Thursday 10 April 2008

God against religion

A new book has just landed on my desk, and I really like the look of it: Matthew Myer Boulton, God against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship (Eerdmans, 2008). “There is today,” Boulton observes, “a kind of pious haze that clouds much Christian writing about worship” (p. 4).

Boulton’s argument develops as a new appropriation of Karl Barth’s critique of religion – and at the heart of the book is the claim that Barth’s critique is fundamentally a critique of worship. “It is worship, most fundamentally, that has this double aspect, both veil and clothing, ‘fall’ and ‘reconciliation’. And thus it is worship, finally, that God will cast aside” (p. xviii). Worship constitutes the “fatal disease”, the “wound of human life” – and it is this very wound which God sublimates, transforming it from within in order to effect our reconciliation. Liturgy is both the wound and the cure, both fall and reconciliation. The Eucharist is paradigmatic here: “For whenever it is celebrated, it is simultaneously a meal of consummate betrayal and desertion … and a meal of consummate joy and reconciliation” (p. 17).

Anyway, so far I’ve only read the opening pages. But this looks like a very promising and very provocative work of constructive theology. “As a brief systematic theology of invocation, this book proposes that Christian theology be thought through worship, that it be conceived, developed, and articulated in liturgical terms…. In what follows I argue that God’s reconciliation of humankind is a radically liturgical solution to a radically liturgical problem: the problem, as Barth puts it, of ‘religion’” (p. 12).

As Boulton rightly (and discomfortingly) reminds us, Barth’s critique isn’t merely directed against some vague religion-in-general. It is directed against Christianity – and especially against Christianity in its highest and noblest and most exalted expressions and activities.


scott said...

Promising and provocative indeed! Thanks for the heads up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. The argument looks promising and looks like an hypothesis that I have found compelling in other venues.

I remember taking a course with Hughes Oliphant Old on the development of the Baptismal rite in the Reformed tradition. I remember thinking that it was only looking at the Reformation through the development of worship that I truly understood the nature of the Reformation itself. I had read Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, Zwingli, Melanchthon, etc. from a systematic and dogmatic perspective before.

But it was only through the lens of worship that I truly understood the nature of the Reformation. I still think this thesis holds now as it did then. So this book holds a certain resonance.

Anonymous said...

A palpable hit. There goes another £10+ ...

MM said...

I'm looking forward to this- but for now, as far as I can tell, so much for ecumenism on Boulton's part. And (Disciples)(at HDS) are supposed to be so good at such things...

Anonymous said...

Where does humor fit into the thesis? There are many passages in scripture that may have been writte to be funny, but the thought of any priest or minister reading a passage of scripture while laughing would get him/her carried out and martyred.
I'm thinking of passages like John 1:50 -
Jesus answered and said to him, "Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.
Worship generally seems to leave out humor - except in carefully chosen jokes the minister may present in a homily.

Anonymous said...

There is so much Christian "religion" out there passing itself off as Christian "faith" that it's enough to make you puke.

Hopefully this book will shine a disinfecting light on it.

- Steve

Anonymous said...

Looks interesting indeed. I've been interested in this topic since I finished my ealier theological work under Geoffrey Wainwright, Reinhard Huetter and Nicholas Lash, making Barth and worship my initial proposal for my DPhil work at Oxford under J. Webster. My work shifted into the nature of the theologian and theological action in Barth's work, but this theme of Barth and worship I'm still very interested in. I'm excited it is being addressed afresh. I've had a strong curiosity in how the Reformed linkage in 'true piety' and 'religion' is bound up with non-idolatrous worship of God. This theme certainly drives Barth's work, see his careful placement of prayer in the dogmatics, but the relationship to 'religion', being the complicated reference this term designated during Barth's time, meant much by way of theological scolding of the term. I look forward to revisiting this theme, and this look like a grand place to begin. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Yes that sounds like a book needing to be written. I'm off to the bank.

Anonymous said...

This is off topic, but I would love to hear what Ben (and even Kim) thinks about the so-called "emerging church". I'm not sure if you guys have even taken it on as a topic, have you? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts as I find this blog to be very insightful and well thought out. Thanks.

Ps. I didn't know where else to ask this question. My apologies if it's out of place.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Brian. I must admit, the "emerging church" isn't something that I've really thought much about (probably because it doesn't have much of a presence here in Australia — it's not something that anyone here really talks about). But I'd be happy to field this one to Kim, or to any other readers out there who might have some thoughts about it...

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

Neither does the Emerging Church have much of a presence here in the UK. The Post-Evangelical (1995) by UK pastor David Tomlinson comes from the same family of fugitive evangelicals, and anticipates Brian McClaren's A Generous Orthodoxy (2004) by a decade, but the so-called "heated" debate it generated has turned out to be something of a damp squib. Not only does it lack such theological heavyweights as Ray Anderson; you must also remember that British evangelicalism is not as extreme as its American counterpart - we don't have the fundies and creationists that you have - nor is the UK as religious a society as the US, so perhaps it's not surprising that post-evangelicalism wouldn't gather the momentum of a "movement".

Above all, as I've only read a little on the Emerging Church - some McClaren, Anderson, and Fitch - and know little of its ecclesial or social impact, I'd perfer to take Abraham Lincoln's advice and stay rather silent on the subject and be thought a fool than say something and have it confirmed. But I will say that, personally, I've always been a "plague on both your houses" guy when it comes to conservative evangelicals and liberals, and I am certainly sympathetic with the Emerging Church's ethos of a "generous orthodoxy" (a term, of course, coined by the great "post-liberal" Hans Frei) and its project of retrieval (diachronically and synchronically) and sympathetic with all evangelicals in exile looking for a homeland. I suspect that the biggest elephant in the room is ecclesiology.

That's probably not much help. Sorry. But I do highly recommend "swimming against the stream": it's hard work, but the water's great.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a fascinating book, one I may have to put on my summer reading list.

It reminds me of a sermon series I heard Rob Bell preach at Mars Hill titled "Jesus Came to Save Christians." Wonderful series.

Thomas Price: Are you still at Duke? I'm in the MDiv there now and will be taking Wainwright's "Doctrine of the Trinity" in the fall.

grace and peace,

Matt Jenson said...

hi brian,

i blogged a few times in an attempt to give an overview (albeit a rather impressionistic one) of the emerging church conversation after having taught a class on it. the first post is at

there are other posts you can find there. i'd be glad to send along the syllabus we used, too, if it'd help. you can email me at

tough thing about the emerging church is that is much more of a movement (and even in that, only just now moving away from being chiefly an anti-movement) made up of remarkably disparate styles, theologies, reactions and proposals. i'd think the best approach to learning and evaluating is ethnographic (gibbs & bolger's "emerging churches") and then person specific (e.g. brian mclaren, dan kimball, doug pagitt).

hope that helps,

Matt Jenson said...

i've found scot mcknight most helpful for developing some categories for the emerging church. he's a backer of the movement, but not blindly so.

see this article:

Anonymous said...

Hey Chadholtz,
I'm no longer at Duke, finished the ThM some years back; I've now just finished my dissertation at Oxford. I know that class on the Trinity well, do enjoy. And give G. Wainwright my best.
Pax et Spes

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