earthy awareness that we Christians need all the help we can get and for supplying us with so much in its Office and in its other forms of set prayer.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 3

Posted: February 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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.


Book Club! Evangelical Is Not Enough

Posted: February 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: | Comments Off on Book Club! Evangelical Is Not Enough

Elizabeth Esther is hosting this week’s book club on Thomas Howard’s book, Evangelical Is Not Enough. While I will be engaging in the book club conversation on her site, I will also continue blogging through each chapter here. But the good conversation is on her site. Go join in!


Evangelical Is Not Enough 2

Posted: January 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 2

The second chapter of Thomas Howard’s book focuses on symbolism. He recounts a childhood encounter with much richer Christian symbols than those typically found in evangelicalism and the impact it had on him. After reviewing the myriad ways symbols are intertwined and interwoven throughout our lives, including but hardly limited to our faith, he makes the observation: “It is difficult to eliminate symbolism.” Indeed.

I’ve never acquired the aversion to the material, to the physical, and to symbols that Thomas Howard describes. My formation was very different and if anything the question has always been, “Which symbols?” But I’ve been within the context of evangelical Christianity for many years and I know they have a deep aversion to some symbols. Mind you, evangelicals use a variety of recognizable, material symbols themselves. It’s not a rejection of all symbols, just some of them. I believe I understand the reasons for the selection and the rejection of a handful of symbols, but I won’t pretend to understand more than the little I do. This aspect of the evangelical mindset largely remains opaque to me.

As he moves into the heart of the matter, Howard points out that dividing the world into physical and spiritual is not and has never been Christian in origin. We are not Buddhists or Platonists or Manichaeans. We are also not like the early Christian gnostic heretics or other docetists who denied the materiality of the Incarnation. And, in fact, that’s what much of this chapter explores. He does a good job in a small number of pages connecting the rejection of the material to a rejection of Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation. I just recently completed the series stepping through Athanasius’ work on the Incarnation, so I won’t spend much time rehashing that here. At the end of the chapter, he points out that evangelicals are right to affirm the Incarnation, but in their rejection of the physical, the sensory, and the symbolic, they actually reject much of what Jesus accomplished in and through it. I’ll end with the closing paragraph of the chapter.

The religion that attempts to drive a wedge between the whole realm of Faith and the actual textures of physical life is a religion that has perhaps not granted to the Incarnation the full extent of the mysteries that attach to it and flow from it, and that make our mortal life fruitful once more.