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John D. Witvliet

Bob Webber: Memory & Hope

The following tribute was presented via videotape to Bob at the Wheaton College Theology Conference banquet this past April. The conference theme, "Ancient Faith for the Church's Future," was one of the central motifs in Robert Webber's writings. Webber died the following week.

April 10, 2007

Dear Robert,

Two of life's best gifts are memory and hope. This is true in psalmody and Eucharistic praying, but also in personal and professional friendship. It is a great honor to practice both of these gifts with respect to your life and work, especially here at Wheaton College.

When I think of your written and published works, I remember, with deep gratitude, opening up Worship is a Verb at about age 18 and feeling an Emmaus-like burning of the heart over its conviction about our risen Lord and its catholic vision for worship. Some years later, I remember receiving seven boxes of files which became the last volumes of A Complete Library of Christian Worship, and sensing the breadth of the landscape which you explored—the whole Bible, all of systematic theology, 2,000 years of church history, every one of the church's various ministries, in 100 or more denominations (all, it seemed, in a single summer). Later, I remember arriving at a hotel in Carol Stream on Monday, to learn that we would be starting and finishing our outline of the Renew songbook in four days. I remember how you said then (and many times since), "I love a project."

As I think about all of your published work, I am struck by some particular charisms which you have shared so freely with us.

First, you have introduced so many of us to the early church as a period of unique theological insight, spiritual vitality, and prophetic correction. You did so in a way that energized practicing pastors and lay Christians. It was said of Princeton's Peter Brown, "he rescued the past from the tyranny of stereotypes." That is also true for you, especially when it comes to worship.

Part of your work has been simply to get us up to speed with a new set of terms. You taught us that "epiphany" and "eucharist" are useful terms. You taught to us to pronounce "epiclesis," "anamnesis," and Hippolytus. You also exercised restraint, sparing us the frustration of feeling that we had to use the words "catechumenate" and "mystagogy" when all we wanted to do was lead people on a Journey to Jesus.

You also coined phrases about our emerging love for the early church, leading the way as "convergence" worship became "blended" worship and then "ancient-future" worship. Many publishers wanted to know what you were calling it, a sign that you were not only describing a movement, but shaping it.

In all of these projects, you were especially adept at writing for people with little previous exposure to the material, a pedagogical skill very much undervalued in academy. So often when writing reaches out to broad audiences, it ceases to be compelling. But I've found that people who read your material actually end up learning things, rather than simply having their prior assumptions confirmed.

Part of your skill is your ability to map big stretches of territory (historically, conceptually, geographically), never letting us miss the forest for the trees. Your most recent book, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life, gathers the fruit of a lifetime of teaching this material in congregations. You've chosen a set of the most crucial themes for promoting vibrant Christian faith and life, and you pursue them doggedly. Some of your many students will later come along to study the leaves on some of the trees in the forests you describe. But I hope that they do not forget that a map of the big picture is vitally important for the life of the church.

Second, you did not shrink back from honest criticism and polemic. Like Irenaeus, you have been "against heresies." Providentially, you have been against some of the same ones he was against.

Reading your work again this winter, I have been struck by the multiple objects of your published indignation: spirit-matter dualism, ahistorical mysticism, experientialism, legalism, romanticism, narcissism, "McSpirituality," privatism, Gnosticism, and love songs to Jesus. You reserved equal ink to protest intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. You even put your feelings in your titles, giving us a 1984 Christianity Today article, "Let's Put Worship into the Worship Service: Let's End Gospel Pep Rallies and Sunday Morning Variety Shows," a 1985 book Secular Humanism: Threat and Challenge, and a 1999 article in Leadership, "Reducing God to Music? We Experience God in More Than Songs and Segues." Indeed, the Chicago Call uses the locution "we deplore" five times.

We knew that even when you criticized us, you loved us. The twinkle in your eye gave you away. And so did your ability to see both sides of complex issues. You embraced tensions and pulled us back from unnecessary polarities, calling us to both social justice and personal transformation, both hand-clapping exuberance and profound introspection, both restless yearning for change and a profound gratitude for the inheritance of faith. You called us to both truth and passion.

You are one of the few writers who, despite a convert's zeal, could have the poise to end Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Church with a section "Evangelical Contribution to Canterbury: What Evangelicals Bring to the Liturgical Tradition."

Third, your writings have taught us how teachers can helpfully work at several levels at the same time. You wrote books for classrooms, continuing education events, and small groups. When evangelicals got excited about this or that genre, your entrepreneurial instincts unfailingly seized the opportunity, giving us inductive Bible studies, a songbook, textbooks, ecumenical call statements, family prayer books, and newsletters. When we wanted a prayer book, you published Prymer. When we wanted pilgrimage stories, you offered Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. When we told you how much we loved paradigms, you delivered the goods, giving us The Younger Evangelicals. When we said you needed to write a dissertation on someone like William Perkins, you complied, writing about how much he loved the early church. When Donald Bloesch, Donald Dayton, Peter Gillquist, Thomas Howard, Richard Lovelace, and Roger Nicole were all still trying to get published back in the 1970s, you helped to organize them, giving us the Chicago Call. Indeed, like parents who struggle to help their toddler eat healthy food, you knew your audience. You offered us the protein of embodied, Christus-victor, missional, sacramental Christianity in every way possible.

I recall vividly that in the last year of his life, James F. White, one of the leading Methodist liturgical historians of the 20th century, was campaigning for you to receive the North American Academy of Liturgy's Berakah lifetime achievement award, recognizing what an accomplishment all of this was. Yet what Jim never came to know was the genre of writing that for me is among the most profound, the update emails you and Joanne have sent over the past six months. In the face of cancer, these short notes have offered us a testimony of profound faith, honest lament, and resilient, resurrection hope. These emails are a symbol of a final feature of your work.

Best of all, your writings have testified to the gospel of Jesus, the beauty of the triune God, and the deep joy of a full-orbed Christian life. The Orthodox teach us never to look at icons but rather to look through them. And we know that the best way to receive your books is not simply to analyze them but to see through them.

And when we do, what do we see?

A God who acts in history by Word and Spirit.

A sturdy affirmation: "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again."

A cross that not only offers forgiveness, but also healing.

A Spirit who sanctifies not only our minds, but our bodies.

Baptism that not only washes us, but drowns us.

A meal that not only looks back but also looks forward.

And that is what we also do now. For as nourishing as memory is, hope is even better. So in resolute hope, we promise to do so much of what you called us to: remember our baptism, pray in the Spirit, flee to the eucharist.

This Eastertide, we claim again the promise of our baptism, joining our voices to that of scripture and all the saints who declare:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1)
In Christian hope,
John Witvliet

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, teaches theology, worship and music at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, and is the author, most recently, of The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship (Eerdmans).

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