All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism

All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism

All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism

All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism

Synopsis

"In recent years mail deliveries have included a new kind of invitation to Protestant Christianity: slick brochures enumerating the social and psychological advantages of church attendance with no mention whatsoever of spiritual striving, suffering, or faith in God. Does this kind of secularity prevail not only in direct-mail Christianity but also in mainline Protestant churches? Finding the sermon to be the centerpiece of Protestant worship, Marsha Witten looks for the answer to this question in an in-depth analysis of preaching on an important New Testament text: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Witten finds that the transcendent and awesome God of Luther and Calvin - whose image informed early Protestant visions of the relationship between human beings and the divine - has undergone a softening of demeanor in American Protestant churches, with only some resistance from "conservative" traditions. Preached from the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) and the Southern Baptist Convention is a God whose primary function lies in providing psychological benefits to individual church members: the Parable of the Prodigal Son is seen as portraying God as a loving and understandable Daddy. In talk about Christian conduct, the focus is not on the challenges that the church could pose to the secular sphere of life. Instead, as in most of the Presbyterian sermons that Witten examines, individuals are encouraged to make the right choices among the secular world's various offerings, or, as in many Southern Baptist messages, to accept God's offer of rescue from the "lostness" of secular confusions. Witten's perceptive comments and her liberal use of excerpts from the sermons combine to show how complex rhetorical strategies transform Christian faith and contribute to its survival in what would otherwise be an alien world." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet;

And bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

(Luke 15:20–24, Revised Standard Version)

And so the prodigal son reaches the end of his journey. Luke tells us that as the young man comes to himself, he lifts himself out of the pigpen, guided by memories of the comforts and security of his father's house, and returns home. There he is greeted by his father, who grants unconditional forgiveness and acceptance symbolized by the gift of the sandals, robe, and ring, and by the rejoicing at the feast. Although the account Luke gives is only a few sentences long, many of the pastors linger in their sermons on the scene of the son's homecoming, as they demonstrate its application to their listeners. For the return of the prodigal son represents the event of conversion in the life of the individual. It is the moment when, confronted with God's inexplicable and undeserved grace, the configuration of the self is changed. Through conversion, a person undergoes a break between the old self that lives in the world before the transmutative experience and a different self that is brought into being through the salvific relationship with Jesus Christ.

Theological languages of transformation

The language used above suggests that of Paul and Augustine, who provide a vocabulary on which pastors could draw in talking about the transformation of the self. in this speech, the replacement of the old self . . .

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