Nov 6 2012

Uncommon Engagement: Shalom-minded voting and civic involvement

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Photo by Keith Ivey via Flickr

By Katie and Parker Shaw Thompson 

As brand-new Iowa transplants with our first landline, we both have to admit to being a bit giddy at our new-found status as coveted “swing state voters,” who happily give our time and opinions to nearly every pollster who seeks us out. So, we should admit to a bit of bias toward civic engagement. However, we believe that bias to be soundly rooted in our understanding of the teachings of the New Testament and the witness of faith traditions like the Church of the Brethren. It is this understanding that compels us to push back on our fellow Iowan’s argument for a “virtuous abstinence” from the political process, in favor of an even-handed, if thorough, engagement more akin to Yoder’s call to bring a Biblical realism to the ballot box.

It is true that our nation is currently overrun with ugly political partisanship and disgusting abuses of power and wealth. Furthermore, neither of the two major party candidates can be said to be adherents to our understanding of a Brethren peace witness. However, in a world that is estranged from the perfection and wholeness of God, Christians must make choices everyday between the lesser of evils in an effort to bring peace to God’s creation and to live lives that are pleasing to God.

Furthermore, both Brethren and Mennonites, as members of churches with Anabaptist heritage, take the responsibility of community seriously. In our understanding, this responsibility extends beyond the walls of the church and into our neighborhoods. Just as it is the personal responsibility of a good church member to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within community and then to struggle with that community to come to the best understanding of how to follow Christ, so it is the personal responsibility of a Christian living within a democracy to digest the positions of candidates and to struggle with their neighbors on a local and national level to find the best way to govern our living in order to seek the justice and welfare of all citizens.

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Aug 23 2012

Brethren Hermeneutics

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By Andrew Hamilton

I was recently rereading an old edition of Brethren Life & Thought and rediscovered a thought provoking article by Nadine Pence Frantz.1 In her article, “Biblical Interpretation in a ‘Non-Sense’ World,” Frantz offers a thought provoking discussion regarding the Believer’s of both modernity and post-modernity. Modernity, being most notably marked by the epistemological foundation of a Cartesian mind-set, lends itself hermeneutically to the understanding that the source of meaning lies within the individual. The basic idea here is that the individual receives unmitigated information regarding reality allowing the person to apprehend the said reality leading to an objective understanding of that reality. In addition to this objective apprehension is the role of individuality and particularity in this epistemology. First, it is only the individual who apprehends the objective information regarding the object (reality). Any other individual must also understand that which one individual understands regarding said object. Therefore if one person sees and understands the reality of a chair, any other individual will also see and understand the reality of the same chair. Secondly, the reality that is perceived by the individual is a particular reality that is not like any other. For instance the chair that is experienced by the individual is an oak high-backed chair and not just any chair. Therefore according to modernity, the individual can and must apprehend the objective reality of that particular chair. This process of apprehension relies upon the fundamental presupposition that the locus of knowledge and understanding is located within the individual, whom Frantz labels the “unmediated self of the Cartesian ego.”

As Frantz points out, this philosophical posture underlies the development of biblical criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therefore the result of this philosophical foundation was that there could only be one meaning for any text. Consequently the goal of historical criticism is to find the singular meaning that lies within the words written by a particular author during a particular time period. In order for the historical critical method to be applicable for contemporary readers and hearers, one must find the underlying universal principle, which extends out of the singular intended meaning of the text.

This desire and hunt for objective truth, however, eventually succumbed to the criticism and questions of postmodernity. While Frantz notes authors such as Derrida, Foucault, Schussler-Fiorenza, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, one of the most interesting examples is offered by Stanley Fish in his text, Is there a Text in this Class?2 What each of these scholars contributed included the recognition that individual perception is affected by a multitude of external factors including not least of these life experiences. Unfortunately, some of these factors include power, economics, gender, and class. In the real world it is the powerful, rich, and ethnically righteous who have been allowed to provide the normative interpretations and each of these aspects contributes to the shaping of the textual interpretations.

What these postmodern scholars did was to debunk the notion that any text contained a singular meaning. In essence it moved the locus of meaning from the mouth of the author to the mind of the hearer or reader. What postmodernity hermeneutics said was that regardless of what the author intends the hearer or reader creates the meaning. Again Fish illustrates this with the interpretation of a supposed poem by the students of his literary criticism class.3 While the class assumed that what they were looking at was a poem, they indeed provided an interpretation. However, the supposed poem, which they were observing, was in fact merely a list of author’s names. This particular narrative illustrates that the meaning of any text is subject to the individual’s (in community) perspective. What this means is that to live in a postmodern society is to live in a society that accepts a plurality of interpretations and meanings.

This then leads Frantz to pose the question, “Can the Bible mean in a postmodern world?” The answer is found in the relationship of the Believer’s church hermeneutic to postmodern approaches for interpretation. In order to find the relationship one must first understand the nature of the Believer’s church hermeneutic. Unlike other traditions, the Believer’s church traditions do not formulate their hermeneutic according to creeds or even statements of faith. Rather one of the primary factors of interpretation for these churches is the extent to which the believer is living the scriptures. Orthopraxis is emphasized rather than orthodoxy. In Frantz’ view this may offer itself as being a potential link to an encounter oriented postmodern world.

The Believer’s Church traditions understand scripture in a unique manner. Frantz states that her understanding of the Believer’s church’s view of the Bible is one that sees the text as primarily testimonial narratives. She says, “The stories, events, and worship materials recorded in the Christian canon are regarded as ‘a scattered series of documents emerging from the ongoing struggles of a community.’”4 In other words, the text of the Bible is not seen as containing a collection of principle truths or as merely a historical account. These churches understand the Bible to be a narrative of a group of people whose self-perception was defined by its interdependent and dialogical interaction with God. Therefore they emphasized the intent of the Bible as a whole to be a testimonial possessing rhetoric aimed at evoking a response. She specifically describes this as being “that which was told and recorded with the intent to evoke a similar life and faith in other people. It is intended to evoke an encounter.”5 Thus the only appropriate response to this testimony, according to the Believer’s church, was humble obedience.

Moreover the Believer’s church tradition holds to a contextual understanding of revelation. Unlike other tenets of Christianity, these churches do not believe that revelation is some sort of abstract truth. For them it is the insight received by the community of faith seeking to be attentive to the text within a particular context. Frantz describes it as “seeing a new way of interacting or of structuring community life.”6 Instead of attempting to shed the historical contextual information to get at the abstract kernel of truth, their understanding requires the concrete historical circumstances surrounding the text because it is only within real history that Christ can be known.

Modernistic hermeneutical approaches have notoriously attempted to separate the processes of interpretation, understanding, and application. While Frantz points to Hollinger’s compilation of essays, Hermeneutics and Praxis, as evidence toward this end, one can find evidence of this even within the practical manuals of biblical interpretation.7 However, for the Believer’s church tradition there is a fundamental link between epistemology and practice. Life experience is the validation of knowledge. One comes to know God through the living encounter with God as experienced with the reception of the scriptural testimony. In other words, interpretation essentially involves application. The exercise of interpretation is not complete until it is lived. The implication of this is that revelation requires a response to the encounter. Revelation is not revelation unless the recipient responds even as divine revelation demands a response. Revelation cannot exist exclusively apart from a response to it and in the same way the hermeneutical endeavor is not complete unless that which was understood is lived. This idea is perfectly expressed in Bernhard Rothmann’s quote: “And, if we, with constant diligence, earnestly do what we understand we will daily be taught further by God.”8 Therefore as Cornelius Dyke once stated, revealed truth is only received through obedience and understanding is only accomplished through the application of the information.

While postmodernity surely questions and ultimately denies the power of narrative, the Believer’s church tradition challenges postmodernity by an insistence of trusting the scripture to be a continuation of history which shapes our epistemological lenses and ultimately a testimony which elicits a response.

Andrew Hamilton is pastor of Akron Springfield Church of the Brethren and an adjunct professor of theology at Ashland Theological Seminary.This post originally appear on his blog Hermes Table.

  1. 39 no 3 Sum 1994, p 153-166 []
  2. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 33ff. []
  3. Ibid., 33ff. []
  4. Frantz, “Biblical Interpretation in a ‘Nonsense’ World,” 158. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid., 159 []
  7. See Randolph Tate’s, Biblical Interpretation. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997). In the introduction Tate’s discussion of interpretation completely eclipses praxis. He argues for procuring meaning through the exegetical process. []
  8. As cited in Cornelius Dyke’s article, “Hermeneutics and Discipleship,” Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Edited by, Willard Swartley, (Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 30. []
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Jul 15 2012

Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 2

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read part one of this series…

Liturgical Place

Early Brethren meetinghouses arranged their liturgical furniture in a rectangular or circular fashion. The benches faced inward to emphasize the community of believers gathered for worship. The presiders, often a panel of elders and ministers, occupied a bench as part of the group. There was no hierarchy of status, only a distinction of role. God’s presence was manifest in the faces of assembly.

Our first step was to re-arrange our liturgical furniture in this manner. Guided by our heritage and the prevalence of Table imagery in the biblical narrative, the pews were detached and removed. Of the 28 pews on the floor level of our chapel, we retained 11. The remaining pews were stored in the back portion of the chapel underneath the balcony. Our worship space transformed from a long rectangle to a square. The pews were positioned in a circle facing two tables joined as a “T.” These tables held dual representation: the section holding the Bible and cross (from which the presider would lead), representing the remembrance of God’s revelation in story and symbol; and the section holding the meal elements, including bread, cup, towel and basin (representative of Love Feast), and three candles representing the presence of the Triune God in the assembly’s midst. Each table was covered with purple paraments, the liturgical color for Lent. The tables were to serve as a visual representation of the larger Table of God, realized as part of the Love Feast celebration and now as part of weekly worship. We positioned the presider’s chair, formerly on the elevated chancel, as part of the circle to represent the shared presence of God and ecclesial authority in the midst of the assembly. The musicians were also included in an opening in the circle to accompany the congregation’s song.

The shifted pew arrangement in the chapel resulted in the elimination of our projection and screen. The reduction in technological dependence created anxiety in some, particularly because of an increased amount of paper being used each week in the printing of the bulletin. All prayers and song texts that were normally projected were now included in a 6 page folded bulletin. In our initial conversations, I encouraged the congregation to make use of the bulletin for their personal devotional practice during the week. I drew their attention to the ancient breviary, an abbreviated form of the worship used by priests and deacons for personal worship.

Engaging the Scriptures Together

The new pew arrangement involved a rethinking of proclamation and the delivery of the sermon. Since the entire worship space faced inward as a circle, there was no place to stand where the presider faced the entire congregation (except seated in the presider’s chair as part of the circle). In the week leading up to the first worship service in-the-round, I began practicing with various ways of delivering the sermon and addressing the congregation. Standing at the table portion containing the open Bible was one option, though it meant that my back was to part of the group. I decided to approach the act of proclamation as I was approaching the entire liturgical event itself: ecclesiologically. If the authority of the presider comes from the assembly where the presence of God is manifest, the work of telling the stories of Scripture and engaging the community in its interpretation must also be rooted in the actual gathered assembly. This meant adopting a conversational approach to the sermon.

The work in preparing for this method of delivery began in the research. Rather than preparing a written transcript as I was accustomed to do for the past several years, I spent that time immersed in the topic itself. I engaged in reading, reflection, and conversation with a small group of persons for the purpose of preparing for communal engagement. I then approached the delivery of the sermon conversationally. Our worship series during Lent focused on the parables of Jesus from Luke’s gospel, traveling with Jesus through Samaria to Jerusalem. This content provided the necessary framework from which to present the Scriptures. I memorized each parable to present as a story-teller, circling the table and addressing the congregation while moving. The interpretive work of the parable each week proceeded with full community engagement. Questions were asked, discussions enabled. The deep work in research allowed me to serve as the guide for the discussion, threading component parts together (either in circling the table or from a seated position in the presider’s chair). The conversation would lead into moments of silence for reflection, leading then into our day’s prayer for change. The interpreting of the Scripture became a communal act.

The Ritual Meal

As part of the emphasis on the biblical Table image and socio-spatial awareness, we participated in the ritual meal weekly during this project. Though the Brethren have historically limited their participation in Eucharistic activity to the Love Feast (or a handful of additional times annually), our specific context includes those from more liturgical traditions. Our group, though divided evenly on whether to engage in weekly Table communion, agreed to treat it as an exercise in submission and forbearance.

I decided to broaden our understanding of the meal service at the Table. Using our Anabaptist emphasis on the life and example of Jesus, I explored ways to move from an exclusive focus on the Last Supper in Eucharistic practice to involve the entire meal tradition of Jesus seen throughout the Gospels (which included the Last Supper narrative). This approach to content, coupled with the traditional Eucharistic prayer form of the historic church (the Great Thanksgiving), served to fuse our ecumenical leanings with our mandate to speak liturgically with a distinctly Brethren voice.

For the first three weeks of the ritual meal service, the congregation stood around the Table. This presented a physical difficulty for many as we attempted to pass the trays of bread and cups to each other while also holding our worship orders. In the final weeks, we adapted by gathering around the table for the sursum corda (opening greeting for communion) following the passing of the peace, and then returning to our seats. To maintain an Anabaptist ecclesiological perspective, we shared the bread and cup in pairs. One person from each pair would come to the table to retrieve a small wooden tray which held two cups and an unbroken fragment of bread for sharing. When each person returned to their seats with the elements, I led the congregation in the recitation of our sharing line (“Bread/Cup of heaven, hope of the earth”). This proved to be a more effective method of engaging in the meal service.

Assessment

It became clear to the congregation’s key leadership over the course of our exploration together that our tradition’s emerging practice of forbearance and submission took greater shape in liturgical exercises. Those who may have been opposed to weekly Table service or engaging in worship in-the-round willingly submitted their preferences to those who found it particularly meaningful. We discovered that while some experienced the presence of God most fully in the music or silence, others experienced God’s presence in the bread and cup. While some found circular seating distracting, others discovered new joy in seeing the faces of each other as an act of worship. For many, the horizontality and verticality of the worship act met in the choice to seek the betterment of each other through self-limiting. Though none of us walked away from the experience with a complete worship service we would want each week, we discovered that we were engaging in the actions of liturgy that we needed as a community. Our joy in loving God was realized in our willingness to love each other.

Christopher J. Montgomery pastors the Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren near Philadelphia. He is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. He blogs at Practicing Missional Worship.

 

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Jul 1 2012

Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 1

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read the second installment of this series…

Gordon Lathrop asserts that the role of the presider in the assembly’s worship is to “make the center strong.”1 Throughout my work in pastoral ministry, either in proclamation, leadership, or the arts, my formation as a presider for worship has been a pattern of challenge, epiphany, and growth. My understanding of the role of presider when I first entered pastoral ministry as a worship minister nearly a decade ago was shaped by a paradigm of authority. The presider receives authority from God to act toward the assembly. In the past several years, this thinking has shifted. Recent research in liturgical architecture, Table imagery, and an experience and understanding of God’s presence began the work of synthesizing our tradition’s emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers’ with the work of presider. Though the presider’s calling and work is an act of divine importance, the authority of the presider rises from the assembly itself which God has empowered.

The Triune God of our faith meets us in this place that has been created for us. Our response is a rhythmic gathering toward and sending from that presence to expand the renewing power of the divine initiative. It is in this rhythmic gathering and sending, when the assembly is engaged in the rituals of story and meal, that the presider finds authority and empowerment. It is dynamic divine-human interplay: God and the assembly engaged in a sacred dance of illumination and response.

What follows in this brief report is my work with an urban Church of the Brethren parish, re-imagining and rehearsing these essential ecclesiological principles in the form of architecture and ritual. My goal as presider, and as advocate for faithful worship, was to “make the center strong” in response to the full revelation of God’s presence.

Grounding Worship in the Love Feast

In the Church of the Brethren, the practice of quarterly or monthly observance of “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper” is held in tension with our two annual gatherings for the Love Feast. We have valued the Love Feast as an expression of the community’s unity and obedience to Jesus: services of feet-washing, a simple fellowship meal, and the sharing of bread and cup. The principal ethos of Love Feast is often confined to the celebration of the event itself. In the past decade, many leaders across the denomination have worked to encourage congregations to learn to speak with a distinctly Brethren voice. The Church’s broadening development of the peace tradition has produced polity statements calling for social justice, environmental stewardship, and a purposeful conviction that Jesus intends to renew the entirety of creation. These missional perspectives should be shared in our liturgical expression. The self-giving renewal of God’s shalom begins in the illumination of God’s presence and the assembly’s ritual response to God’s revelation. The Love Feast in the Church of the Brethren is the community’s engagement in story and meal around the Table. As the primary holy day in the life of the communion, should not its spirit impact the weekly worship of its people?

The ecumenical spirit that has permeated the Church of the Brethren has been reflected in our parish since its consecration in 1953. Inhabiting a former high-liturgical Baptist facility, our liturgy embraced the typical Presbyterian style that characterized mid-20th century Protestant worship: a choir in robes and stoles, elevated chancel and pulpit, a robed minister, and the two-folds of extended gathering and the service of the word. It was a worship built upon the experience of the intellect engaged with educated clergy. Throughout the following years, changes in the worship order and content progressed organically with the changing styles of the presiding ministers. Because our congregational practice gives ministers broad influence over the shape of worship, the liturgical environment shifted from formal Presbyterian in the 1950s to informal Baptist by the late 1990s. There was little that was distinctly Brethren in either form or content.The liturgical place itself betrayed the historic Brethren emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ An elevated chancel and pulpit from which the minister presided looked down upon an auditorium-style pew arrangement. A large stained-glass window displaying a crown hung recessed in the chancel. These elements, though aesthetically beautiful, highlighted the feeling of God’s distance from the midst of the assembly, holding implicit yet strong formative influence over the community that gathered for worship.

Understanding the history of the parish in changing worship, the broad vision of the denomination to reclaim a distinctly Brethren voice in worship and witness, and the theological implications of ecclesial expression, our congregation engaged in a process of liturgical exploration and renewal to discern our awareness of God’s presence through architecture and ritual.

Christopher J. Montgomery pastors the Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren near Philadelphia. He is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. He blogs at Practicing Missional Worship.

 Read on for part 2

  1. Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology Augsburg Fortress, 2006, 94 []
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Feb 21 2012

Questions about Technology and Community

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Our last double issue of volume 55 published a number of articles related to technology. Here are some great questions that emerged from that issue. Extend the conversation here!

Question for “Enough about Me, How Do You Like Me? How Social Networking Is Making Us

Fall in Love with Ourselves”by Shane Hipps

What is it about technology that might contribute to narcissism? In what way could social networks such as Facebook have the opposite affect? How might social networks actually promote consideration of others?

Question for “Technology and Christian Community”by Arthur Boers

Boers states that a group of people doing a common thing, such as watching the sametelevision program or using Facebook together, are not really a community.  Do you agree?

When we publish an issue we create study questions for some of the articles. We hope that this makes the journal a great resource for small group study. You can find the complete set of questions here While you are there take a moment to suscribe!

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