(Fulcrum) Tom Wright–Good News: National Witness?

This frightening agenda, inviting us to march boldly into the lions’ den, is exemplified almost at once as Jesus stands before Pilate, and argues with him about kingdom, truth and power. Our world is just as confused as Pilate was on all three counts. Different forms of kingdom have been tried and found wanting; truth has collapsed again and again into fake news; the only constant – as with Pilate – is the power of violence. The Farewell discourses and the trial before Pilate, ending with Jesus’ own death, constitute for me the centre of the New Testament’s political theology: Jesus gathers his followers and charges them to a life of unity and holiness, not so they can forget the world but so that they can hold the world to account, even as they are living out in themselves the new creation, the new way of being human, which will carry its own conviction.

I could give many examples of communities that are doing this, though as I said they don’t normally make the news headlines, so the church can easily be portrayed as stuck in its own ever-shrinking mud. I think of food banks, educations projects, drug rehab centres, marriage counselling, peace-making and so on. A high proportion of volunteers in our country, in these and other areas, are Christians. But I want to finish with this. The vision of new creation, and of Jesus’ followers as the new humanity called to model, announce and implement that new creation already in the power of the Spirit, will flow out of and flow back into worship.

I am deeply concerned about the unthinking slide, in the last evangelical generation, into a free-floating, disordered non-liturgical worship in which the Psalms are seldom if ever used, in which scripture is not read extensively in public, in which the sacraments are often perfunctory and apologetic, in which most of the sung lyrics, and the music which carries them, are essentially postmodern, with deconstructed fragments of dogma and devotion matched by the deconstructed fragments of tunes. This postmodern format, though perhaps a necessary protest against an over-formal earlier style, cannot be the right place to stay. Non-liturgical or even anti-liturgical worship is the liturgical equivalent of Brexit: it may be making a protest against the formality of an earlier modernism, but it cannot express or point the way into that post-postmodernism which our culture, our politics, desperately needs. Good liturgy isn’t everything, but bad liturgy isn’t anything.

You see, our culture is stuck because we have the wrong story in our heads. Non-liturgical worship allows that wrong story to go unchallenged. Good liturgy acts out the right story, that world history reached its climax in Jesus. Our culture is stuck in an Epicurean mode, the split-level world in which heaven and earth are held apart. Much evangelical and charismatic worship allows that to go unchallenged, merely relying on Plato to get the soul in good shape and on its way out of here. Good liturgy holds heaven and earth together, relishing the points at which, in physical beauty and movement, the life of heaven is portrayed here on earth (yes, with all the attendant dangers). Our culture imagines that ‘progress’ – social, cultural, even moral! – is automatic. Good liturgy challenges that with the drama of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the ever-fresh outpouring of the Spirit.

To put it starkly: if you never sing Psalm 72, how will you be reminded that Israel’s Messiah is already ruling from one sea to the other, from the River to the ends of the earth, and that his reign is what the world needs because he, and he alone, will deliver the poor when they cry, and rescue the widow and the orphan? The EU won’t do that, and neither will the Brexiteers. The Arab Spring didn’t do this, and neither will Trump or Putin. If you never live through the eucharist as the enacted drama of salvation, how will you be able to challenge the dominant narratives of our culture?

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