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Thursday, June 08, 2006
(6:35 PM) | sam k:
Architecture in Liturgy

There is a somewhat lengthy discussion going on over at Adversaria concerning the spontaneous quality of modern evangelical liturgy (if one may call it liturgy). The discussion touches on the primacy of the sermon in modern worship services as well as the tendency of ministers to rely on moving oratory and theatrics to instruct the congregation. However, I believe such difficulties are woven inextricably into a much wider problem facing us. The topic I want to explore, in specific, is how such questions relate to the architecture of the church.

Al mentions his frustration with pews, so let us first consider the dynamic that seating brings to the worship service. In pews, the assembly is confined to a literal fixed, solitary location in the church. They cannot interact with one another; they interact only with a mediator, the preacher—and only passively at that. When communion is given in the pews, it is consumed in virtual solitude, apart from the rest of the church. Pews serve only to isolate the church from itself, and, as David Eagle suggests in an excellent post about the modern urban landscape, allows congregants to maintain the anonymity of the city within the church walls.

The physical layout of the church building relates symbolically to the formation of the assembly. In short, it destroys community within the church. Think of it. Every seat is organized around a fixed point. Here the worship leader, whose job it is to usher in “the presence” of God, performs a worship set (sometimes expressly in order to set a mood that will make the congregation more receptive to the pastor’s sermon). Later, the pastor stands and delivers an original oratory intended to inspire his congregants. (In some mega-churches, seating is arranged in a semi-circle, as in a convention center or an amphitheatre. However, the effect is the same—the task of the congregation is to sit and watch, while the pastor exercises his gifts.) As the assembly is organized around the celebrity of one man and his sermon, so the seating accommodates his pulpit.

The individual churchgoer’s task is to receive something from the sermon. Often times, the pastor will begin his sermon by asking the Holy Spirit to anoint his message and give it special relevance to each of his listeners (although, in many cases the pastor may not know that any number of his listeners even exist!). Under this arrangement, community is an afterthought. The individual’s relationship to the minister is of the greatest importance, albeit abstracted through the sermon. If one happens to form a few close friendships in this setting, well, that’s fantastic. Nevertheless, as many of us might remember from our youth group days, you can’t go to church just to visit with friends. You must expect a deeply personal encounter with the divine—something that your friends cannot give you.

It is a curious question—when did Christianity officially adopt the basilica of the pagan empire? The easy answer would be during the reign of Constantine, but even if the cathedral was a much later development, we can at least say with some certainty that it preceded the Reformation, when the sermon was elevated to the fore of our liturgy.

It would be perhaps a thorny task to draw a two-dimensional, cause-effect relationship between the descent of the lay’s function and their physical location within the church. Thus, while I am not claiming that pagan architecture is singularly responsible for our present condition, it is no less a part of the problem. Architecture is constitutive of how the church conceives itself, and so, structural design must play a part in any future reformation undertaken by the church.

The answer, of course, is not simply settling on anything sufficiently subversive, such as seating the congregants roughly in a circle and giving each an equal footing at the table. That is not what I am proposing, lest anyone be left wondering. However, I wonder if Al is not onto something with his suggestion of eliminating fixed seating altogether. This would create a fluid environment in which interaction among the assembly would be vitally necessary, providing an authentic community out of which a primarily functional priesthood could arise naturally.

Thursday, June 01, 2006
(10:23 PM) | sam k:
Fear and Trembling

Since the first of the year, I’ve been stuck in first Corinthians (1co). I can’t explain precisely why I haven’t moved on, but I know that I am not yet done. Looking back, I really sunk into the text while visiting family in New Mexico during Christmas. I had just finished Fear and Trembling for a second time, and was struck by Paul’s discourse on the gospel beginning in chapters one and two. (I’ve since come to call this discourse the “fear and trembling passages.”) Beyond that, I agree with Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson that 1co represents the closest thing we have to a work of Pauline ecclesiology, and so it would be nearly impossible to exhaust.

Having now swallowed the text whole and having gained a firm grasp of the framework of the letter, I have recently begun to work back through it, verse by verse, reflecting on the text and making notes for each chapter.

The first thoughts I want to share on 1co concern these very “fear and trembling” passages. Chapter 1 begins typically enough. Paul addresses the letter as usual, and gets right to the point. Beginning in verse eleven, he informs them that Chloe’s people have reported that there are factions among them. He says that there should be no divisions among them, but that they should be united in the same mind and purpose. This is actually a very famous passage, but I believe it is rarely if ever used correctly. What the reader wants to do, and in fact what I myself am tempted to do, is look around at all of our present factions—the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Charismatics, and so on—and say, “Oh no! Christ has been split up.” There is undoubtedly a place for ecumenicalism in the NT, but I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying here. To get at what Paul is saying, we must look forward to verse seventeen.

In verse seventeen Paul begins a rather astonishing discourse on the sensibility of the gospel. This seems like a rather odd departure from his discussion of divisions within the church, unless one is paying close attention to the subtext. Growing up, I always read it in this way: Paul’s got two things to say, so he squeezes them together, but first finds a common point (ah! Baptism) to make things flow better. Thus, it would read something like this:

Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize many of you. Plus, that’s not really in my job description anyway. I am called to preach the gospel—and while we’re talking about preaching the gospel, let me tell you something else about the gospel that has been on my heart. It cannot be preached with words of human wisdom without emptying the cross of its power.
This interpretation, however, fails to adequately account for the urgency with which Paul condemns such divisions and never quite fits the chapter together. What I see instead is Paul posturing for authority in the community. The divisions were not simply a matter of some preferring one theological strain over another, or one exegesis over another; they were expressly a matter of some preferring Apollos’ and Peter’s teachings above Paul’s. Thus, the following discourse is not only an extended treatment of the gospel, but also Paul recommending himself to the Corinthians as a teacher, above others the Corinthians may have turned to in his absence. I think that it is even fair to say that Paul is recommending himself above Apollos in particular. (The Peter and Jesus parties don’t come up again, so my sense is that they either weren’t very large, weren’t very important, or Paul simply brought them up to deflect attention from a direct confrontation with Apollos.)

Recall that Luke describes Apollos as an Alexandrian Jew who was an “eloquent man, well-versed in the Scriptures.” I believe that the Corinthians were quite impressed with him as well and were forsaking Paul’s teachings for Apollos’. Paul’s discourse then becomes about something much different. It becomes about what teaching, or teacher, is sufficient for the church. While Paul spends not a few words casting aspersions on the sufficiency of Apollos’ teachings and even suggests that his own teachings weren’t very impressive only because the Corinthians were at the time mere infants in Christ, his argument climaxes and his answer comes finally in ch. 4 when he says “do not go beyond what is written” so that “you will not take pride in one man over against another.”

When I began reading Corinthians in this way, I was always surprised by the ending. I was surprised by Paul’s humility. After three and a half chapters of passive-aggressively taking a swipe at Apollos’ style of teaching, Paul comes to the end, and says, Brothers, neither of us are anything more than instruments of the Lord. Prefer one of us over the other if you want, but we are only men. The only truly reliable teacher is the Scriptures.

Though Paul goes on to claim the right of fatherly authority over the Corinthians in v. 15, I can never get past the earnestness of vs. 6-13. It is truly received in fear and great trembling.

Something else I find interesting, though merely conjecture at this point, is whether Apollos, whose understanding of baptism Acts describes as rather deficient, is the source of the Corinthians’ unorthodox practice of vicarious baptism, which I commented on here.

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