Story-Shaped Worship: a book review

Who doesn’t love a good story?  And we got one! Greatest story ever told!  But how does the Bible’s story ‘shape’ our worship?  This is a question I am deeply invested in and I am grateful for Story Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History for exploring the biblical story with an eye for what it tells us about how we worship God. I have reviewed Castleman’s previous volume, Parenting in the Pew and found it helpful. In that book, Castleman has her ‘parent’ hat on as she talks about how children are formed in worship. In this book, she wears her scholar hat and presents a thoroughly researched look at worship in the Bible (with a couple of historical vignettes). Castleman teaches biblical studies and theology at John Brown University  and has served on staff with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (my first exposure to her was at Urbana ’96).

Castleman proposes a canonical-theological approach to liturgical studies. By attending to the biblical story, she is countering trends in some contemporary contexts where the worship experience has been commodified. Castleman writes:

There is no question that the often historically anemic ecclesiology of some Christian congregations  has often resulted in Sunday morning programs that are focused on the subjective experience of the individual rather than true worship that is mediated by and focused on the blessing of the triune God of grace. The necessity of worship as a service mediated by the Spirit, through the Son and for the Father is often lost in the pragmatism of the commodified liturgies of many services of worship. Sunday mornings too often have become storefront windows designed to attract  and keep shoppers in the store in order to buy congregational programs. The grace of the Word and Sacrament have been sacrificed on the altar of a subtle self-help theology which actually seeks to control the divine encounter with the ultimate intention of feeling at least a little bit better about oneself and life circumstances (20).

Castleman counters the ‘personal therapeutic approach’ by rooting her vision of worship in the biblical story. She is also informed in her quest by the Church’s theological reflection on the nature of the sacraments. In the pages that follow, Castleman unfolds what the Bible tells us about worship (chapters 1-7) and examines some historic patterns from the life of the church (chapters 8-10). At the end of the chapter are ‘workshops’ which enable readers to delve deeper into the theology of each chapter with an eye towards how the Bible and theology can inform (and form) our practice of worship.

In chapter one she explores the first four chapters of Genesis and examines what they tell us about God’s character. The story of Cain and Abel illustrate the first ever ‘worship war.’ Abel understood that worship was all about God and brought his best whereas Cain’s offering (and angry reaction when it was rejected) evidences a preoccupation with himself (29). Also within these ‘texts of origins’ we hear foreshadowing of future redemption and get a sense that ‘worship is a response to God’s grace and favor(38).

Chapter two unfolds the meaning of Sabbath and the particularity of the worship of Yahweh in the Pentateuch.  Worshiping God meant for Israel (and for us) that they worship Him only.  There were certain practices excluded from their worship (i.e. divination, sooth-saying, making idols, etc.) and there were certain practices commended (i.e. the celebration of passover, sacrifices, holy days like the Day of Atonement, and sabbath keeping). While the pentateuch pattern cannot be completely mapped out on our experience, many of the characteristics of worship remain significant.  Like the Ancient Israelites we are called to worship God exclusively,  keep Sabbath (though we’ve shifted it to ‘the Lord’s day), and worship-through-reenactment (i.e. the ancient Israelites had passover and sacrifices, we reenact Jesus’s sacrifice through communion) (57-58).

Biblical worship does more than sanctify time, it also creates sacred space. In the building of the Tabernacle, people,  buildings and rooms, and objects were set aside for sacred purposes. In our age, the distinction between the sacred and the profane is obscured but we can learn from the Biblical story to  drawn into God’s presence with expectancy and preparedness.  Going to church on a Sunday morning is to go and meet God. Castleman urges that we see this as ‘holy ground’ and make the necessary preparations for divine encounter.

In chapter four, Castleman describes the ‘shape of biblical worship.’ She describes seven-fold sequence of biblical liturgy call–>praise–>confession–>forgiveness–>hearing God’s word–>responding to God’s word–>blessing. This is a rich chapter and I believe has something to say to those of us in a ‘free church’ context about how we are to fashion our liturgies.

Chapter five discusses the importance of attending to scripture in our worship and the ‘dangerous ambiguity’ when we use worship for our own ends. By examining the story of David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem and Uzzah’s death (2 Sam. 6), Castleman argues that David first tried to use the ark (and worship of Yahweh) to reinforce his reign and how Uzzah’s carelessness reveals an inattention to biblical instructions concerning the Ark. Uzzah’s death called into question David’s motives and purified his worship of God.  Chapter six explores the nature of holiness and how it relates to worship. The God of the Bible is the holy God and those who worship him in Spirit and Truth are called to be like Him. As we worship this God, we allow ourselves to be transformed into His likeness. Chapter seven explores how worship in the synagogues informed the practices of the early church.

The final three chapters form a ‘part two’ and look at historic and contemporary patterns of worship. Castleman explores three different eras: the early church, the Reformation response to late medieval corruption of worship, and our contemporary context. Certainly there is a lot of church history that is overlooked in her account and more that could be said, but her historic vignettes are instructive. By exploring the early church (especially in the Didache) and describing the theology of the Reformers, Castleman challenges us to have a more robust theology of the sacraments. She also urges more purposeful liturgical practices informed by the Bible and theology.

This is a great book for anyone interested in worship. Certainly it will be instructive for anyone who has a hand in planning weekly liturgies (i.e. pastors, worship leaders, etc.) but Castleman’s writing will be accessible to lay readers as well.  These pages will help us recover the biblical shape for our worship. Maybe our current congregations are not as anemic as the ones that Castleman describes (mine is not!). But the therapeutic-consumerist approach to worship has infected us all and we all will benefit from delving deeper into what the Bible tells us about the worship of the one true God. I highly recommend this! My one criticism is that her historic examples (early church and Reformation) makes this a peculiarly protestant book,  while many of her insights have a broader eccumenical appeal.  I give it ★★★★½

Thank you to IVP Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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