In Search of Better Stories

The Divine Embrace

The Big Idea of the Book:

The Christian story is about God’s embrace of us. Christian life happens when we contemplate and participate in this most mysterious and beautiful rescue story of God. Contemplating the story isn’t about proving it with clinical certainty or arguing for its factual validity, nor is it about having esoteric self-focused spiritual experiences. Instead, it’s delighting in the hope that swells up within us because of the beauty and wonder of the story. Participating in the story, according to Webber, is best achieved through embracing the rituals of the ancient fathers. Seriously embracing rituals like baptism and the eucharist, and taking vows such as the Benedictines do are the best ways for us to shape our lives around the story of God. Sadly many Christians remain trapped in a primarily intellectualized faith built on arguments, proofs and adherence to a set of historical and theological details. For those Christians who have managed to let go of modernisms scientific way of knowing the truth, they have slipped into another folly. They have formulated a narcissistic, consumeristic version of Christianity, totally preoccupied with one’s personal experience and not the grand story of God.

What I learned and appreciated

  1. Stop arguing!— I grew up battling for the faith. According to Webber, that pretty much needs to stop. I’ll let him explain:

“But we no longer live in the modern world that privileges reason, science, and the empirical method of proving this or that to be true. Some bemoan the shift from the modern world. Some even hang onto the modern world because their theology is dependent on it. For them, the thought of thinking differently is threatening, so they do not want to go there. But in the postmodern world, the way of knowing has changed. We now live in a world in which people have lost interest in argument and have taken to story, imagination, mystery, ambiguity, and vision… (p. 17) The resistors have wed the faith to modern rationalism and science and continue to defend the faith on arguments that people simply don’t care about anymore. (p. 117).

2. The sad time when God went from subject to object — When we embrace the story of divine love, we see God doing everything: creating, redeeming, restoring. He is the subject of the story. Unfortunately, a shift happened in late antiquity, which turned God into the object. God became “the object out there.” The focus of Christian faith became the human effort to get to God, through various forms of pietism, legalism, or revivalism. The focus of our faith should be on God’s journey into our history to redeem it. Not our journey to God. (Webber might not be a fan of the Pilgrims Progress!?)

3. The Big Boo-boo of the reformation.

“By replacing contemplation and participation with justification and sanctification, the Reformers set up what was to become a severe problem in the modern era—the separation of spirituality from a relational, lived theology to a spirituality rooted in a forensic justification that did not encourage the mystery of contemplation or participation but instead turned spirituality toward intellectual knowledge.” (p. 61).

Christianity began to develop “a factual orientation,” says Webber, which gave birth to modern apologetics, which has served as a significant distraction to the faith.

4. What does contemplation and participation in the Divine Embrace look like?

“Emphasis on the visual representation and expression of the sacred, community through more intensive face to face interaction, non-hierarchical authority structure, worship that is interactive and physical, rather than the passive and (primarily) cognitive, and a commitment to being part of the life and culture of its host city. (180-181)

Sounds good to me! But then as he unpacks some of this, a couple of warning bells go off.

What I’m not so sure about

  • Pleasure Bad — Webber places considerable emphasis on returning to ancient Christian understandings of repentance, baptism, and living in the Holy Spirit’s breath. No problems so far, but then he sends us packing to a Benedictine monastery to take vows of stability, fidelity, and obedience and to give ourselves over to study, prayer and work. He sends us into the desert to learn from the desert fathers so that we might become spiritual warriors who “train our inner will so as not to let it lean towards your own desires.” (p. 190). From the sun-baked dust-covered monks, he wants us to “wage ceaseless and courageous war against all passions, especially and pre-eminently against self-love. (p. 189) There seems to be baked into these ancient forms of Christianity a high suspicion of fulfilling any desire or pleasure lest it supersedes the connection to God. I don’t think I’m really into this phobia of pleasure. I believe God wants us to enjoy the pleasure whatever it is (as long as it is not sinful) and then thank him for it. He lists 74 rules the Benedictines follow. This is how real Christians participate in the story, but too many of these Benedictine injunctions seem to be anti-joy.

  • Baptism & Ritual Essential — He ups the ante on baptism, just like the “inner commitment and outer ritual are necessary for marriage to be truly effective” (P 152). So too is it necessary for Christian baptism to take place (p. 152). He talks about how the priests of old ritualistically breathed in the faces of their converts. Reading this during our current pandemic made me cringe. Whatever symbolic value was lost. But for Webber, these symbols are critical elements that help us live out the story. I’m not convinced.

  • Worship wars are back — Webber gets cranky. He becomes the Trinity police and starts nit-picking worship songs that don’t give full representation to each member of the trinity. He also complains that there is too much love expressed by the worshiper in today’s modern music and not enough of God’s story. I tend to check out when poetic expressions of love fall under such technical scrutiny. — It’s a wrong turn, how could Weaver ever appreciate the Psalter?

Quotes, tidbits, and other nuggets.

We are called to this story, not as an idea that needs to be defended with an intellectual argument as if its validity depends on proof, but we are called to enter the story by delighting in it and participating in it. (p. 28).

First, the language of spirituality moved from the “indescribable wonder of God” to the “wonderfully indescribable experience of God.” (p. 51).

The focus became more on the contemplation of the self and inner life.

They rejected paradoxes and seeming contradictions and sought to explain everything with the tools of reason, science, and logic. In doing so, they took away the mystery that characterized the faith from the beginning. (p. 65).

We reinvent the church to fit modern science and rationalism, reinvent it to fit the culture of consumerism and entertainment, reinvent it to fit postmodern relativism. Obviously, the church must speak to the culture. It only speaks authentically and with integrity, however, when speaking out of the story of God. (p. 229)

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