Christian Faith and Practice: A Response to Mudhouse Sabbath

So, that long-awaited response to Mudhouse Sabbath is finally done. I don’t expect you to read it, but I would appreciate it if you did, and especially if you engaged in some conversation about it. I would hate to spend so much time on this and not hear back from anyone about it. So yeah. Let me know.

 Christian Faith and Practice[i]

A response to Mudhouse Sabbath

 

A.J.W. Smith

Lauren Winner was sitting in a red velvet chair with a cup of hot chai one Sunday afternoon in her favorite coffee roaster—Mudhouse—when she realized that while she somewhat observed the Sabbath (Shabbat), she did not take it nearly as seriously as she did while she was still a Jew, before she converted to Christianity. Her Sabbath was peaceful, more laid back (who wouldn’t love a coffeehouse for peace and silence?), but “it wasn’t Shabbat.” Why don’t Christians take spiritual discipline as seriously as Jews? Are Christians missing the benefits Jews enjoy in their religious practices? She quotes Madeline L’Engle, a near-goddess to fans of children’s fantasy (myself included), who said spiritual discipline was like piano etudes: “you do not necessarily enjoy the etudes—you want to skip right ahead to the sonatas and concertos—but if you don’t work through the etudes you will arrive at the sonatas and not know what to do.”

Before we get too far, let me quickly note something about this article. It is a response to Lauren Winner’s book—it is not a review. Although I think this piece can help you understand the heart of Mudhouse, it is not an exhaustive evaluation of the book. If you want a summary of the book, I would first suggest that summaries are basically useless because if you want to know what the book says—you should read the thing so you understand the context of what is written. Second, I would point out that Amazon.com has generally reliable book reviews. All this to say, this essay is a personal application of the things I read. I rarely quote Ms. Winner directly, but the ideas and concepts of her work are throughout, with words and phrases she uses sprinkled throughout and duly noted. I think you can enjoy this without reading the book, and you can enjoy this if you have read it too. Hopefully, this makes you want to read the book yourself. But, in essence, this is a meditation on thoughts Lauren Winner has stimulated in my mind through her book. So if I raise questions and concerns, you can either ask me about them, or just read her book. It’s not long; I read it in a short plane ride.[i]

Lauren Winner is no longer Jewish, but she thinks that Christians have quite a bit to learn from her former religion. Ms. Winner was raised Jewish in the United State, but she met Jesus and converted to Christianity during college. In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, she thinks that Christians have made their faith too mushy, too feely, too emotional, and suggests that we could benefit from a more disciplined, even religious (gasp!) lifestyle. Of course, she’s sure to note that “practicing spiritual disciplines does not make us Christians,” as opposed to the Jews who, according to Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, are defined by Torah—Jewish law. It is “what makes a Jew a Jew.” Christians do not look to these practices for salvation, instead, these practices “teach us what it means to live as Christians…discipline is related to the word disciple.”

I think Ms. Winner is right to point out that we Christians (among whom she would include herself) could learn much from Judaism’s strict discipline. When discussing the purposes of the book in the introduction, she says as much:

This book is about the things I miss [about Judaism]…It is also about the paths to the God of Israel that both Jews and Christians travel. It is, to be blunt, about spiritual practices Jews do better. It is, to be blunter, about Christian practices that would be enriched, that would be thicker and more vibrant, if we took a few lessons from Judaism. It is ultimately about places where Christians have some things to learn.” (pp. ix of the Introduction, Mudhouse Sabbath).

And why not? If there’s one lesson contemporary Christianity could afford to learn (and we all know there’s not just one), it’s personal, regular spiritual discipline. How many times do we hear people talk about “carnal Christians” as if such a thing normal, or okay? After all, they tell us (perhaps not directly) that even a carnal Christian is still a Christian, they just won’t get as big a mansion in heaven and won’t get quite as many crowns to lay before Jesus’ feet. It represents, unfortunately, the typical American Christian— a Christian on Sundays and carnal the other six—and it seems that they are getting, quite literally, the best of both worlds. Redemptive fire insurance (because no one wants to go to Hell), and orgies of pleasure in this one.

Of course, this is extreme for most Christians. We want to live lives crucified with Christ, in newness of life, but we stay an arm’s length away from practices or rituals or liturgy because they seem too rote or mechanical to be truly Christian. We think that such things are too Lutheran, too Anglican, too Catholic, or as this book points out, too Jewish. We are terrified of that word “religion” because it has been reduced to modern shorthand for works-based justification. Pastor Mark Driscoll, a Reformed evangelical whose ministry and preaching style I greatly respect, does this often, saying religion is the sin of Pharisees, and even titling one of his messages “Why I Hate Religion.”[ii]

This kind of attitude toward religion comes from good intentions, especially in Driscoll’s case, because Protestants have been rightly trained to embrace Pauline/Lutheran justification by faith. This rich theological truth teaches that we are not save by “works of righteousness which we have done,” but by the grace and forgiveness of God, purchased by the rich and atoning blood of Jesus and applied to the sinner through faith from the Holy Spirit. We’re heard this story all our lives, we know all this, in fact you probably just skimmed over because you’ve read it, or something similar, so many times.

But religion isn’t a bad word at all. Some say that they don’t use the word “religion” because they want to make a meaningful impact on our world, not just sit in their studies or bedrooms memorizing scripture, reciting prayers, pondering theology or fasting. That’s all just religion. I want to do something that matters, they say. Semantically, “religion” isn’t quite the catchphrase we generally assume it to be. Most think of the Pharisees’ overly ritualistic lives as the typical Biblical definition of the word, but there are a couple things wrong with this.

First, the Pharisees aren’t the bad guys we make it out to be. The Pharisees were the good Bible teachers of their day, the literalists trained in conservative seminaries. Even their rules were not thought to be legalistic, just safe. This sounds no different than the fundamentalist communities we grew up in. The Pharisee’s religion was not all bad, they just took it too far at times, and worst of all, rejected Jesus in favor of it. Anything that someone holds on to in Jesus’ stead is probably being misused. So if this is true, religion for the Pharisees is hardly evil, just overextended. They try to make it do too much.[iii] Second, James points out that such misuse is not the full meaning of the word, as he defines religion as visiting orphans and widows in affliction. He calls such acts “religion pure and undefiled pure and undefiled before God” (James 1:27).

The religion is “pure”, implying that it can be defiled or corrupted. Without going into too much detail on a subject you all understand, there is a delicate balance between the next chapter of James (the one that says “faith without works is dead”) and Ephesians 2, the one we all memorize in Awana (“for by grace you have been saved…not of works”). The only way to reconcile these two passages while remaining true to their respective contexts is to say that works (which includes, but is certainly not limited to, rituals, practices, liturgy, spiritual discipline, etc.) do not save—grace through faith does that—but our faith is empty and meaningless without them. Works are the outworkings of our faith. To borrow an oft-used but accurate phrase, good things we do and worshipful things we do for God are not faith through works, but faith that works. I think this includes how we choose to worship God, and rituals and spiritual discipline are solid, reliable ways to stay true to the Lord. I hope to demonstrate this through the following points—to show how our faith can be enriched by adopting Jewish ideas, not the practices themselves which ignore the true Messiah, but the concepts and reasons behind the practices. I think this can make our Christianity, as Lauren Winner put it, “thicker and more vibrant” and eventually lead to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

            Isn’t liturgy just something Catholics do?

Over break, I met with my former teacher and (not former) friend Chris Pluger. We met at Stony Creek Roasters in Cedarville, and as I drank my Columbian Roast we chatted about Holy Communion, literature, the church, theology (per usual) and Israel, among other things. One of the things we discussed was liturgy and Christian discipline. I think we talked about it when he was telling me about Mudhouse, but I don’t remember for sure. One of the things we noticed was that some form of liturgy exists even in non-liturgical churches. Everyone lives by pattern, that’s how we’re wired. We have our routine, and we stick to it. We all struggle with intentional habits, but the unintentional ones are the easiest to start and the hardest to break.

Think about it. What do you do when you get up in the morning? Invariably, you take a shower, always putting the shampoo in first—lather, rinse, repeat—then the conditioner, then you soap up your body, rinse off, use face wash if you have it. Turn off the shower, towel down, choose clothes to wear—taking great care to make sure they match—get a bowl of cereal for breakfast, fill your bowl halfway (give or take) with 2% milk and eat while you read the newspaper, do your devotions, or catch up on some studying for that really hard class. And it’s definitely 2% milk. Always 2%.

See? Pattern. Routine. The same thing every time, with minor variations. Our churches are the same way. The same song-style every morning, the same music pastor, the same “good morning and welcome to ______ Church. Could you please fill out the information card if you’re a visitor? I know there are some of you out there…” The choir sings, then the pastor’s 50-minute sermon with shiny powerpoint, invitation to follow.[iv]

I’m not saying this is necessarily bad, but this is a sort of liturgy. It’s a routine, performed roughly the same every week. I’ve heard people criticize traditional liturgy for several reasons. They say liturgical prayers, which are written-out and designed, aren’t good enough because they don’t come from the heart. Now, I have no problem with extemporaneous praying—I think it has its place—but have you ever encountered a situation in your life when you wanted to pray and articulate your feelings, but for whatever reason (relationship trouble, financial trouble, academic trouble, you just lost your job, whatever—essentially human weakness and effects of sin) you had no words to say? Your heart was full, but your mind was empty. This happens to me all the time. It happens to Lauren Winner too, and that’s why she values her Jewish prayer book, even though she’s a Christian. It gives her the words to pray when she can’t conjure them up herself. This is why some people use the Psalms to pray. Deeper, richer prayers come from the page into our hearts, and we give them to God.

I was a senior in high school when I was first introduced to the Valley of Vision. The book is a collection of Puritan prayers, laden with theological truth and practical application within that doctrinal framework. They are uniquely Christian, penned by giants of the faith like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and David Brainard. When I first started reading it, I fell in love with the theological language of the prayers, which have titles like “God The All,” “God Enjoyed,” “Christ Alone,” “Spiritus Sanctus,” and “God All-Sufficient.” Since then, while the doctrine is still just as true, it has given me an opportunity for beneficial Christian meditation for my spirit while providing theological boundaries for my mind. It’s become a source of spiritual vitality within the walls of sound Biblical truth. It’s not a replacement of the Bible. The Scriptures are still the living, inspired word of God—and no other Christian books or creeds or documents can provide that. But reading the Valley of Vision, even a “liturgical”, meditative recitation can make a Christian’s spiritual life more vibrant and full and rich.[v]

Critics of liturgy say that it will make our faith dull, boring or religious. But aren’t there always times in our lives when we don’t feel like worshipping or praying or singing praise? Aren’t there times when those spontaneous prayers we love just don’t flow? Liturgical, pre-written prayers composed by more eloquent people can be the crutch we use to get back on our feet when we are in spiritual need. It is also important to remember that we shouldn’t dismiss an idea altogether simply because it can be misapplied or wrongly practiced. This is a fallacy committed all-too often by Christians of every category.  

The Jews are sensitive about this issue, probably because people outside their tradition (such as, say, evangelicals) condemn the Jewish way of Halakha—what Rabbi Donin, whose book I am reading for a class, defines as the application and implementation of the mitzvot (Jewish commandments), or as he puts it, the “concretization” of Torah. It’s the religious, works-driven part of their faith, a kind of spiritual obligation. Critics of Jewish practice say that such structure will drain their worship of heartfelt faith and feeling, make it automatous and empty. Donin responds by writing “because and act may be taken to an undesirable extreme does not justify its abrogation [cancellation].” A careless overstatement of this lifestyle makes Christians miss an opportunity for a richer spiritual life. As a side note, I would argue that Christians have even more reason for a disciplined, intentional spiritual life than the Jews. While Jews ultimately live their spiritual lives as efforts to achieve salvation, Christians would live such disciplined lives as an act of gratitude for what Jesus achieved in our salvation. As for an even deeper point in support of pre-written prayers, Jesus himself wrote them, including the most famous prayer in history—which he offered as the model for all Christian prayers: “Our Father who is in heaven, hollowed be your Name.”

Another excuse for avoiding liturgy is that it’s too difficult to memorize and while this may be true, it is just another facet of the complex idea of Christian discipline. Perhaps memorization is another thing we can do to learn to live a more sacramental, devoted life. Perhaps good memorization is good for our spiritual lives (Awana can’t be that worthless, after all). Finally, I’ve often heard people complain that liturgy is too repetitive. I have a hard time understanding this argument. Have you ever sung “I’m Trading My Sorrows” or “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” (which they can, apparently)?

Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord, Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord, Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen.

I could sing of your love forever, I could sing of your love forever, I could sing of your love forever, I could sing of your love forevermore.

Yeah, those look pretty ridiculous written out. If we’re going to use repetition anyway, why not use songs and hymns that have theological depth and meaning, not to mention words that have been spoken by two-thousand years’ worth of Christians?

There are still a few Protestant denominations which practice liturgy in their services, but it is disappearing very quickly. Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominationalists (whatever that means) don’t use it at all. Anglicans and Episcopalians still do, but most evangelicals consider them too theologically liberal.[vi] The Reformed have their own kind of liturgy, but Lutherans are probably (and correct me if I’m wrong, Chris) the most conservative denomination that still uses liturgy.[vii] Perhaps we Baptists have skipped over to praise songs, hand-raising worship time and innovative preaching styles a bit too quickly. I’m not just talking about music, but I have cited music as an example to help illustrate my point. We sing cutting-edge praise choruses with repeated bridges while our hymnbooks gather dust in the shelves behind the pews. Why not sing songs, composed by our theological ancestors, that have stood the test of time, instead of new tunes written by what’s-his-name-just a few years ago?

Liturgy helps provide a rhythm to our worship, a regular heartbeat to our church services (both in the present and with the past) and our personal devotions. It can get us into a habit of praying, reciting scripture, and living out Paul’s command to be living sacrifices to God.

Living and looking like a Christian

As Ms. Winner points out, Christians are missing out. These disciplines, and others, could help us live much more vibrant, meaningful Christian lives if we apply them properly. Imagine what a better view of the Sabbath (Shabbat) could give us—it’s not merely a rest day, or a day to indulge ourselves with, as she says, an extra-long bubble bath or another cup of coffee. It is a day truly holy—literally “set apart”—when we are to settle down and focus on God, both “giving a gift to God and imitating him.” The Jews do this better than we do. That’s just a fact. Think about all the Pharisee’s Shabbat laws—you’ve heard them because you’ve gone to church—or the modern Jewish laws. You can’t make a spark (which means start a fire, turn on any electronic device, start a car, etc.) or do any work or engrave anything (so no writing). The fact that Jews are so much better at observing this is to our shame, I think. Of course, none of this should be viewed as necessary for salvation. Jesus made that very clear. But shouldn’t we Christians observe and celebrate Shabbat better? How much more reason do we have to celebrate Shabbat, in light of the resurrected Christ?

How would our Christian lives be enriched by a more intentional—dare I say sacramental—view of hospitality, prayer, mourning, or fasting? Maybe we should make a more dedicated effort to place signs and reminders of our faith—like the Jewish mezuzah—on ourselves and our houses as reminders of our faith. Perhaps it would help us live more like Jesus if we did things to remind ourselves of our identity as not only followers of Christ, but also part of the world-wide, historical religious movement of Christianity, therefore uniting us with every other follower of Jesus in the world.[viii] Why don’t we put a cross—the most horrible symbol of punishment and death turned into the most glorious symbol of redemption and forgiveness—on our doors or lockers or jewelry? Why are we so afraid to identify ourselves as followers of Jesus to everyone we meet? And if you don’t want to use the cross because of its secularization (and I think that’s a legitimate reason), why not use a fish, or a chi-rho, or a framed copy of the Apostles Creed to hang on your wall? Not only should we do these things to remind ourselves of our faith, but also to inform others of it too. On the Apostles Creed—imagine how cool it would be for everyone to walk into your house and read not only “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord” but also “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” That is so awesomely specific that I think it might offend just about every group that isn’t Christian.

The point is that Lauren Winner thinks, and I agree with her, that Christians would benefit from a consistent, intentional, ritualistic perspective on their faith. In an age when Christian beliefs have been replaced with Christian ethics—when we need both—and Christian liturgy has been abandoned altogether because it’s too rote and mystical, perhaps a little discipline could go a long way. If we think of it biblically, it certainly couldn’t hurt.

Afterword

            I am the first to admit that I have mostly neglected spiritual discipline in my own life. It’s not easy to embrace such an idea. We are so concerned with our Christian liberty and freedom that we tend to recoil from rituals. This is a Western/American mindset, and though it’s certainly not bad in itself, we need to work to see our faith without the lenses of our culture.[ix] I’m still in the process of implementing spiritual discipline in my own life, and it’s a difficult process. But I think, at the very least, it’s worth considering. Our Christian lives are, in large part, not what they should be. Perhaps engaging in a disciplined lifestyle would benefit us as it benefits the Jews. It cannot provide salvation—absolutely not—but it can help us live more appreciatively and more deliberately in the shadow of the cross.

            The subtitle of Mudhouse is “An invitation to Spiritual Discipline.” That is exactly what this essay is as well. Come walk with me through this new territory, a different and sometimes uncomfortable new land of Christian living. But though the work may be hard and sometimes seemingly needless and worthless, in the end, I believe it can reap deeper, richer meaning. Not for eternity, but for today. Though the etudes may not be fun, perhaps one day we can play sonatas together, and make sweet and pleasant music for our Father.

 


[i] I am not a fast reader by any stretch of the imagination. So this really isn’t that amazing. If I can read a book in a short plane ride—especially one as small as this (156 small pages)—you definitely can too.

[ii]I realize that I’m playing with fire here by mentioning Mark Driscoll, as he tends to be a pretty polarizing figure in evangelical circles. While I understand your apprehension, there is no question that he is an influential figure in both theological and ecclesiastical (church-related) contexts, so his views on this issue are important. This also shows you readers that though I respect Driscoll, I can be critical of him. I can not only thoughtfully analyze how he does his ministry, but also of his most redeeming quality—his preaching. A balanced, thoughtful essay on Mark Driscoll is in the works right now; I hope to have it finished by sometime in mid-April.

[iii] Much like their use of the Law (Torah), which Paul points out in the book of Romans.

[iv] I designed this particular section around my church, but I’m sure your churches do similar things in similar ways. And I’m sure they do it basically the same way every time, which is the point.

[v] As great as reading Valley of Vision is, it’s even better when you listen to it read by Max Mclean, a member of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and owner of the most amazing set of pipes I’m aware of—outside James Earl Jones, perhaps. It’s worth a listen.

[vi] This is generally true, but Lauren Winner attends an Episcopalian Church in North Carolina. I’m not sure if she would necessarily consider herself an Episcopalian, but it’s still interesting.

[vii] This is the second time Chris Pluger has made it into this article. I guess this is what happens when you suggest good books to friends.

[viii] This is something that really annoys me. Why are so many Christians so unwilling to align themselves with all the other Christians? I know they aren’t all perfect, but neither are you so get over it.

[ix] This can never fully happen, of course. But we can try as hard as we can, and with the Spirit’s help, maybe we can begin to achieve it. 

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