In place of (non-)sacraments: Re-enchanting the Brethren


[Part 2 of a three-part series on James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.1 Part 1 is here and part 3 will be up next week!]

by Brian R. Gumm

A few weeks ago I wrote a post for the Anabaptist Missional Project blog entitled “The Sacrament of Mission,” which attempted to take key points of James K.A. Smith’s somewhat recent book – Desiring the Kingdom  – and explore its implications to Christian mission. My choice of title was there (and is here) a playful jab at the Anabaptist tradition which raised me, being as it is a mostly non-sacramental tradition for its five centuries of existence in various expressions.

While the Schwarzenau Brethren have long practiced the beautiful biblical-mimetic ritual we call “Love Feast,” there’s been the insistence that such practices – like baptism – are “ordinances” from Jesus. So we do them primarily because Jesus told us to, not because they have some “mystical” or “magical” power. Combined with a free church “priesthood of all believers” ecclesiology and liturgical practices, Vernard Eller could look at high church sacramental traditions in his book, In Place of Sacraments2, and pejoratively describe them as “commissaries,” dispensing with mystical goods and services. Better than all that, Eller described the (surprise!) free church model which he called the “caravan” approach to practices like the Lord’s Supper and baptism.

While honoring the good historical reasons that Anabaptists opted out of sacramental traditions (to their own peril, initially), appreciating much of Eller’s positive work in In Place of Sacraments, and being happy in our contemporary circumstances as a believers church tradition, still I wonder: Should we reconsider our bad attitude about the sacraments? In our desire to avoid magic-thinking, is there a way in which we’ve swung too far the other direction and depleted our social imagination as Anabaptists worshipping and serving a crucified and resurrected, therefore living, God? Have we thrown the genius of narrative-shaped ritual out with the sacramental bathwater?

I want to say that James K.A. Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom as it relates to worship practices – and his nuanced take on sacraments – should give Brethren something to chew on. This book would also be a good companion to Paul Fike Stutzman’s recent book, Recovering the Love Feast,3 giving Brethren pause on the trend toward less and less participation in the Love Feast. Has an impoverished imagination contributed to this decline? Might Stutzman’s virtuous project be aided by Smith’s thorough reflections on culture and character formation through liturgies both “sacred” and “secular”?

One of the core elements of Smith’s work in DTK is to reclaim Augustinian theological anthropology that sees human beings as primarily desiring/loving, even worshipping, animals. Fighting against post-Enlightenment individualism, Smith also enlists the help of philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in order to craft an anthropology that is social/communal from the word “go,” and sensitive to the role of narrative, images, and ritual practices, all of which act as “fuel” for a social imaginary that dynamically shapes communal identity formation.4

With this view of human nature, cultural production, and traditioned communities in place as a hermeneutical lens, Smith goes about “reading” cultural liturgies (“rituals of ultimate concern”)5 in both “secular” society and in a Christian worship service (albeit one that looks distinctly high church). Smith does both in order to help us see that “we will only adequately ‘read’ our culture to the extent that we recognize operative there an array of liturgies that function as pedagogies of desire”6.

With MacIntyrian virtue theory, Smith argues that practices have embedded in them a teaching element that hits us where it matters most: in our guts, in our heart. The element taught is an implicit vision of what human flourishing looks like by engaging in such a practice within such a tradition. So a trip to the mall teaches us (whether we’re reflecting on this or not) that human beings are primarily consumers and that human flourishing takes place when we’re spending money and accumulating stuff. Contrast that with an example that Brethren should find familiar: feetwashing. Implicit in such an act is the teaching that humans (like the True Human that we call “Lord”) are primarily servants and that human flourishing takes place when we serve 1) God in worship and 2) sisters and brothers near and far, in the church and out.

Confusion arises, then, when our social imaginations are fragmented and being colonized by any number of competing traditions (which is exactly the case in the postmodern condition), each with its own vision of the good life, or “kingdom come.” If we’ve been trained first and foremost as consumers, we’ll take this training to church and expect to practice it there. If our discourse ethics have been formed by the popular media – 24-hour cable “news” and the blogosphere – we’ll take those ethics to church and expect discourse to be done there in that fashion.

So how do sacraments fit into this? I think Smith is doing something simultaneously ancient and rigorously postmodern here. First, he says that “[w]orship is the ordering and reordering of our material being to the end for which it was meant,” and that “the very performance of Christian worship cuts against both dualistic gnosticism, which would construe matter and bodies as inherently evil, and reductionistic materialism, which would construe the world as ‘merely’ natural”7. Smith then suggests that “for the Christian social imaginary, the world is always more than it seems, without being less than it seems. It is characterized by a kind of enchantment”8.

This is a construal of “sacrament” that I think Eller might have liked. It mystifies the world without over-spiritualizing it. It privileges the church as the place “where God’s formative, illuminating presence is particularly ‘intense’”9, but doesn’t vilify “the world” with unhelpful, unbiblical dualisms. There’s a performative and participatory element throughout, and not just for clergy. Such an account of sacramental worship practices, I think, comports well with Eller’s vision for a “caravanning” tribe called “church.” Such a view on sacrament might also resonate with Scott Holland’s “Pietist as strong poet.”10 Brethren might do well to desire such re-formation and re-enchantment on The Way.

Brian R. Gumm[Brian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren (Northern Plains District) and is a graduate student at Eastern Mennonite University holding an MA in Conflict Transformation and finishing an Mdiv in Spring 2012. Brian actively blogs at Restorative Theology.]



  1. Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. []
  2. Eller, Vernard. In Place of Sacraments. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972. []
  3. Stutzman, Paul Fike. Recovering the Love Feast: Broadening Our Eucharistic Celebrations. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2011. []
  4. Cf. MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 3rd ed. Notre Dame, In.: Notre Dame University Press, 2007, and Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2001; Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. []
  5. Smith, DTK, 87. []
  6. Ibid., 73. []
  7. Ibid., 143. []
  8. Ibid., 144. []
  9. Ibid., 148 []
  10. Holland, Scott. “The Pietist as Strong Poet: A Brethren Corrective to the Anabaptist Communal Soul” in Dueck, Abe J., Helmut Harder, and Karl Koop. New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology. Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite University Press, 2010. []

Author: Brian R. Gumm

Brian is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren (Northern Plains District) and is a graduate student at Eastern Mennonite University holding an MA in Conflict Transformation and finishing an Mdiv in Spring 2012. Brian actively blogs at Restorative Theology.

  • Jayne Docherty

    Thanks for this Brian. I think you are onto something important here. Particularly in light of brain research that is helping us understand that embodied action is the foundation for new thinking more than new thinking is a foundation for new embodied action. I wonder if there would be less problem with division and splitting over “CORRECT interpretation” (correct KNOWING) if the Anabaptists reinvigorated their sacramental lives. There is something about the embodied practices of the sacraments that: a) lets grace and the Holy Spirit into our lives (opens us to the vertical and not just the horizontal axis of the Kingdom); b) reminds us that the Kingdom is a mystery, and c) helps us remember that it is “above our pay grade” to know the exact boundaries of God’s kingdom.

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