10 July 2008

ancient-future worship

Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God's Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

For years Robert Webber has been a servant-critic of the church through his analysis, teaching and guidance of worship.  He has made his most encompassing contribution to the direction of the church through his work on the ancient-future series, an ongoing engagement of an historical faith interacting with a contemporary world.  (Webber's own training and work in historical theology has made his perspective quite insightful on this level.)  Knowing this would be his final publication (because of terminal pancreatic cancer which caused his death in 2007), Webber offers his final insights on worship and the church - bringing together a lifetime of study and reflection.

What makes this book unique and valuable is the fact that Webber engages the topic of worship from the historical development of theology and his thorough knowledge of current biblical tradition and practice.

The book itself is divided into two parts: the first being a theoretical exercise, the second a practical application of the ancient-future model to the contemporary church.  The entire book is built upon (and perhaps summarized by) Webber's belief that "Worship does God's story!" (29, emphasis in original).  By this, he intends to say that the worship of the church is really the (re-)enactment of God's own narrative of salvation and restoration - developed in Chapter One with his sermon-like review of the biblical story in 'scenes' such as Eden, Desert, Gethsemane, and God's Eternal Garden.  This is a solid framework for what is to follow in the book in that it presents a creation-fall-restoration motif which focuses upon the work of God rather than the salvation of the individual in worship.

Chapters Two and Three then turn to the idea of worship looking in two directions: "Worship remembers the past" (41) and "Worship anticipates the future" (57).  Throughout the discussion Webber once again demonstrates his willingness to challenge the current state of worship and church practice, though always doing so with grace and love for the people of God.  Rather than demean those with whom he disagrees, Webber explains the folly of certain trends within the church: "Fragmentation in worship is expressed in a worship that emphasizes one or another aspect of God's story but neglects the story as a whole" (41, emphasis in original).  "Forgetting brings death, but remembering brings life" (44).

Webber utilizes many ancient prayers and practices of worship in citing examples for his understanding of the development of worship.  He uses these to build upon the biblical data with which he begins, and then quickly turns to the work of the modern church: "When planning worship, ask. . ." (71).  He thus brings centuries of belief and practice together into a unified worship of the universal church.

Part Two of the book takes Webber's theoretical foundation and applies it specifically to four broad areas of Christian practice: Worship (Chapter 5), Word (Chapter 6), Eucharist (Chapter 7), and Prayer (Chapter 8).  Again, each section is brought out by a love for the church and an empathy for the struggles of many congregations: "Traditional worship often feels dead, intellectual, and dry, whereas contemporary worship seems loud, oriented toward the self, and not very uplifting. . .We need liturgical churches; we need contemporary churches.  Both have a place in God's church, and both can do what I am writing about in this book" (89).

Perhaps one of the most insightful (striking?) parts of the book comes in Chapter 8, where Webber suggests that the public prayer of the church ". . .refers to the total worship experience, from its beginning to its end" (149).  At first, this claim seemed to be an overstatement, but Webber develops it well and (I think) gets it right.  But it might come at the redefining of our understanding of prayer and worship before we can accept his premise.  He hits the nail on the head when he claims that the two crises of public prayer are neglect and programming (150), and it is good to hear him identify this and work toward correcting the situation.  But when prayer is applied to the areas of worship mentioned earlier in the book (remembrance, anticipation, proclamation), then prayer indeed encompasses the entirety of the church's worship.  (Webber here cites Augustine's Memoria-Intellectus-Voluntas - 164.)

Ancient-Future Worship is not a perfect book for the contemporary situation of the church, nor is it able to develop answers to every question which will arise from moving forward in this direction.  But I have the sense that Webber would never have wanted to attempt this.  He seems content to reclaim and reestablish biblical principles which have come through the centuries of the church and allow the church to move forward with its own development and growth into the future.  This, I believe, is part of the genius of an ancient-future perspective.  Unfortunately, for those of us who are not part of the *liturgical* traditions it might prove difficult to achieve some of the application of Webber's perspective.  This is because much of what he draws attention to in this work is more easily connected to that tradition.  But such should never discourage the reader/pastor/leader from using these principles in evaluating and constructing churches that properly honor the king, his kingdom and his story.

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