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Public Theology: Postmodern Worship and Mission
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Postmodern Worship and Mission
Robert W. Jenson writes of gospel mission and ecstatic worship in a world he accepts as 'postmodern' and thus lacking a narrative.

By Ed Knudson

In a characteristically densely argued article in the journal First Things entitled How the World Lost Its Story, Robert W. Jenson writes of the church, postmodernism, and worship with stunning clarity. You will find here a concise and helpful definition of postmodernism and what it means for the church's mission of preaching the gospel story. Through worship, says Jenson, the church becomes itself the story since the world no longer knows any story. The western world has lost its old modern story, "progress", and now is characterized by the nihilistic vision of Nietzsche.

What is a bit odd is that such an article is found in the neoconservative journal First Things since that school of thought places such faith in modernist institutions. This is explained by the fact that Jenson is an old Lutheran buddy of now Catholic editor Richard Neuhaus. But Jenson's article can be taken to provide foundation for a wholly different orientation to the political involvement of Christians in the world. In fact, this is true of Jenson himself; his practical political judgements do not always necessarily follow from his theology.

However, at the end of his article he explicitly makes a powerful statement, again not characteristic for neoconservatism but which reminds one of the contribution of liberation theologians:

It was modernity's great contribution to Christian history to have recognized the church's mandated preferential options for the poor and oppressed with a clarity previously cultivated only in the monastic orders. It was perhaps the real substance of Protestantism that it demanded that all believers live with the attention to justice and charity which had for centuries been demanded only of those under special vows. We must maintain modernity's insight. The church must indeed pursue God's action in the world.

For pastors this article is worth reading once, twice, then again in a few weeks, for it provides very powerful reason for worship and preaching. It provides, too, a critique of some Protestant rejection of the importance of worship in its fullest dimensions of both sound and sight.

It may be helpful in this regard to remember that the whole book of Revelation is written in the context of worship, as John the Seer writes to the church "on the Lord's day".

After reading the article you may be tempted to think that it leads one to retreat from the world into the church and there is nothing redeemable about the world. That would be a mistake, I think. That is not what I believe Jenson is saying. He is saying rather that the world itself is not the location of revelation. God and God's purposes for the world become known through the word and worship. The redemptive story includes the world which God loves.

(Robert W. Jenson once taught at Gettysburg Theological Seminary and St. Olaf College. He is now Senior Scholar for Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey)

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Date Added: 11/7/2002 Date Revised: 11/7/2002

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