Book Review: Hearing the Call

Church of the Servant
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s home church in Grand Rapids

Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World
Nicholas Wolterstorff
Eerdmans, 2011. 440 pp.

Liturgy and Justice seem like odd bedfellows. When we typically think of “Liturgy,” we think of Sunday morning worship and the organization of the church service. On the other hand, when we typically think of “Justice,” we tend to think, more often than not, of something that occurs “outside,” in some fashion, the bounds of the Sunday morning worship. If we participate in the work of Justice — however one may define that term — then we participate “outside” of the realms of “worship,” “music,” “architecture,” or any of the other matters that come into consideration under the broad heading of Liturgy.

And this ought not be so, contends Nicholas Wolterstorff. In a collection of essays that includes biographical shorts, letters to young academics, essays on social work, poverty, and architecture, and reflections on matters of theology and practice, Wolterstorff reminds the reader, time and time again, that the call of the Old Testament Hearing the Callis unified in its commitments to the “orphans, widows, and foreigners,” and how the prophets remind the people of God, time and time again, that their worship is null and void apart from this ethical-moral precommitment.

For a book that is inadequately named (“Hearing the Call” is the most unhelpfully vague title I could imagine for such a work), I am surprised at how often I find myself reflecting on Wolterstorff’s admonitions. There’s a joie de vivre throughout — probably a “good infection” that Wolterstorff received from Allan Boesak — that is irresistible; there’s a sense of that eternal Kingdom that Wolterstorff always points to as being palpable and livable hear and now. And yet Wolterstorff does not hold back his hammer: he takes apart Max Weber’s obnoxious thesis of Calvinist anxiety (it is about time someday did this with academic virtuosity!), brings to task American evangelical predilections with capitalism, undoes the secularist’s love of wealth, and demolishes the nondenominational / charismatic structure of a worship service. But even in his direct rebukes, all of Wolterstorff’s words are spoken with intricate care and with loving attention. What is most profound about such a compassionate call-to-action is the vast temporal space between the earliest essay (1969) and the latest (2010): If this were biography, the confession of Wolterstorff’s lifework would be one of compassionate, loving, yet firm, theological and prophetic engagement.

With such a variety of essays and ideas to highlight, it is impossible for me to do Wolterstorff’s work here its due credit. Here are some (sparse, diverse) thoughts that I came away with:

An Attention to Liturgy, Architecture, and Music: Spread throughout the various sections of the book, Wolterstorff spends incredible attention on the individual pieces of corporate worship, dealing with, in turn, the topics of liturgical structure, architecture of the church building, and selection of church music appropriate for this or that mood or season. The thoughts included here are the little pieces upon which Wolterstorff’s later (and more specific) monograph on worship and liturgy, The God We Worship (2015), was built, but they are more than enough to serve as suitable entrance into his thoughts on the matter. The overarching theme is one deemed practically unimportant by most of American evangelicalism: the choices we make in organizing our liturgy, building our churches, and planning our music are important; they reveal our implicit theologies.

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher, Reformed epistemologist, and professor emeritus at Yale

In particular, Wolterstorff spends significant attention to the importance of doors and open spaces in church buildings (as one can see in his home church, Church of the Servant, depicted above), highlights the values of expressing Christian egalitarianism through architecture, and, more than anything else, the centrality of churches as spaces filled with light, an idea he draws from Calvin’s Genevan churches.

— The Admiration of John Calvin: Speaking of Calvin, I found Wolterstorff’s consistent return, time and again, to the Institutes of the Christian Religion to be refreshing, an incredible feat in and of itself. While most readers of Calvin (including both Calvinists and Arminians) find him staunch and pietistic, Wolterstorff brings out the Calvin who is deeply concerned with matters of justice, matters of right worship, and matters of Christian communal living.

If there is something to be lamented in American Calvinist / Reformed thought in the present-day, it is the absorption of Calvin’s thought into specific sectarian (and politically-charged) camps to serve particular (often politically-intentioned) purposes. Wolterstorff, alongside other Reformed interlocutors (I would include Peter Leithart, for instance), does an incredible job of bringing out the wholeness of Calvin’s theology to address topics that are rarely addressed in typical Calvinist circles.

— Poverty as a Moral Ill: One last set of thoughts from Hearing the Call that stood out to me were the ways in which Wolterstorff addressed the topic of poverty. Wielding a solid group of ancient witnesses (mainly 4th-Century Church Fathers) alongside Thomas Aquinas, Wolterstorff makes a thorough case near the end of the book for describing poverty as a moral ill, and, with that, takes an axe to the politico-theological camp of ascribing moral goodness to American capitalism. He articulates his arguments firmly and with conviction, with solid biblical and theological grounds, making the American reader double-guess his or her own received values of money as a moral good.

What shocked me in reading Wolterstorff’s addresses on this topic was how little I considered my own economic / financial decisions to be ones of moral importance. But Wolterstorff leaves no room for moral neutrality (as he ought) and holds the Church to the biblical standard of caring for the poor as one of her fundamental duties. Wolterstorff provides an antidote for the poison that is American capitalism, without relying on its typical antithesis, Marxism, at all. Instead, he calls the Church to a higher calling and a higher duty.

 

Wolterstorff’s collection can feel at times slightly repetitive, as it perhaps should be for an anthology of fifty years’ worth of essays, yet it is a delightful “salve for the eyes,” so to speak, helping the American Christian re-frame their theological commitments toward Justice in biblical terms as opposed to our received cultural ones. Some essays leave one with bigger questions than solved answers, but Wolterstorff doesn’t ever leave an essay without some sense of eschatological hope. The works are convicting and compelling, but never damning or heavy-handed; instead, one senses a stronger call to follow the Lord’s ways and purposes, and to, as the prophet Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.”