Mystery in the Mundane

March 16, 2011 — 5 Comments

Jason-clark

I suppose that engaging with one’s professor’s published material ought to be nerve-racking. It is one thing to read, review, and critique the work of authors who, you are rather sure, do not know you exist nor would they likely stumble across your comments and, even if they did, likely wouldn’t deign to respond. This post, however, cannot hide under the cloak of my obscurity. The author, Jason Clark, is the lead mentor of my DMin program and the person who will be giving me marks at the end of the term on the nature of the posts that appear in this space. Yet with all that, I neither fear nor tremble. He is, and I say this in a way that he will hear as loving and kind, just another bloke.

His writing, however, is anything but ordinary. In the two chapters he contributed to the just-released Church in the Present Tense (which is co-authored by Scot McKnight, Pete Rollins, and Kevin Corcoran), Clark lays the foundation for a strong case of seeing consumerism as a religion–one that is doing more to form the lives and worldviews of Westerners than the Christianity that many of them claim to profess. His solution? Fight fire with fire, so to speak. No, not in the anti-consumer, culture-jamming way that is so masterfully picked apart in Heath and Potter’s The Rebel Sell. Instead, Clark proposes that the best thing to fight a liturgy of consumption is a liturgy of crucicentrism.

In his first chapter, “Consumer Liturgies and Their Corrosive Effects on Christian Identity,” Clark lays out why he thinks Christians are being held hostage by the cult of consumerism. Key in the discussion is the role of the church. Clark understands Christology and ecclesiology as necessarily linked. To separate one from the other is to do violence to both. In a related paper, he writes, “it is this uncoupling of the church from Christology (which) has been the root cause of the Evangelical churches’ inability to be authentically missional” (“SVS Not Another Mapping of the Missional Church” p. 8). Instead, Clark argues that what results from such an uncoupling is a type of Christianity that is too anemic to combat individualism and consumerism. Here, it is worth quoting Clark at length:

…we need first to understand the nature of the church, within the purposes of God, so that we can then understand the mission it has in the world, in forming the identity of Jesus with others. That understanding of the nature of the church must come from a canonical understanding of the church in creation, traced through Scripture, as the fulfillment of God’s purpose with Israel. For too long we have understood Christian identity as a conversion to Christ with a later optional incorporation into the church. . . . Our fear of the suggestion that the church is required for Christian identity might reveal the depths of our consumer individualism. It’s not that we have too high a view of church but too low and functional a view.
     Perhaps the most audacious claim of Christianity in the modern world might be to suggest that human nature and the purpose of life are not self-creating and self-authenticating but find their rule, organization, and fulfillment in the humanity of Jesus Christ with others. We are not free to be whatever we want to be. Who we are is found in Jesus with others, the depths of which exceed anything we can be on our own. (45)

What the world needs is not more books, blogs, or blueprints for how to do church, missionally or otherwise. Rather, the world needs reflective practitioners who are actually calling people to the cross in community, earnestly seeking to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What that might look like can, and ought, to vary from place to place. His own attempts at embodying an alternative to the consumer liturgy in his community of faith make up the bulk of his second contribution to the book, aptly titled, “The Renewal of Liturgy in the Emerging Church.”

Few churches can escape having some sort of liturgy–even if they formally shun the idea. Regular, predictable patterns emerge. Songs, announcments, offering, sermon, prayer, dismissal. We are creatures that take comfort in patterns. We live patterned, liturgical lives. How many of us start the day with a morning cup of coffee, drive to work via the same route whilst listening to the same radio station? It would require an extraordinary amount of time and energy to live a life (individually or communally) in which we never, ever, did the same thing in the same order twice.

What we rarely consider is that our liturgies form us. They are not just a stagnant set of activities which are neutral reflections of our preferences and our convictions. They shape us and condition us. In particular, the more we engage in liturgical elements which focus upon our ability to choose and consume things without respect to their origin or their future, we reinforce the notion that, fundamentally, life is about the satisfaction of the self above all.

With respect to our religious beliefs, we find that commodification takes hold as we create a world in which believers hold beliefs instead of beliefs holding believers. We are free to pick and choose from the great moral buffet and follow whichever beliefs that “resonate” most strongly with us. If there are things that make us uncomfortable or diminish our religious satisfaction, we simply discard them and replace them with other beliefs that are more amenable. “In such a culture, involvement in a church community becomes largely a matter of whether I am bored, offended, or interested, whether my perceived needs are met the few times I show up” (80). If it is not a good “fit,” the believer moves on. They’ve even coined a term for their search: “church shopping.”

The remedy for such commodification is, surprisingly, to restrict choice through the predictability of liturgy. By engaging in “sameness” week in and week out, worshipers may begin to experience a God who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” A God who refuses to be made into our image. Upon this idea many traditionally “low” churches are refashioning their services with a Eucharistic bent and following a liturgical calendar. These are things that Clark’s own community has done, and he has seen positive results.

Much of the liturgical calendar covers that time between Pentecost and Advent, simply known as “ordinary time.” It is during this time, Clark offers, when we recapture the gravity of fasting and the joy of feasting. Similarly, Robert Capon, in his masterful The Supper of the Lamb, talks of the necessity of both festal and ferial cooking. While the goal of any cook is to be able to prepare lavish feasts, it is in the ferial, or ordinary, cooking in which s/he must really shine. Without the ordinary, nothing can be extraordinary. Clark’s contribution encourages us to create communities in which we are raising up followers of Christ who lean into the mundane, the ordinary, even as the anticipation of the feast builds. In doing so, “[w]e accept the call to reorder the very fabric of our lives around the reality of Jesus rather than accommodating to and fitting our ways of doing church around the religion of consumerism” (86).

Ultimately, becoming missional as Clark perceives missional means that we must begin doing those things which we are so quick to write about, talk about, conference about, and brand as edgy new ways of “imagining church.” And, guess what? The “doing” part is probably going to be boring and mundane much of the time. The great adventure of “being missional” will settle into a pattern or, if we’ve got our wits about us, a liturgy. And that is exactly what we need.

Anderson Campbell

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  • MIchael Hearn

    Eddie,I too resonate with your intro. I thought the same thing about critiquing this book. Jason is one of the most humble, kind, and attentive professors I have ever had the blessing of being taught by. As to the meat of your post I always enjoy how well you write, one of the things that struck me is “In such a culture, involvement in a church community becomes largely a matter of whether I am bored, offended, or interested, whether my perceived needs are met the few times I show up” (80). If it is not a good “fit,” the believer moves on. They’ve even coined a term for their search: “church shopping.”I believe God calls us to a people/church and that we are to be a part of that local body to live, love, encourage, learn, teach, and enjoy life. As this is done we are to live out the gospel of Christ in every aspect of our lives. Instead we often fall prey to the desire to “shop around” until we find a better fit, all the while missing out on journeying through life to advance the kingdom instead of our own self-interests. At the “end of the day we end up consuming mission rather than doing the dirty work of bringing about a concrete church and mission.”(loci 1140)May we stop washing our hands and allow them to stay dirty for a while! #dmingml

  • Michael Ratliff

    I do find comfort in the fact that anywhere in the world I attend a United Methodist church where communion is being served, I will almost assuredly hear the invitation “Christ our invites to our table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sins before God and one another.” (The UM Hymnal, p12). The words are the same, no matter what accent, what context, or what language. The Eucharistic liturgy ties us together as one. There is comfort in the sameness, as you suggest. There is also the opening of a window onto the mystery of God represented in the sacrament. I am not focusing something I have to learn, but relying on the rhythm of the predictable to open myself to the habitation of God’s spirit. Journeying along a familiar road allows us to pay attention to the nuance of our surroundings instead of the navigation of a new path, and so it is with the experience of familiar liturgy along our spiritual journey. Being surprised by God may indeed happen most readily in the context of the mundane…may God find us in a liturgically supline position, palms open and raised, life open and ready through liturgy as “the work of the people.” #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    @Michael H. – You are right on. The call to a local congregation ought to be one of steadiness. While I think that allowances ought to be made for those rare times when the pastor of a church is one who teaches heresy, therefore prompting the Spirit to drive people to leave, most (if not all) people who end up going “church shopping” do so for much more self-focused reasons: they hear things from the pastor that makes them uncomfortable, they don’t like the music (or the volume level!), they don’t offer anything for ____________ (my kids, my husband, my dog…), they never________, they always ____________, you get the idea. Your observation that such behavior causes us to miss advancing the kingdom is right on. Instead, we advance our own self-interest, often at the expense of kingdom work.@Michael R. – As you have no doubt observed by reading my posts and through our conversations together, I find liturgical worship comforting and centering. Oddly enough, I’ve never been a part of a church which employed any sort of thoughtful (much less Eucharistic) liturgy. I have been, for my entire life, a fan of the free church. Yet its allergic reaction to liturgy is one of its failings. One of the great things about Jase’s story is his journey with his church from low church worship to high(er) church worship. Yet even he still struggles with finding the right way forward. A couple nights ago, he and I were talking about this very thing when he commented that what he really wants is to be “Anglo-cathol-emergi-costal.”

  • Chris Marshall

    “Anglo-cathol-emergi-costal.”? Gesundheit!I am finding liturgy to be incredibly helpful to our small community. The more we use, the more we find our space becomes communally sacred as opposed to only casual.

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – being in a Reformed and Presbyterian tradition that is situated between ‘free church’ and more liturgical churches I am comfortable with liturgies of various forms…reflecting upon your conversation with Jason…and his desire to be a blended churchman…it is difficult to move beyond the constrains of one’s past tradition, experience and the meaning embedded in them…yet it can occur as you know within your own life and Jason has experience in his context…belief can shape practice and practice in turn can shape belief [what Charles Taylor calls the long march]. At the end of the day, and where I am presently…it is not about being a blend of this or that…but whether I am centred in Christ and the liturgies of my life reflect and reinforce my life in Christ. And an after thought – It is true as Jason states that all that we do is a form of liturgy, yet liturgy, even Christian liturgy, can be idolatrous…the liturgy shapes one’s faith and the faith is grounded more in the liturgy than in Christ. #dmingml