Mar 13 2012

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

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[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?

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  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. []
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