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Realism and Worship: An interview with John G. Stackhouse Jr.

Worship that shapes us and helps us articulate our actual relationship with God needs to be as real as possible: true to the impossible ideals of the Gospel that both judge our present and promise us a glorious future, and true to the actual needs, opportunities, failures and successes of our life between worship services.

In many ways, Christian Realism stands in contrast to a naive optimism. Worship is often used as a pick-me-up, a way to feel better about ourselves and our faith. How can Christian Realism counteract this naive optimism in worship without turning it dour?

I have been struck, as I have visited a wide range of Protestant churches in North America, by how few services include anything like an opportunity for Confession/Repentance and then a Declaration of Absolution. I'm also impressed at how few churches have frequent (ideally, weekly) communion. Without these "rituals of realism," if I may call them that, we can focus entirely on superficial positives-superficial in that they fail to deal with us as we really are. Ironically (and, of course, "irony" is a constant theme in Niebuhr), such worship thus fails to provide us the therapy we really need and the deep joy of genuine salvation.

What is the role of lament and confession in fostering Christian Realism?

Lament and confession are activities appropriate to the real situation, we might say. We are sinners-bad sinners-and only the regular dragging of our sins and our sinful selves into the light of true repentance before God can bring us the forgiveness and healing we need. Only this regular recognition can keep us humble, can keep us from the self-centredness and self-confidence and self-righteousness that so regularly bedevil us as individuals, as families, as churches, and as nations.

But what a relief it is to step off the pedestal of religious heroism, to descend from the rarefied air of the Olympus of our own building, and breathe the rich, pure air of God's Spirit instead. That sobers us up, fills us up, and lifts us up into God's thick reality rather than the shadows of our delusions.

You mentioned in your lecture that Niebuhr, like Lewis, followed the principle of "show, don't exhort." What does an endorsement of this principle mean for worship leaders?

Worship leaders should get real. A certain amount of poetic license is perfectly good, of course, as we celebrate God's goodness and the joy of his presence. But we also need hymns, songs, liturgies, readings and the like that deal with doubt, and temptation, and failure, and confusion, and partial successes, and unintended consequences. We need worship that not only lifts up ideals by which to judge and motivate our realities-that's good. But we also need worship that recognizes those realities so that we can express ourselves authentically to God and then receive his transforming answers in reply. In this combination of the real and the ideal we would, in fact, be much closer to the Bible than most of us currently are.

And thus our preaching would be more authentically biblical. The Bible so often combines the "indicative" and the "imperative," and our preaching should do the same. "Behold, I set before you today both life and death, both blessing and cursing." We need more preaching that shows us what is genuinely in our interest (as Jonathan Edwards reminded us to do), what shows us the consequences of bad choices, and then shows us how to move from these principles into appropriate action. We need to see reality and then decide how much and how well we want to cope with it. Without that vision, however, we perish as we quickly shuck off any guilt trip or pep talk the pastor happened to deliver under the press of the world's versions of reality that so quickly bewilder and beguile us.

In your lecture, you stated Niebuhr's belief that there are no pure political choices, and that practical choices trump idealistic, ineffectual candidates and policies. What does this "messy" view of political involvement mean for congregations-specifically, the vast majority who either avoid talk of politics in the pulpit or have a direct political "agenda" driving the preaching?

Karl Barth famously said that preachers should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Preachers tend to drop one or the other: either long on theology and the direct application of this or that ethical text, or long on current events and the direct application of the preacher's own ethics. Preachers instead should literally stand between the Bible and current events, posing neither as master theologians nor as political experts, but as mediators of Biblical narratives, poetry, prophecy, and principles to the situation of this or that particular congregation. We need "mediating principles" or "middle axioms" by which to guide our thought and life. And then the experts in the pews-in business, education, politics, health care, child welfare, the environment, and so on-can get to work pressing those principles into their zones of ministry.

Such experts also need to feed back to preachers just how well, or not so well, those principles really work "out there." In dialogue, preachers will learn to refine their principles that seemed so self-evidently right in the splendid isolation of the church office, will learn to preach more realistically and therefore more helpfully.

Such dialogue, refinement, and dialogue again is messier than the one-way delivery of homiletical pronouncements "six feet above contradiction." But such conversation is true "body life" for churches, and all of us, perhaps especially preachers, would benefit from it.

To sum up, how would you define Realistic worship?

Realistic worship deals with us as we really are, with the world as it really is, and with God as he really is. Preaching and worship that touches on only some aspects of reality will thus connect with us only partially and temporarily. Worse, it will offer a truncated and distorted version of reality that our next encounter with actual reality will simply blow away like so much perfumed mist. Worship that shapes us and helps us articulate our actual relationship with God needs to be as real as possible: true to the impossible ideals of the Gospel that both judge our present and promise us a glorious future, and true to the actual needs, opportunities, failures and successes of our life between worship services.


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