Dorothy Bass on History, Worship, Practical Theology, and By the Vision of Another World

Dorothy C. Bass
Dorothy C. Bass

By the Vision of Another World: Worship in American History (edited by James Bratt) is the latest volume in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies series from Eerdmans. Its eleven contributors explore a rich variety of worship practices from throughout American history. In this excerpt, Dorothy C. Bass comments on how their insights into the history of worship and practical theology can “prompt those who today embody the contemporary history of Christian worship to place their own efforts on a larger stage.”

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The worship committee of a Presbyterian congregation in a changing Seattle neighborhood is planning for the coming year. As so often happens, music becomes the focus of discussion. Members of the committee have been entreated by various factions in the congregation: Include more praise songs! Make sure our singing reflects the diversity of global Christianity and of Seattle itself! Give us the classic hymns that enable us to sing our lives to God in rich, familiar words and tunes! What should the committee recommend, and why?

In a small town in North Carolina long torn by racial animosities, a community garden has been planted. Among the gardeners are landless farmers — some born nearby, others displaced from the Mexican countryside — as well as folks who have never before worked the soil. They are black, white, and brown, Protestant, Catholic, and unchurched, economically privileged and immersed in poverty. After working together one Saturday morning, they gather for a meal. They pause before eating, feeling that something needs to be said over this food and this plot of land, which is becoming for them a sacred place of nourishment and reconciliation. Eyes turn to the local Methodist pastor. What words will she offer that are fitting to this time, this place, this people? If she were absent, what might one of the others speak as prayer?

Two professors at a Lutheran seminary in the Midwest are planning a course on the rites of baptism, wedding, healing, and funeral. Keenly aware that their class time is limited, they wrestle with the course design. How much reading and classroom time should be given to biblical material, to the history of each rite, to Lutheran theological interpretations, and to contemporary debates about the meaning of the life stages with which the rites are associated? Through what activities might these future pastors be required to speak and embody these rites in the classroom, rehearsing for their future roles as presiders? How can this class, in combination with wisdom gained over time and the help of the Holy Spirit, prepare these students to convey God’s grace to people at crucial life transitions, in ways that also extend beyond the rite and contribute to the well-being of the world?

By the Vision of Another World
By the Vision of Another World

What Is Practical Theology?

The people in each of these scenes are doing practical theology. Undertaken in concrete situations both within the church and beyond it, practical theology is the thinking by which Christians discern the contours of a faithful, life-giving way of life and ask how they might shape and participate in practices that help them to embrace such a way of life in and for the world. Such discernment is an intrinsic part of Christian existence amid the ongoing challenges and changes that comprise human history, and thoughtful Christians have engaged in it in one way or another in countless settings over the span of many centuries and cultures. In this primary sense, practical theology is a form of reflection engaged in by a wide range of persons and communities, whether schooled or unschooled, lay or ordained. Sometimes such thinking happens purposefully, but often it emerges within the informal negotiations of ecclesial and social life.

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Histories of Practical Theologians at Work

The contemporary scenes sketched at the start of this essay are probably quite similar to scenes that actually occurred within the historical movements described in this book. Here, too, practical theologians were at work. For example, debates about what kind of music should be sung in worshiping congregations appear again and again on the pages of this volume. In his chapter, Paul Harvey analyzes the struggle of African-American religious leaders in the Jim Crow era to discern ways of incorporating into church life both European American hymnody and the ecstatic African-born sounds that these leaders associated with the legacy of slavery. At stake in this debate — which was also played out in preaching and other elements of worship — were relationships between the black elite and those with less wealth and education, as well as competing approaches to improving the status of the African-American community as a whole. Later, as shown by Leslie Woodcock Teutler, the reforms of Vatican II placed new emphasis on worshipers’ active participation in the Mass, which meant that a new set of songs was suddenly needed; in the absence of an existing repertoire, simple and ultimately unsatisfying music was rushed onto the lips of a puzzled laity. And most recently, as shown in James Bratt’s essay, demographic change in Western Michigan combined with a received tradition of psalmody and fresh appreciation for the diversity of global Christianity to engender new musical expressions at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, as well as beyond that congregation through the new denominational hymnal edited by one of its members. The Puritan and early Methodist movements that are described in other chapters also crafted musical practices that embodied ways of worshiping God that fostered each group’s distinctive worldview. At some point in the development of each movement, choices about what to sing or what to include in a new hymnal such as Gospel Pearls (the National Baptist Convention, 1921) must have been as intense as the conversations taking place today.

Throughout this book, then, we see leaders and communities at work, crafting worship practices they believe will address urgent needs that have arisen in specific cultural settings in ways that will foster a faithful way of life. These practitioners knew — whether in their bones or in well articulated theories like those developed in the twentieth-century liturgical movement described by Michael Woods — that the shape and content of the embodied life they shared when they gathered to worship God would have an impact on them and their vision of the world, not only while they were worshiping but in other realms of life as well. And so they worked to discern the shape of faithful worship in relation to their hope for faithful living. Such work can occur, these chapters show, at many levels of church and society — in a national assembly of learned divines who design a worship manual for Puritan ministers (Harry Stout’s essay), for example, as well as in local communities whose liturgical knowledge is funded primarily by communal memory. Drawing on such memory and the vibrant images and objects that distilled it, we learn from Timothy Matovina, nineteenth-century Tejanos crafted rituals in the storied streets and buildings of San Antonio, thereby sustaining deep connections to a sacred tradition in the midst of overwhelming demographic and political volatility.

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The Christians portrayed in this book — and also those who today serve on worship committees, teach in seminaries, start community gardens, and otherwise try to discern and foster life-giving ways of life — are immersed in changes that historians later describe from a distance. Unlike historians, they operate without the benefit of hindsight, and their work is always open-ended. Like historians, however, they care deeply about noticing the actual details of community life and the thick texture of social reality and asking what difference these make. Among the disciplines typically represented in theological education, these two may have the strongest commitments to seeing things as they are or were. Both ask “what is going on here?” and both are aware of the risk of not seeing reality because they have become caught up in dominant narratives. Both groups have what David Daniels, a historian, and Ted Smith, a homiletician, call “a sense of the glorious untidiness of the world as it actually exists.” Yet historians can, with care, see connections that are invisible from within the flow of history itself. In making these connections and placing distinct movements in the history of worship into the frame of American history, the authors of this book prompt those who today embody the contemporary history of Christian worship to place their own efforts on a larger stage.

Click here to order By the  Vision of Another World: Worship in American History, edited by James Bratt. 

Scroll down to peruse the book’s Table of Contents.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Transmitting Other Worlds
James D. Bratt

Liturgy, Literacy, and Worship in Puritan Anglo-America, 1560-1670
Harry S. Stout

Worship, Experience, and the Creation of Methodist Place
Ruth Alden Doan

Horizons of Faith: San Antonio Tejanos in the Texas Republic
Timothy Matovina

“You Better Set Your House in Order”: Worship Ritual and Black Church Life in Jim Crow Georgia
Paul Harvey

Cultivating Soil and Soul: The Intersection of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and the American Liturgical Movement, 1920-60
Michael Woods, S.J.

Rites of the Tribes: Two Protestant Congregations in a Twentieth-Century City
James D. Bratt

Generations: American Catholics since the 1950s
Leslie Woodcock Tentler

Recovering the Spiritual in American Religious History
George M. Marsden

History — about Worship, or for the Sake of Worship? Reflections from Practical Theology
Dorothy C. Bass

Liturgy’s Passions and Polarities
Joyce Ann Zimmerman, C.PP.S.