Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Heaven on Earth by Arthur A. Just – Book Review

I have been reading books on liturgy recently* to better understand both the history and theology of what should happen as believers gather together on Sunday.  Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of God in the Divine Service by Arthur A. Just, Jr. is a welcome addition to that reading list.  While Luther Reed and Frank Senn approach the subject more academically or scholastically, Just delivers the goods in a more pastoral and accessible style, desiring to impress upon the average reader the historic five-fold structure of liturgy, plus the Church Year and Hours, and how these draw from and point to Christ.

Because the liturgy is historic, the author establishes the theology of worship, then lays out how the early church structured their meetings drawing from their Jewish roots.  He then builds and includes the interconnectedness of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the gathering, establishing the practice and wisdom of when believers were brought into full table fellowship.  Following this are chapters explaining the two main parts of the Divine Service—Liturgy of the Word; Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper—and how the flow of the service moves throughout.  Finally, there is an historic view of how the liturgy changed over the centuries, pointing out both the medieval corruptions and Martin Luther’s corrections, and a proposal for how to approach liturgical reform today.

Each chapter was chock full of excellent material, but there were two chapters in particular that stood out.  The first dealt with the place of psalms in worship.  The psalter is both a songbook and a prayer guide.  Whether in a corporate gathering or individually isolated, these works of David, Moses, etc. beautifully express the whole of human existence and our Lord’s place within it.  What these men of God expressed is a fount of blessing for the Church as they recount the uncertainty of human circumstance, and concomitant emotions, alongside the certitude of divine promise and providence.  We can understand, then, why Jewish, Patristic, and Medieval saints were driven to memorize them and have them as part of their regular worship.

The other chapter that impressed me mightily dealt with the historic overview.  There I found a wealth of information to help any church group (not just Lutheran) understand how better to approach the entire subject.  Referring to those who desire to jettison liturgy for a more relevant worship style for cultural appeal:
Perhaps what is wrong is not the liturgy but those who do liturgy, their understanding, their commitment to it, and their execution of it.  The targets of liturgical renewal are the clergy and the congregation.  The problems are less liturgical and more theological, centering more in our anthropology and ecclesiology than our liturgiology.  What is wrong is not the liturgy but the culture; thus instead of constantly asking what's wrong with the liturgy, we should be asking what's wrong with the culture.  We should concentrate our attention on the renewal of of the culture through liturgy, not vice versa.  The goal of good liturgy is always the transforming of culture by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is not accomplished if the liturgy is subject to the whims of the culture.  Untransformed by liturgy, culture effectively destroys that liturgy.  The Church becomes indistinguishable from the culture, and the Gospel is lost.  (264)
And for those wanting to make the liturgy more individualized for those gathering together:
In our individualistic society, where we all want to do things our own way, one of the worst things we can do in our liturgies is cater to all these individual tastes.  Variety does not solve problems; it creates them.  The reason people are bored with the liturgy is not because there is no variety but because what takes place in the liturgy is perceived to be insignificant.  (267)
The author writes from a Lutheran point of view,† but do not let that prevent you from investigating what is presented.  Whether or not your local assembly has a formal liturgy, this book will be of benefit in understanding worship, both personally and corporately.

*  Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy; Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy and Christian Liturgy.
†  Dr. Just is professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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