Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 04/22/2008 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. Pays homage to evangelical Protestantism while asserting the superiority of liturgical corporate worship.
1984 was a very good year for North American evangelicalism, by any stretch. A Republican, Ronald Reagan, had recaptured the White House, and a conservative, Brian Mulroney, had ended the Liberal Party’s stranglehold on the Canadian prime ministerial office. But there was a blot on the landscape; Thomas Howard, perhaps better known to evangelicals as Elisabeth Eliot’s brother, had defected to the Roman Catholic Church. Questions swirled: How could he? Was he really a Christian? And so on and so forth.
In Howard’s mind, as attested in Evangelical Is Not Enough, he had not departed from the Christian faith but had instead added historical ballast to his already deep-rooted evangelical faith. Truth be told, this book functions as much as an homage to Howard’s formative Protestantism as it does to his then-newfound Catholicism.
Like his friend David Wells in the recent book The Courage to Be Protestant, Howard first investigates whether the term ‘evangelical’ is too rickety and semantically varied to continue bearing fruit. Intriguingly, David Wells numbers amongst Howard’s many dedicatees, whom Howard honors for his ‘embodied evangelical integrity.’ Compiling a list of the institutions and personages who exemplified the evangelical brand in his youth, Howard spends the first chapter tracing some of the common ground between Protestantism and Catholicism. Rather than do so with doctrinal rigor, which some readers are bound to see as a major fault, he nevertheless carries off the task with evenhandedness and elegance.
Howard moves on to a discussion of symbolism, which launches by way of a brief discussion of what Howard calls ‘sentiment’ in worship. True to Jonathan Edwards, one of his philosophical forebears in Protestantism, Howard allows that sentiment cannot be rigorously detached from worship. By the same token, however, “Exalted feelings by no means guarantee that real worship is going on in the heart.” The section rounds out with something of a lament over the modern tendency to pit the physical acts of worship found in a liturgy over against what Howard refers to as worship principally by ‘thought’ and not act.
Thus far in the book Howard has asked two pivotal questions. Firstly, regarding his personal pilgrimage, has he really ‘moved’ in light of the commonalities he sees between Protestantism and Catholicism? Secondly, “is protest [vis-à-vis Protestantism] enough? Can the heart of man feed on protest?” At this point Howard becomes ever so slightly more dogmatic. While continuing to maintain a tone of apologetics without polemics, Howard begins to assert areas of superiority owned by Catholicism over Protestantism. Following on from his discussion of symbolism and incarnation in the previous section, he explains how liturgical acts serve the function of dragooning our “somewhat untrustworthy and wayward feelings and [help] to bundle them along toward their true object.” Rather than empty ritual, then, these acts serve as reminders of the truths of God’s worthiness of worship. Predictably, Howard appeals to the eons-old formula of liturgical worship handed down from the early church to support his claims of liturgical primacy, but couches his appeal in cosmic realities rather than doctrinal dissection:
What I did not know was that this was a formula that reaches back certainly to the beginnings of Christian worship and possibly further. It builds into the very structure of the act of worship itself the glorious antiphons of charity that ring back and forth in heaven and all across the cosmos, among all the creatures of God…In its antiphonal (“responsive”) character it echoes the very rhythms of heaven. Deep calls to deep. Day answers to night. Mountain calls to valley. One angel calls to another. Love greets love. The place of God’s dwelling rings with these joyful antiphons of charity. Hell hates this. It can only hiss, Out of my way, fool. But heaven says, The Lord be with you. This is what was said to us in the Incarnation. This is what the Divine Love always says.
Also quite predictably, Howard attacks – in the nicest way possible – the evangelical tendencies toward spontaneity both in prayer and in meeting together, the mixture of public and private forms of devotion in public worship, the Protestant suspicion of ritual, and the ‘spectator’ nature of much contemporary corporate worship in evangelical churches. Often I was constrained to admit, “He’s got a point.”
Midway through the book Howard takes on the precarious issue of Mary. In straightforward language, he maintains that those millions of Christians who seem to imply that Mary is “somehow, more gracious, more understanding, more bountiful, and more lovely than her Son” are gone awry. “Nothing may be worshiped but God alone.” But he sees far more at stake than simply to revere or not to revere the mother of Jesus. To the extent that all Christians are mere servants of God (echoing Mary’s self-descriptor as handmaiden of the Lord), we participate in the mystery of visitation by God in the person of the Holy Spirit.
In the final chapters, Howard turns his attention to liturgics, again making a gentle case for its primacy among other forms of observing corporate worship. His discussion ranges from the Eucharist itself to the Eucharistic liturgy as a whole, and finally the way in which “the liturgical year is nothing more (and nothing less) than the Church’s ‘walking through’ the gospel with the Lord.” As Howard says later, Christ’s command is “take and eat,” not simply “take and understand.”
In conclusion Howard administers a three-fold prescription for recovery: 1) a return to the episcopate; 2) a return to the Eucharist as the focal point for Christian worship; and 3) a return to the Christian year. It is not within the scope of this review to analyze this prescription, but to the extent that my home church – one of the evangelically Protestant Reformed variety – and the family of churches it is affiliated with 1) already practices a form of episcopacy; 2) practices the Lord’s Supper, albeit monthly; and 3) observes a skeletal Christian year with Sunday as a commemoration of the Resurrection, we are already practicing this prescription.
Predictably, in such a short book Howard didn’t manage to explain everything to my satisfaction, and I am not quite convinced he is the stylistic successor to C.S. Lewis, as some have called him. But his prose is beautiful and his vision is powerful. I recommend Evangelical Is Not Enough for those who enjoy reading an eloquent writer, for those who wish to investigate common elements of Protestantism and Catholicism, and for those who may need some of their suspicions about Roman Catholic liturgy allayed.