Welcome to the Table: Post-Christian Culture Saves a Seat for Ancient Liturgy by Tony Kriz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Tony Kriz is known in evangelical circles as the guy who set up a confessional booth on a secular college campus and asked forgiveness of those who entered for the church’s failures throughout history– an example of turning expectations of guilt and forgiveness on their ear. Those familiar with the book Blue Like Jazz, in which this episode is recounted, know him as Tony the Beat Poet. He’s on my radar this semester a speaker coming to my institution and whom I’m hoping to bring into dialogue with some of my honors students. To that end, I thought I should familiarize myself with his work. This book seemed to fit the bill for the sort of discussions we try to cultivate in our class, especially this semester as we deal with writings from throughout church history.
Welcome to the Table, as I quickly discovered, is Kriz’s DMin thesis written at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, a Quaker school in Portland, Oregon. A friend who has recently started an EdD program explained the difference in philosophy between the thesis written for a professional degree like a DMin or an EdD and the dissertation written for a research degree like a PhD. The former is usually a project geared for implementation in a specific place or situation. It does not have the goal of adding to a universal body of knowledge in the way a PhD dissertation does. This is the case with Kriz’s work: as he explains in the first chapters, the post-Christian culture mentioned in his book’s subtitle is specifically the culture of Portland, Oregon. Kriz’s research is a detailed evaluation of the religious views provided by survey respondents in a specific Portland zip code. From this data, he offers what he feels is the best method of church engagement with and ministry to this culture, which is characterized by negative or neutral impressions of the practices of mainstream American Christianity- in a word, a post-Christian culture.
In an environment characterized by this lack of engagement with Christianity, but where issues of spirituality, faith, and religion are still freely expressed and explored, Kriz believes it is liturgical traditions that have the most advantage for ministry and outreach. Though this analysis is specific to Portland, Kriz’s argument is that the benefits of liturgical practice still find “a place at the table” in a culture passing out of the influence of prevailing evangelical mores. As Kriz argues, liturgical worship– specifically liturgical worship in structures of the Anglican communion– answers a post-Christian culture’s enduring need for symbolism, locality, community, ritual, and structure as well as for the gospel of Christ.
This might be a hard sell for some evangelicals, so Kriz spends an entire section of the book describing Old Testament and New Testament precedents for ritualistic worship before examining the universal witness of the liturgy in the church’s history. The work here is clearly secondary and synthetic, giving a bird’s eye view of selected texts and practices from throughout church history. He ends this section with a brief look at the origins of Anglican liturgical practice and its appeal as a “middle way” between Protestantism and Catholicism. Finally, he examines the identity of the Anglican communion today, emphasizing its global, missional aspects– specifically its growth in the global south and the fact that the African Anglican church has an active missionary presence in America. Here again, there’s a lovely freshness in turning evangelical, Anglo-centric assumptions on their ear.
Kriz is enamored of the Anglican liturgy, though his work shows a wide range of reading that includes theologians and writers from across the spectrum of Christian traditions. With this wide-ranging background, I was left with little clarity though of why Kriz felt Anglicanism in particular was the silver bullet for ministry in post-Christian Portlandia. He gives a series of short chapters in which he outlines some of the perceived weaknesses of other traditions in this culture, including a two-page dismissal of Catholic and Orthodox liturgical expression. One of his complaints here is that while there is a negative impression of the Roman Catholic Church among some of the population surveyed, the Anglican communion is still largely off the radar and thus (assumedly) able to more effectively minister. But this raises a question I was left with reading the book and hoped Kriz would address: what exactly is the Anglican communion and how does it differ from the Episcopalian Church, which Kriz acknowledges is its better-known brother but does not go into any detail upon?
In general, I’m for anything that challenges evangelical Christians to pay closer attention to liturgical practices and the forms of worship that prevailed unquestioned through most of church history (and continue around the world today in the majority of Christian churches and cultures). Anything that gets us out of our self-centered, marketed, consumeristic mentalities of worship is a good thing. So most of Kriz’s claims are largely consonant with my own feelings. Yet I remained unconvinced by the work as a whole.
Maybe part of this is simply because I’m disappointed he didn’t go further. If one is interested in getting to the bones of Christian liturgical worship, why not go all the way, back to some of the traditions in which the liturgical forms remain based directly on the very texts Kriz uses from the first Christian centuries to support the historicity of liturgical worship? Kriz’s work opens the door to a deeper discussion– a discussion that is essential in American Christianity today– regarding what exactly it is that we’re doing in worship anyway. What does it mean to worship? Kriz comes tantalizingly close to some of these issues, but ultimately his own approach seems itself a form of the consumerism that characterizes church shopping and attempts at relevance in church marketing. A cynical reading of Welcome to the Table could be that the whole thing is a long commercial for another flavor of Christianity, the one that Kriz personally finds most attractive. (Though even his case for why this particular flavor of Christianity is most “effective” in this particular environment is incomplete: Kriz never goes into detail on any Anglican communities in Portland that are evidencing this effectiveness.)
Tony the Beat Poet writing a book about liturgical worship is a great thing, even one as closely tied to a specific locality as this– but a transformative understanding of the character of the community of faith and how it is informed and shaped by its worship is lingering here just out of view. On some levels, this is simply another call for relevancy and effectiveness, underscored by the final section in which Kriz offers some creative ways to “mix up” the liturgy during service and make it more engaging and interactive for the participants/consumers. There is room at the table for liturgy, but simply as another item on the menu or as the paradigm in which we understand the entire meal itself?