Brief Book Review: The Church’s Book

The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context

by Brad East

Why should you read this? For readers of Pray Tell, East focuses on scripture’s central context as the mission and worship of the community of Jesus Christ. The scriptural canon is for the church and for the upbuilding of the church.

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Book Review: When Church Stops Working

When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation
beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation
By Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand

This a specially designed, shorter text, aimed at reaching ordinary people, clergy as well as lay, in serious reading and reflection on the local church, namely the parish. It distills a long, remarkable series of previous books by Andrew Root: Faith Formation in a Secular Age, The Pastor in a Secular Age, The Congregation in a Secular Age, The Church after Innovation, Churches after the Crisis of Decline,  Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2017, 2019, 2021, 2022, 2022. I too have tried to take on the situation of congregations in decline and shrinkage. The Church Has Left the Building: Faith, Parish and Ministry in the 21st Century, and Community as Church, Church as Community, Eugene OR: Cascade Publications, 2016, 2021.

In the Root-Bertrand volume of less than two hundred pages, many of the really fascinating earlier studies are omitted. I think for example, of what makes for the secular age in which we live. Charles Taylor’s massive study is the primary source. There is much that is transformed in the secular age. One example is that this is a time in which we cannot take anything beyond what is observable, measurable, verifiable as truth. Given the recent rise in “alternative facts” and the deniability of even documented statements by political operative, the complex character of our secular age goes without saying. This disenchantment of the world, reduction to the experience and feelings of the individual—an eclipse of community—all this is a huge challenge for communities of faith. Similarly, the corporate world presents strategies of growth, marketing methods that work for businesses of all kinds. So too, we have been told, for the church. If we are not constantly active in our congregations, if we are not consistently increasing membership and income, if we are not producing new and exciting programs, if we are not employing the efforts of megachurches in worship and member retention, then we are condemned to further shrinkage, closure, disappearance of congregations. Growth and change are the keywords of the church.

Root and now with his graduate school colleague Bertrand raise a very Barthian “NO” to all of this. Congregations need to again realize that the grace and power of God come from without, from beyond the church. Parishes need to stop their frantic busyness, for this is, in their view, a “killer cocktail,” busy people, busy church. Contrary to what secular culture seems to say—something Taylor himself was emphatic about—people of faith can indeed have a communal, public existence, something that has continues for more than two millennia despite all kinds of historical challenges. However, rather than reacting, struggling to find always newer ways of worshipping and reaching out, they need to be still, to wait on God, to learn again to resonate with each other, with the world in which they live, and most importantly, with God. The authors are calmly certain on that score, namely that God continues to speak to God’s people, through the scriptures, sacraments, their fellowship and learning, their ministry to their neighbors. Congregations need to learn again from the liturgy, the liturgical year, the scriptures, the feasts, that is, the tradition that has been passed down to them from apostolic times. They need not to try to recreate the primitive church, yet likewise they have to fight the urge, very much pressured upon them by consultants and specialists, to keep engineering newer and more attractive ways of being church.

Root and Bertrand are not at all interested in a how-to-do-it book, a manual for reviving a congregation, for ending shrinkage and decline. It may just be that our 21st century needs smaller, calmer and devoted congregations. People of God who know that waiting is one of the most biblical things they can do. What the authors propose is counterintuitive in the present, but absolutely right. They offer a couple of case studies of very different parishes—Queenston UCC and Prince of Peace Lutheran– and how these communities learned what might have appeared counter-intuitive. They call on Bonhoeffer, a potent source on community as church. They also at some length consult a major modern theologian who has been a special focus of my own study, the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard, and I believe they bring readers the very best both of these have to offer, not to mention Karl Barth and Martin Luther King Jr. among others.

This admirably clear and succinct book can well be accessed by people in parishes, lay and clergy. As such it deserves a commensurately straightforward review and one which finds a great deal of wisdom of the best and most faithful kind. I have reviewed many of Root’s earlier publications in the same manner. Admittedly here and there I have found myself held up by some assumptions, one being that all Christians are Protestants. Granted the authors are and so they write, but well, not so all facing the challenge of being followers of Jesus today. I missed the centrality of the Eucharist, something fundamental and ecumenically so, in my biographical experience in churches East and West. This said, this is a solid and wise book and I hope it will be read and pondered.

Root, Andrew and Blair D. Bertrand. When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023. 176 pages. $21.99. ISBN: 9781587435782.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

Book Review: Unruly Saint

Unruly Saint:
Dorothy’s Day’s Radical Vision and Its Challenge for Our Time
By D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield is a writer as well as an activist. Raised in a conservative Christian church, her childhood years were ones of her family moving around in a van as her father helped small congregations get started. The dream of missionary work she acquired while in bible college brought her into contact with Muslim refugees and this experience took her out of the confines of evangelicalism. She’s worked with immigrants and refugees for over a decade. Her writing has appeared in Sojourners, the Washington Post, Christianity Today and Vox among other outlets. She maintains a podcast, “The Prophetic Imagination,” and earlier books include Assimilate or Go Home (HarperOne, 23016) and The Myth of the American Dream (IVP, 2020).

Is it any surprise then, that she would produce the present volume on Dorothy Day and her radical vision and its relevance for us in the 21st century. Mayfield draws substantially on Day’s own sizable body of writing, the books and numerous periodical articles as well as The Catholic Worker columns and her letters and diaries, edited by Robert Ellsberg. She follow a chronology which essentially is Dorothy’s biography. All of the early radical activities and journalism are examined. So too Dorothy’s open, radical lifestyle and perspectives. She hung out with writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, socialists and Communists and anarchists, writing for their publications. Mayfield covers Day’s personal life as well, her political and activist connections and her complicated sexual relationships with colleagues, lovers and the occasional husband. Dorothy as parent also looms large in this book, as grandmother too.

The cover art is a sketch of the young Dorothy drawing hard on a cigarette. Not kneeling in a chapel, or hands joined in prayer. This is precisely Dorothy’s hidden holiness. She was reputed to curse like a teamster, this same daily Mass-goer and prayer of the Office. She walked into the archdiocese of New York’s chancery and defended the title of her publication against the charge it sounded almost Communist. She would write to people discouraged by the seeming absurdity of bishops and priest by assuring her correspondent that it had always been like this in the church. And that Christ surely was at work and present, despite this lamentable behavior.

Likely there would have been a bottle and glass on the table in from of her. For many years the cigarette would remain there, along with the coffee cup and the daily psalms, from the breviary. Her houses of hospitality gathered for evening prayer together, and where there was one to celebrate, there would be daily or when possible, a celebration of the Eucharist. Every day she would be soaking in the writings of Dostoevsky or Teresa of Avila or some other holy one. She corresponded with and published Thomas Merton for years, welcome Daniel Berrigan to speak and preside at Eucharist, among many other contemporary teachers and activists, not the least of which was Jim Forest. Mayfield chooses to call her an “unruly” saint which of course Dorothy was, from her youth till her last years as an eighty year old. And at the same time, her faith and her prayer life were remarkable, solid, without pretense or artificiality. She was unruly. She was passionate. She saw through all the myth of the American Dream to the capitalist and militarist and racist systems that tried to control the country, using the churches much of the time. But her own life, as Mayfield shows quite vividly, was one of protest against and resistance to this kind of state and culture. She was the real thing.

There are other fine overviews of Dorothy Day’s life and work. Jim Forest’s All is Grace (Orbis , 23011) is my favorite. Her granddaughter Kate Hennessy’s is another, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, (Scribner’s, 2017) and Rosalie Riegle, Dorothy Day: Portrait by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis, 2006). However, the great contribution of Mayfield’s book is its constant attention to what Dorothy Day means to our mangled world now. There is an immediacy, an urgency to Mayfield’s narration of Dorothy’s life and thinking. She gets Dorothy exactly right and she does not avoid the unpleasant, difficult, even sometimes nasty details. She listens to Dorothy’s daughter Tamar’s side of things in her relationship to her mother. Tamar came to detest the rigidity of Fr. Hugo, the regular retreat master for the Catholic Worker communities, his arrogance, his extremes in deeming most everything worldly, an obstacle to holiness and thus to be given up or at least avoided. Fine, Tamar said, it got her mother to stop smoking in her early 40s. But the priest took issue with listening to opera and classical concerts on the radio, to reading the newspapers, to being engaged with the racism and protectionism of government for big business, a deadly reality in the Great Depression. Tamar also recognized the uncharacteristic submission her mother made to this priest, also to the questionablye emotional health of Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, though it would never have come into being without Dorothy’s organizational and journalistic tools. Mayfield brings to life the fierce passion of Dorothy for the starving, homeless suffering people tossed out of jobs and into the street by corporations. She lauded the efforts of FDR to alleviate the massive dislocation and pain of millions of Americans, even when this brought her attacks from fellow Catholics for drifting toward Communism.

This is perhaps one of most passionate accounts of Dorothy’s great love for Christ and for the suffering sister and brother before us. Only someone similarly impelled to work with the dislocated and suffering as D.L. Mayfield could have pulled this off and we should be grateful to her for this powerful story of a powerful soul, a most unruly saint.

Mayfield, D.L. Unruly Saint: Dorothy’s Day’s Radical Vision and Its Challenge for Our Time. Minneapolis MN: Broadleaf/1517 Media, 2022. 256 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9781506473598.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

Book Review: Vocātiō: Imaging a Visible Church

Vocātiō: Imaging a Visible Church
By C. Andrew Doyle

We do not ordinarily expect fresh, even provocative and challenging books from bishops. Here and there, of course there are exceptions. Pope Francis of course, comes quickly to mind, Archbishop Rowan Williams is continually impressive in his scholarship. I also recall Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s writings not just as he courageously lived to his death but when he sought a “common ground” for divided Catholics some years ago.

Andrew Doyle has put forward a provocative set of images of not only the parish moving forward but, in particular, for clergy. He is a bishop in the Episcopal Church in Texas, has written before of keeping the tradition of the church while allowing it to be living, changing, both returning to roots and moving across boundaries. What is Doyle’s basis for reimagining church is to return church to a missional status rather than a more institutionalized form, the one in which the model comes from the temple or imperial organizations, with their codes, laws, hierarchies and stratified layers of officials and members. He calls for more non-stipendiary clergy, that is, pastors not dependent upon a parish for their income, neither career and professional employees of the local church of the parish, nor of the diocese or national church body. At least one critic wonders whether Doyle’s liberationist view of the clergy may be shaped by the substantial wealth and endowment of his diocese. Be that as it may, Doyle is courageous and free enough to think boldly and share his vision here.

In addition to wanting clergy freed from financial ties to parishes, he calls for a de-professionalizing of their training and identity, a moving away from the clerical establishment that grew after the first three-four centuries, as Nicholas Afanasiev documents in his writings, especially The Church of the Holy Spirit. Drawing on Roman and Byzantine imperial models, clergy became virtually a stratum or caste separate from and above the non-ordained. There is nothing sacred about this later shape, imperially derived, a shape not found in the New Testament among the diversity of ministries and communities.

Bishop Doyle is not at all an iconoclast, rather a lover of the tradition and not wed to any specific historical period which often is the plague of try to assess where the church should be. He also strives to look at the whole of the church, hence the book’s title, since all baptized Christians are called to put the Gospel into practice. One cannot just focus on the clergy and reform and renewal without considering the whole of the people of God.

Hearkening back to the beginnings, he sees bishops as area ambassadors or consuls, presbyters the ones embedded in local communities to witness to the Gospel and social justice, deacons more connected with practical concerns such as food, housing, education and more. All are working not as heads but fellow servants with the rest of the community. Doyle’s point is that clergy need to be allowed out of the parish structure as we have known it for over a thousand years, also out of a two-tiered, that is clergy-lay institutional church structure. All the ordained have ministries particular to both their ordination and their specific local setting. What would be the real change is that the ordained retake their place among the whole baptized people of God. They would equip and support the mission work of the community, whether as a body or through the individual activities of members. And all of the community would take upon themselves the call to give thanks, hear the Word, feed each other and those around them with the bread of life. This would be a splendid book for retreats, adult classes not to mention seminary and undergraduate courses. It is clear, accessible and strong.

Doyle, C. Andrew. Vocātiō: Imaging a Visible Church. New York: Church Publishing, 2018. xxix +177 pages. $19.95. ISBN: 9781640651173.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021)
is his most recent book.

Brief Book Review: Historical Foundations of Worship

Historical Foundations of Worship:
Catholic Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives
Edited by Melanie C. Ross and Mark A. Lamport

What is this book? This book is the second in the Baker Worship Foundations series (the earlier Theological Foundations volume is reviewed here). It is an edited volume with essays by 18 authors from different liturgical traditions. It is divided into four sections dealing with different area of liturgical history: the common heritage of the early church, the Orthodox experience, the Roman Catholic experience and the Protestant experience. It provides a good introduction to the subject, but it is also offers a good refresher to non-beginners. The book is up to date and each chapter is written by experts in the particular area.

Who’s it for? The book is for any student of liturgy. It is written with the general US graduate student who is beginning their academic study of Christian liturgy in mind. But it can be profitably read by any interested reader and anyone who wants an up-to-date refresh of their understanding of liturgical history.

What difference will this book make? It provides a common basis for the study of liturgical history that can be appreciated by readers of any Christian tradition.  This could be very helpful in a diverse classroom with students from many ecclesial backgrounds and fosters a deeper ecumenical scholarship with the majority of the authors writing from within the traditions they are describing. The introductory section that deals with the common early history is also a great starting point for all study of liturgical history.

Why is this book significant / important This book is what it says on the tin, the title says it all: it provides the reader with an edited progression of chapters by individual authors on the Historical Foundations of Worship, from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives.

Why is this book useful / practical? It provides a one-volume history that in under 300 pages provides a manageable introduction to liturgical history. None of the chapters says everything, but all offer a good starting point and all of them provide suggestions for further reading.

Suggestion/Quibble? A minor quibble, but I think there was a tendency to conflate all Eastern liturgical rites and traditions into the Byzantine. The section dealing with the Orthodox experience is the shortest with only two chapters. The essays do occasionally mention other rites, but these get very little attention.  The section on Protestant experience has eight chapters (and Roman Catholicism has three); I would have appreciated another chapter in this section with a short introduction to each of the non-Byzantine Eastern rites.

Next steps. I am a huge fan of introductions and half the books I read are introductions of one sort or another. It’s no surprise that I think that one introduction, no matter how good, is never enough. However, this book is as good a place as any to start. I would recommend that those for whom this is their first book on liturgical history, follow on with a few other general historical overviews, such as the Oxford History of Christian Worship, Liturgy: the Illustrated History , A Brief History of Christian Worship or History of the Liturgy: The Major Stages. Then the novice would be well served by some monographs on the common liturgical heritage of the early Church. After this they could continue reading about the time period, particular rite or denominational tradition that captures their interest.

Ross, Melanie C. and Mark A. Lamport, eds.Historical Foundations of Worship: Catholic Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022. xxiv + 294 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 9781540962522.

REVIEWER: Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest
of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, U.S.A.
He currently serves as Director of Liturgical Programmes
in St. Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland
and as Executive Secretary for Liturgy to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.