Category Archive: Theology – Liturgical
The other day I started reading T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach, in which Gordon protests against the sort of thing that passes for preaching, he says, in many evangelical churches. In his first chapter, he presents seven essential criteria for a sermon, and not just a great sermon but just a good sermon or even a mediocre sermon. One of those criteria is unity. Gordon cites Dabney:
Unity requires these two things. The speaker must, first, have one main subject of discourse, to which he adheres with supreme reference throughout. But this is not enough. He must, second, propose to himself one definite impression on the hearer’s soul, to the making of which everything in the sermon is bent” (cited 24).
Gordon proposes this test: “If ten people are asked after the sermon what the sermon was about, will at least eight of them give the same (or a similar) answer?” (24).
I wonder about this alleged “essential.”
First of all, it would be very easy to say what a sermon is “about” if the sermon is topical. If you’re preaching on the subject of baptism, the congregation ought to be able to say afterwards, “That sermon was about baptism.” If you’re preaching on marriage, at least eight out of ten people should be able to identify the topic as marriage.
But if you’re preaching on a text of Scripture, that criterion becomes much harder to apply. Sure, there are easier passages. If you’re preaching on 1 Peter 3:7, people should recognize that you’re talking about the calling of Christian husbands with regard to their wives (or, as eight out of ten congregation members might say if you asked them, “The sermon was about husbands”).
But what if you were preaching on, say, the Ehud narrative in Judges 3. What’s that sermon “about”? Well, it’s about Ehud. It’s about Ehud assassinating Eglon, the fat king of Moab, and rescuing Israel and then leading to Israel to victory against the Moabites. It’s about Christ, who strikes the first decisive blow and then leads his church to victory. It’s about how God turns those who oppress his people into stinking piles of what you leave behind when you’re “covering your feet” and how he thereby makes his people laugh. You could say “It’s about deliverance” or “It’s about war” but how inadequate a summary that would be. Ask most congregation members and they might say “It was about Ehud.” But the inability to state one clear topic (“The sermon was about X”) doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a fault in the sermon.
Second, I wonder about the emphasis on unity as opposed to diversity. When I was in seminary, I learned (and good training it was, too) to craft for my sermon a theme statement. It had to contain an active (not passive) verb and it ought to have the application implied, at least in nuce, something like “Paul summons us to adopt the mindset of Christ” for a sermon on Philippians 2:5ff. The sermon would then usually have two to four points drawn from the text, all related to that theme in some way. Again, that was good training and I’m thankful that I learned how to craft such a sermon and that I followed that practice for several years at the beginning of my ministry.
But something else happened when I was in seminary. I was working on 2 Kings 3 for an Old Testament class. I had done my exegesis and was preparing my sermon, and I bounced my sermon outline off Jim Jordan, asking him if he thought that I had caught the theme of the passage. His response, if I remember correctly, was something like this: “I think you’ve caught a theme of the passage.”
But then he went on to ask why we would think that a passage could have only one possible theme. God, after all, is Triune. He is both one and three, both Unity and Diversity and the source of unity and diversity. There may, he said, be a number of different ways to sum up the theme of the passage, different things that one could bring to the surface, including some little details in the text that may not fit perfectly with the theme I had chosen but that still were in the text.
It took a long while for his words to sink in, but I’m persuaded of them now. You might preach a text faithfully and yet have a different theme statement than I would have, and that wouldn’t necessarily mean that one of us had caught the theme of the passage correctly while the other hadn’t. It might just mean that you and I are bringing out different facets or aspects of the passage. I might think that something in verse 3 is particularly significant, but you might brush right past it and camp instead for a long time on verse 5. It might be possible to camp on both verse 3 and verse 5 and risk having people say, “I wasn’t sure if that sermon was more about X or about Y.” If X and Y are both in the passage, what does it matter if people think that instead of one main point you had two? In fact, when you’re preaching a passage of Scripture, isn’t the primary unity of the sermon found in its source, namely, that what you’re saying — though you might be talking about X and Y and Z — all is drawn from and relates to the one passage you’re preaching?
As Jim Jordan taught me, God is one and three and his triunity is reflected in his word and may be reflected in our preaching. That’s not necessarily one theme and three points. It may be one sermon, one text, with three interwoven, intermingling themes. It may be that if pressed to say what a sermon was about, your congregation could reply, “It was about a lot of stuff — about deliverance and the importance of singing the psalms and about God remembering us and about justice and why we shouldn’t pray for God to look on us in mercy and not in justice and about how God turns the tables on our enemies and … well, it was about Psalm 9.” Unity, yes. And diversity.
In a recent essay (“Tragic Worship“), Carl Trueman claims that the modern push for “entertaining” worship isn’t actually entertaining enough because it neglects tragedy, which is one of the highest forms of entertainment. He writes:
Perhaps some might recoil at characterizing tragedy as entertainment, but tragedy has been a vital part of the artistic endeavors of the West since Homer told of Achilles, smarting from the death of his beloved Patroclus, reluctantly returning to the battlefields of Troy. Human beings have always been drawn to tales of the tragic, as to those of the comic, when they have sought to be lifted out of the predictable routines of their daily lives—in other words, to be entertained.
From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams, tragedians have thus enriched the theater. Shakespeare’s greatest plays are his tragedies. Who would rank Charles Dickens over Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad? Tragedy has absorbed the attention of remarkable thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Terry Eagleton.
What strikes me is that, with the sole exception of Shakespeare, everyone listed here as a great tragedian is a pagan or an unbeliever: Homer, Aeschylus, Williams, Hardy, and Conrad. In fact, the close link between paganism/unbelief and tragedy is so obvious that one of the proposed paper topics in one of my English classes in university years ago was on the possibility of Christian tragedy. One answer might be that when Christians, including Shakespeare, write tragedies, theirs are different: Shakespeare wasn’t writing Aristotelian tragedy, nor did he share the bleak despair of a Hardy, and even in the deaths of his characters, beauty shines out, the beauty in particular of virtue, the beauty of what’s good. While paganism is characterized by tragedy and despair, Christians embrace what Peter Leithart calls “deep comedy.”
But what puzzles me in this essay is what this tragic strand in Western literature has to do with the character of the church’s liturgy. Trueman writes: “Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken.”
But what Trueman seems to overlook is that the Lord’s death is precisely not tragic. The gospel of the cross doesn’t share in the “can’t fight the gods” fatalism of Aeschylus or its modern Hardyian form, nor is Jesus’ death like the deaths of Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth. We don’t feel good about Jesus’ death because in it we see man’s hubris being punished (Aristotle); we rejoice in it because in it man’s sin was dealt with and because, having death with sin, Jesus rose again. Remembering the Lord’s death in the Supper and remembering the death of Tess Derbyfield are two very different things.
Furthermore, while Trueman is correct in saying that “Death remains a stubborn … and inevitable reality” (I question his use of the word “omnipresent”), I don’t grant that “human life is still truly tragic.” Even in great western literature, not every death is tragic. When Aragorn kills an orc, there’s nothing tragic about the death of that orc. When Boromir rescues Merry and Pippin and then dies of his wounds, his death is sad but not tragic. When your grandmother falls asleep in Jesus, her death is sad, but not tragic — and beyond her death, there is the certainty of her bodily resurrection in glory, because in Christ death is swallowed up in victory. (And unlike Trueman, it seems to me that while the emphasis of the funeral ought to be on Christ’s triumph over death, there’s nothing wrong — let alone “most ghastly and incoherent” — with “the celebration of a life now ended.”)
Certainly, there is sorrow in this life. I agree with Trueman that Christians can and should lament. Paul tells us to sing psalms, and many of the psalms are full of lamentation. I’m all in favor of restoring the psalms to the Christian life and to the church’s liturgy, though I would add the caveat “as appropriate.” Why? Because it’s not appropriate for lamentations to predominate in the liturgy.
Trueman praises “the somber tempos of the psalter, the haunting calls of lament, and the mortal frailty of the unaccompanied human voice” of his Scottish Presbyterian tradition, but those adjectives — sombre, haunting, unaccompanied — hardly seem to fit with, say, Psalm 150 or with the descriptions of the Levitical choirs that David established or the heavenly choirs in Revelation. God apparently delights in accompanied singing (indeed, the word “psalm” itself implies accompaniment!), and apparently he likes it loud and vigorous, at least much of the time.
Trueman claims that “traditional Protestantism” connected “baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection.” That’s as may be — washing is certainly as valid a connection as death and resurrection — but again, the death associated with baptism, linked so closely with resurrection, was far from tragic. He points to the reading of the law every Sunday: “Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ.” Leave aside the question of whether the reading of the Ten Commandments before the confession of sin tends to emphasize the so-called “first use” of the law instead of its primary use as a rule of life and even grant the questionable assertion that the reading of the law “pronounces the death sentence” and apparently carries it out (so that believers are in “their graves” after it!), we still have a progress from death “to resurrection life in Christ” — so why should the rest of the service be sombre as if we were still dying or dead?
Is there room for sorrow in the Sunday service? Perhaps, in measured doses. It’s not inappropriate to sing Psalm 51 in connection with the confession of sins. On occasion, it may be right and fitting to sing a lamentation. But what ought to be the dominant note of our worship, even when we’ve been deeply convicted of our sins? It certainly isn’t tragedy. Nehemiah 8 points the way:
Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.
When you’re preaching the narratives in Scripture — and this is particularly true when you’re preaching the Gospels — you have to answer the question: Am I preaching a particular text or am I preaching the event described in that text?
Here’s what I mean: At a certain point in his earthly ministry, just as he leaves Bethany one day on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus sends two men out to get a colt for him to ride on. That’s an event and it is recorded in all four Gospels.
But it isn’t recorded in exactly the same way; it’s not as if Mark, Luke, and John all say what Matthew says, word for word. Rather, each evangelist tells the story in his own way. Matthew and John cite Zechariah 9:9, which speaks of the king coming to Zion, lowly and riding on a donkey, but Mark and Luke don’t. Matthew tells you that the disciples brought two animals, a donkey and its colt, but the other evangelists mention only the colt, and Mark and Luke don’t even indicate that the colt was a donkey (which, I submit, suggests that they expect you to know that from reading Matthew). Mark and Luke make the point that the colt must be one on which no one has ever ridden, but Matthew doesn’t say that. Mark says that the crowds shouted a welcome to the kingdom of David, but the others don’t; Luke says that they shouted “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest,” but the others don’t. And there are a host of other differences, too.
So what do you do when you preach this passage? One approach is to preach the event, perhaps attempting to include (and harmonize) all the details from all four Gospels. The event actually happened and all the details of it (though accepting that the various details do harmonize and being able to show that they do are two different things).
This is sometimes a valuable thing to do. For instance, in John’s Gospel Jesus comes to the temple and overturns tables and drives out the sacrificial animals, and he does something similar in the other three Gospels. But there is a huge difference. John is describing an event that takes place early in Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels report something that happened just before the cross. For a number of reasons, I take these to be two distinct events, one at the beginning and one at the end of Jesus’ ministry. No one Gospel reports both, but it wouldn’t be improper for a pastor to preach a sermon on both texts, perhaps showing how Jesus inspects the temple twice, just as a leprous house is inspected twice in Leviticus.
Preaching the event in that way has its place, just as a topical or thematic sermon has its place (e.g., a sermon on infant baptism that draws on a number of texts). It seems to me that this is what Klaas Schilder does in the meditations (not sermons) in his magnificent Christ in His Sufferings trilogy, often with breathtaking results. But here’s the problem: A sermon like that — preaching the event of the “triumphal entry” — isn’t preaching what any one Gospel actually says.
By trying to focus on the event and drawing in all the details from all the Gospels, such a sermon fails to say what a particular Gospel says. Matthew has a reason for drawing attention to Zechariah 9:9, but Mark and Luke have a reason not to. Mark is interested in Jesus as the son of David and his kingdom being the restored Davidic kingdom, but that’s not Luke’s point; Luke is interested in showing how the crowds shouted something similar to (and yet different from) what the angels shouted when they appeared to the shepherd, but that’s not John’s point. Each one is doing his own thing, drawing attention to one detail or another in order to make his own point, and if you preach the event, you miss that distinctiveness.
That said, there’s also a ditch on the other side, namely, preaching one particular text while ignoring what other texts about the same event say. And so I read commentaries on Mark 11:1-11 that say, for instance, that the colt could have been a horse. Not according to Matthew. Or they say that it wasn’t the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna” and later on “Crucify him” because the ones shouting “Hosanna” were the Galilean pilgrims traveling with Jesus and the ones who shouted “Crucify him” later were the people of Jerusalem. Except that where Mark tells us the people traveling with Jesus shouted “Hosanna,” John 12 says that there was a crowd shouting the same thing that came from Jerusalem to meet Jesus — and some of them may have been shouting “Crucify” later. (Mind you, so may the Galilean pilgrims who traveled with Jesus, since, after all, they were still in Jerusalem at that time!). I read a commentary last night that talked as if these acclamations were offensive to Jesus, but Luke 19 says that Jesus refused to rebuke the crowds and told the Pharisees that if they kept silent even the stones would cry out, which certainly doesn’t sound like disapproval. In each of these cases, it appears that commentators have so focused on Mark that they have forgotten that Mark is describing an event and that he isn’t the only one to do so.
Now it’s not necessary for your sermon to include everything the other accounts say. If you’re preaching Mark 11, you don’t have to mention what John 12 says about there being a crowd coming from Jerusalem to meet Jesus or what Matthew 21 says about the colt and its mother being brought to Jesus. You may simply talk about the crowd with Jesus and the colt. But you do have to avoid saying something in your sermon on Mark 11 that would contradict those other passages.
Preaching the event is certainly permissible, sometimes particularly valuable. But it isn’t the same thing as preaching the text with its distinctive focus. And on the other hand, preaching the text allows you to say what the Spirit inspired a particular author to write, but it isn’t helpful if it focuses on the text to the exclusion of the actual event and the other accounts of it.
I was thinking recently about what is often called “contemporary” worship music and I began to wonder what exactly is meant by “contemporary”? The obvious answer might be “Contemporary worship music is worship music that has been written/produced in recent years.” So a song that was written in the 1800s would not be “contemporary,” while a song written last year — or maybe as long ago as the 1990s? 2000s? — would be. “Contemporary” is new, “non-contemporary” is old, and the only question is what date marks the boundary line.
But two questions immediately come to my mind:
First, why should we call something “contemporary” based on the date it was written? What about its usage? Imagine that there’s a song that’s suddenly on the radio a lot, people are singing along to it, people are requesting it, and so on. You’d say that that song was popular. It’s popular at the time it’s being played. Now that song may have been written many years before it became so popular, but that doesn’t matter. It’s popular right now. In fact, not only is it popular; it’s also contemporary — an old song, sure, but one that is part of contemporary culture because people are singing, requesting, and playing it.
Apply that now to the church’s music. Some of the music that people view as “non-contemporary” or even as “traditional” is still being sung — and sung vigorously — by other people today. It’s a staple of their church’s music. It’s a song they sing several times a year. More than that, it’s a song that many people, including children in the church, love. Given the opportunity to pick a song, they request that one. Sure, the song wasn’t written in the last decade and may have been written a couple hundred years ago, but isn’t it still contemporary, not based on its date of composition but based on its being sung by congregations today?
Second, though, does “contemporary” in these discussions refer only to the date of the song’s composition or does it refer really to the style of music, and specifically to whether the song sounds like today’s pop/country/folk-rock/whatever hits on the radio? Take two songwriters. One is producing a worship song that sounds a lot like a hit by Coldplay. The other is, let’s say, working in a conservative Lutheran tradition and produces a song with a square melody that’s recognizably in the tradition of church hymnody. Both songs are completed on the same day, so in that sense they’re both “contemporary.” But that doesn’t really matter, does it? Only the first would really get called “contemporary.” The latter wouldn’t. In which case, “contemporary” isn’t really the best word to describe this sort of music, is it?
In his provocative (and sometimes wrongheaded) Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day stresses that the liturgy is not only corporate, as opposed to individual, but that it is also to be carried out with objectivity rather than subjectivity. In the ritual, he says, individuals surrender to something bigger than themselves, so that instead of emphasizing their own individuality or their subjective experience they are taking part in something corporate. Worship is “common prayer,” not a bunch of individuals who are each praying their own prayers.
Take the Scripture reading, for example:
A good example of objectivity in place or removed for purposes of de-ritualization can be found in the manner of proclaiming scriptures aloud at a liturgy. According to the traditional method, someone chants the words from the Bible or reads them in a neutral tone of voice; that is, objectively. The words themselves might tell of something joyful or horrible or ecstatic, but the voice of the reader remains steady and objective. According to the latest de-ritualizing technique, the reader dispenses with all efforts to remain objective and, instead, colors the story with little, personal touches: dramatic pauses, emphasis on certain words, quotations spoken “in character,” and so on. The reading takes on the style of one of those novels or children’s stories on tape; everything is all very vivid, to be sure, but, without the objectivity, those words of scripture disappear behind the display of personality. We do not hear the words of Genesis or Matthew or Paul; we hear (and watch) Bob or Suzy or Joe give us a personal interpretation of scripture. Bob, Suzy, and Joe do not want to be participants in a collective action; they want us to remain aware that, above all, even above and beyond the words of scripture, they are Bob, Suzy, and Joe (45-46).
I hasten to add that Day is not saying (and I certainly am not) that liturgical reading of Scripture ought to be monotonous, robotic, with nary a trace of emphasis anywhere and never a change of pitch. What he is saying (and what I want to stress) is that the Scripture reading is not a time for the reader’s own individuality to come to the fore, not a time for him to draw attention to himself. It’s not appropriate to dramatize the reading, giving the various disciples their own distinctive voices or sounding as if you’re weeping when you’re “being” Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb or raising your volume to shout “Lazarus, come forth!” or … adding … dramatic … pauses and emphases and changes of pitch. All of that may be fine and appropriate when you’re reading a novel to your kids at home — by all means, give Long John Silver a distinctive voice when you’re reading Treasure Island — but in the liturgy the reading ought to draw attention to the text, not to the reader.
What about some other aspects of our common worship? Take the phrase “common prayer,” which is the term used to describe the whole liturgy in the Anglican tradition (The Book of Common Prayer). The liturgy is full of prayer, but these prayers are not the time for the display of one’s own personality or one’s own experience. The prayer of confession in the Sunday morning service is not the time for weeping and gnashing of teeth as one mourns one’s sin. The prayer for the needs of all Christendom (often called “the long prayer”) is not the time for the minister to launch into flights of eloquence (“Oh, Pastor, you pray so beautifully!” someone says). The various prayers the congregation prays are not the time for the members of the congregation to express themselves with overly dramatic enunciations, which rank up there with lagging behind the congregation or rushing ahead of them as a liturgical annoyance. Such things draw attention away from the prayer itself and to the pray-er, and may (at least in the case of the eloquent pastoral prayer, give the congregation the impression that to truly be able to pray well, one must be able to come up with sponteneous tour-de-force prayers the way the pastor seems to every Sunday).
Add one more thing: the pastor’s clothing. It’s possible that some people think that distinctive clerical garb is a way of drawing attention to the pastor, and it certainly can be. If the clothing is garish and gaudy or even if the minister wears it out of pride, then it doesn’t serve its purpose. But its purpose is not to emphasize the personality of the minister. Quite the opposite: The purpose is to de-emphasize his personality, to cover him up so that no one can see what sort of tie he’s wearing today or wonder why his wife let him out of the house wearing that, and instead to emphasize his office and the role that he’s performing during the service.
The Lord’s Service is corporate, and so it ought to be objective. The focus ought to be, not on me and my experience or my abilities or my personality — even if I’m the minister. Rather, the focus ought to be the liturgy itself, on the text of Scripture, on the words we’re singing or praying, on what the group is doing together and on what God is doing to us as we draw near to Him.
It’s finally available: Peter J. Leithart & John Barach, eds., The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).
Foreword — R. R. Reno
Introduction — Peter J. Leithart
PART ONE: BIBLICAL STUDIES
1. The Glory of the Son of Man: An Exposition of Psalm 8 — John Barach
2. Judah’s Life from the Dead: The Gospel of Romans 11 — Tim Gallant
3. The Knotted Thread of Time: The Missing Daughter in Leviticus 18 — Peter J. Leithart
4. Holy War Fulfilled and Transformed: A Look at Some Important New Testament Texts — Rich Lusk
5. The Royal Priesthood in Exodus 19:6 — Ralph Allan Smith
6. Father Storm: A Theology of Sons in the Book of Job — Toby J. Sumpter
PART TWO: LITURGICAL THEOLOGY
7. On Earth as It Is in Heaven: The Pastoral Typology of James B. Jordan — Bill DeJong
8. Why Don’t We Sing the Songs Jesus Sang? The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of English Psalm Singing — Duane Garner
9. Psalm 46 — William Jordan
PART 3: THEOLOGY
10. A Pedagogical Paradigm for Understanding Reformed Eschatology with Special Emphasis on Basic Characteristics of Christ’s Person — C. Kee Hwang
11. Light and Shadow: Confessing the Doctrine of Election in the Sixteenth Century — Jeffrey J. Meyers
PART FOUR: CULTURE
12. James Jordan, Rosenstock-Huessy, and Beyond — Richard Bledsoe
13. Theology of Beauty in Evdokimov — Bogumil Jarmulak
14. Empire, Sports, and War — Douglas Wilson
Afterword — John M. Frame
The Writings of James B. Jordan, 1975–2011 — John Barach
The book is currently available for order directly from Wipf & Stock for $40.00 (but there are discounts if you order more than 100). In a couple of weeks, it should appear on their webpage, and in six to eight weeks should appear on Amazon.
In an essay in Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth, which I’m rereading, Doug Wilson comments on one of the names used for God in Beowulf. God is the “Lord of Victories”:
“No man could enter the tower, open hidden doors, unless the Lord of Victories, He who watches over men, Almighty God Himself, was moved to let him enter, and him alone” (ll. 3053-3057). Whether the victory is Grendel falling before Beowulf, or Satan crushed beneath the heel of Christ, God is the only One to bestow any victory.
The psalmist asked the God of Israel to rise up and scatter His enemies; whenever the Power of His right hand is pleased to do so, those enemies are driven before Him like smoke in a gale. The Church today is a stranger of victories because we refuse to sing anthems to the king of all victories. We do not want a God of battles, we want sympathy for our surrenders. We need to be taught to sing as Alfred the Great taught his men before going into battle — “Jesu, defend us” (43).
And that starts with us learning to sing the Psalms. Do we not have enemies? Do we not love our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted in the Middle East and in Darfur and throughout the world? How can we truly love them if we are not singing the imprecatory psalms and hymns like them, calling on the King of Victories to rise up and overthrow their enemies and rescue them?
This afternoon, I began rereading Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful For the Life of the World. Since I had just blogged about food as communion, I thought it would be good to pass on these quotations from the first chapter:
“Man is what he eats.” With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature. In fact, however, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man. For long before Feuerbach the same definition of man was given by the Bible. In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.
Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth, according to the author of the first chapter of Genesis, is God’s instruction to man to eat of the earth: “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat….” Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: “… that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom” (11).
Later on, Schmemann goes further:
“Man is what he eats.” But what does he eat and why? These questions seem naive and irrelevant not only to Feuerbach. They seemed even more irrelevant to his religious opponents. To them, as to him, eating was a material function, and the only important question was whether in addition to it man possessed a spiritual “superstructure.” Religion said yes. Feuerbach said no. But both answers were given within the same fundamental opposition of the spiritual to the material. “Spiritual” versus “material,” “sacred” versus “profane,” “supernatural” versus “natural” — such were for centuries the only accepted, the only understandable moulds and categories of religious thought and experience. And Feuerbach, for all his materialism, was in fact a natural heir to Christian “idealism” and “spiritualism.”
But the Bible … also begins with man as a hungry being, with the man who is that which he eats. The perspective, however, is wholly different, for nowhere in the Bible do we find the dichotomies which for us are the self-evident framework of all approaches to religion. In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God.
The world as man’s food is thus not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (14, last paragraph break added).
Recently, I’ve been reading Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which has been occasionally illuminating, not only for reading literature in general but also in terms of reading the Bible. (I hasten to add that the Amazon reviews point out a number of genuine problems with this book, too.)
Reading literature (including the Bible) is not like doing math. When you do math and come up with a certain solution to a problem, you can go back and prove your solution so that anyone else who understands math can follow along with you. But “solutions” in literature aren’t often that way.
Sometimes, of course, you can point to a particular passage that spells out your point. Sometimes you can appeal to the grammar (“That verb is past tense and so it must be talking about something that happened in the past, not something that’s still happening today”) or to history (“The Scarlet Pimpernel is set during the French Revolution, which went through various phases, and therefore…”) to establish your point.
But sometimes you can’t. When a writer sets a scene in the winter and describes the bleakness of the setting, is that symbolism? Well, it sure feels like it sometimes, especially if what happened just before winter arrived is that the main character’s beloved left. When a writer includes a meal — think of the extended meal scene in the movie Babette’s Feast — is that a form of communion? You might think so, but it would be difficult to “prove,” because reading is not a science.
Foster’s book is intended to help readers spot things they otherwise might not. Food as communion is just one of the themes he spends time on, and his comments in that chapter are quite helpful, shedding light on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (sometimes a meal in a story can substitute for sex), Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Heartbreak Restaurant (why can’t the mother get the whole family to sit down together for a meal, until the end of the book?), and James Joyce’s “The Dead.” About the latter, Foster writes:
No writer ever took such care about food and drink, so marshaled his forces to create a military effect of armies drawn up as if for battle: ranks, files, “rival ends,” sentries, squads, sashes. Such a paragraph would not be created without having some purpose, some ulterior motive. Now, Joyce being Joyce, he has about five different purposes, one not being enough for genius. His main goal, though, is to draw us into that moment, to pull our chairs up to that table so that we are utterly convinced of the reality of the meal. At the same time, he wants to convey the sense of tension and conflict that has been running through the evening — there are a host of us-against-them and you-against-me moments earlier and even during the meal — and this tension will stand at odds with the sharing of this sumptuous and, given the holiday, unifying meal. He does this for a very simple, very profound reason: we need to be part of that communion. It would be easy for us to laugh at Freddy Malins, the resident drunkard, and his dotty mother, to shrug off the table talk about operas and singers we’ve never heard of, merely to snicker at the flirtations among the younger people, to discount the tension Gabriel feels over the speech of gratitude he’s obliged to make at meal’s end. But we can’t maintain our distance because the elaborate setting of this scene makes us feel as if we’re seated at that table. So we notice, a little before Gabriel does, since he’s lost in his own reality, that we’re all in this together, that in fact we share something.
The thing we share is our death. Everyone in that room, from old and frail Aunt Julia to the youngest music student, will die. Not tonight, but someday. Once you recognize that fact (and we’ve been given a head start by the title, whereas Gabriel doesn’t know his evening has a title), it’s smooth sledding. Next to our mortality, which comes to great and small equally, all the differences in our lives are mere surface details. When the snow comes at the end of the story, in a beautiful and moving passage, it covers, equally, “all the living and the dead.” Of course it does, we think, the snow is just like death. We’re already prepared, having shared in the communion meal Joyce has laid out for us, a communion not of death, but of what comes before. Of life (13-14).
I don’t know that Foster is right to say that all meals in literature are communion in one way or another. If a writer says, “I was grabbing a burger at Joe’s when the trouble broke out,” the burger isn’t likely to be communion. Food serves other roles beyond just communion. Food can be fuel; it can also be reward.
But it does seem likely to me that any extended meal in a story is going to be significant (why else write about it?) and that shared food — or even, as Foster mentions in the chapter, shared cigarettes — forges bonds between people, not just in stories but in real life. Of course, as in the example from Joyce, meals may also be taken in isolation or may be times of hostility, not communion, and the lack of communion in such cases may be significant.
The point, then, is not to take every meal as “communion” but to have communion on your mind when you come to the meal and to ask “Why is this here? What’s really going on? Are these people being bonded by the food they’re sharing? If not, what else might the author be showing us?”
God has designed food as a form of fellowship. Think of the dietary laws in the Old Covenant and how they symbolize the bonds that Israel may or may not form with the Gentiles. Think of the sacrificial system, where the worshiper is represented by his offering, which is then consumed in the fire on God’s altar as “food for God.” That’s what we want to be, and symbolically that’s what’s happening to the worshiper. Think, too, of the times people prepare a meal for the Angel of Yahweh, sometimes without recognizing Him, and He refuses to eat with them. You don’t usually eat with people you’re angry at, and neither does God. And think, of course, of the Lord’s Supper in which we partake of Jesus, the great sacrifice, and are nourished by Him, but in which also we become one bread, one body, with one another.
Without committing ourselves completely to Foster’s dictum (“food is communion”), his chapter ought to alert us to a common function of meals in the stories we read and especially in the Bible. If you’re interested in pursuing more food theology in the Bible, I’d highly recommend Peter Leithart’s Blessed Are the Hungry.
In his lecture entitled “Introduction to Worship,” available here, James Jordan points out that one way to tell what Satan hates is to see what things that God wants in worship are missing or abused. What does Satan hate? One thing he hates is Psalm singing. Says Jordan,
The other thing the devil does not want is congregations singing the Psalms because the Psalms are full of holy war stuff. If you start singing the psalms, you start getting iron in your bones.
You know that Psalm 68, “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered,” was the marching song of the French Reformation. They would sing it as they went into battle. The Huguenots in France would sing it all the time. Of course, they didn’t have air conditioning then, so the windows were open and all the Catholics heard it, and it made all the Catholics so afraid that eventually the king outlawed singing Psalm 68 in public. So they’d go around whistling. And they had to outlaw whistling that melody.
Now, people are not afraid when they hear us sing “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” They are not worried about you.
This move away from Psalm singing, it seems to me, has taken more than one form:
(1) Many churches do not sing the Psalms at all. They may sing hymns or gospel songs or praise songs, but they don’t sing the Psalms. In some of these churches, the Psalms are read; they may even be read responsively. That’s better than nothing, but it’s also rather strange, isn’t it? The Psalms were written to be sung. David didn’t simply read them. The Levites at David’s tabernacle didn’t simply read them out loud. They sang them. If you went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, you’d be pretty disappointed if the performers read the text instead of singing. But in many churches, the Psalms are not sung and, in most services, are not read. And what that means is that the Psalms do not shape the piety, worship, expectations, language, biblical understanding, and so forth of the Christians in these churches.
(2) In some churches, a few Psalms are sung. If you look in a hymnal (e.g., the Trinity Hymnal produced by the OPC and PCA), you won’t find all the Psalms. You’ll find only some of them.
(3) There are songs that incorporate only a line or two of a psalm. Take the well-known praise song “As the Deer.” If you look at the first two lines, you’ll see that they are drawn from Psalm 42:1. But immediately the song leaves Psalm 42 behind. There are alternate stanzas that incorporate more of the psalm, but I certainly didn’t learn them and I doubt that a lot of Christians have. This is not Psalm singing.
(4) Most of the Psalms that are sung in churches — and I’m talking about churches that are committed to Psalm singing — are metrical Psalms. That is, someone has taken the Psalm and paraphrased it, arranging the words to fit a rhyme and rhythm scheme. Doing so necessarily requires you to depart from a strict word-for-word translation of the Psalm. For instance, “God” doesn’t rhyme with “sword,” so perhaps you change “God” to “Lord” to make the rhyme work. The length of each line of a metrical psalm has to be a certain number of syllables with the accent falling in a certain place (“Da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA”), so what do you do with a long line in the Psalm? You abbreviate it to make it fit. At times, you rearrange words, producing something like what Jordan calls “Psalms by Yoda” (e.g., “You’ve raised like ox my horn”).
Do these changes really matter? Yes. I’m not opposed to singing Psalm paraphrases, and I particularly love the Genevan psalms. They’re still, to my mind, the greatest versions of the Psalms produced. But nevertheless they depart from a strict translation of what God actually said, and I think it is important that we learn to sing God’s Words and not our paraphrases of them.
Metrical Psalm singing, good as it can be, is not full Psalm singing. A metrical Psalm is to a Psalm what a sermon is to a passage of Scripture. It’s a paraphrase, a poetic rendition, an explanation. But what about singing a good translation of the Psalm itself? Who would want to settle for a sermon instead of a Scripture reading? Who would settle for a poetic paraphrase instead of a Scripture reading?
But to sing a good translation, word for word, would require either a through-composed Psalm (and they’re somewhat hard to learn, given that there’s no repetition in them) or — horrors! — chanting. And immediately the objections start: “We can’t chant!” Why not? “Chanting is Roman Catholic!” No more than saying the creed or a host of other things we do in church. “Chanting would be too hard.” But aren’t a lot of worthwhile things hard at first? The question is: Do we really want to sing the Psalms or not?
(5) When churches do sing the Psalms, they sometimes do so in ways that rob them of their power.
* C. S. Lewis said that a lot of hymns in his day were “fifth-rate poetry set to sixth-rate music,” and that’s true of some metrical psalm versions, too. Sometimes the music doesn’t fit the words. Check out, for instance, the version of Psalm 88 in the blue Christian Reformed Church Psalter Hymnal, where the darkest Psalm in the Bible is set to light, bouncy music.
* When people think of “chant,” they often think of Gregorian chant. There are forms of Gregorian chant that can be quite powerful (e.g., the ones included in the Cantus Christi), but those aren’t what springs immediately to mind. Instead, when you say the word “chant,” people think of a choir singing Gre-e-e-go-o-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-i-i-a-a-n cha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-n-n-nt, with every syllable stretched out over a series of notes, rising and falling in a soothing way. That’s great for ambiance, with one candle lit, when you’re having dinner with your wife. But it isn’t warlike and it isn’t something the congregation can sing.
* The Anglican tradition includes a lot of Psalm chanting, but if you get a CD of it, chances are pretty good that it will be sung by a boys’ choir. Now there’s nothing wrong with a bunch of young boys singing in their high-pitched prepubescent voices. But the effect is more sweet than warlike, and such CDs don’t give you a good idea of what chant could be like.
* I mentioned above that I love the Genevan psalms. Sung at a good pace, they’re lively, dancelike, and at the same time warlike. You can imagine pounding your spear on the ground as you sing them. But sung slowly, in a dirgelike fashion, few people can stand them for more than a stanza or two. Ho hum.
And if you buy a CD of Genevan psalms, chances are that’s what you’ll get, perhaps because a choral performance, especially with people singing parts, needs to be slower to bring out the complexity of the music. For that reason, Bach’s motet “Jesu, meine freude” is going to be sung more slowly than the hymn “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.”
The other thing you’ll find on a CD of Genevan psalms (or, worse, in the liturgy!) may be an organist doing improvisation for a while between each stanza. Don’t get me wrong. That kind of stuff is fine — for a concert. My acquaintance Harm Hoeve is a great Dutch organist and he does fantastic improvisations on the Genevan psalms. But it kills congregational singing and it makes it unlikely that the congregation will want to sing more than a couple of stanzas.
So when you listen to CDs of this sort of music, you have to use your imagination. Imagine what the Genevan psalms would sound like if they were kicked up a gear or two and sung by a bunch of David-like soldiers. Imagine that those Anglican chants were being belted out by a bunch of tribal warriors : “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.”
Having said all of that, I must also say this: In criticizing these traditions, I’m not saying, “My church does this rightly, but yours doesn’t.” Rather, my aim is to point out something that the whole church, my congregation included, needs to work on. I don’t know of very many churches at all that sing all 150 Psalms, let alone in a good literal translation, let alone in a lively and martial way. What can we do to bring about a change?
So if a minister ought not to be a shopkeeper, aiming at getting more customers to buy the church’s goods, what should he be doing? Eugene Peterson gives three answers: praying, reading (actually: hearing) Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. Working the Angles devotes three chapters to each of those tasks.
When it comes to prayer, Peterson urges caution:
We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray (44).
That may sound odd, but consider Ecclesiastes 5:2: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.” Prayer is dangerous, Peterson maintains, and we should not pray lightly. But so often such light prayers seem to be what people demand of pastors:
One of the indignities to which pastors are routinely subjected is to be approached, as a group of people are gathering for a meeting or a meal, with the request, “Reverend, get things started for us with a little prayer, will ya?” It would be wonderful if we would counter by bellowing William McNamara’s fantasized response: “I will not! There are no little prayers! Prayer enters the lion’s den, brings us before the holy where it is uncertain whether we will come back alive or sane, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.’”
I am not prescribing rudeness: the bellow does not have to be audible. I am insisting that the pastor who in indolence or ignorance is politely compliant with requests from congregation or community for cut-flower prayers forfeits his … calling. Most of the people we meet, inside and outside the church, think prayers are harmless but necessary starting pistols that shoot blanks and get things going. They suppose that the “real action,” as they call it, is in the “things going” — projects and conventions, plans and performances. It is an outrage and a blasphemy when pastors adjust their practice of prayer to accommodate these inanities (46).
What does Peterson recommend as a remedy? Saturating ourselves in Scripture, and the Psalms in particular, understanding that all of our prayers are responses, second words in response to God’s first words:
What do we do? We do the obvious: we restore prayer to its context in God’s word. Prayer is not something we think up to get God’s attention or enlist his favor. Prayer is answering speech. The first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary… (47).
Another reason the church needs to return to singing the Psalms:
God’s readiness to hear and willingness to grant His people’s prayers are continually proclaimed throughout Scripture (Ps. 9:10; 10:17-18; 18:3; 34:15-17; 37:4-5; 50:14-15; 145:18-19). God has given us numerous examples of imprecatory prayers, showing repeatedly that one aspect of a godly man’s attitude is hatred for God’s enemies and fervent prayer for their downfall and destruction (Ps. 5:10; 10:15; 35:1-8, 22-26; 59:12-13; 68:1-4; 69:22-28; 83; 94; 109; 137:8-9; 139:19-24; 140:6-11). Why then do we not see the overthrow of the wicked in our own time? An important part of the answer is the unwillingness of the modern Church to pray Biblically; and God has assured us: You do not have because you do not ask (James 4:2). —David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance, p. 250.