Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (2)

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Image: Unsplash (CC0)

In my previous post, we looked at how Luther applies the principles of promise, necessity and faith to the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer — where we exercise our faith in God’s promise to meet our dire need for the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, and protection from temptation and doubt. Now let’s turn to the second half of the prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread

What does this mean?
God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers; but we pray in this petition that he would lead us to know this, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

What is meant by daily bread?
Everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, property, fields, animals, money, goods, a believing spouse, believing children, believing servants, believing and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and so on.

Once again, we see how our prayer is not needed to persuade a reluctant God, but is founded on an unconditional promise: “God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers.”

As for the “dire need” that is addressed here: well, it amounts to pretty much every need we have in our everyday lives; “everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body,” ranging from the basics of food, drink and shelter, to the need for “good government,” “peace,” and so on.

Many expositions of the Lord’s Prayer would put matters such as social justice (“good government”) and peace under the first half of the prayer: the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of his will. However, there is something refreshing about Luther’s perspective here, particularly in a time where world events can otherwise lead us to despair. For those of us who feel that a President Trump or a vote for Brexit would be the opposite of “good government,” perhaps even (in our more despairing moments) the opposite of “peace,” it is healthy to be reminded that all these are matters of “daily bread,” not “the kingdom.”

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, or deny our prayers on account of them; for we are not worthy of any of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them. Instead we pray that he would grant all our petitions by grace; for we sin greatly every day, and all we deserve is punishment. In the same way, for our part, we will sincerely forgive those who sin against us, and readily do good to them.

Luther’s exposition of this petition is the first not to include an explicit statement of promise — but then, the promise on which the forgiveness of our sins is based has already been set out in the first half of Luther’s exposition.

Indeed, what we find in this petition is a personal appropriation of the promises of the first three petitions: that the promise of forgiveness held out in the proclamation of the Word, which we receive by the faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit, would be ours; and that we would lead a “godly” life as a result, at the heart of which is our imitation of God in extending to others the same forgiveness and goodness that he has shown to us.

And lead us not into temptation

What does this mean?
God tempts no one. However, we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and that, though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.

Again, the promise: “God tempts no one.” But again, the dire need: “that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us.” And again, the faith we exercise as we pray, confident in God’s promise that “though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.”

But deliver us from evil

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would deliver us from every evil of body and soul, property and honour; and that in the end, when our last hour comes, he would grant us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this vale of tears to himself into heaven.

Again, the promise is implicit here, this final petition being based on everything that has gone before, and with our every dire need encompassed in that single word “evil”. The need for salvation, for daily bread (in all its multiple aspects), for forgiveness, for preservation from temptation, and — finally — from the fear of death itself. In this final petition, our faith develops into hope as we look forward to “our last hour,” the promise of “a blessed end,” and the hope of being taken from “this vale of tears” to be with God forever. (Note that the Creed has already reminded us that our ultimate hope is not “going to heaven” but the resurrection of the dead.)

Amen 

What does this mean?
That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that He will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

The promise that has undergirded every word of our prayer has been the promise that “these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them”; a promise that addresses the direst need of all when we pray, our need to be heard, for us not to be talking into the air. So we make our final affirmation of faith in that promise by saying “Amen”: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

 

Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (1)

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Photo: Greying_Geezer (CC BY-NC-SA)

In my previous post, we saw how Luther describes the five ingredients for “valid” prayer:

  • the promise of God;
  • our dire need;
  • faith;
  • earnestness;
  • praying in and through Christ.

It’s worth looking at how the first three of these, in particular, undergird Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism (the final two are more pervasive in nature). Let’s look at each petition, and see how Luther’s exposition can be related to God’s promise, our need, and our faith in the promise.

Hallowed by thy name 

What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may become holy among us also.

How is God’s name kept holy?
When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God lead holy lives in accordance with it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches and lives other than as taught in God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Preserve us from this, Heavenly Father!

This establishes the pattern found throughout Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. First, a clear declaration of God’s promise: “God’s name is certainly holy in itself.” As we saw in my previous post, it’s the assurance that our prayer is, in a sense, unnecessary — because God’s love and goodness towards is so unshakeable in any event — that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place: “that it may become holy among us also.”

So there is the dire need we face: the need for God’s name to “become holy among us also,” a need that is met “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity.” Our greatest need, Jesus tells us in teaching us this prayer, is the Word of God; and not just the Word of God in the abstract, but the Word of God “taught”, the Word proclaimed in the life and ministry of the church. And to pray this petition is itself an act of faith in God’s promise that this Word will be taught and proclaimed among us.

Thy kingdom come 

What does this mean?
The kingdom of God comes by itself even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.

How does God’s kingdom come?
When our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.

It’s one thing for us to hear the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, taught and proclaimed, but to receive the benefits of that gospel we need faith — and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is in the coming of the Holy Spirit, working faith in us, that the kingdom of God comes to us, Luther tells us; echoing here, perhaps, Christ’s words in Luke 11:13.

In telling us to pray this petition, Christ assures us of the promise that “the kingdom of God comes by itself”. He also shows us our “dire need” for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us. After all, as Luther has told us in his exposition of the Creed, to confess my faith in the Holy Spirit is to admit that I am incapable of such faith under my own steam:

I believe that I cannot … believe.

So we pray, confident in the promise that as we hear Christ’s promise, the Holy Spirit is working in us the faith that enables us to pray at all.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

What does this mean?
The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

How is God’s will done?
When God breaks and hinders every evil plan and intention which do not want to let us hallow the name of God or to let his kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh; and when he strengthens and keeps us steadfast in his Word and in faith until our end. This is his gracious and good will.

Again, Luther starts with the unconditional promise that is implied by Christ’s instruction to us to pray this petition: “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.” But our dire need is “that it may be done among us also.”

Above all, our need is for protection from the opposition that the proclamation of the Word of God (first petition) and the Holy Spirit’s working faith in us (second petition) arouse: every “evil plan and intention” of “the devil, the world, and our flesh”; the temptation and doubts of Anfechtung, which undermine our ability to keep us “steadfast in his Word.” Once again, Christ’s instruction to pray this petition gives us the confidence to do so in faith, assured of the promise that “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.”

So we reach the halfway point in Luther’s exposition. In my next post, we’ll look at his explanations for the final four petitions, but in the meantime, let’s review where we’ve got to so far.

To be honest, in the past I have found Luther’s exposition of these petitions somewhat narrow and repetitive in scope. Other, more modern, expositions of the Lord’s Prayer cover a seemingly wider vision for these petitions, including a lot of material — social and political transformation, the needs of those around us, and so on — which (as we’ll see) Luther compresses into the single petition “give us this day our daily bread.”

But I don’t think Luther’s intention here is to give an exhaustive explanation of what these petitions mean, but to focus our attention on what is of first importance in them, and in our lives as Christians. The dire needs we have that we can otherwise so easily overlook; the promises of God we can so easily take for granted: for the Word of God to be proclaimed, for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us, and for us to be protected from the assaults of “the devil, the world, and our flesh.” A prayer we need to repeat, for our own sake, morning, noon and night.

Prayer and the “happy exchange”

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Martin Luther praying for the life of Philip Melanchthon, by Gustav König (1897)

How should we pray? Not in the sense of “what words should we use?”, but in the sense of: “In what frame of mind should we pray? With what expectations? And how can I pray with confidence that God will actually listen?”

Martin Luther addressed this question in his sermon for Rogate Sunday on 13 May 1520, a sermon that is quoted by Oswald Bayer in the concluding chapter of his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (see previous post).

This sermon “documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer,” Bayer writes, an understanding that is deeply trinitarian in nature. Luther identifies five characteristics of true prayer, saying: 

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]: otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

  1. The promise of God (promissio)

This is “the foundation on which the entire prayer relies,” declares Luther:

if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favourable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

  1. Dire need (necessitas)

True prayer requires that we state “the specifics of the dire straits or else the substance of what is desired”: which in turn requires “gathering one’s thoughts” to focus on “the godly promise”:

Based on this, [self-]selected little prayers, rosaries, and the like are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution.

Where does that leave a prayer such as the Jesus prayer, which I’ve written on before? Good question: but at the very least, Luther’s words are a warning that this type of spiritual discipline is no substitute for specific heartfelt prayer, a prayer that involves the conscious “gathering of one’s thoughts” to concentrate both on “the dire need that is identified” and on “the help that is expected” – that is, the “divine promise” (Bayer, p.352).

  1. Faith (fiducia)

In order to pray with confidence, we need the faith “by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises”. But prayer that is based on a confident trust in God’s goodness has a paradoxical element that Luther proceeds to tease out:

To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promised that he will give it. Thus, only trust can expect that the faithfulness of God is at work to ensure it will happen.

In other words: we pray, trusting that God’s goodness will provide for us even if we don’t – because God is so completely trustworthy. It is, in a sense, the assurance that our prayer is unnecessary (in the sense of our not needing to alert God to what we need or persuade him to give it to us) that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place.

As Bayer observes (p.352), this is the faith that can say “amen” in the sense that Luther expounds it in the Small Catechism, where to say “amen” means:

That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for he himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that he will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

  1. Earnestness (desideratio)

Prayer should not be half-hearted or “vacillating”, Luther continues. We should pray as those who “urgently desire” what we are praying for, in contrast to those who pray:

as if on an adventure, where whatever happens happens, as if one throws something at a pear to knock it out of a tree

To pray in such a casual, “taking a punt” way is “a mockery of God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised” – one that may “provoke God instead, with evil results.”

  1. In the name of Jesus

This is undoubtedly the most important requirement for prayer, that it “takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command […] and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things.”

It is praying in the name of Jesus that gives us confidence that we will be heard:

Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument.

But what about our sins? Don’t they get in the way of effective prayer? If anything, Luther concludes, it’s the opposite: Christ’s prayer in heaven for our sins gives us confidence that our own prayers will continue to be heard:

And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: What could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name.

All this is based on what Luther elsewhere refers to as the “happy exchange” that lies at the heart of the gospel, an exchange that he describes in a beautiful and delicately ironic statement in this sermon

Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange.

So our prayer is intimately connected with that “happy exchange”, an exchange which not only removes the barrier of sin between me and God, but also – to give me even greater confidence that I will be heard – gives me the positive holiness of Christ:

And both come to purity, connected together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life.

It is this exchange which also gives prayer its trinitarian character: “I come through him to the Father … at the same time [that] he is coming before the Father on my behalf” (Bayer, p.349), all this being enfolded in the work of the Holy Spirit, who “gives public witness to Christ’s own words in his testament” and “[frees] us from being under our own power” (Bayer, p.351).

So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

“Inherently full”

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This striking painting, by Michael Mathias Prechtl, is titled “Martin Luther: An Inherently Full Figure.” Painted in 1983, Oswald Bayer refers to it (and reproduces it) in the opening pages of his book, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation.

Bayer describes the painting in a footnote on page 2:

Prechtl adapts a picture of Luther as an old man, sketched in 1545 by the Reformer’s assistant, Johann Reifenstein. […] His conceptualization of the aged Luther is overlaid by the figure of Luther from the central panel of the triptych at the altar of the city church at Weimar (by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1553). Prechtl takes Luther’s face from Reifenstein’s sketch; from Cranach’s portrait he takes the collar with conspicuous streak of cardinal red, the way the hands are positioned around the open Bible, and the figure of the Crucified that Cranach positioned separately from Luther but which is positioned “inside” the body of Luther by Prechtl, along with the stream of blood that spurts from the wound in the Lord’s side. Prechtl’s watercolor leaves the pages of the open Bible blank. ln Cranach’s portrait they have writing on them and can be read by anyone who looks at the scene depicted by the altar. Luther’s index finger points to Heb. 4:16 […]: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness [= freedom. sincerity; Greek: παρρησία], so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

On page 6, Bayer adds:

As the artist makes it clear to see, the Crucified One does not simply remain merely a figure in the picture, but lets himself be heard; he has something to say: he comes in the Word of the Bible that is preached. The ray cast forth by his blood opens the meaning of Holy Scripture, opens the testament, as the message from the cross, which bequeaths to us eternal communion with God by means of forgiveness, in the midst of our hellish personal history and our world’s history.

Luther, as the servant of the divine Word, points to this message from the cross, promises the forgiveness of sins in the name of God, offers it, imparts it. The Bible is not somehow — bound up tightly — a closed document, not a weapon of fundamentalism, but it is open — opened by the One who alone can open it: opened by the Crucified One, who lives (Luke 24:30-32).

This is a vital element of Lutheran theology and practice: that it is not the Word of the Bible per se that is God’s Word to us, but the Word of the Bible that is preached, a living Word that proclaims Christ Crucified, in which the Crucified One is heard; a dynamic process in which, as the gospel is proclaimed in word and sacrament, Christ is revealed to us through the Word that Christ opens to us through that proclamation, by (since I haven’t forgotten that today is Pentecost!) the Holy Spirit working faith in us.

Shakespeare and the Bible: stimulating reading

wordsofpowerThe Bible and Shakespeare have each had quite the trajectory within our culture. There have been times when possession of an English Bible could get you burned at the stake, while Shakespeare spent his career working in a London theatrical scene which was reviled by the respectable as a danger to morality and social order; and yet “the Bible and Shakespeare” (especially when bracketed together in this way) have come to be regarded as the twin peaks of English literature.

It is this shared status, and what reading “the Bible and Shakespeare” can tell us about the relationships between texts and wider culture and society, that Jem Bloomfield discusses in his forthcoming book Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible. Jem’s book is due to be published by the Lutterworth Press on 26 May 2016, but I had the pleasure of getting to read a copy of the proofs.

It’s a short book – 156 pages including introduction but excluding bibliography and index – but packed with material that has made me think in new ways, not only about the Bible and Shakespeare, but also more widely about the nature of a “canon”, what makes a text “sacred”, different ways of reading familiar texts, the nature of performance and proclamation, how texts form communities and identities, and the complex ways in which texts are appropriated and quoted.

For example, in the introduction, Jem summarises the biblical critic John Barton’s discussion on what gives a text “scriptural status”, and how Shakespeare can function as “scripture”. Barton identifies four characteristics of “scripture”:

  • scripture is “a text that matters and which contains no trivialities, nothing ephemeral”;
  • scripture is assumed to have “contemporary relevance … to every generation, to all people at all times”;
  • scripture is assumed to be consistent, with great efforts made to smooth over any apparent inconsistencies within or between its component texts; and
  • scripture contains “an excess of meaning”, a “vision of the text as full of mysteries, with layers of meaning below the surface sense.”

Just reading that list can spark off multiple thoughts as to how much these criteria can be applied to Shakespeare. On the first, “it is not acceptable to think Shakespeare is deeply uninteresting,” observes Barton. As for the second, Jem discusses the National Theatre’s 2012 production of Timon of Athens, whose marketing materials pitched it as a parable for the financial crash; even though “the sight of an Athenian nobleman sitting in the wilderness railing about sexually transmitted diseases” is, on the face of it, less obviously relevant than other plays from the same period – plays which, however, lack the imprimatur of the Shakespeare brand.

In Jem’s chapter of the “canon”, he describes the complexities of establishing the canon of both the Bible and Shakespeare, each of which has been contested in various ways throughout history. One point that struck me is how familiarity makes canonicity self-reinforcing: “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “The London Prodigal” just sound wrong – because they are so much less familiar than the “canonical” works – which predisposes us to accept their exclusion from the canon. Similarly, we are less practised at harmonising canonical and non-canonical works than we are at harmonising apparent inconsistencies within the canon.

As Jem goes on to observe, it has (for both the Bible and Shakespeare) to to find a definition of canonicity that doesn’t exclude some books accepted as canonical. And even if there are good reasons in each case for accepting the consensus on which books are and are not “in”, studying the books which have been excluded can help us appreciate “the contingent status of the texts we are used to thinking of as secure.”

In his chapter on “ways of reading”, Jem describes the multiplicity of ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare have been interpreted. In each case, there is a widespread assumption that the “most vital” meaning of the text can only be found by digging below the surface: hence the fourfold medieval exegesis of Scripture, in which “literal” interpretations are joined by “allegorical”, “moral” and “anagogical” – leading to the different layers of meaning which, even today, can attach to the name “Jerusalem”. In more modern times, biblical critics have sought to establish criteria for establishing which reported words and actions of Jesus are “authentic”: criteria of “embarrassment”, “discontinuity”, “coherence”, “multiple attestation” and “the criterion of Jesus’ rejection and execution” (that is, the idea that if a supposed reconstruction of Jesus doesn’t look like someone who’d get nailed to a cross, UR DOING IT WRONG).

Similarly, the interpretation of Shakespeare has also been through different phases and fashions. “Character criticism”, in which characters are treated as if they were living individuals with lives before and (if they’re lucky) after the text, is now somewhat out of fashion (helped along by a celebrated essay whose title asked, waspishly, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”). It was superseded first by the “New Criticism” which treated poetry as self-contained texts, and then by today’s dominant paradigm of “stage-centred criticism”, which holds that Shakespeare can only be properly interpreted by on-stage performance.

This leads on to Jem’s next chapter, in which he looks at the nature of performance. “Performance” often carried negative connotations: it is “not done” for the reading of a scriptural passage in church to come across as “a performance”, for example. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many people saw performance of Shakespeare as diminishing the genius of his poetry. However, in earlier times, silent reading of the Bible was regarded with some suspicion, with St Augustine finding it necessary to explain to his readers why St Ambrose’s practice of silent reading could be justified. Augustine was living in a culture on the cusp of moving from being an “oral” culture (in which the word is something proclaimed) to a “literary” culture (in which the word is something read). (As an aside, it’s worth noting that, for Luther, “the Word of God” always primarily meant the proclaimed Word rather than the written Word.)

In his chapter on “the people of the books”, Jem describes how the Bible and Shakespeare are each used to define communities or identities. He is sharp in observing how evangelicals use biblical citations (and even the word “Bible” itself, as in “Bible-based churches”) as a marker of identity. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare’s Globe are examples of “the complex system in which Shakespeare’s name and works produce cultural authority.”

In the final chapter, Jem analyses the ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare are appropriated for different purposes: from the use of the Bible as an (unread) prop in US presidential inaugurations, to MPs’ fondness for quoting Shakespeare – as opposed to, say, Doctor Who, as a means of “bolstering the speaker’s rhetorical self-presentation” and “discreetly presenting the credentials of a particular background, upbringing and social sphere.” 

I hope this summary has given a flavour of how thunderously successful Jem is in accomplishing his aim of stimulating his readers to engage in similar analyses in their own reading life – “recognising a quotation,looking sceptically at the mission statement of a college, asking themselves for what purpose a Bible verse is being used in a politician’s speech” – and helping us to appreciate how “the strangeness of the past” can aid “a recognition of the present’s own remarkable strangeness.”

Four odd (but mostly loveable) things about Lutheran hymns

A discussion with a friend earlier tonight got me thinking about ways in which Lutheran hymnody differs from Anglican. So as we live in an age of listicles, here are four features of Lutheran hymns that have always struck me (as an adult convert) as distinctive, three of which I have learned to love…

1. The metres can be rather strange

Anglican hymn metres (a measure of syllables per line) are usually pretty straightforward. The classic is “common metre”: 8.6.8.6. Then there’s “short metre” (6.6.8.6) and “long metre” (8.8.8.8). These can be doubled up (“DCM”, “DSM”, “DLM”). You might also get 8.7.8.7.8.7, and so on.

Some Lutheran hymns have predictable metres, but with others, all bets are off. The Easter hymn “I am content! My Jesus ever lives” has a 10.6.10.6.9.9.4.4 metre. Move forward to Pentecost, and “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” meanders around a 7.8.8.8.8.8.10.8 pattern. Then there’s the Communion hymn, “O Lord, we praise thee”, an 11.8.11.8.5.9.9.6.7.5 epic that causes even the Lutheran Service Book to throw up its hands and label it as “peculiar meter”:

2. The hymns can be really long 

As the examples above show, Lutheran hymns often have really long stanzas. You might think the writers would make up for it by only writing a few stanzas per hymn. Not so! In the older hymnals, it’s routine to see hymns with 9, 10, 12 or more stanzas, even where the stanzas are as long as those cited above.

In the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s first hymnal, the classic hymn “Salvation unto us has come” has 14 stanzas (each of 8.7.8.7.8.8.7 metre). The video here spares us most of these:

The latest LCMS hymnal has reduced this down to 10 stanzas, and other hymns are even more drastically cut – a tendency lamented by ELCE pastor, Tapani Simojoki, in this post defending long hymns as a form of catechesis (and fondly recalling singing a 41-stanza hymn on one occasion).

The good thing about hymns of this length is that they can include some really solid material. The Kindle edition of Walther’s Hymnal is a fine (if regrettably pricey) resource for personal devotion, even if most congregations would riot if forced to sing some of the hymns in their entirety.

3. The hymn tunes can be quite bouncy, though 

The good news is that the hymns often keep you on your toes, reducing the chances of your nodding off midway through verse 18. Early Lutheran chorales often had very bouncy rhythms, many of which were later regularised to fit with changing fashions.

Everyone knows Luther’s hymn Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), but the original can come as a surprise to those familiar with its incarnation in Anglican hymnals:

To be honest, it’s the four-square, un-dotted version that strikes me as odd these days.

4. We sit down to sing them

This is the one I really can’t reconcile myself to. I’ve not been to many Lutheran churches – there aren’t many in this country to go to – but it seems pretty universal to sit down for most hymns: 

(Image via Duluth News Tribune.) 

It’s even in the rubrics in our service books, with a special symbol (△) indicating when people should stand for the final verse.

This probably makes sense when you’re singing a 27-stanza chorale. Speaking as my church’s organist, though, who sits at the front of the church to play, the impact on the quality of singing is enormous. When people stand for that final verse, or for the closing hymn, the difference in the sound is transformational. Now that we rarely sing more than five or six verses per hymn, I really don’t see what excuse we have for not standing. Hey ho…

Seeking enchantment in a secular age

taylorA friend recently lent me James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular. This short book (140 pages) is a summary and introduction to A Secular Age, a monumental 776-page analysis of secularism by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor – of whose existence I must shamefacedly admit to having previously been ignorant.

Taylor’s analysis of secularism identifies three senses in which the word “secular” can be used. What Taylor calls “secular₁” refers to the classical and medieval understanding of “the temporal”, as opposed to the “spiritual”: the realm of “the butcher, baker and candlestick maker”. “Secular₂” refers to the post-Enlightenment notion of the nonsectarian, religiously “neutral” public square. Both of these meanings are ones with which most of us will be familiar.

“Secular₃”, by contrast, is Taylor’s own distinctive contribution. Secular₃ refers not so much to what a society believes (or doesn’t believe), but to what is believable within that society; to what Taylor calls the “conditions of belief”. A secular₃ society is one in which:

religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). (How (Not) To Be Secular, pp.21f.)

It is a society in which an “exclusive humanism” becomes a viable option, indeed the default option for many. This is a new development in human history, asserts Taylor:

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. (A Secular Age, p.18, quoted in HNTBS, p.23).

It’s important to note that (in contrast to the “secular₂” understanding of secularism) “secular₃” is not merely the “neutral” residue left by the removal of religious belief:

The “secular” is not just the neutral, rational, areligious world that is left over once we throw off superstition, ritual, and belief in the gods. […] The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. (HNTBS, p.26)

In other words, the “exclusive humanism” of secular₃, with its “purely immanent sense of universal solidarity,” is an achievement; “a milestone in human history,” in Taylor’s words, providing a way for people to find “fullness and meaning” without reference to any divine or transcendent reality.

As Smith observes, an age dominated by secular₃ thinking is one in which not only non-belief, but also belief, will be significantly different from that of previous eras:

A secular₃ society could undergo religious revival where vast swaths of the populace embrace religious belief. But that could never turn back the clock on secularization₃; we would always know we used to believe something else, that there are plausible visions of meaning and significance on offer. (HNTBS, p.23)

This reminds me a lot of Peter Berger’s argument as to why (in sociological terms) we are all now “heretics”, as I discussed in a blog post back in 2004. Berger observes that the word “heresy” has its roots in the Greek for “choose”: a heretic is one who chooses what they believe, rather than just accepting the received beliefs of their society. But in a pluralistic society, Berger continues:

individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact. There remains the memory of the deliberate construction of a community of consent, and with this a haunting sense of the constructedness of that which the community affirms. Inevitably, the affirmations will be fragile and this fragility will not be very far from consciousness.

Hence there is no escape for us from secular₃. Much has been written of how Christians today are exploring earlier models of piety and worship, whether that’s the “ancient-future” movement among US evangelicals, or the growth of interest in the traditional Latin Mass among some younger Catholics. All these things may be good and valid, but they do not get us out of the secular₃ conundrum:

[B]elief is contested and contestable in our secular age. There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. […] Elsewhere Taylor emphasizes that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.” (HNTBS, p.61 (and footnote))

Our instinctive response may be one of dismay at this idea of the inescapability of secular thinking. But there is also something liberating to it.

To explain this in personal terms: I am an adult convert to Lutheranism, becoming (in 2004) a member of a church body that is small and fragile, whose active membership (in the UK) numbers perhaps only in the hundreds. Since then, I’ve been repeatedly haunted, tempted, distracted by church traditions that (in the UK context at least) seem to offer a “wholer” vision of (and framework for) the Christian life than a small and poor collection of small and poor congregations can provide.

To put it in Taylor’s terms, I’ve been seeking “enchantment”, but have often found only “disenchantment” in my own tradition. To realise, though, that even these “wholer” traditions would only be (at least for me) another form of “reenchantment”, haunted by the awareness that other options are available, is an encouragement to find more contentment with where I am. It’s not that some true form of “enchantment” – of an uncontested, whole way of life that is “given” rather than “constructed” – still survives which I have somehow missed and must wander about attempting to find. Which means that maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop trying to do so.