Essentially, This is Great Resource: a book review.

 I have a confession: I have a standing bias against any book which has the word ‘essential’ in the title.  I have several ‘essential’ books on my shelf, but I always think, “Essential? Really? I don’t know how I have made it this far in life without cracking open The Essential Schopenhauer or referencing often my copy of Lawrence Quirk’s essential biography of Joan Crawford.”  Of course I am using the term essential narrowly. What authors (and publishers) have in mind is a distillation of the ideas, elements and basic characteristics of their subject. Even this doesn’t put me at ease because I always wonder what is being left out of such ‘essential’ descriptions and compilations. 

My standing bias aside, I picked up Robbie Castleman’s New Testament Essentials because I have read her work appreciatively before (even reviewing a couple of her books here). Castleman is professor of biblical studies and theology at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Her previous works include a go-to-resource for parents wishing to shepherd their children through Sunday morning worship and pass on the essential aspects of the Christian faith (the book is aptly titled, Parenting in the Pew). Last year she released Story-Shaped Worship which delved deeply into the overarching biblical story and Christian history to help worship planners and liturgists enrich their Sunday services. Both books are on my essential reading list. 

New Testament Essentials: Father, Son, Spirit and Kingdom is part of a series from IVP which includes Greg Ogden’s Leadership Essentials, Discipleship Essentials and The Essential Commandment, Daniel Myers’s Witness Essentials and Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Essentials.  I own three of the other volumes but have yet to work through any of them ( I’m still trying to figure out if that’s really essential). So Castleman is my introduction to the series.

I have really enjoyed the twelve studies which she presents.  In each of the studies she is sensitive to the operation of the Trinity, the outworking of the gospel in the church and the full in-breaking of God’s kingdom. The studies are organized into three sections. Part one examines the ‘revelation of God in Jesus Christ’ and focuses on Bible passages which explore Jesus, life, teaching, death, resurrection and the implications for us would-be-followers. Part two focuses on the ‘indwelling of God by the Holy Spirit in the church.’ These studies (study 6-8) explore how the Spirit’s presence binds believers to one another in counter-cultural ways. Part three examines the ‘present and coming Kingdom of God.’  This final section reflects on how citizens of Christs kingdom ought to love and serve one another and how our faithful witness to Christ is galvanized by our sure faith and hope of his return when creation and humanity is restored. 

Continue reading Essentially, This is Great Resource: a book review.

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.

Worship is Child’s Pray: a book review

As a frazzled father of three, I know how hard church can be.  While life at home is often pandemonium in church I feel like I have to reign those kids in.  At the very least keep them from kicking  the pew in front of them. Author Robbie Castleman  challenges us parents to enlarge our vision of what our kids can experience in church. Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worshipnow in its third edition, brings together Castleman’s skill as a theologian, and her experience raising her sons in church.  This is a thoughtful book which challenges readers to invest in teaching kids to worship God (not just behave themselves) and leading them to a fresh encounter with God. Along the way Castleman shares insights, personal anecdotes and stories of how other parents have been able to  ‘parent in the pew.’

Parenting in the Pew: Guiding You Children into the Joy of Worship by Robbie Castleman

Castleman’s book  begins with a plea for parents to ‘pay attention’ to their children, how they learn and how they can participate in worship. She argues that participation in worship is formative for children (and the rest of us). But she knows the  challenge.   In one witty chapter, she discusses ‘Worship BC and AD,’ that is, ‘before children’ and ‘after diapers.’  When we seek to enter into God’s presence our children may be a distraction.  If we are not careful we will end up teaching our kids to be ‘quiet in church’ without really teaching them the meaning of worship and failing to participate in worship ourselves. Worship is about giving God his due glory, not about our own experience. God is not the least bit bothered by our kids participating (just ask Jesus).

From there Castleman explores the elements of worship and how to prepare your kids to participate. For  those who worship on Sunday morning, this preparation often begins the night before (making sure kids get enough rest, are awake and ready for church, the tone you set for the day, etc.).  Castleman  provides various strategies for maximizing attentiveness to the sermon, getting kids to sing, pray and participate in the liturgy.

This edition updates the examples for a new generation (the original edition was published twenty years ago). Earlier editions talked about Castleman’s experience of  training her own sons in worship. Those stories are still here, but  now her sons are grown and are parenting  their own children’ in the pew.’  Additionally there are examples from other parents she’s encountered at ‘parenting in the pew’ seminars and workshops.

What Castleman says here is really valuable. As Christians we were made to worship God and I believe our participation in corporate worship is formational.  The vision she has for including kids in worship, preparing them for Sundays and cultivating attentiveness to the Word is commendable and I think right on target.  She also communicates her vision of  intergenerational ministry with wit and grace. I  appreciate that while she has some clear directives (don’t bring a coloring book to distract your kids but seek instead to get them to participate) she also honors the differences in children’s personalities. If worship is about paying attention to God, teaching worship to our kids begins with paying attention to them.

Putting this book into practice may be challenging for parents if  their church doesn’t have a vision for intergenerational ministry and the participation of kids in worship. My family and I are lucky enough to be a part of a church community which really values getting the kids involved in the worship service. Other churches in town do not have the same value. For parents seeking to carry out Castleman’s suggestions, they may find that they are kicking against the goads.  There is enough in this book which challenges leaders to make the worship a more hospitable place for children but Castleman  addresses the leadership challenge more directly in Story Shaped Worship (forthcoming IVP May 2013).  Another challenge for parents is that some of Castleman’s suggestions work better for different developmental stages. Still parents of toddlers to teens can all benefit from this book. 

I think this is a great book and would recommend it  to both  parents and ministry leaders. There are a lot of kids who grow up ‘quiet’ in church who later quietly leave out the backdoor. I  think getting parents to invest in teaching their kids to worship and leading them to an encounter with God is necessary if we want our children to grow up in the faith. Pastoral leaders  also need to properly care for children and families in their midst and encourage their spiritual growth. Castleman’s focus on worship is particularly refreshing.  I give this book ★★★★.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.