Monday, October 19, 2009

Recent Books for Reformation Week

This Sunday, Lutherans around the world will be celebrating Reformation Sunday. Many of us know that on Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. Of course, we focus on this date for convenience; many reforming and radicalizing trends swirled around Europe at the time.

Many of us don't realize that the Christian church had gone through a similar upheaval some 500 years earlier, with the Great Schism which separated Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Orthodoxy. And 500 years before that, as the Roman Empire finally crumbled, Gregory the Great helped the Church recover from an earlier set of arguments (the Chalcedonian arguments, for those of you who want to study more about Church schisms) and helped save the Church during the time after the fall of Rome by organizing monastic movements.

In her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (from which the above information is taken), Phyllis Tickle cites the Right Reverend Mark Dyer as saying "about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale" (16). Both Tickle and Dyer say that we're undergoing one of those periods of tumult right now.

Perhaps we see some of the emerging Reformations these days, and we feel queasy. Maybe we're following the schisms in the Episcopal church, as American congregations decide to align themselves with severely conservative churches in Africa. I recently came across this startling statistic in Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution--a History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (a fabulous reference for those of you who really want to understand the Protestant Reformation and all its implications): "There are more Anglicans in the west African state of Nigeria than in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand put together (author's emphasis) " ( 348). We might read books like Philip Jenkins's The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity and wonder what it means for us in the northern hemisphere when the bulk of Christians live in Latin America, Africa, and Asia (the southern hemisphere).

Maybe we see people experimenting with ancient forms of Christianity, and feel alternately cheered and worried. There's been a marked increase in people praying the Liturgy of the Hours. They pray from one of the many prayer books that have been published in the last ten years. Some of us might worry about this return to Catholic practices, this return to printed prayers. We see people breaking away from large churches to form small house churches, truly the earliest form of Christianity. Some of them might go even further and explore forms of what is coming to be called the New Monasticism (in his book New Monasticism, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminds us that Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk: "We forget that much of the so-called Protestant Reformation was driven by the monastic impulse" (51); for more on this emerging movement, you could also read School (s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism edited by The Rutba House). What does it all mean for those of us who can't make those kind of commitments?

Those of us in declining mainline churches might feel that we're not seeing much in the way of a new Reformation. Or maybe we're feeling somewhat desperate for something that will change our decline, but we're wary of some of the new forms of Christianity that seem to be emerging. We might want to read Diana Butler Bass's book The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church and take comfort from her journey around the country. She found many mainline churches that are healthy and vibrant, despite rumors of the eminent death of church.

In her book, Phyllis Tickle reminds us, "It is especially important to remember that no standing form of organized Christian faith has ever been destroyed by one of our semi-millennial eruptions. Instead, each simply has lost hegemony or pride of place to the new and not-yet-organized form that was birthing" (27).

Once the dust settles, each of the previous time periods of Reformation has left the Church enriched, but enriched in ways that no one could have predicted--that's what makes it scary, after all. As we approach Reformation Sunday, I'd encourage each of us to tap our own inner Martin Luther. What is the Church doing well? What could be changed for the better? What part can we play?

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