Review: Sacred Signposts

Cover of

Cover of Sacred Signposts by Benjamin J. Dueholm

THOMASINA: Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library…. How can we sleep for grief?

SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Something has been lost, or is in the process of being lost, or is going to be lost if nothing is done. Every religion and every culture faces this reality when the question of its survival is raised. For Christians, it is especially disconcerting because of their relationship to the past. The gospel is not, we say, something that you would stumble upon in ordinary life or suss out through one’s own reason. Rather, it is rooted in particular events at specific points in history. Jesus of Nazareth, in the reign of the emperor Tiberius, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, etc. Part of the work of the church, then, is historic preservation: to show that those events of millennia ago make claims upon us living today, and for all time. This task is relatively easy when Christianity is the dominant culture, and thus the forces of cultural conservatism can be pressed into its service. But what happens when that dominance is gone?

Benjamin Dueholm’s new book Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance, aims to answer that question for Christians in an America where more and more people are leaving institutional religion behind, and those who are left struggle for relevance—and in the case of the evangelicals surrounding the Trump administration, are catastrophically successful. Dueholm, a pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois, is one of a number of authors in recent years who have explored how to practice Christian faith amid the fact of a secular world, Rod Dreher (of the Benedict Option fame) being perhaps the most prominent. Dueholm’s particular contribution is to frame the matter as one of focusing on those practices that have been the foundation for Christian life throughout the generations—what he calls “the holy possessions,” following Martin Luther. These include the preaching of the Word, baptism, communion, confession and forgiveness, ministry, prayer and worship, and the cross. Each chapter in the book examines one of these practices, showing how they have been used (or abused) throughout history and how they can inform the lives of Christians who do not yearn for the idealized Christendom of the past, yet seek to resist the greed and authoritarianism of the present.

Dueholm, as I mentioned, is a working pastor, a fact evident throughout his book. For such an expansive topic, the temptation to take the view from 30,000 feet is great. Instead, his meditations are built on his experiences ministering to congregations and to individuals, often in moments of illness or distress. (Consider, for example, the anecdote of an old woman with dementia almost choking on a Communion wafer.) From this foundation, Dueholm is able to expound on the meaning of the “holy possessions” and their importance for Christians today with a warmer, more personal tone than other authors working in the same genre. Which is not to say Sacred Signposts is all gentleness: what is being offered, after all, are not airy affirmations, but “brutally ordinary things” that can help Christians endure, and maybe even overcome, the evils of this age. Similarly, comments on contemporary topics from addiction to the refugee crisis manage to be pointed, but without polemic. All this is held together by Dueholm’s graceful prose.

Sacred Signposts was a greatly illuminating read for me, in no small part because of my religious background as a Quaker. For us, the relationship to the “holy possessions” has always been fraught. Either we disregard them completely, or we spiritualize them, fleeing the concrete realities Dueholm seeks to draw our attention toward. Yet even dissenters such as the Society of Friends can recognize their own tradition in the signposts that frame Dueholm’s book:

  • The Word, attested to in the scriptures and even more so in our hearts, is the author of our faith and our inward teacher even today.
  • Baptism, our initiation into the religious life, is enacted by the Holy Spirit, as John the Baptist said it would be.
  • Communion, our remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and the renewal of our belonging in the body of Christ, is the goal of meeting regularly in waiting worship.
  • Confession and forgiveness, in which our sins are named and then covered in God’s love and healing, is one of the principal fruits of the encounter with the divine in waiting worship (this is what early Quakers called “conviction”).
  • Ministry, God’s raising up of men and women to serve God and humanity, is a gift that may be bestowed on anyone, regardless of formal credentials—hence the Quaker belief that we can only record a person’s ministry rather than ordain a person as a minister.
  • Prayer, praise, and worship, our celebration of God, is for Quakers a giving over of our whole selves to God’s service, knowing that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
  • The cross, Christ’s suffering for our sake, reminds us that God does not always tell us what we want to hear, or lead us places where we want to go. Early Quakers would describe the effort to obey God as “living in the cross”—that, like Jesus, to do what God wills means dying to oneself and being born anew.

Talk of “holy possessions” might also lead Quakers to think of those things which have set us apart from the rest of Christianity and may well preserve our tradition in the 21st century. Here are a few that seem most promising:

  • Waiting worship, our conviction that, in order for God to speak, we must first fall silent.
  • Our business method, rejecting both democracy and dictatorship in favor of divine leadership.
  • Our peace testimony, announcing that the Lamb’s war will not be fought with the world’s weapons.

Nevertheless, we should be skeptical, as Dueholm is, of the notion that preservation as such will be the marker of success for Quakers, or of Christianity generally. It’s worth noting that, after the quote from Arcadia at the top of this post, Septimus goes on to assert that the lost wisdom of the ancients will be regained in one form or another:

The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Over the course of the play, however, that confident Enlightenment rationalism is undermined by the discovery of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the attendant realization that disorder only leads to more disorder, the cream poured into the cup of coffee can never be extracted in its original form, and the past can never be more than patchily remembered. If Christianity is to endure, not as one clan among many but as a living witness to the works of God in Christ, it will likely have to suffer much disorder. Yet it is the particular genius of Christianity that failure is, not merely an option, but a prerequisite. Sacred Signposts is an excellent account of how that genius can be manifested in these difficult times.

Further reading

I highly recommend Lee M.’s review of Sacred Signposts, which highlights the radicalism of Dueholm’s argument.

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