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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

"Sacred Signposts" (Benjamin J. Dueholm)

TITLE: Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance
AUTHOR: Benjamin J. Dueholm
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2018, (176 pages).

Are the Church practices of old no longer relevant in our new era? Should we still observe them or should we abandon them in favour of new rituals? How should we adapt to a post-Christian world? Should we resist adapting and maintain the historical approaches to the rituals? Right from the start, author Benjamin Dueholm shows us the tensions between the old and the new; the traditional and the modern; the liberal and the post-liberal; etc. He tries to use inclusive languages pertaining to God, using "cultural idioms" we are familiar with. He marries the two by letting authors of old keep the gendered identities as they had used while he adopts a more inclusive or more neutral language. Put it simply, historically and theologically, he tries to keep to traditions. Practically, he is less strict, even though he claims to stick to his professed traditions. In doing so, Dueholm carefully meanders between the two sides of the ritual divide to show us how "holy possessions" the Church has received from the past can still be relevant for the present times. In other words, these six "sacred signposts" still matter. He claims that "historic preservationism can make people authoritarian, reactionary, and defensive," while "dumpster diving" makes us "diffuse and marginal, light in commitment and ready to claim any enthusiasm in the world for Christ." What we should do instead is to "renew our focus" on these six rituals of Words, Water, Meal, Confession and Forgiveness, Ministry, and Worship. If we can do this well, these holy possessions would:

  • Enable the Church to move outward toward helping a world in need of healing
  • Resist the world by pointing people toward a better one
  • Breathe a new understanding of what our present world means
  • Shine on our common inheritance
  • Start a journey of reconciliation
  • Salvage, not savage our precious history
  • ....
Dueholm calls the Words as "the archive of the inconsequential." Beginning with an observation of our modern attention-seeking culture, we note that without an anchor or foundation, our efforts will be built on sand rather than rock. The Word of God helps us begin the week strong and steadfast. It is the holy manual of life for us from our Creator God. Christians can be distracted by secular society's disdain for the Bible that they too fall into the trap of building their lives upon secular ideas and ideals. We forget that the Word is living. Dueholm makes a powerful argument on behalf of the small and insignificant through the example of the dying mouse pup. He contrasts the way the world measures success and significance and how God still makes time and gives attention to the smallest of details. It is the very Word of God that stands against all the powers and principalities of the world like mustard seed faithfulness against mountains of rebellion.

The act of baptism is how believers are initiated into the Church. The water and the word are two of the most powerful symbols of God's presence. If the Word creates us, baptism of water gives us a new identity. We belong to a new family, a heavenly one. We are united in one common grace. We are changed from the outside in and from the inside out. This evokes themes of inclusion, acceptance, belonging, mutual obligation, unity, and humanity restored. We welcome the immigrant, the refugee, the immigrant, and our own people.

The Holy Communion symbolizes more than mere bread and wine. It marks a relationship that is celebrated and enjoyed. It begins with an invitation, proceeds with remembrance and ends with a declaration of God's coming. In fact, the whole Bible is filled with meals and instances of events with meals as a gathering point of narrative. People meet to eat which is a familiar ritual happening all over the world today. We learn themes of sharing, of community, of being present with one another even as God is present with us. Dueholm points out the union of Christ's divinity and humanity. He even calls it "a miracle of the church today."

The fourth holy possession is "Confession and Forgiveness." We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We have hurt and offended one another. The most fundamental act of being human is to learn to confess to God our wrongs and to seek forgiveness from one another. With this, we could find new freedom from selfishness and sinfulness.

The fifth holy possession is ministry. Like Jesus, we are called to serve rather than to be served. Ministry is about people, not activities. It is about giving rather than receiving. It is about being useful for God through acts of service for others. Titles, positions, and structures are there to help us serve people. In ecclesiastical tradition, this holy possession begins with "ordination"  which Dueholm calls the "bureaucracy of grace." This chapter is particularly helpful for clergymen and all in various areas of ministries.

Finally, the holy possession of worship is our end goal. We don't serve for the sake of serving. We do so for the sake of glorifying God and the declare the reign of the Kingdom of God. Dueholm describes it eloquently as follows:
"Worship is older than the Bible, maybe as old as humanity itself. In traditional religious societies, worship organizes life. It marks out space and time, distinguishes the sacred from the ordinary, preserves collective memories, and reinforces social relationships. It enacts a great cosmic exchange, with humans offering up animals, incense, or words to ensure divine favor coming down."

My Thoughts
First, this book is a bold defense of Christian rituals that define us. Dueholm begins with a fairly neutral stance, but could be seen as too accommodating of culture initially. Lest anyone starts to label the author as a liberal or post-liberal, it is important to note that amid the nuances and statements of expressions from both sides, the author has a firm conviction that sees the gospel as hope for the world and the legitimate source of salvation for all. With each succeeding holy possession described, the reader would notice the growing conviction that the rituals of the past are most relevant for the present.

Second, we learn from Dueholm a refreshing way to engage the secular culture with historical Christian symbols. I like the way he expands the space between to invite both the religious and the secular toward constructive dialogue. There are things that people from both sides have misunderstood or misinterpreted. Christ didn't just die on the cross for people of the Christian faith. Christ died for all. Perhaps, what we need is a new language, a new approach, or simply a new stance to strike up constructive conversations to increase understanding of the Christian's role in society and the world's need for Christ. Don't dispel or belittle the tradition simply because they are old. See their relevance with new perspectives. This is what the author has brilliantly done.

Finally, this book is a subtle critique of the secular culture of today. Even though secularalism has dominated the cultural climate of today, they are by no means flawless. Dueholm claims that "these secularizing developments contradict each other" as well as "themselves." Secularism has not just divided the religious from the rest of society, they have unwittingly divided everything else. The Church and Christians are challenged to be the bridges of the gospel to heal the world.

Author Benjamin Dueholm is pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church at Wauconda, IL.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B Eerdmans and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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