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What Language Shall I Borrow?

By June 1, 2010 No Comments
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Whether your bent is toward biblical,
historical, systematic,
or narrative theologies, it is
fair to say that each contributes something
valuable to the greater good of
the theological enterprise. Within this
greater conversation, at least from my
view, liturgical theology is the most underappreciated.
I was taught early on
in my studies that doxology should be
closely related to theology, that worship
and study of God work best together. If
our thoughts about God are not intertwined
with our worship of God, then
perhaps we have preoccupied ourselves
with the pursuit of a different God than
the one revealed in the Scriptures, or
at least our manner of study has effectively
emphasized the girth of our
minds instead of the grandeur of God.
As Saint Augustine reminds us in his
Confessions, “A nd they that praise the
Lord shall seek him; for those that seek
shall find; and finding Him they will
praise Him.”

My introduction to liturgical theology
came through the elegant writings
of the great Orthodox protopresbyter,
Alexander Schmemann.
What Language
Truth be told,
I’m something of a theological mutt
with definite Reformed leanings, but
Schmemann has left a profound mark
on my ability to see the whole of life as
Eucharistic. Yet as I more firmly send
down my roots in the Reformed tradition,
I have needed a liturgical theology specifically within that tradition. For
this reason I am thankful for Ronald P.
Byars’ What Language Shall I Borrow?
The Bible and Christian Worship

My background is in interdenominational
contexts. This book is exactly
the kind I’ve needed as I’ve settled into
the current ministry I have on the campus
of Hope College. In the last four or
five years, our project at Campus Ministries
has been to nourish students
with the best of the classic hymns as
well as the best of the newer hymns and
choruses, all within the context of the
Reformed Church in America’s liturgical
movements of Approach, Word, and
Response. We recite either the Apostles’
or the Nicene Creed. We practice a corporate
prayer of confession, moments of
silence, words of assurance, the service
of communion (including the full words
of institution), a prayer of the people,
a benediction, and we finish with the
sung doxology. In What Language Shall
I Borrow?
Ronald Byars carefully walks
through the entirety of the Presbyterian
Book of Common Worship (BCW), sometimes
line-by-line and sometimes even
word-by-word. I’m mindful of the landmark
essay, “Tradition and the Individual
Talent,” where modernist poet T.S. Eliot
states that tradition “cannot be inherited,
and if you want it you must obtain it by
great labor.” There are many similarities
between the liturgy of the RCA and the
BCW. Accordingly, Byars’ text acts as a
helpful resource as I continue to deepen
and refine my own grasp of the movements
of worship.

John Witvliet, director of the Calvin
Institute of Christian Worship,
points out in the book’s foreword that
liturgy has been a consistent source
of catechetical formation for believers
throughout the history of the church.
Byars explains it this way: “[Worship] has the effect over time of forming and
shaping the worshipers in a particular
orientation vis-à-vis God, the universe,
and one another.” This alone warrants
such a book. After all, how can we be
formed by a worship that we don’t understand?

Byars’ first chapter unpacks the
book’s title. Before he moves into an
explication of the BCW, this chapter offers
his reasoning for the importance of
a biblically robust liturgy. He laments
that our churches have acquiesced
to a “shrinkage” of
biblical language. With pressures
to meet congregants
“where they are at” and make
our worship relevant, we have
instead made worship irrelevant
by sacrificing the substantial
language of our faith.
No doubt Byars’ concerns are
largely aimed at the seeker-sensitive
church movement,
but he doesn’t grind that ax
excessively. He is concerned
with diminishment of the
language of our faith even in
more formal liturgical churches when
banal disclaimers interrupt liturgical
movements. “Nothing,” Byars warns,
“kills a ritual act faster than explaining
it while it’s in progress.”

As a younger liturgist eager to lead
services thoroughly immersed in the
Scriptures, I can appreciate this idea–that worship should not explain itself,
that there should be a thoughtful,
steady f low from one element of the liturgy
to the next. However, my concern
is that such an all-or-nothing introduction
will turn a whole faction of readers
away (my contemporaries, for example,
who most need the resource of the rest
of his text).

The subsequent chapters simply
follow the structure of the BCW: Gathering,
Word, Eucharist, and Sending. For the opening greeting of the Call to
Worship (” The grace of the Lord Jesus
Christ be with you all”), Byars uses
three and half pages to describe both
Old Testament and New Testament concepts
of the word “grace” and a page or
so to cover “Christ” and “Lord.” Each
chapter’s overarching movement elaborates
on its respective subsections. For
example, when examining the movement
of Word in chapter three, we are
given a tour through the Prayer of Illumination, the First Reading, the
Psalm, the Second Reading, the Anthem, the Gospel reading, the Sermon,
and so on.

At times Byars boils theological
ideas down to their most elementary,
making them accessible to novice laypersons.
At other times he introduces
more erudite observations by quoting
theologians and philosophers, which
makes the book informative for more
experienced theologians. I particularly
appreciate the historical observations
that help readers understand how the
liturgy has evolved into its current form.
Knowing the distinctive portions of Reformed
liturgy is exciting and significant.
For example, it makes complete
sense that the Prayer of Illumination is
unique to traditions derived from Calvin.
Younger liturgists especially will
find it important to consider our rich
historical practices, that singing rather
than reading the Psalms is the oldest
tradition reclaimed in the Reformation
and in Catholic services since Vatican
II. One further highlight of the book is
Byars’ nearly thirty-page treatment of
the Apostles’ Creed, an exhibition of
how much there is to mine as we continue
to rehearse our faith traditions.
As a writer, liturgist and husband
of a poet, language is very important
to me. However, by framing this liturgical
theology in the context of particular
words, I can’t help but wonder
if somehow Byars is limiting the full
importance of liturgy as a whole–that
he may at times miss the forest for the
trees. The book would be more compelling
if Byars had more fully explained
the overall components of the BCW.
What, for example, does “Gathering”
mean? Why is it included in the order
of worship? Why is Gathering placed
at the beginning of the service? What
does Gathering mean to the greater
ministry of the church? What is the
biblical and theological substance of
the Gathering ?

It strikes me that there are two distinct
books in this single text. First,
Byars wants to make an argument for
the purpose of biblical language in
worship. In the first chapter he gets
at the main thrust of this argument,
but much more could be said and developed
on this issue. For example, he
might address questions of application.
How can a pastor practically go about
using liturgy in a loving, careful way?
We have to jump remarkable cultural
hurdles here. It is one thing to idealize
high biblical language; it is another to
do this in a way that invites an anti-intellectual
society into the depths of
God’s word. The second book includes
the remaining four chapters with their
ongoing discussion of the theological
implications of Gathering, Word, Eucharist,
and Sending. This includes an
explanation not just of the written and
spoken language but also visual language
of the physical actions, symbols,
and ornaments of the rituals.

I add this critical observation precisely
because I understand the importance
of a book like this. What Language
Shall I Borrow?
is an excellent resource
for those who are already convinced
of its necessity. I fear, however, that
those not in the proverbial choir will
not hear this sermon; those who need
it most will not read it. This is troublesome.
How do we lead a new generation
of worshipers to the waters and urge
them to drink–to participate in the
catechetical rhythms of liturgical forms
that have nourished faithful believers
for centuries, whether from the BCW or
the Book of Common Prayer? What Language
Shall I Borrow?
will stay on my
shelf within arm’s reach, but I hope in
the future more scholars and seasoned
pastors will offer further theological
breadth and practical help for those of
us younger practitioners who are still
laboring to obtain our traditions.

Joshua Banner is minister of music and art at Hope
College in Holland, Michigan. He is a contributor to the
recently released For the Beauty of the Church: Casting
a Vision for the Arts published by Baker Books.