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Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry
224 pp., $22.00
Evangelical lamps are sputtering. Prognostications of the movement usually announce its impending death as a threat, unless it makes the changes for which the given prophet calls. Such proposals include filling lamps with expired postmodern vinegar, or insisting they be replenished with the coagulated liquid of old-time religion. Hans Boersma's book Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry affords a different response. Boersma offers the rich, luxuriant oil of medieval metaphysics to keep evangelical lamps warmly aglow. Boersma is not a fringe figure. It's somewhat symbolic that he holds the J. I. Packer chair in theology at Regent College. Could this kind of neo-medieval evangelicalism hold the same potential for the movement as did the broadly Reformed perspective of Packer?
Boersma, of course, is not the first evangelical who has made progress by looking back. Robert Webber famously discovered the liturgical rhythms of the early church, and Thomas Oden's "paleo-orthodoxy" project, centered in Christianity's first millennium, gave rise to the Ancient Christian Commentary series. John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy movement do much of the heavy lifting for this perspective, telling a story of ancient richness and modern, secular decline, a story helpfully translated into an American idiom by James K. A. Smith's Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (Baker Academic, 2004).
These relatively contemporary figures, however, can themselves be situated in a much broader—I am tempted to say inevitable—trajectory of American Protestantism. One thinks of the Mercersburg Theology of the mid-19th century, born when John Williamson Nevin—a brilliant student of the staunch American Calvinist Charles Hodge—re-discovered the Real Presence in the Eucharistic theology of John Calvin after nearly converting to Catholicism. Harriet Beecher Stowe records the same impulse, as Protestants migrated from cold New England meetinghouses to the neo-Gothic ...