Summary: Who we worship, and why we worship is central to the role of the church.
Last month, NT Wright’s For All God’s Worth was on sale. For All God’s Worth is another book saved by the ebook revolution. It was published nearly 20 years ago and, while it is a decent little book, there is no way it would have stayed in print if ebooks were not a reality.
Wright seems to have written this book at least in part in response to a 1994 report on the state and purpose of Anglican Cathedrals in the UK. Wright, then working at one of the Cathedrals, dedicated both the book and its profits to the restoration of music at his Cathedral.
One of the things I most appreciate about Wright is his desire to be not just an academic, but also a cleric. For virtually his entire career he has either worked full or part time as a pastor or chaplain or in student ministry and eventually Bishop while also maintaining his academic career. This book is a good example of that. It is written to and for the church.
For its short length, it hits a large number (perhaps too many) points. The book is made up of two sections, God is worthy of worship and the Church as reflection of God in the world. I apologize in advance, but this is a review with a lot of quotes. It all seems good and there is not a good reason to restate it in my own words.
Wright borrows from I Cor 13 to give context for his vision of the church:
Though we sing with the tongues of men and of angels, if we are not truly worshipping the living God, we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Though we organize the liturgy most beautifully, if it does not enable us to worship the living God, we are mere ballet-dancers. Though we repave the floor and reface the stonework, though we balance our budgets and attract all the tourists, if we are not worshipping God, we are nothing. Worship is humble and glad; worship forgets itself in remembering God; worship celebrates the truth as God’s truth, not its own. True worship doesn’t put on a show or make a fuss; true worship isn’t forced, isn’t half-hearted, doesn’t keep looking at its watch, doesn’t worry what the person in the next pew may be doing. True worship is open to God, adoring God, waiting for God, trusting God even in the dark. Worship will never end; whether there be buildings, they will crumble; whether there be committees, they will fall asleep; whether there be budgets, they will add up to nothing. For we build for the present age, we discuss for the present age, and we pay for the present age; but when the age to come is here, the present age will be done away. For now we see the beauty of God through a glass, darkly, but then face to face; now we appreciate only part, but then we shall affirm and appreciate God, even as the living God has affirmed and appreciated us. So now our tasks are worship, mission and management, these three; but the greatest of these is worship.
Wright then places the worship as a central role of the church, somewhat similar to Love as the central role of the individual Christian. From here Wright wanders, as he as a tendency to do, drawing together seemingly disparate topics. We need worship and theology together because without a clear understanding of God, we have a fuzzy understanding of worship.
The Eucharist is a central focus and image of our worship, an earthly image that becomes a method of understanding our heavenly focus.
And, “…every gift that God has given us, of art, architecture, music, flower-arranging, theological study, and everything else, is taken up within the total sacrifice of praise. That’s what a cathedral is there for. It is all God’s work.”
Worship is not just celebration, it is healing. So we, “celebrate not the wonderful achievements of the church but the healing power of God to build his church with battered and broken building-blocks, including people like you and me. Celebration and healing; it is all God’s work.”
Wright keep pulling the focus back to mission and God. “First, the place of doctrine within Christianity is absolutely vital. Christians are not defined by skin colour, by gender, by geographical location, or even, shockingly, by their good behaviour. Nor are they defined by the particular type of religious feelings they may have. They are defined in terms of the god they worship. That’s why we say the Creed at the heart of our regular liturgies: we are defined as the people who believe in this god.”
But also, “It is the doctrine that assures us that our visiting of the sick, our teaching of the young, our creating of beauty, our praying and working for justice and peace in the world, are not simply us doing something for God; they are God acting in and through us. Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity assures us that this work is not in vain. Even if, like Jesus himself, we seem to have thrown ourselves away chasing a dream that many dismiss as foolish or impossible, the doctrine of the Trinity insists that out of this death there comes new life, God’s own life given to be the life of the world.”
This is already too long and I have barely scratched the surface, but there are three more points that I think are essential (and I am not really at the half way point of the book yet.)
“But the reason that the true God will come to right all wrongs in the world (and that’s what ‘judgment’ really means) is not because he’s a fierce bully but precisely because he is the bridegroom who wants to woo and win his bride; because he is the shepherd who longs to carry the lambs close to his heart; because he is the servant who is wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. If this is what the true God is like, it’s the fierce bullies — the Herods of the world — who are in for a shock.”
Personally, I need to hear:
“You may have it in you to be a brilliant concert pianist; but until you get down to practice and performance, all that brilliance remains latent. God always was the God of love — generous, spontaneous, free and cheerful self-giving love; but until God, if we dare put it like this, gets down to practice and performance, that love at its deepest level remains latent. On the cross God at last performs the score composed before the foundation of the world. On the cross God at last scales the highest of the peaks. It isn’t just that the cross reveals God’s love in the most striking way. It reveals it because it enacts it. It becomes part of, indeed the most central part of, the personal history of God. God becomes the prisoner in the condemned cell, writing in his own blood the letter of reconciliation.”
Wright spends a good bit of time refocusing the church on seeing the world as Gentiles, not Jews. We are not calling those outside the church to return to the law, but we are calling Gentiles, so…
“…we can and must assume that our hearers are human beings, made in the image of God, designed to tremble at his word, to respond gladly to his love, and to reflect his wise care and justice into his world. We can and must assume that humans know in their bones that they are made, as Genesis insists, for relationship, stewardship and worship. People don’t have to be told that they are made for these things; they know it deep within themselves, and they are puzzled, and often grieved, that it doesn’t work out like it should. Our task is to speak the language they speak, in symbol and story as well as in articulate theory; to offer them the revolution they know they need; and to urge and invite them to follow us as we move forward with the hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. At the same time, in so doing, we must tell them and show them that the revolution, the justice and peace, the restoration of creation, will come about only if we are worshipping the true God of heaven and earth, the one made known in Jesus Christ.”
For all that I am quoting, and this is a book that has a ton of quotes, it is somewhat forgettable once I walk away. I started it before my son was born. But I needed to start again and re-read the half I had already read. And a couple days after finishing, if I hadn’t highlighted so much as I was reading, I would probably have missed much of it. Part of it is that I am a sleep deprived, new parent. But I also think that this is not one of Wight’s stronger books, although I think the focus and content are good. It lacks some of the imagery and story of some of his other books that allows them to stick with your long after you are finished reading. Several other reviews complain that this is a series of sermons that were edited together into a book. So it may be natural that this is not as cohesive as it should have been.
It is a book worth reading, but not one of his best books.