Hyper-Contextualizing the Lectionary? (part one)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 7, 2007

In response to some great, thoughtful, discussion in a previous post, I want to explore the usefulness (or lackthereof) of the Lectionary. I’m wondering if it is at all appropriate to apply the hyper-contextualization that is part of the emerging church movement (meaning the primary place theology is done is by the community, for the community) to the use of a lectionary.

What’s wrong with using what we’ve got?

There are some built-in assumptions within the Lectionary (and here I’m lumping together the shared lectionary tradition of Catholics and Protestants) that betray the Western theological tradition. That is why the Catholic and Protestant Lectionaries are different than the Orthodox Lectionaries. And even among Western lectionaries there are differences. These differences stem from differing theologies.

I’m not really interested in “starting from scratch.” But I would at least like to develop an alternative lectionary, perhaps, that honors the good of the existing lectionary while addressing areas of inadequacy. What are those areas of inadequacy? Here are the ones that come to mind:

  1. The lectionary doesn’t do a good job representing the Old Testament. In fact, it really only includes the “Jesusy” passages…or those thought of as “Jesusy” by the folks that developed the Lectionary (Neo-Marcion?)
  2. It not only leaves out most of the Old Testament, it leaves out a third of the New Testament.
  3. It breaks the texts into chunks in a way that sometimes betrays the overall narratival quality of Scripture…or the flow of argument. The narrative is undercut by its failure to share enough of the Old Testament to give proper context. This actually makes it more likely that we’ll end up with an improper understanding of the New Testament (since the Lectionary presents a very strong hermeneutical grid).
  4. The Lectionary reinforces a Neo-Marcion view of the Gospel (as I mentioned earlier) and can make Jesus more of a universal savior at the expense of understanding the profoundly and particularly Jewish nature of his Messiahship.
  5. In its zeal to focus on the Gospels (which is in many ways a strength) it neglects other New Testament works. It also skips over parts of the Gospel that seem to “lead up” to other points. In other words, it tries to catch “the high points.” This betrays a rather didactic or theological emphasis at the expense of narrative and aesthetics. And it tends to imply that the Gospels have more to say about Jesus than the epistles. This may be true in a certain sense, but to make this move undercuts pneumatology in that it can subtly undermine the church’s post-ascension experience of Christ. I’m probably being to nitpicky on this point.
  6. The Lectionary has a bad habit of omitting the most awkward or confusing or troublesome passages out. Sure this makes God look better, but still…
  7. Half of the year is focused on Christmas and Easter…and the events leading up to Christmas and Easter. While these are no doubt very important events, it would be good if Pentecost were giving better billing. And if the Story of Israel was part of the narratival flow of the Liturgical Year. And personally, I’m interested in letting Revelation have a stronger voice in shaping a lectionary.

All of this isn’t to say that the Lectionary sucks. It is great. But it has limitations. And instead of being forced to choose between the Lectionary as-it-is or just picking-and-choosing, I’d rather develop ways of exploring the narrative of Scripture that get at things better. It may be that using the Lectionary as-is would be worthwhile. But I’m not interested in using it simply to show solidarity with the Church, though I’m not interested in a complete deviation either.

I want to explore this further in another post. For now, I’m interested in your thoughts. Particularly, I’d like to know: Do you think it is worthwhile to consider a localized contextual lectionary or does it give up too much?

for further reading . . .

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6 Responses to “Hyper-Contextualizing the Lectionary? (part one)”

  1. Aric Clark on April 7th, 2007 3:04 pm

    Great post!

    I share your concerns about the lectionary generally, particularly the fact that it cuts up the books of the bible into digestible little chunks out of context. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to preach from the lectionary only to feel that the passage was too short, leaving out fundamental background to the story which affect the meaning.

    I think at least part of the solution is not to restrict oneself to the lectionary, but to be intentional about using scripture in multiple ways in your worship and in the congregation. The normal mode in the reformed branch of christianity was Lectio Continua, which I think can be valuable. Preaching in series from a single book can also be a useful way to expose people to more of the scripture. Just being aware of the deficiencies of the lectionary and intentionally going to the passages it leaves out is also good.

    I wonder how specifically you would see the lectionary being “hyper-contextualized”?

  2. dlw on April 8th, 2007 7:36 pm

    I got an anabaptist-Christian anarchist friend from Sweden who started up a blog. He has a post on his own vision for the alternative church.
    He mostly posts in Swedish, but he does have a manifesto for an alternative church. I told him I’d share it with others, but thought you might be more successful in getting the attention of more people.
    (look at the Kategorier for the one that is in English)


  3. David Fitch on April 9th, 2007 10:04 pm

    I consider the Advent to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Easter tide to Pentecost to be the key organizing hermeutic, the strength of the tool, that enables the people to ever be preaching through the Story while ever modeling Christ, yet covering the creedal formulaes, to be truly formed into the gospel… We at the Vine use this calender approach while adjusting the lectionary so as to preach through the entire (most of) the Scripture in a four year cycle …
    Peace .. see you in two weeks … DF

  4. Jan on April 10th, 2007 7:58 am

    A tool is a tool is a tool–imperfections and all.

    I love the interconnection with the whole church and the bigger story of the life and death of Jesus in a year’s cycle that the lectionary provides. There are many creative ways of pulling in “rest of the story” with the text assigned for the week. I would encourage you not to write your own lectionary but maybe add some connective links to fill in the gaps you see which would be a helpful resource for those of us who are using the lectionary. The temptation is to always throw out the old. I find there is plenty to preach and focus on each week.

  5. Michael Westmoreland-White on April 11th, 2007 2:18 pm

    My preference would still be to use the New Common Lectionary and supplement by preaching through books of the Old Testament (and parts of the New) during the period between Trinity Sunday and the first Sunday of Advent (previously called “Ordinary Time,” and now “the season of Pentecost”). However, the New Common Lectionary is not “set in stone.” It has been revised several times since the beginning of the liturgical renewal movement among mainline Protestants (which brought back lectionary preaching out of the mothballs) in the 1970s. So, I would also share your concerns with the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches and with the publishers of various editions of the lectionary. You’d probably see improvements.
    But I am biased–not against doing theology from, for, and to local communities, but against all trends which cut off local churches from the wider ecumenical community. I am in rebellion against parts of my own Baptist tradition that threw out the very concept of the Church Universal and focused solely on local churches. I am rebelling against all who think ecumenism is a dirty word.

  6. markvans on April 11th, 2007 7:43 pm

    Michael…I think I share your concerns. I guess I’m not sure that the use of the Lectionary is the best way of being ecumenical. Nevertheless, I’m nearly convinced that it is perhaps best to start with an existing lectionary with the freedom to supplement it or diverge from it.

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