Monday, May 23, 2016

A church in need of exorcism

A guest post by Lenny Duncan

This blog post will attempt to answer a few questions that arose out of one. The original question I posed to Dr. Pahl (sitting Hagan History chair at LTSP) at the beginning of this year was simple. Why was there no Lutheran rite of Exorcism? What did that say about our incarnational theology if the personification of evil was something we felt wasn’t worthy of being named, confronted and transformed.  So while I played with the idea of approaching this from a systematic theologian’s point of view, the history of evil, and its relationship to the church I felt was of particular importance to this question. The question of what is evil is something human beings have wrestled with since we first became aware that things didn’t always go right (see Genesis 2-3), and since we became aware of God. In the case of the Christian, evil makes a rather stunning appearance in the very beginning of, and throughout, Christ’s ministry.

This is the first thought experiment I explored.  It got me thinking about the importance of the theological statement the ELCA was making by not having an exorcism rite in its liturgical order. Think on the Gospel narrative for a second.  Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He confronts Satan. He emerges from this experience “battle hardened.”  We then see throughout the gospels a Jesus who is a man of power. He faces demonic forces on a regular basis, as we shall see later.  The Gospel writers are also careful to delineate between mental illness, epilepsy, and demonic possession. This was a separate category that Jesus was healing and ministering to. This is an important part of my premise. According to the gospel writers, Jesus knew of demonic possession as a separate thing from the normal post-enlightenment thinking on the supernatural in scripture. One could, and I believe should, face the fact that the Savior of the world by almost all accounts not only believed whole heartily in demonic possession, but even understood the nuanced differences in this unseen realm.
 Without a liturgical rite to name, confront, and transform and exorcise systemic evil and demonic forces of today we are actually reinforcing our tepid and safe whiteness as a church. It also gives an entry point as church for engagement with those communities we say we want to join but often fail to connect with.  In relationship to the recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Moral Mondays, and to a certain extent Occupy, the ELCA has largely been silent or completely ineffectual (there are, of course, exceptions—churchwide has articulated a bold stand, as have some leaders like myself and a few others.)  But the body politic of the ELCA has not even wrestled with the fact that our Sunday School, Confirmation, and VBS programs have created monsters like Dylan Roof—the young “Lutheran” who killed nine in Charleston, and Dylan Klebod—a Lutheran who was one of the shooters in Columbine high school, Colorado.

 Christ’s special dispensation for the poor and oppressed is a serious hermeneutic. Whether it is Black, Womanist, or Queer theology the intersectionality of oppression can be met by the naming, confronting, and transforming evil. What are the demons of today? What are satanic forces in this American empire? How do we tie the central symbols of the Church and solace they bring to millions, to the war for equality and the right of personhood being waged on our national landscape and conscience?

Part One: Jesus as Exorcist
I first looked at the encounters Christ had with the demonic in the Gospel texts. [1]
While I have done an intentional reading of all Christ’s encounters in all four Gospels in this paper will focus on those that help point out my working premise. Then we will explore Jeffrey Burton Russell’s history of Satan as “the personification of cosmic evil.”  We will also look at other sources, but his will be the main source for the historical section tracing the Church’s history with evil and demons. Then we will explore James Cone’s stunning proclamation of the heresy of not standing with the oppressed and systemic evil. We will then lay out the liturgical rite of exorcism I propose.

So we see that Jesus’s encounters with this world of the demonic are actually a rich part of the Gospel tradition, and the note I have included excludes any instance where his disciples perform exorcisms. So we know that Jesus believed this inauguration of God’s kingdom was “happening” amongst the poor and the marginalized. We can also ascertain that although systemic evil was present in the rulers of the day, Jesus’s work with exorcisms tended to happen amongst the people. Very publically in fact. While there are many instances I have noted previously let’s zero in on one or two before we move on.

In the book of Matthew, we see the Gospel writer has developed a rather clear pattern to how Jesus’s ministry starts, is birthed, how he gathers the inner circle, then goes out to the people. He then names, confronts, and transforms evil.  This is all post baptism.  This is very important for us liturgically speaking since the renunciation acts are only found in our liturgy in the baptismal rite. Also the rite I’m proposing for this work is based in the baptism rite. So post baptism, this is the pattern we see leading up to the verse I want to take a minute to focus on. Note this is most clear in the Gospel of Matthew, but can be found in all of them.

Matthew 4:23-25-
Jesus[c] went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news[d] of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.[2]

So here we have my first point. The Gospel writers and by assumption Jesus knew the difference between many different illnesses and saw “demoniacs” as a separate category at least in some sense. Exorcism is portrayed as separate from other healing ministries. There is a sense of invasion and otherness compared to other illnesses found throughout the Gospel. Its treatment as something “other” can be found through all four Gospels. This was also an incredibly nuanced world of the unseen Christ was facing, naming, and casting out. So this inauguration of the Kingdom, in part, meant naming, confronting, and transforming these things.

Another great example of this was the following verse. Right after the Transfiguration the disciples are starting to see they are dealing with something otherworldly.
Matthew 17:14-20
            14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon,[d] and it[e] came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a[f] mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”[g] [3]

So here we have a rather famous Jesus “saying”. But often as ELCA Lutherans we divorce it totally from its context. The “mustard seed” saying in Matthew, at least, comes in relation to an attempted exorcism by the disciples that fails. Jesus steps in and admonishes their faith. He uses his confrontation of evil to point towards real faith.
Let’s look at few more instances that point to a reality that is full of mystery and nuance that we have in the ELCA divorced ourselves from to be “modern” and in my opinion and intellectually comforted.  The evidence is throughout the Gospel from Jesus’s stunning proclamation to Herod “Go tell that fox,” which connects evil with Empire, to where he ties his messianic claim and proclamation of his resurrection with the casting out of demons (Luke 13:32). This Lukan motif is throughout the gospel. My point simply is that Jesus perceived himself as many things, one of which being an exorcist. It is a title he felt pointed to his messianic title as clearly as anything else. That it was central to his identity. This should make it a central symbol of our incarnational theology.

Part two-
Jeffrey Burton-Russell and The Prince of Darkness

Jeffery Burton Russell in his work “The Prince of Darkness” traces the sordid history of the personification of evil. While I’m not for our purposes going to take us through the battle of monism versus dualism, or belabor points about the medieval Church and its use of Satan and Hell, I will raise up a few points he makes. On the topic of systemic evil and Luther’s view he states-
Luther felt this struggle intensely within his own soul. His diabology was based on personal experience as well as scripture and tradition. As Hieko Oberman put it, Luther’s whole life was a war against Satan. Like the desert fathers and the medieval contemplatives, Luther felt that the Devil attacks more intensely as one advances in faith. Satan attempted to deter him from God’s work through temptations, distractions, and even physical manifestations. He rattled around behind Luther’s stove, at the Warburg castle he pelted nuts at the roof and rolled casks down the stairwell; he grunted audibly like a pig; he disputed with Luther like scholastic, he sometimes lodged in Luther’s bowels [4]

Now that may all seem silly, and it’s easy to dismiss it.  But what it makes clear is that to Luther, Satan, the personification of evil, was a real thing that the Christian had to name, face, and exorcise. One could dismiss this as 16th century metaphysical mumbo jumbo, but what are you then saying about the Eucharist and Luther’s view on that? Again, I’m not asking the reader to accept that Luther’s stove was possessed.  But it is necessary to accept that he believed that evil was a real and living force that the Christian would have to face repeatedly. Emphasis on living force. It wasn’t just human capacity for evil, though that certainly is a part of the picture. No, Luther names the otherness:  the invader; the thing that doesn’t belong in God’s creation and is disrupting our union with the Triune God.  Just look at the verse’s to “A Mighty Fortress.”
1 A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
does seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
2 Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God's own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.
3 And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
4 That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever! [5]
Burton goes further.
Yet Satan’s power over us shattered by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Christ has struck Satan blow after telling blow in his miracles, in his preaching, and in his passion. The Devil plotted the Passion in unthinking rage against Christ, and God used it to overthrow him, the proof being the resurrection. The world, the flesh, and the Devil still tempt us but one little word -in the name of the Savior-can crush them.
The Devil still has power in the world, however, because so many choose to follow him. Some make deliberate Pacts with him: Luther was no skeptic about witchcraft[6]

So we have established that naming, confronting, and transforming evil is “Lutheran.” Luther believed the power of evil, which he called Satan, was disrupted by the Incarnation of Jesus, and was dealt a crushing blow in the resurrection. Furthermore, he believed the only reason Satan still had power was so many chose to follow him. This is a key point to my entire argument.

In our noble attempt to do away with 1800 years of troubling history of the abuse and misuse of exorcisms in the Church we have lost a key symbol for facing evil. Evil is still a real living force at work in the heart of humanity. Systemic racism. The “othering” of the Islamic community. The predatory nature of corporate America. The military industrial complex. The prison industrial complex. Genocide. What are these things other than the personification of evil on earth?

Satan is alive and well in America. One could almost reasonably propose he is running for President this year. “The Devil still has power in the world, however, because so many choose to follow him.” Beelzebub is no longer Satan’s chief captain. Or at least that not his name. It is likely Haliburton. Or Darren Wilson. Or Zimmerman. Or at one time Adolf.  Or possessing our government in all its demonic power as Cointelpro and the agents who pushed that agenda on behalf of J Edgar, another man possessed by the power of Satan. Satan is systemic evil in the hands of the privileged and powerful. Luther saw it in others even if he missed it in his own theology which we will touch on later. But as long as there are those willingly serving evil in this world, Satan has power. When we willingly or unwittingly serve oppression Satan has power. That is evil.

I want to take a moment to pause and explicitly say what I’m doing here. I’m saying our world and its ruler have become possessed by the agents of Satan commonly called demons. I’m saying the officers in Satan’s army are what we could call the banality of evil today. The  little evils that walk our world and do so much harm:  those who are willing to short millions of people’s retirements for a profit. The cop who shoots at the faceless young black male that has become his “enemy.” I’m calling for a rite to name, confront, and transform this evil. To be used as a form of incarnational protest and in communities facing this oppression. So while I applaud Luther for keeping evil and its personification as part of the Church, as we shall see, he fell laughably short of achieving a working theology to confront it. For more on that we will turn to James Cone.

Part Three
If God is with the Oppressed, who is the Oppressor? A Dialogue with James Cone.

James Cone actually has a scathing criticism of Luther’s position, and of the reformers in general, in fact. So we have established that Christ saw the importance to face systemic evil and oppression, and that Luther thought evil was real. While James Cone speaks to this rather explicitly in all his works, I will focus on what I believe to be James seminal work “God of the Oppressed.” 
 In that work, Cone writes:
  “ We cannot say that Luther, Calvin, Wesley and other prominent representatives of the Churches tradition were limited by their time, as if their ethical judgments on oppression did not effect the essential truth of their theologies. They were wrong ethically because they were wrong theologically. They were wrong theologically because they failed to listen to the bible- with sufficient openness and through the eyes of the victims of political oppression.” [7]

If we are to be theologians of the cross, and if we are to be the incarnational community of Christ that celebrates the in-breaking of his kingdom on Earth until his return--if we are really all these things, we have to takes Cone’s criticism seriously. Lutheranism has traditionally been on the side of governments, rulers and systems (for example, in Germany). I repeat, we have sided with oppressive power almost continuously since Luther’s time. Luther’s well documented response to the peasant revolts and his treatise on the Jews are just two stark examples. Other than the occasional lone voice (for example, Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran Church of Scandinavia) our history is one of reformation and accidental revolution.  We have tried desperately to marry ourselves to one system or another. If Cone is right than we have been heretical in our lack of standing with the oppressed.

So we need a working theology that faces evil in its systemic exclusion of the oppressed (in all forms) and exorcises it.  What I mean by a “working theology” is something the average congregation can do:  the everyday activist, such as a parish pastor. But we can’t go out into the world to face evil if we aren’t willing to face our own. “What we have done, and left undone” is a key phrase from our Confession of Sin. To lean into this, we have to take a liberation or Lukan hermeneutic from the Gospel.  Cone’s work is the blueprint for most models of liberation theology in North America and that’s why we are spending time exploring segments of it. Jesus Christ is the centerpiece. The foundation of liberation theology. Cone states-
Because human liberation is God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ, it’s source and meaning cannot be separated from Christology’s sources (Scripture, tradition, and social existence) and content (Jesus in the past, present, and future). Jesus Christ, therefore, in his humanity and divinity, is the point of departure for a black theologian’s analysis of the meaning of liberation. There is no liberation independent of Jesus’s past, present, or future coming. He is the ground of our present freedom to struggle and the source of our hope that the vision disclosed in our historical fight against oppression will be fully realized in God’s future.”

Cone is stating, which to me as a marginalized person of color in America has been obvious since I first encountered Jesus in the present, that Jesus appears as liberator. If we are to take these parts of his messianic title seriously—that Jesus was an exorcist, then we have to listen to Christ carefully. Where he declares “freedom to the captives,” and says “blessed are the poor,” then a call for the joining of the two isn’t so outlandish. Jesus is liberator and exorcist amongst the people, and if we claim to follow Jesus, we must make this clear in word and deed.
We in the ELCA are a liturgical church in many ways. The joining of these two things –liberation and liturgy, makes perfect sense for us. We have stated we believe in a Christ who brings good news to the oppressed, and we believe we experience him more fully in community than in individual piety. We tell God’s story in worship and in community through the liturgy: through Word and Sacrament. It has recently been argued, to good effect I might add, by a liturgy professor here at the seminary that the two functions of clergy are to bless and curse. In Dr. Moroney’s estimation to curse is the withholding of the blessing of any sacrament. I’m taking that one step further by making the argument we are to name, confront, and transform evil in our communities and in our contexts.
Jesus was present when Michael Brown was shot. He stood there, then walked in the middle of the street, in that moment. He was in the back of the van with Freddie Grey. He held tight with every turn and braced himself every time the van slammed to a stop. He bought a “loosie” from Eric Garner. He stands ready at these moments for us to reach into the deep well of his strength to face Satan--Satan who is clothed in privilege, power, and the trappings of “acceptable” systemic racism. Systemic evil, Satan, wears this all like the high priestly robes and armor of Caiphas and Pilate.  I’m tired of washing our hands and saying these deaths are not on us.

We need to resist Satan and his army. As Church. We need to be the incarnation at work. We need to exorcise these demons from our communities. We need the faith of a mustard seed.

Part four-
A Liturgy of Exorcism for Systemic Evil

We will now turn our attention to the rite itself. This is open to crowd sourcing and is a framework. It is scaffolding that I hope we can use to build an “Incarnational Act of Protest.”

Leader- God of the oppressed, who calls us in Baptism and through scripture to stand with marginalized. Who demonstrated through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ his dispensation for the poor, the outcast, the unwanted. This Jesus whose name we gather in, was murdered by being railroaded in court. Was a victim of state sponsored execution. This Jesus was never with the powerful but stood with the powerless. He gave voice to the widow, solace to the prisoner, and liberation to the oppressed. He is the God of orphans. He arose on the third day and crowned the in-breaking of God’s kingdom with a stunning new vision of life. Like the Easter event we are gathered  here to disrupt the systemic evil that stands in front of us. We face you Satan and your forces today. We no longer look away in willful ignorance to the suffering around us. We name you ________________ as the evil this community has become infected by. We have gathered as the incarnational community of Christ to cast this out. We are here to purge this atrocity and affront to God’s creation from this place and to walk alongside this community on the long road to healing.

Scripture Reading
(This of course is reflective of the need and situation.)  

Renunciation and Casting Out
Leader-People of God, people of justice, body of Christ, I present to you the demonic force of ____________________. I name it. Will you be witnesses to this act?
Congregation-Yes, and we ask God to strengthen our witness.

Leader-People of God, victims of this oppression, Christ incarnate, I stand ready to face this evil  of ____________________along side you.  Can this Church have your permission to stand with you?

Congregation-Yes, and we ask God to send a Church and leaders who will stand alongside us
Leader-People of God, voices of the unheard, vision of the Kingdom to come, I stand ready with your help to cast out the systemic evil of __________________. Will you help me to confront and cast this out of this community?

Congregation-Yes, we call on the name of Jesus to disrupt, cast out, and to abolish this evil with the power of the Cross. Amen

(Hymn) We ask that the hymn, or appropriate song, whether gospel, hip hop, or praise song speak to the problem at hand, or vision of God’s in-breaking into the situation. Please don’t be attached to stanzas or time lengths. We are using music to invite those gathered into sacred space and holy reflection. Be mindful of the Spirit, not ordo.

Leader-Faithful people of God I ask that you reject this personification of evil in the community. Do you renounce the devil and his forces in the form of___________________?
Gathering- We Renounce _______________ and with Christ’s help cast it out
Leader- Prophetic voice of the Body of Christ do you renounce the powers of this world that perpetuate this evil of _____________ and defy God?
Gathering- We renounce ______________ and with the power of the Holy Spirit will resist, disrupt, and abolish all the powers of the world that perpetuate it.
Leader-Do you renounce the ways of sin in your own life that have kept you from fighting this evil with all of your gifts, energy, and talents?
Gathering-We renounce all the ways we haven’t stood with Christ in his battle with the princes and principalities of this broken world.

___________________ We cast you out in the name of the Father +

__________________ We cast you out in the name of the Son +

__________________ We cast you out in the name of the Holy Spirit +

We cast you out of this community because you are a stain on its soul. You have no power here. You have the trappings of this world and stand in defiance of all that is Holy. As a called and ordained (or emerging) leader of this gathering and community I declare to you now and forever ______________ is cast out. We have named you _________ We have confronted you, and we say in the name of the Triune God get behind us.

(Lighting of Paschal Candle and the passing of that light to those gathered this can be set to another hymn or song to set the tone)

Reflection, Homily, Or Words from Community Leaders
Prayers of intercession for the Community

Leader –In the now multiplying light of Christ, we know as Church there are still real concerns that this community has going forward. Gathered together here we will hear the concerns of community lifted up in prayer to a God who has come down amongst us.
Leader-(Prayer for any victims or families that were the most directly affected, communities,     name those who have been attacked by this systemic evil. God of Justice!
Gathering-Hear our cries!
Leader-(Prayer that asks for a specific need to see real change in light of the event or protest or community action. Example a grand jury decision etc) God of the Oppressed!
Gathering-Hear our cries!
Leader-(Prayer for courage for the workers and activists who are on the ground day to day and often will be more engaged and active than the Church) God of Mercy!
Gathering-Hear our cries!
Leader-(Now clergy person its time to listen and be silent! Maybe have a few plants in the crowd to stir up the Spirit. Explain how to end the petition and the reply then ask…) For what else does this community cry out for……?
Gathering-Hear our cries!
Leader-Gathered together as a community seeking your mercy, your grace and your justice, God we commend all these prayers into your hands trusting in your promise to proclaim good news to the poor and oppressed and release to the captives.
All: AMEN!
Sending and blessing
Leader-We know peace can be a word that is sanitized by rulers. It can mean being pacified and asleep dreaming we are awake..We are gathered to take back the term peace and use it the way our Lord and Savior meant it. He did not come to bring peace but to be a sword. Disrupt. Resist. Abolish. Cast out. May that peace of Christ be with you!
Gathering-And also with you!

Leader- As we disperse and share this peace with one another remember to serve the oppressed!

Part 5
Closing thoughts

Some parting thoughts and reflections on this work and the rite.  I tried to build what I believe to be a compelling theological case for why a public rite like the one I have started in this paper is needed in the times we live.  I think my work has fallen woefully short. This is mostly due to my contextual bias and personal connection to this kind of work. I realize that there are much fuller and richer ways I could have portrayed Luther. But being in a mostly white Church in a mostly white (theologically) seminary I wanted to give the reader and idea  how he presents to me. Simply put he has all the pomp and circumstance of the very same institutions of power and privilege that used hermeneutics to justify slavery or tell my parents that their inter-racial marriage was an abomination. He is a caricature as he portrayed at times in the ELCA, and when I hear a peer declare I should “sin boldly” I wonder if they would have said the same in a Church discussing the slave trade a few hundred years ago.

I also realize that I could have given better treatment to Cone but I’m going on the assumption that the reader has started to accept some of the basic premises of his work as it is being finally disseminated out, albeit much more sanitized, in other work being done in the universal church. 

But my sincere hope is that this rite, or the very basic concepts of it become something we see in our communities as visible signs of Jesus at work. In our hearts, in our communities, in our church, and in our theology.

Also this is an early draft of this work. There will be much revision. Please check out my other work on Formerlyunchurched and the work I’m doing with the #decolonizelutheranism movement at #decolonizelutheranism

Jesus’s Encounters with the Demonic:  Jesus was an Exorcist I Jesus heals and frees 1. Jesus announces the coming of God’s Kingdom, heals and frees from evil spirits. Mt 4, 23-25Lk 6, 17-192. Jesus heals many possessed. This has a mass and public character.
Mt 8, 16 , Mk 1, 32-39 3. The cast out spirits have knowledge of Jesus. Lk 4, 33-37Mk 1, 23-28 4. Jesus frees the possessed and forces the evil spirits to enter into pigs. Possessions can have a multiple character – several evil spirits can reside in man. Mt 8, 28-34Mk 5, 1-20Lk 8, 26-39 5. Jesus cast out seven evil spirits from Mary Magdalene. Mk 16, 9 6. Jesus casts out an evil spirit from a pagan woman’s daughter from a large distance. Mk 7, 24-30Mt 15, 21-28 7. Jesus exorcises on Shabbat – he casts out the spirit of faintness. Lk 13, 10-13  8. Jesus continues healing and freeing, despite the threat of death. Lk 13, 31-32 9. Jesus casts out an evil spirit from a mute, who then regains speech. The Pharisees accuse Him of achieving that through the power of Beelzebub. Mt 9, 32-38Mk 3, 20-27. 10. Jesus casts out an evil spirit, who is the cause of blindness and muteness. He says that evil spirits are being cast out through the power of God’s Spirit. Mt 12, 22-30 11. The casting out of evil spirits is the sign of the coming of the kingdom of God. Lk 11, 14-20Lk 7,18-23

[2] Holy Bible: NRSV, New Revised Standard Version. New York: Harper Bibles, 2007. Print.

[3] Holy Bible: NRSV, New Revised Standard Version. New York: Harper Bibles, 2007. Print.

[4] Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988. Print.

[5] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

[6] Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988. Print.
[7] Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury, 1975. Print

Saturday, May 21, 2016

5 Signs the Worship Wars Are Over

I spent formative years worshipping in a large Lutheran congregation in Davenport, Iowa. There were three services, at 8, 9:30, and 11 a.m., with about 1000 in attendance. All of these were what you might call traditional, liturgical services, conducted straight out of our denominational hymnal. By the time I was a teenager, I had memorized all three settings of the liturgy contained in the hymn-book, all the available psalm tones, and many of the hymns.

Depending on the week, I might be at any of those three services. As a hyper-involved church-going family, we sang in a children's choir and then a high school choir. My parents sang in the adult choir. I was an acolyte. I served donuts. I counted the offering.

The one thing we never had when I was growing up was a contemporary service. We had an incredible organist, weekly special music from choirs and soloists, and clergy capable of chant. In some ways, the true highlight of Sunday worship were the prelude and postlude, ably performed by our full-time church musician. These were often over-the-top incredible.

In the summers, I spent time at camp, and it was there that I learned songs better accompanied by guitar. By the end of high school, I had stored in my brain multiple sets of liturgical resources--chant and liturgy for Sunday worship, camp songs and contemporary music for camp.  There was never anything musically precocious about the performance of these songs--guitars were frequently out of tune in the summer humidity and heat--but there was a feeling while singing them as incomparably rich as what one felt at the technically proficient organ-playing Sunday mornings.

By and large, these musical styles did not cross paths. Each had their place. I loved, and still love, them both.

I should add one more thing. During this time, I found a third musical love beyond campfire worship and Sunday liturgy--I bought my first tape in 1984. Huey Lewis and the News, Sports. I played this tape on my bedside boombox with a liturgical fervency equally profound as the chorales I sang Sunday mornings and the praise songs I sang summer evenings.

Some time between those youthful days and now, all of this changed. If you go back to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, you can attend a very large worship service in the new sanctuary accompanied by an incredible worship ensemble. My brother sings in it.

There are of course also services accompanied by organ. There's a beautiful organ in the sanctuary. But I haven't been to one in over a decade. When I'm home, I go worship with my family, who all worships with my brother, at the contemporary service. I have absolutely nothing against it, and mostly love it... but I certainly never anticipated it.

We host a comparable service in the church I now serve. A decade ago, Good Shepherd was just starting a contemporary service. A small group gathered in the gym while the main service happened in the sanctuary. The pastor traveled between services, preaching at both.

About five years ago, the contemporary service moved to the sanctuary. Over time, it has grown, and as a result of various shifts in our congregational life, it is now the largest service. We have an incredible house worship band who not only play liturgical, heartland and Ozarks inspired rock, they also often write their own music.

We continue to also have an amazing liturgical service accompanied by a talented organist and gifted ensembles like a choir and handbells. Sometimes I can't believe how blessed we are--our organist Bob Mueller, who teaches at the university and leads all kind of musical amazingness, generally writes the music our choir sings.

And, as I mentioned, the liturgy of secular and readily available music continues apace. I rarely listen to tapes now (although I did buy the new Sufjan Stevens album in that medium), but some of the music I hear daily on Spotify or the radio offers a kind of numinous brilliance that thoroughly strips away the difference between sacred and profane.

All of this is to say that many who experience a Bruce Springsteen or BeyoncĂ© concert as the height of worship are not wrong in thinking so, while many who wonder whether the last Sunday morning service they attended lacked something worshipful are also not wrong to consider the possibility. All of these may be worship, theologically construed. We need helpful theological equipment in order to discern how and whether some parts of life are closer or further from true worship.

What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with the so-called worship wars? Well, those wars the church was supposedly waging over styles of worship have now become a tiny notation on a vast musical score.

It's certainly still true that some traditional liturgists look disdainfully on contemporary trends in worship music and write it off. And it's certainly true that some contemporary praise personalities look with equal disdain on historic forms and styles of worship.

But in spite of all that, the worship wars are over, because:

The world is big and increasingly Christian (Globalization) The worship wars were an incredibly narrow cultural phenomenon to begin with, even if their cultural location (English-language, "western") gave them a global reach that impacts worship the world over yet today. But this hold that western cultural forms has over global Christianity is waning, and there is increasing reverse influence, as more and more hymns from the world over make their way into hymnals and songbooks and band repertoires.

Churches are making more and more of their own music (Enculturation) Although on the one hand its true that musicians like Kendrick Lamar or Taylor Swift, or big worship ensembles like Hillsong United, seem to occupy a lot of our musical landscape, on the other hand if you just burrow down into any local community you find out how widespread music is extending, and how many people are making it. I do think the average church-goers sings less than they used to, but there may be more worship leaders in faith communities than ever before. And a lot of them are finding ways to make very local, indigenous music.

People are making worship their own in their daily life (Laicization) This is sometimes also the secularization thesis, that people are becoming disconnected from specific faith communities because their life of faith is more embedded in daily living, and the sense that one needs to attend a Sunday morning gathering in order to "worship" is less and less felt. However you slice it, the Christian faith continues on a general trajectory away from clericalization and design of church life in the hands of a few, and towards more organic forms because nothing we do is excluded from being worship of God, and Christian faith generally resists reduction of worship to simply being defined as a cultic ceremony.

People are better at every kind of music (Professionalization) Remember those camp songs I sang as a child? At that time it really was true that mostly people played this kind of folk music in little homey spaces around a fire. In these intervening years, praise bands have found ways to make worship music as complex in its artistry as any Bach chorale. Different instruments, very different approach, but the technical mastery that goes into praise worship in a stadium is as complex and rich as any 3-hour performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor.

Service and praise are increasingly united (Diakonia) "As Paul set out in Romans 12 and underlined with his collection for the poor in Jerusalem, the worship of God as a human reaction to God's saving activity is not a sacred cult; it is the testimony of the life, serving one's neighbor in word and deed out of gratitude to God, doxology and diaconia in one. This testimony takes wholly concrete form in the collection of money, in standing up for justice, in a concern for the poor to be found in the Roman ports and trading cities, in a commitment, as Pliny reports, bearing out Romans 12:17-18, 'not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called up to deliver it up.' The creation and preservation of this coherence of doxology and diaconia in the life of the individual and within the community as an institution has been the fundamental practical challenge for the Christian way of life in every age, including our own" (Dalferth, 307).

The way forward, which we are now seeing everywhere, is to stop thinking about worship as a style, or a Sunday morning event, and instead consider worship as a way of life, a worldly activity like any other activity. If there is any kind of special place for Sunday liturgical worship compared with worship as a whole, it is thus to be found in expressions that bring greater awareness to this truth, a constant reminder that there is no time, place, or area of life in which God is not present in love (Dalferth, 312).

The worship wars are over because there never was a worship war to begin with. Worship has always been, and will continue to be, what it has always been inasmuch as Christianity embraces its non-cultic and areligious nature (think here of Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity). Worship is our grateful surrender of our whole life to God. If we have come to understand our whole lives as worship, then we will find ourselves quite open to the various expressions of liturgical or contemporary worship.

And we will be quite suspect of any of our assumptions if we think that worship is primarily what we do when we wake up Sunday morning and open a hymnal, or read from a projector screen. Only when we understand that such Sunday worship is designed simply to raise our awareness that all of life is worship will we finally realize the only war we have in worship is with ourselves.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A One Sentence Explanation of the Trinity

Trinity is what we ended up with when we started testifying to the experience that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

To Give Is Selfish | To Receive Is Generous

A Little Free Pantry showed up quietly this week on the curb of our church driveway. With little fanfare, what first looked like a Little Free Library was filled with basic necessities--toilet paper, cereal, toothpaste, deodorant, canned goods.

It's still new enough we're learning how it will work. It's also a new enough concept it has garnered a lot of attention. The local news did a spot on it, and our council president who installed it has had contacts from places like the Salvation Army offering to stock it. It's gone viral on Facebook, and social media more generally.

As the idea has taken off, we know more and more communities are planning to build similar pantries. Which left me pondering the question: What does it really mean to give? To receive?

One thing I know from long experience: If you are regularly in the habit of giving, it is very hard to receive. If you see something like the free pantry, you immediately assume you are a giver... you ask how you can donate.

If you are in need, however, it is difficult making the transition to receiving position. Questions come up: Am I qualified to take something? Is it okay to take a lot? Is it bad to take something?

The truth is, everyone who goes up to it has some need. Even if you fill the pantry with donations from your own kitchen, you fulfilled some need in yourself to give.

In some ways, the pantry is a Rorschach test on people's sense of human nature, charity, and need. Unlike a traditional food pantry, where one group of people places themselves in the position of donor, and another group comes asking in the position of client, this Little Free Pantry is an open source pantry, blending donors and recipients into an amalgam of dangerous yet freeing reciprocity.

If you think about North American urban culture in global and historical perspective, the fact that there are food and necessity deserts is an anomaly. Read narratives of the Depression, for example, or really most of American history prior to the rise of suburbia, people regularly stopped at the back step of houses or apartments and asked for food. Most kitchens were little free pantries, within reason.

But those days are gone in most suburban contexts today. A culture of shame(?) or fear(?) keeps people from walking through a neighborhood and asking for what they need.

In a gated and fearful world the idea of a Little Free Pantry has traction because it creates space for an intersection of needs. Those who need to give can do it safely. Those who need to take can do so with less shame.

One comment on the 5 News site read, "someone will take it all..." 

Yes, that's the point. And whoever does so will give the greatest gift of all. They'll meet the needs of those who desperately want to refill it.