Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative
(Baker Books, 2008)
by David Gambrell
Webber was a leading voice for liturgical renewal among evangelical Christians. He completed Ancient-Future Worship just weeks before his death from pancreatic cancer in April 2007. As the subtitle suggests, in Ancient-Future Worship Webber urges a narrative approach to the understanding of scripture and Christian worship, calling the church to be re-immerse itself in God’s story as well as the liturgical practices of the early church.
Webber critiques historical-critical and literary hermeneutics on the one hand and on the other subjective personal-experiential approaches to the interpretation of the Bible. He maintains that the church has adopted the posture of standing outside and above the Bible and challenges the church to relearn the ancient way of standing under and within the story of scripture.
Webber identifies a threefold crisis in contemporary worship: content, structure and style. With respect to content, he argues that the church has forsaken the centrality of God’s story in its worship. As for structure, Webber calls for a return to the fullness of the classic order of Word and Table. He maintains that the style of worship should be indigenous to the local church, provided that the elements of content and structure are preserved. Throughout the book, two themes are prominent: remembrance (Chapter Two) — which Webber locates primarily in the service of the Word (Chapter Six) and anticipation (Chapter Three) — for Webber, primarily in the Eucharist (Chapter Seven). Chapter Eight, on prayer, seeks to advance a style of worship that is not characterized by a program or sequence of songs, prayers and speeches, but is thoroughly and seamlessly imbued with a spirit of prayer. Drawing extensively on liturgical examples from the early church, he demonstrates how the wisdom of ancient practices can revitalize the church’s participation in God’s saving story.
Chapter Four, “How the Fullness of God’s Story Became Lost,” offers a brief overview of changes in the liturgy — from the early church through Eastern Christianity (of which Webber is quite appreciative), the Western/Roman tradition (which began to focus on sacrifice), the Reformation (a shift toward the individual), the Modern era (worship as education), Revivalism (worship as experience) and the Contemporary Worship movement (worship as marketing or therapy). Speaking of moments in history, one unfortunate feature of this book is the anti-Islamic rhetoric, emblematic of our own epoch. At times, Webber seems preoccupied with the view that “radical Muslims are committed to destroy Western civilization” (22), painting Islam with too broad a brush.