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A Response to “Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” by Carl Trueman

16 Feb

A good friend forwarded me the article Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” by Carl Trueman. I thought his comments deserved a response from someone who has adopted the practice of Lent for the past several decades…though it was not a part of my original church tradition.

“When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history.” Wow. Nothing like putting the reader on the defensive in the opening statement. As a career pastor, and instructor of church history at Phoenix Seminary, I find this personally offensive. Now, because I practice Ash Wednesday, I feel like I need to prove that I’m not poorly instructed, that I do have a theology, and that I am a part of my own history.

(Why does believer-to-believer dialogue have to take this kind of shape? Is this kind? Is it anything like accurate? Or are blogs without incendiary remarks like these simply too boring to read? A subject for another time…)

Or, Trueman goes on to say, maybe I’m just a worldly, superficial consumer. Or I’m just “trying to look cool”. Or I’m “carnal”. Or that I’ll just “appropriate anything that catches my fancy”. And, clearly, I am “eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires.” Why does he assume an embrace of Ash Wednesday can’t also be an embrace of the wider riches of a liturgical tradition? For me to adopt a rhythm that I believe helps shape my soul – whether it’s Ash Wednesday, attending Sunday School, or a daily Bible-reading regimen, does it have to be reduced to “an eclectic grab bag” of spirituality?

It seems that for Trueman, to be Presbyterian, you have to stay Presbyterian, and you dare not learn from anyone else’s practices.Trueman states that “Old School Presbyterianism is a rich enough tradition not to need to plunder…the Anglicans.” Plunder – that’s a pejorative word, is it not? We shouldn’t plunder because “an appropriate rich and reformed sacramentalism” renders Lent “irrrelevant”. So, we should just stick with Presbyterian Sundays, and not add a special Wednesday form of worship? Does Presbyterian worship render my quiet time irrelevant, too? In what way is it edifying to pit one act of worship against another? (I guess the Presbyterians are saying “once-saved-in-your-tradition, always-saved-in-your-tradition”…perseverance of the worship?)

What I can’t figure out is this: Countless contemporary Evangelicals long for a richer experience of worship because of the bankrupt nature of the drivel that passes for thoughtful worship today. I have to believe that Trueman wishes better for them as well. So, if they explore some of the practices of liturgical traditions, why jump on them like it’s a bad thing? The tradition I was saved in – dispensational fundamentalism – left me with a bare cupboard. Can I not explore the broader traditions in search for something more?

Some other allusions Trueman makes: Lent-followers say it should be normative for all Christians (I’ve never met such an animal – cite a quote here?); Christians developed the church calendar to control peoples’ lives (maybe some, but certainly not all, or even most – and give me examples, please); All traditions have unbiblical forms of worship (maybe some, but most are extrabiblical, not unbiblical – examples?); That practicing Lent in a congregations is an objectionable “imposition” (don’t we “impose” a host of practices on our people every Sunday, including bad music and bad sermons?!?).

The grand issue I take with in Trueman’s article is the notion that certain traditions of our faith are not mine to practice — that, if I’m a Protestant, I certainly shouldn’t do a Catholic or Orthodox thing. Or that, if I’m a Presbyterian, I shouldn’t do an Anglican or Baptist thing. I find that sort of parochial attitude somewhere between mystifying and pathetic. The Christian tradition is my tradition. It’s my family. And I refuse to play Hatfields-and-McCoys when it comes to my practices.

Okay … some points of wholehearted agreement:

“The reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything.” Agreed.This is why I’ve always believed that contemporary Christianity will inevitably seek out practices, both old and new, with more substance. So let them explore, and don’t call their character and theology into question for trying out and even adopting things along the way.

“If your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.” Agreed. This is what I eventually did. I spent years trying to usher contemporary churches, void of heritage, back into their greater, catholic (small-c) heritage. An admirable pursuit I still believe, but very tough sledding. Eventually, I embraced the classical Lutheran tradition (which now needs a dose of contemporary Evangelicalism’s energy and passion). I think Trueman is okay with me now, that I’m “all in” — but before then, I because I was prone to only borrow idea from other traditions, my character and theology would certainly have been impugned.   

“Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is” considered a good time to offer a generalized reprimand to one’s broader spiritual family, because some of us have been blessed by the appropriation of edifying elements from our worship heritage. This, while priggishly espousing one’s own styles as the plumb line or orthodoxy and depth? I fail to see how this is edifying.

– Bill Hartley

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Posted by on February 16, 2015 in Discipleship, Worship

 

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