Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jonathan Edwards on Worship: Public and Private Devotion to God, by Ted Rivera

If you're unfamiliar with Jonathan Edwards (hint:  a US minister during the first half of the 18th century) then you are absolutely not in the target demographic for this book.   And yet, Mr. Rivera has managed to make Edwards interesting and the messages of his views of worship relevant.   There is, however, no introductory chapter, no "Jonathan Edwards for Dummies" section; we just jump right in.   The good news is that the writing is clear and the flow is interesting -- interesting enough for even me to follow.

Interesting, you wonder?   Well yes.   It turns out that one of Edwards' sermons, "mercy and not sacrifice," is pretty interesting.   He point, based on Matthew 12:1-7, is that moral duties to mankind are more important than external acts of worship to god.    Edwards sees it that a man who performs these duties as worship to god in action.  Holy cow:  perhaps Jonathan Edwards was a pre- Reform Jew who just wasn't aware of it yet!   Or, perhaps he was a Buddhist but didn't have the vocabulary nor freedom of awareness to appreciate it!   In either case, locked by family history, circumstance and geography in his Christian practice.   Then again, maybe he was just a big-thinking Christian, who today would believe in science and read The Christian Century (or join in its founding had he lasted another 130 years -- well then again, maybe he was just a bit too Puritan for that).

Let's not get too excited though.  Edwards' sermons were two hours long, and he was said to speak in a high-pitched monotone.   He even counseled parishioners that it was poor form to sleep during services.   Yikes.

So there is plenty of interesting stuff in this book even for the laity.   But let me criticize it as well.   What's missing, to my eye, is a discussion of the relevance of Edwards' views today.   Mr. Rivera tees up a number of great questions in his conclusion, including:   "What would he have to say about ministries aimed at promoting financial prosperity?  What would he think of the use of humor... in preaching?"   It would have been terrific to read Mr. Rivera's take on the answers to these questions.

How cool might it have been to extend the thoughtful analytic view of Mr. Edwards with a connect-the-dots-to-today chapter?   Then again it seems that Mr. Rivera had a very targeted audience and very focused topic in mind for this book, which I imagine is more a textbook at an advanced seminary class than it is the monthly neighborhood book club reading.

My sense is that when it comes to Jonathan Edwards, one won't be finding any popular texts on the topic no matter what the slant.   I might be wrong; Gerald McDermott wrote "The Great Divider:  Jonathan Edwards and American culture" which I would like to read -- but not so much as to buy a paid subscription to Books and Culture.

Finally, in full disclosure:  I had the distinct pleasure of working with Mr. Rivera over a period of years during his secular time as an expert on software quality, client satisfaction, and as an expert in agile software development methodologies.   In fact, he's so much an expert at educating and motivating teams to adopt tailored, high value agile development techniques that I'd recommend him as a consultant even today -- if he could be pried away from his second career as a minister and religious educator.

By the way, find below a link to another of Mr. Rivera's books as well, "Divine Direction:  God's Two Great Commandments."

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