by Tim Macquiban
from Signs of the Times No. 70 - Jul 2018
In this book, Benjamin Dueholm, a Lutheran pastor from the USA, talks about sacred practices in a secular world, what they do and why they matter.
He takes as his framework what Martin Luther called the ‘holy possessions’, starting naturally with the holy words of the sacred scriptures to be found in the Bible, and going on in successive chapters to talk about water (baptism), and meal (communion), confession and forgiveness, prayer, praise and worship, and last but by no means least, the cross and suffering.
Generally speaking, the book is written in an American journalese which sometimes grates if you are not familiar with the vocabulary (what on earth are ‘dumpster-divers’?) but which often stimulates with arresting turns of phrase and fresh ways of presenting the familiar. It is clearly addressed to a culture of decline in the Christendom of its European origins, through secularization, persecution and forced migration, exported to his own country since 1945.
The chapters are curiously uneven. In the sacramental section (chapters two and three) the one on water is a full exploration of a rite which enables outsiders to be insiders, taking biblical example s of those who become sons and daughters by adoption of the faith. He takes the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch as typical of the creation of a new community which transcends barriers, of
‘blood, wealth, language and purity’.
He makes a useful connection to current issues and debate surrounding citizenship. Christendom, he claims, offers
‘gratuitous love and solidarity to a world of outsiders’.
By contrast the chapter on meal is rather dense and philosophical but offers a critique of communion practices which reinforce social segregation among Protestants in a rite which should be radically social and inclusive, deriving from a simple household meal rather than the sacrificial altar-tables of basilicas.
Equally good is the chapter of worship for which Dueholm makes the case as
‘a liberating and necessary waste’.
Prayer and worship, he maintains, should offer a challenge to the contemporary obsession with work in the secular culture we inhabit. He uses two striking images, of candles in the daylight and of bowls stolen back from the gods.
The best chapter is reserved to the end as he hinges his discussion of holy possessions, arising of course from the Protestant emphasis on scripture, and on the cross which he sees as the beginning and the end of all things. It is the inevitable consequence for the lonely God who needs to be social, setting out to save what he created in the drama of salvation centered on the cross where a crucified God reclaims humanity as his own. Luther`s theologia crucis is put in the context of contemporary issues of racism and human slavery, of the violence experienced in church attacks like the one at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, USA. He contrasts the attempts to sanitize the cross in art and spirituality, in a culture of violence, in which the cross is a capstone,
'the sin-cancelling cherry on top of a good, rational, providential order visible to everyone’.
If Dueholm has a mantra, it is this:
‘to be conformed in the image of Christ in this world is to be conformed to the image of the one who died as a forsaken outsider’.
The holy possessions he sees as those things which make our separate identity in the world as those who challenge the powers of this world in the spirit of exodus and crucifixion.
‘So long as the Cross is there, it demands and proclaims an unconditional, essential identity of the church with the oppressed, the despised and the suffering.’
And this book helps us to look at scripture and sacraments, ministry and mission, which form us in this Christian identity in a post-Christian age, leading us from cross to tomb.
Tim Macquiban is Director of the Methodist Ecumenical Office, Ponte Sant`Angelo Rome.