Ancient Fire: The Power of Christian Rituals in Contemporary Worship. Ken Heer. Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2010. 223 pages.
Ken Heer, the son of an itinerant minister “in a conservative denomination that regularly practiced rites such as foot washing and the communion” (11), also has roots in the Methodist tradition. He has nearly three decades of experience in the pastoral ministry and serves as the executive assistance to the Board of General Superintendents of The Wesleyan Church and coordinator of the Leadership Development Journey.
“Take from the altars of the past the fire – not the ashes” (15). Those words from an unnamed French philosopher convey the purpose of Heer’s book on worship and rituals. How do we go about the work of holding on to what is beneficial from the past rituals of Christian worship (the fire) while being sure to discard that which isn’t (the ashes)?
The presence of God is the titular Ancient Fire that the author seeks. Using imagery from Old Testament worship regulations and New Testament applications, Heer offers guidance to pastors, worship committees and other leaders who seek to stoke the fire (chapter 1), remove the ashes from the altar (chapter 2), avoid strange fire (chapter 7), fan into flame the gift of God (chapter 11), and other similar goals. Each chapter concludes with questions for self-evaluation or discussion with other leaders.
In an age of worship repristination, renewal, renovation and sometimes outright rejection, Heer’s book is built on two premises (15):
- The worship practices of the past should be carefully evaluated in terms of what does have value for connecting people to God – and what does not serve that purpose.
- Church leaders have a God-given responsibility to “keep the fire burning,” that is, ensure that worship maintains its purpose and power.
The Lutheran minister will find much to appreciate and agree with in those premises. The author sounds a consistent call to carefully evaluate the practices of Christians who have gone before us. There is no reckless jettisoning of tradition (though the author does come from a non-liturgical background). A theme that can never be repeated enough in our day is to make sure we’re never following liturgical practices or rituals simply for the sake of tradition, regardless of whether or not they communicate God’s truths well with the people we serve. Along the way, the reader comes across a few gems that the author states well (a favorite: “Every Sunday, we come together to challenge the gods of this world that have accosted us all week long” ).
The book offers little of value besides those reminders, however. While Heer begins with a solid purpose of developing worship patterns that “connect worshipers with the presence and power of God” (22), he has little to say on how practices do just that. While he does make some mention of the gospel, the means of grace and a sacramental theology, an understanding that the strength of rituals lie in how well they communicate what God has done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus is nearly absent from the book. What one is left with is a vague goal of determining to what extent a practice helps people sense the working of the Spirit and connect with “the Ancient Fire” in their worship experience. Since the goal itself is so subjective, there is little in the way of diagnostic tools or guiding principles to help one achieve this end.
Nowhere does this lack of mooring show itself more than in the author’s sacramental theology. While he certainly voices an appreciation for the sacraments (and laments the low esteem he’s observed for them at times), the sacraments themselves begin to take on a subjective value. By the time the author ponders whether the Lord’s Supper is “made sacred” by “the act, the attitude or the elements” (123) with no mention of the Word or the gospel, the reader will be familiar with the subjective approach to worship and the constant separation of Spirit from Word.
Permit a side note: the author does make one fitting suggestion to think through regarding Communion. While failing to mention the key purpose, Heer rightly observes that there are more than one “image” or themes present in the Supper (150), and encourages the minister to emphasize different ones at different times. It’s well-worth considering how one might, perhaps, place the emphasis on Christ’s atoning sacrifice when celebrating Communion on Ash Wednesday, the fellowship with him and one another on Maundy Thursday, the way the Supper fulfills Jesus’ promise to be with us always near the feast of Ascension, or the meal’s nature as a foretaste of that glad feast above when it’s celebrated in End Times.
When one approaches a worship book written by an author with false theological assumptions, the question becomes “What in this book might still be of value to an orthodox Lutheran?” Sadly, the answer in this case would be, “Not all that much.” There is far too little substance for a mature worship leader to wrestle with, and far too much false theology to make this of any value to share with church musicians, directors or worship leaders. There are many other resources that not only raise the same questions found in this book, but also give solid Scriptural guidance for how to answer them. Perhaps the greatest benefit of reading Ancient Fire is a renewed appreciation for a Scriptural heritage that allows us to speak confidently about the way the Lord gives us his Spirit in Word and sacraments. While the earnest calls to constantly evaluate our worship practices is well-stated and important, Heer’s vague and subjective means of grace theology leaves one with little of substance to hold on to. Or using the author’s imagery, we’re presented with more smoke than fire.