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Ancient-Future Faith, Its Practices

(July 2008 - Volume 14, Issue 7) 

In a recent sermon dealing with the emergent/emerging church, Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill in Seattle and self-described emerging church leader, identified four lanes in which the emergent/emerging movement is traveling. In the first lane are emerging evangelicals who believe in basic Christian doctrine, such as the Bible being God’s Word and Jesus dying for our sins. They also tend to form the “hip, cool church,” according to Driscoll. Pastors who may fall in this category include Dan Kimball and Donald Miller. Without taking much time to debate with Driscoll at this point, I would certainly challenge the notion that Donald Miller is a supporter of basic Christian doctrine. Kimball, on the other hand, does hold to certain doctrinal positions such as the three ancient ecumenical creeds, but would not want to drift much beyond them.

Traveling down the second lane are the house church evangelicals who are doctrinally Christian brothers and sisters, Driscoll said. They do not support creating large churches and instead form little house churches or churches in other smaller settings such as coffee shops. Driscoll places himself and Mars Hill in the third lane that he calls emerging reformers, who believe in all of the evangelical distinctives and embrace Reformed theological traditions. Emerging reformers also try to find ways to make the church relevant, accessible and culturally connected; they tend to be charismatic and many are involved in church planting.

In the fourth lane is a group of emergent liberals which Driscoll feels has “totally gotten off the highway and is lost out in the woods.” Although Driscoll was initially connected to this group, which also tries to find innovative ways to do church, he left, citing that they call into question many parts of the “Christian doctrine.” Some of their questions include: “Do you need Jesus to go to heaven?” “Is anybody really going to hell?” “Is sex outside of marriage including homosexuality sinful?” Leaders in this lane include Brian McLaren and Rob Bell.[1]

The reader can see how fragmented and complicated the emergent conversation has become. Like most movements, as it matures it has changed form and is becoming increasingly difficult to define. Many, in all of Driscoll’s four lanes, are distancing themselves from the emergent label itself since it has become somewhat pejorative. What all lanes of emergent/emerging have in common is the desire to be relevant to the postmodern culture. Some have sacrificed the faith in this effort; others have been more biblically sound. But out of this junk drawer category (as Driscoll calls it) I see springing the Ancient-Future Faith emphasis which is common to most of those in all of the emergent lanes. This is the belief that the purest expression of Christianity was found in the ancient period of church history (100-600), and it is to this era that we must return.

What is so special and inviting to emerging Christians about these early years of Christianity? It was during this era that the early church rituals, traditions, and liturgies were developed and it was a time in which mystical practices began to define spirituality and close encounters with God. This is the era of church history which many believe we must appropriate to our times if we are to experience authentic Christianity. Let’s take a look at some of the specific practices which are returning to favor through the A-F resurgence.

Lectio Divina

This term and practice is increasingly popping up in evangelical circles. Many, having been told that lectio divina is nothing but a devotional, contemplative reading of Scripture, have been little concerned but we should look deeper. According to Wikipedia,

Lectio divina is Latin for divine reading, spiritual reading, or "holy reading," and represents a method of prayer and scriptural reading intended to engender communion with the Triune God and to increase in the knowledge of God's Word. It is a way of praying with Scripture that calls one to study, ponder, listen and, finally, pray from God's Word.[2]

Given this benign definition one could be justified in asking what is wrong with slowly reading and meditating on Scripture? Scriptural meditation has been practiced and prescribed throughout biblical times to the present. Eugene Peterson, (author of many evangelical books and the paraphrase The Message) published Eat This Book in 2006 to promote lectio divina. Peterson writes,

Lectio divina is not a methodical technique for reading the Bible. It is a cultivated, developed habit of living the text in Jesus’s name. This is the way, the only way that the Holy Scriptures become formative in the Christian church and become salt and leaven in the world.[3]

If lectio divina is in fact the only way that the Scriptures become formative in the church and the only way they become salt and leaven in the world, as Peterson claims, it would be wise for us to understand and become practitioners of lectio divina. Lectio divina can be traced back as far as Origen (A.D. 220). Various monastic rules have practiced lectio divina, most notable those of Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola, although 12th century monk Guigo II is credited with systematizing the method as it is currently used today. Pope Benedict XVI recently recommended its use as a means of promoting spiritual formation.

Mark Yaconelli, a strong proponent of this ancient tradition, tells us, “When we engage in lectio divina, we are not seeking to read the Bible for knowledge or instruction (although both of those may come), nor are we seeking the escape of a good story. Instead we come to the words of the Bible seeking to be with God” (emphasis mine).[4] Ken Boa, another promoter of mystical Christianity, explains that lectio divina involves four movements:[5]

Reading (Lectio)

“Since lectio divina engages the whole person, your bodily posture is important. A seated position that is erect but not tense or slouched is best…. Remember that unlike ordinary reading, in lectio you are seeking to be shaped by the Word more than informed by the Word” (emphasis his)[6]

Meditation (Meditatio)

“Meditation is a spiritual work of holy desire and an interior invitation for the Spirit to pray and speak within us (Romans 8:26-27)…Meditation will do you little good if you try to control the outcome.”[7] Incorporating the Spiritual Exercises [see below] of Ignatius of Loyola is recommended for meditation.

Prayer (Oratio)

Boa informs us that “Oratio [Prayer] is a time for participation in the interpenetrating subjectivity of the Trinity through prolonged mutual presence and growing identification with the life of Christ.”[8]

Contemplation (Contemplatio)

To the uninitiated, contemplation often is confused with meditation but they are not the same. In ordinary circles meditation describes deep thinking and analyzing with a rational mind and some may use contemplation as a synonym for this activity. But contemplation in mystical circles “is a theological grace that cannot be reduced to logical, psychological, or aesthetic categories…It is best for us to stop talking and ‘listen to Him’ in simple and loving attentiveness. In this strange and holy land we must remove the sandals of our ideas, constructs and inclinations, and quietly listen for the voice of God.”[9]

Yaconelli tells us that one technique to help in this process is take a word or phrase (in essence a mantra) and “repeat it to yourself, allowing the rest of the text to fall away. As you prayerfully repeat it, different thoughts, feelings, and images may arise…. [By this methodology we can] pray ourselves empty… [and] sink into God beneath all your thoughts and feelings.”[10]

As can easily be seen, lectio divina is not a devotional method of Scripture reading, but a highly mystical approach. The reader does not encounter Scripture in order to grasp the understanding of what God has communicated to us and apply it. Instead, a super-rational experience is sought in which God speaks to an individual beyond the written page in imaginative and non-cognitive ways.

It is also instructive to note that this method of Bible reading is not drawn from the Scriptures themselves, but from medieval monks during a period of time when the Church of Rome was abandoning the clear understanding of the Word of God and seeking alternatives. The Ancient-Future Faith movement is not going back to Scripture for its teachings but to the practices and traditions of men.

Divine Office and the New Monasticism

The best known of the monastic rules is that of Benedict. Benedict’s Rule, which is receiving renewed attention today (see Christian History & Biography, Winter 2007), was written for 6th century monks who entered Benedict’s monastery with a goal of hearing from God. The first word of Benedict’s Rule was “listen.” So Benedict structured each day around two activities which were designed for listening to the voice of God. Four hours a day were devoted to the lectio divina and four hours were spent in the “Divine Office.” The Divine Office consisted of praying over the 150 psalms each week, plus other readings from Scripture, writings of Christian authors, hymns and prayers. The Divine Office is comprised of eight set times of prayer (one nocturnal and seven Offices of the day) in which certain prayers are recited.

Robert Benson, author of In Constant Prayer, which is part of the Thomas Nelson’s “The Ancient Practices Series,” assures us that the Divine Office reaches back to the beginning of the human race, has been practiced by the people of God ever since and is even being prayed by Jesus to the Father at this time.[11]

In fact, the Divine Office, as practiced throughout church history, is the product of men’s imagination not an inspired mandate from God. Our Lord has certainly called us to be people devoted to prayer, but He neither gives us, nor demands from us, a prescribed set of prayers to be recited by rote at set times of the day.

Until recently few outside of the Roman Catholic clergy paid much attention to the Office but there has been a renewed interest in such things swirling around the “new monasticism.” The older form of monasticism and religious orders has been on the decline for a long time. The number of men in such orders has declined 46% in Europe and 30% in America since 1978.[12] “Yet most suggest that new and powerful forms of the monastic impulse may even now be arising.”[13] These new forms, found in both Protestant and Catholic circles, consist of those who have connected themselves to some aspect of monastic living while remaining in the world. What we are finding is an increasing attraction, especially among young people, to incorporate these ancient practices into their lives. Perhaps as the world speeds up and disappoints there is a draw to a connection with the past when things were seemingly slower and less complicated.

Spiritual Exercises

Eugene Peterson tells us, “Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises is one of the most influential guidebooks for directing us in listening.”[14] Gregory Boyd goes further, “I and many others have found Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises to be the most powerful tool for helping us grow in our walk with God.”[15] These are powerful endorsements by well known evangelical spokesmen.

Ignatius was a Roman Catholic monk during the time of the Counter-Reformation of the 16th century. He is known today primarily as the founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, and his Spiritual Exercises. The Spiritual Exercises are a method of contemplative meditations. According to the Jesuits’ website,

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are a month-long program of meditations, prayers, considerations, and contemplative practices that help Catholic faith become more fully alive in the everyday life of contemporary people. It is set out in a brief manual or handbook: sparse, taciturn, and practical. It presents a formulation of Ignatius' spirituality in a series of prayer exercises, thought experiments, and examinations of consciousness—designed to help a retreatant (usually with the aid of a spiritual director) to experience a deeper conversion into life with God in Christ, to allow our personal stories to be interpreted by being subsumed in a Story of God.[16]

The Spiritual Exercises are basically a means to expedite the experience of classical mysticism. Mysticism, as found in Eastern forms, the Kabbalah (Jewish), New Age, or Roman Catholicism, all follow the same pattern: purgation, illumination, and union. Purgation is an empting of ourselves, and so the purpose of the first Ignatian movement is to create “a space within us that the Lord can fill.”[17] In illumination we are filled up with images of God which is accomplished in the exercises “by imaginatively contemplating scenes in the four Gospels.”[18] Through these practices unmediated union with God is supposedly accomplished which is the goal of the Exercises. Ignatius’s Exercises are now being adapted for use by Protestants in books such as Sacred Listening by James L. Wakefield and promoted heavily by everyone from Richard Foster to Eugene Peterson.

Liturgical Worship

James K.A. Smith, author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, informs us that postmodern religion will be liturgical in nature for “the rhythms of ritual and liturgy are gracious practices that enable discipleship and formation… Properly postmodern worship reclaims the holistic, full-orbed materiality of liturgical worship that activates all the senses.”[19] With this concept as foundational there is a wholesale rush to liturgical practices which originated in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Although not found in Scripture, practices such as the Rosary, prayer ropes, Stations of the Cross, icons, incense, making the sign of the Cross, use of crucifixes, labyrinths, Benedictine chants[20] and more are encouraged as forms of worship in the A-F church.

As can easily be seen, there is a major push for ancient (but not New Testament) liturgical practices in order to anchor the A-F faith of the emergent church. All of this takes the adherents a step back to Rome and Orthodoxy on a practical basis. But what about beliefs? What does the A-F movement believe? More on that next time.

 


[1] http://www.christianpost.com/article/20080227/mars-hill-pastor-ditches-emerging-label-for-jesus.htm.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lectio_Divina

[3] James L. Wakefield, Sacred Listening, ( Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), p. 23. This quote is taken from Peterson’s book Eat This Book, ( Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2006) p. 116 with the italic emphasis in the original.

[4] Mark Yaconelli Contemplative Youth Ministry, ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 85.

[5] Kenneth Boa, The Trinity, a Journal ( Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), p. 13.

[6] Ibid., pp. 14, 15 (emphasis in the original).

[7] Ibid., pp. 16, 17.

[8] Ibid., p. 19.

[9] Ibid., p. 20.

[10] Yaconelli, p. 86.

[11] Robert Benson, In Constant Prayer, ( Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008) pp. 4, 19-28, 114, 116. (Note, my edition of In Constant Prayer is a prepublication edition and page numbers may different in the final published format).

[12] Christ Armstrong, Christian History & Biography, “Re-Monking the Church”, Issue 93, Winter 2007, p.34.

[13] Ibid., p. 35.

[14] As quoted in James. L Wakefield, p. 1.

[15] As quoted in James L. Wakefield, pp. 1-2.

[16] http://www.nwjesuits.org/JesuitSpirituality/SpiritualExercises.html

[17] James L. Wakefield, p. 17.

[18] Ibid.,, p. 18.

[19] James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? ( Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 140.

[20] While these practices are commonly recommended in emergent and A-F literature today, for documentation see Mike King, Presence-Centered Youth Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2006), p.87-96, 121-134, 170.