Sunday, April 15, 2012

Beautiful Music!

In the gospel of the Lord Jesus, God speaks into the ear of his child more music than all the harps of heaven can yield. I pray you, do not despise it. Be not such dull, driven cattle that, when God has set before you what angels desire to look into, you close your eyes to such glories, and pay attention to the miserable trifles of time and sense. --Charles Spurgeon

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Steak on a Paper Plate: A Reflection on Worship

--by Trevin Wax

When it comes to the atmosphere of worship services in the next generation, something’s got to give.

More and more churches are focusing on the centrality of the Word in worship. The resurgence of Reformed theology among younger evangelicals, the reestablishment of a rock-solid belief in the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures in the Southern Baptist Convention, the revival of expository preaching… this wave that we’re riding is about to collide with an even bigger wave: the dominance of contemporary worship styles across the U.S. and the world.

For many churches, the biggest requirement for a “worship set” is novelty. We’re aiming for an experience. So we put together a worship service that is more influenced by the latest hits on Christian radio than by theology or history.

We also try to put people at ease. “Good morning… Let’s try that again, GOOD MORNING!” There’s a chatty, street-level style of worship that has become prevalent in evangelicalism. And I’m not sure how our pursuit of novelty and casualness in worship is going to mesh with hearing the Word of God expounded upon in all its glory.

Can a contemporary, casual service bring worshippers face to face with the glory of God in a way that buttresses and upholds the magnificent truths being expounded from the Word? I think the answer is yes, but not always.

It’s like eating steak on a paper plate.

My wife is an excellent cook. Her Romanian dishes dazzle my tastebuds, and her American cooking is terrific too. In the past couple of months, she has been using paper plates frequently. I understand why. We don’t have a dishwasher. She wants to save time setting the table, and she doesn’t want me washing dishes after dinner. Paper plates are easy and disposable.

But after a few weeks of paper plates, I told my wife, “Your cooking is too good for paper plates.” Slapping down a hot dog and baked beans on a paper plate in the middle of summer is just fine. But when my wife makes her famous pork chops and rice, or her Romanian cabbage rolls, or steak and mashed potatoes, paper plates just don’t cut it. I said, “Let me wash the dishes. But at least give us dishes!”

When it comes to worship, we are frequently told that form doesn’t matter. Style is not what’s important. I get that. I’m not downing contemporary music or advocating a return to liturgy, organs and hymns. I’ve been in contemporary worship services that have put me on my knees before the holiness and majesty of God. Cultural forms adjust and adapt.

But in worship today, there is a tendency toward casualness. The emphasis on feeling God’s closeness in worship may short-circuit the possibility of being transformed by a glimpse of the Transcendent One. There’s hardly any room for feeling awe in worship, and I can’t help but think that part of our problem is the form.

Form and content mirror one another. A church with serious Bible preaching is going to have a serious worship service (contemporary or traditional isn’t what matters, but serious it will be). A church with a feel-good preacher is going to have peppy, feel-good music.

Christians need to sense the weight of God’s glory, the truths of God’s Word, the reality of coming judgment, and the gloriousness of God’s grace. Trying to package the bigness of this God into most casual worship services is like trying to eat steak on a paper plate. You can do it for awhile, but at some point, people will start saying, “I want a dish.”

Monday, April 9, 2012

Scripture as Performance

Fresh Words

There is an expression that I hear from time to time in Christian circles: ‘fresh words’ from God. What interests me about this expression is not so much that to which the expression directly refers, but what it might imply, for these ‘fresh words’ from God tend to be contrasted with the word that we have already been given in the Scriptures.

While those employing the expression may not intend to suggest as much, there is an implication that the Scriptures are not ‘fresh’, but are perhaps somehow ‘stale’. Although they may be dearly loved, they are old, somewhat threadbare, and starting to show their age. For some they may be treated with that curious embarrassed respect usually reserved for relatives in their dotage: they should be accorded honour, but not taken too seriously. They achieved great things in the past, but they are no longer so relevant to where we are now: we badly need something a little more timely and contemporary.

One of the images that can encourage this perception is that of God finishing writing the book of Revelation, putting down his pen, and sending the Bible off to the publishers. Almost two thousand years later we still enjoy the Bible, but wonder whether God has published anything else lately. Within this post I hope to challenge this picture on two fronts. First, I suggest that there are more appropriate images in terms of which we can think. Second, I wish to argue that God’s writing work is ongoing, and to suggest a more biblical way of viewing the continuing role of the Scripture in our lives.

The image of God as author completing his book, ceasing his writing work, and entrusting it to publishers and interpreters is one that exerts a strong hold upon us. Surely, we think, this is what must be implied by the idea of the closing of the canon, for instance. The divine revelation was completed almost two thousand years ago and now we have the task of interpretation of what the Bible meant in the context in which God revealed it and application, wherein we identify the implications of the text for us today. Revelation belongs entirely to the past. We must interpret the meaning of what God said to people in radically different contexts millennia ago in order to think about what he might say to us today, were he still speaking.

This picture, I submit, is neither the most helpful, nor is it the most appropriate to the sort of thing that Scripture is. For Scripture is a text that was written to be performed.

The Performed Work

To some extent or other, every text is to be performed. Nevertheless, there are some texts that are particularly designed for performance. When we read Shakespeare, for instance, we recognize that the home of Hamlet is not principally on the margined page in the bound book on the shelf, but in the performance on the stage. The ‘revelation’ or ‘truth’ of Hamlet is disclosed, not chiefly in the act of private and silent reading from the text, but in the consummate performance of it by gifted thespians. The once for all activity of the author is finished, perhaps many centuries ago, but the work itself is realized through the contemporary action of many other parties.

One of the first things that this helps us to realize is that the ‘revelation’ of the text, although founded upon the completed writing of the playwright, is not itself completed but is on-going. Likewise, there is no simplistic opposition that can be drawn between application and interpretation, nor ought we to think in terms of an engagement with the text from a distance, as if it did not also address us directly. The script written for performance is realized in that performance. The realization and the interpretation of the script come together in performance: in the act of performance, the interpreter realizes the work, under the authority of and in accordance with the completed script.

The ‘meaning’ of the performed work is not a reality consigned to the past that we have to unearth and ponder over, but is something that continually arrives as the script is related to our world within its performance. The performed text looks us directly in the eyes, and speaks truth into our world, in the unique situation in which we find ourselves. No two performances are the same, or an exact repetition of a previous performance, nor should they be. Each performance must be faithful to the script, while relating it to a particular world. It is in the performance that distemporaneous worlds strike up a conversation, and transformation occurs.

Of course, this does not mean that careful textual study of works in their original contexts is not essential. This study is necessary if we wish to be faithful to the script. However, this is neither sufficient as the act of interpretation, nor is it the central act of interpretation: the central act of interpretation must always be the performance.

Scripture as Performance

This may all sound very interesting, but how does it relate to the text that God has actually given us? Looking at my Bible, I am uncertain about what it might mean to ‘perform’ it. Are we talking about moral application? How exactly would that move us beyond our standard way of seeing things, with its attendant problems? The Bible neither looks nor feels much like a script.

I suspect that some measure of our problems in this area results from the form in which we encounter the Scriptures. For us, Scripture is the Bible on our shelf. That is, the Scripture is a mass-produced, privately-owned, freely sold, printed and bound text, containing all of the books of the Scripture between two covers, in a set order, versified, with navigational tools, study apparatus, etc. This book is primarily encountered in the act of private and silent reading. It is principally engaged with through the eye. When someone speaks of the Scripture, it is this that we think of.

What we risk forgetting is that this way of encountering the Bible is a rather novel one. Before the invention of the steam-powered printing press, and also before Gutenberg and earlier book technologies, the Scriptures and engagement with them necessarily took a very different form. For the vast majority of Christians, the Scriptures would have been encountered almost solely in the context of the performance of the Scriptures in the Church and its life. The Scriptures were to be heard and spoken, to be sung, prayed, read aloud, preached upon, enacted and memorialized in the sacraments. The script was held in honour (and prior to mass reproduction, each Bible had more significance as a ‘performance’ or unique creation in its own right, demanding countless hours of skilled labour and immense cost to produce), often being heavily decorated, processed into the Church, kissed or otherwise treated as a sacred object. However, it was in the script performed, rather than in the script detached from performance that the Scriptures were encountered. This encounter with the Scripture occurred in the context of the assembled Church, and primarily through the ear.

An understanding of Scripture as performance is not solely about the character of the physical text, however. We must relate this position to deeper theological and redemptive historical questions about God’s activity of writing his Word. I hope to demonstrate that the case for Scripture as performance finds a basis in the most fundamental character of Scripture and its place as an actor in God’s drama.

Scripture as God’s Fresh Word

Reading the New Testament we can be struck by the manner in which Scripture is regarded as speaking with incredible directness to its hearers, even though they are far removed in time and context from those to whom it was originally addressed. Paul can take the record of the Exodus from Egypt in 1 Corinthians 10 and, with incredible hermeneutical boldness, relate it immediately to the Corinthians: ‘Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come.’ The Scripture is seen to transcend its original context, addressing us with no less force and immediacy than its original hearers.

The Scriptures are not only texts written for performance, they are also formative texts. While we are often inclined to think of the relationship between Scripture and our lives in terms of two different worlds, between which slender cables of moral parallels transport precious applications from the world of Scripture to the world of our lives, the relationship that Paul seems to envision for the Church is profoundly thicker than this. The Scriptures are to become and to form our world. Our lives are to be improvisations governed by the themes or symbolic matrix of the Scripture.

For Paul the story of the Scriptures and the story of the later Church belong together, like successive movements in a single symphony, bound together by the same themes and motifs. As we listen to the story of Israel, we hear that God has already introduced our theme! The story of Israel, while being about Israel, is also about us. It transcends its own historical moment in history to relate itself to our own. For Christ and the writers of the New Testament, the Scripture wasn’t merely a dead letter referring to a past time, but a figure, an ‘icon’, in which we can recognize the form of Christ and of ourselves as his body.

Christ perceived his vocation as a performance – as the Performance – of the Scriptures. All that he did was in accordance with them. Likewise, the Church is to perform the Scriptures and the gospel of Christ in a manner that leads to the discovery of our world within the figures of the text and Christ, to whom it witnesses, and to discover Christ within our world through the text’s contemporary performance. Performing the Scriptures as formative figures, rather than reading our Bibles for illustrative parallels, cuts our lives and world from the cloth of God’s Word.

The Scriptures Made Flesh

The Scriptures narrate a movement from inscripturation to incarnation, from the Word made script, to the Word made flesh. It is within the context of this truth that we are to understand the place and significance of the Scriptures in the life of the Church today.

The promise of the new covenant is that God will write his Law upon the hearts of his people. We see this promise realized in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life is the complete, consummate, and definitive Performance of the Scriptures. He is the fulfilment of the text. In Christ, the text that had suffered the resisting hardness of stony hearts for centuries, takes the form of a perfect lived existence. In Christ the purpose or end of the Scriptures is achieved.

However, the new covenant promise is not merely realized in Christ, but also in his body. In Christ, the Spirit is writing God’s Law – which is the form of Christ – onto the hearts of his people. Through this writing, in Christ our lives become part of the fulfilment of the text of Scripture. Christ is written into our lives and the Holy Spirit works out his Performance in us.

This is the message of 2 Corinthians 3. In Christ, in the life of his body, the veil that lies over the Scriptures is removed and we encounter Christ himself as they are read. We see the telos of the Scriptures – the Word made flesh – within the Word made script. As the veil is removed and we see the Word made flesh in the Scriptures – for they bear witness to him – we are, by the work of the Spirit, transformed into his image. Through this transformation the Word takes up residence in our flesh too. Through our engagement with the Scriptures as the body of Christ, we enter into Christ’s performance of/as the Father’s Word, through the direction of his Holy Spirit.

The key point to recognize here is that God’s writing hasn’t ceased. God continues to write his Word. However, in Christ this word is no longer in the form of texts standing outside of human communities, but in the form of performing communities, in whom the figures of Scripture are realized in beautifully variegated manners appropriate to historical, cultural, and personal context. God is writing his definitive Word – Jesus Christ – into a new humanity. Scripture is the DNA of the new creation in Christ.

An important biblical metaphor for our relationship with Scripture is that of ingestion. Scripture is something on which we ruminate and with which we are fed and edified. Scripture is something that can be hard to swallow or chew. It can burn our insides, as it did the prophet. It can feel bitter like the swallowed book of John in Revelation. Scripture is something outside of us that we must continually feed upon in order to live. As we digest it, it becomes part of us, but never in a way that negates our continued dependence upon it, or its otherness from us.

The reception of the Word is consummated as the reception of Christ himself, the one in whom they are fulfilled. In the sacrament, which is a performance of the Word (in the undiluted ambivalence of that expression), the reception of Christ as the Word and Bread of God is disclosed in our bodies, and through feeding on him our bodies as the communing Church are realized as word.

As we receive God’s Word in such a manner we grow into a deeper and fuller relationship with the Scriptures. Although their otherness is not extinguished, they also become part of us. There is a unity and continuity of being between us and the text, a unity most fully manifested in the Church’s public and diverse performances of Scripture in the many forms of its worship. In the new covenant Scripture can be recognized as our home, our world, our food, our life, our flesh. It is a word that is close to us, in our mouths and hearts. It is word that is living and active, discerning our thoughts and intents, and dividing us as a sword for living sacrifice. It is a word that speaks directly to us and our situations. It is a word that translates us into Christ, the one who speaks to us in them. Surely there can be no fresher word than this!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Jesus: Our Navy SEAL

My last contact with the late Professor John Murray — to whose writings and influence I, like many others, owe a lasting debt — was particularly memorable for me, partly because I asked him a question to which he gave the answer: “That is a difficult question!” As a somewhat diffident young person it was something of a relief to know that my question wasn’t totally stupid. It is a question on which I have continued to reflect.

So, what was the question? It may seem a rather recondite one. My question was about the translation and the theological significance of the word used both by Peter (Acts 5:31) and the author of Hebrews to describe our Lord Jesus: archegos. Jesus is the author of our salvation who was made perfect through suffering and as such brings many sons to glory (Heb. 2:10). Now the same term reappears towards the end of the letter, in Hebrews 12:2, where our Lord is now described as “the author of our faith who brings it to perfection.”

This explains why, while we are encouraged to read about earlier heroes of the faith (Heb. 11), it is only on Jesus Himself that we are to fix our gaze. If our eyes should stop on anyone who came before Him we will have missed the whole point of the chapter. The Old Testament heroes of faith never received what was promised; they lived before the time of fulfillment. They exercised faith, but they were all trusting in the promise that would be fulfilled in Christ. By contrast, Jesus is the “author” of faith and He is also the one who experienced and expressed it to the full. It is wonderful to think about Jesus in this way. But how do we do so? What did this mean for Him?

Archegos describes an inaugurator, a trail-blazer, a pioneer — someone whose achievements make it possible for others to experience the benefits of what he has done. The school our two eldest sons attended held an annual “Founders’ Day” service at which the two brothers who had first begun the school centuries before were remembered and honored. They had begun something the benefits of which our children entered into and shared. They were archegoi.

But we might describe other religious leaders in these terms, as founders of great movements. Hebrews means more than that when it says Jesus is our archegos.

Think, if you will, of a lone reconnaissance officer who has moved ahead of his platoon, which is in great danger. He is looking for a way of escape. He cuts his way through a jungle, only to discover himself face to face with a gaping ravine. There seems no way forward, but unless he finds one all is lost. He throws a lasso-like rope to the other side of the ravine, and manages to catch it on a tree on the far side. He then risks all by clambering across to the other side, hand over hand, inch by nerve-racking inch. He secures the rope, and manages to create a rope bridge. Eventually he leads his whole platoon over the ravine on to the safety of the other side.

This is a better picture of Christ as our archegos! He is the divine Reconnaissance Officer who has crossed the deep and dangerous ravine between fallen man and holy God.

When this term archegos first appears in Hebrews, it is in a context in which the author has just cited the words of Psalm 8 with reference to Christ. Psalm 8, in turn, is in part a meditation on Genesis 1:26–28. It reflects on the way Adam was made as the image and likeness of God and was given dominion over the earth. He was called to live by faith and obey God’s commands. He was created to be the divinely appointed gardener who would turn the whole earth into a garden, and thus, as it were, extend the glory of God.

But Adam failed. Instead of exercising the privilege of reflecting God as his image and experiencing in his miniature what it meant for God to be Lord of all — Adam forfeited it.

Enter Jesus, the archegos of salvation (Heb. 2:10) and the archegos of faith! He came to undo what Adam so disastrously did, and lead us back through the jungle to the garden. He crossed the ravine, the unbridgeable gulf between sinful man and holy God. And He did this as the Second Man, but now the Man of Faith, trusting in and living by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

At the beginning of His public ministry He decisively overcame the powerful opposition of the Enemy who sought to keep Him out of territory He had formerly conquered. Having established His presence in that territory, He pressed on into the deepest and darkest part of the jungle. As He came to the edge of the ravine and looked across, He was heard by His followers to say, “This is the hour of the power of darkness” (see Luke 22:53). Indeed, so dark and thick was the jungle, so utterly lonely the task of crossing the ravine that — now so far beyond His followers and shrouded in darkness — He was heard to cry out: “My God, I am forsaken! Why?”

How intriguing that He should be buried in a garden, and that His first steps as the resurrected Adam should be in a garden, and one of His most devoted disciples should (mistakenly) address Him as though He were the gardener (John 20:15). Gardener? In truth He was … taking His first steps in the resurrection body, the first fruits of the final restoration.

Jesus is not merely another in the long line of heroes of the faith. He is the archegos of our faith!