Liturgical time vs. newspaper time: Christians need both
Editorís note:This is the text of a talk Dr. Trevor Eppeheimer gave recently at the Salisbury Rotary Club. Eppeheimer is associate professor of systematic theology at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury.
By Trevor Eppeheimer
My topic today, as advertised, is ěTheodicy in Advent,î two topics that might appear, at first glance, to have very little to do with one another. ěTheodicy,î as those here with seminary-training know, is what happens when people seek answers to the kinds of questions the book of Job posed so well, so long ago, during the 6th century B.C. ó If God is so good, why are things here so bad and for so many? Why do the innocent suffer? Does God know or care about all the bad stuff that is going on down here? And if God does, and is who we think God is, then why doesnít God do something about it?
Advent, of course, is that time when the church acknowledges, in a particularly intense way, the human longing for Godís presence in our world; the time Christians prepare themselves for the coming of Immanuel, God-with-us.
My questions today are (1) What do these two things have to do with one another? and (2) Why might their intersection lead us straight into the heart of the news that Christians call ěgood,î that is, the gospel?
Letís start with Advent and to start here means starting with something pastors and seminary professors call ěliturgical time.î By liturgical time we mean church time, worship time, which proceeds, week-by-week, Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon, according to a unique calendar that stands at odds, in many ways, with the predominant calendar recognized by the great majority of the world. I am talking, of course, about the calendar given to us by the Roman Empire, the one in which its famous emperors and deities of old are inscribed and memorialized; the one that is on your refrigerators, your work desks and in your Blackberries; the one that begins with the month of January and will reach its conclusion in a matter of weeks.
While according to this imperial calendar we are supposedly at the end of the year, according to the churchís liturgical calendar, we are right now at the beginning of one, for in liturgical time the year doesnít end but begins with Advent. In the worldís time, then, while things are winding down, coming to an end, in the churchís time ó liturgical time ó things are just getting started.
In addition to imperial calendar time and church liturgical time, however, there is a third kind of time in which we live, and that is what I will call ěnewspaper time.î Unfortunately for us and for our world, newspaper time often feels more like real time than do either calendar time or liturgical time.
In newspaper time, which the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, and the Salisbury Post document so well for us each and every day, unemployment numbers rise, foreclosures skyrocket, children are abducted, young persons shot, old people attacked, planes fly into buildings, and so-called smart bombs mistakenly fall on innocent children. While in liturgical time promises are kept, triumphs follows tragedy, and new life emerges from death, in newspaper time promises are usually broken, triumphs give way to tragedy, and death ends life prematurely, unexpectedly, and often violently.
Theodicy, which, again, is the attempt to make sense of God in light of human misery, suffering, and death ó and misery, suffering, and death in light of God ó is itself an unmistakable product of newspaper time and its dutiful recording of real life in the context of unredeemed existence. It is what people point to when they question the existence of a good God, for a good God, it is argued, would surely have produced a better world than this one.
It is in the context of newspaper time and its deafening roar that liturgical time, church time quietly unfolds, week by week, Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon. As New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn has written, the church each day, every day, finds itself with these two realities on its hands for the God to whom it seeks to be faithful has mysteriously placed on it the burden of proclaiming Christmas in a world of impoverished children, Easter in the midst of genocide and war, and Pentecost in the context of racism and xenophobia. What does it mean, Martyn asks, for the church to have inherited both the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus and the suffering world together, at the same time?
In light of this, perhaps our pastors, ministers, and priests deserve a bit more of our sympathy and less our demands and criticisms, for they are the people who start each morning, as theologian Karl Barth famously said, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, challenged by their congregations and charged by God to make sense of both simultaneously, the one in light of the other. Try stepping in a clergypersonís shoes with this responsibility, if only for a month, and you will soon see why the ordained suffer disproportionately, relative to other professions, with burnout, depression, and physical and emotional breakdowns.
To prepare the churchís next generation of clergy to carry this weight, more weight than any one person ought to bear, the theology department at Hood seminary not only frequently talks in its curriculum about theodicy, the challenge suffering and death present to faith in God, but has also devoted an entire class to this subject alone. In all our courses, in fact, the faculty work with our students to make sense of newspaper time in light of liturgical time, and liturgical time, church time, in light of newspaper time.
The constant temptation facing the world is to think about and live life as if newspaper time were the only real time in existence, the only time that tells the world the truth about itself. The problem with this is that newspaper time, by itself, produces nothing but cynics and cynicism. It leads to the outlook familiar to many of us, the one that results when we have been, as Irving Kristol once put it, mugged by reality one too many times; the view that life is just one damned thing after another, that nothing will ever really change, that persons, societies, and the entire world are tragically destined to go around and around in a futile circle of false starts, dashed hopes, and broken promises.
The opposite temptation, however, that Hood faculty seek most to guard against is unique to the church and its members: the temptation to live as if liturgical time, church time, were the only time in existence. An old theology professor of mine called this the ěNoahís Arkî syndrome, which happens when well-intentioned Christians shut themselves up in their churches, in fear of the world and the rising tide mounting outside the stained glass windows. Accompanying Noahís Ark syndrome is a corresponding way of reading scripture that Princeton Theological Seminaryís James Kay derisively refers to as entering ěBibleland,î which happens when, again, well-intentioned Christians seek refuge from the reality of the world in the pages of scripture, much like children do with their comic books and home video games.
But those who know their bibles well, those who have experienced the power and presence of the living God in, with, and through it, know that this Bible does not permit us to hide, escape, or seek refuge from the world, from newspaper time, in its pages. Rather, this Bible, when God is at work in it, always pushes us, like a good mother bird, out of its nest and into the world, straight into the heart of newspaper time, for faithful readers of scripture know that the Bible contains liturgical time and newspaper time within itself simultaneously.
Both liturgical time and newspaper time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the season of Advent, where the seasonís texts set the time of Immanuelís coming against the backdrop of Israelís oppressive occupation by the Roman Empire, and in the particular events surrounding a man named Josephís moralistic desire to divorce himself from a woman in whose womb gestates the first fruits of Godís New Creation. And when this uncertain couple find their way on that first Christmas to a place that looked nothing like the stable depicted in many of our church pageants (illuminated as they always predictably are by the warm glow of bright lights, white linens and clean straw), and as the exhausted woman endures the pain of labor, amidst foul animal stench, the Bible cuts to other mothers in the region screaming cries of anguish for newborns executed before their eyes by Herodís soldiers. Here, on a split screen in front of us, the Bible places Godís time and newspaper time together, side-by-side, binding them together and preventing us from ever taking one apart from the other.
As theologian Christopher Morse memorably put it, one cannot have mangers apart from the manure that surrounds them. His point: Christian faith, biblical faith, is incarnational faith; it refuses to remain pure and pristine in some sanitary, hermetically sealed reality called religion, which humans have invented to keep the divine innocuous and manageable and therefore above or outside the fray of existence ó the place, of course, where we actually live. The Bible, one notices, seems to know next to nothing about this thing human beings call ěreligion,î but only knows of the God who is constantly avoiding the religious conventions of the day in search of the greater prize of the worldís redemption.
The God of the Bible prefers to work off the grid, in the dark, forgotten corners of human existence, in precisely those places that we try to pretend donít exist or would rather keep in our rearview mirrors. Away from the media spotlight, out of reach of Fox News and MSNBC, apart from the corridors of human power, the grace of God, the Bible tells us, is at work under the radar screen and always, as the great 16th century reformer Martin Luther so wisely observed, sub contrario or ěbeneath its oppositeî; that is, in precisely the ways human beings think the God of the universe ought not work, in ways we find unbecoming and inappropriate for divinity: amidst slaves in Egypt, in the filth of a manger (an animalís feedbox), or in the shame and humiliation of a Roman cross. Under the radar screen and beneath its opposite.
There is something in us, Christians included, Luther contended, that refuses to accept God in these ways, on these terms. We are always, he observed, looking too high for God, and that is, in part, why the problem posed by theodicy presents itself to us, because we demand that God fix what is wrong with the world as the world always does, which is from the top-down, through power and might, coercion and force, the very way that always ends up making things worse. Instead, the God of the Bible prefers to work from the ground up, through the powerless and the meek, among the jobless and the foreclosed upon, in those who show up in our newspapers as statistics rather than in celebratory profiles, in those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness.
If we want to encounter the God of the Bible this Advent season, or any other season for that matter, we would do well to go to those very places ourselves, and do the work of the biblical God, with the biblical God, in the basement of human existence. Looking up we will overlook God, question Godís motives, wonder why God is doing nothing for us, for our sin-sick world. Looking down, however, we will find Him, dutifully at work, under the radar screen, and beneath his opposite.
Keep your heads down then, in and for this city. Sticking close to the trouble spots of this county, you will continue to encounter God and Him working alongside you. If the Bible is to be believed, Advent time is happening right now in the midst of newspaper time. Armed with two watches, one for each kind of time, go and prepare the way. And from the Hood seminary family to you and yours: Blessings upon you this Advent season.
Dr. Trevor Eppeheimer of Salisbury received his masterís of divinity from Yale Divinity School and his Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York.