At a small evening vespers service over which I preside, I recently was asked, “Are you sure it’s okay if we sing a Christmas song during Advent?” The question came from a thoughtful volunteer pianist and full-time math teacher who plays for our vespers gathering and for her Presbyterian church’s Sunday morning services.
At first, the question caught me by surprise. At the church in which I grew up, a small Baptist congregation, we didn’t follow the Christian liturgical calendar much beyond Christmas and Easter. I didn’t learn about Advent until I attended college and enrolled in religious studies courses. Her question eventually registered, though, as I remembered my later training in theological education at a mainline seminary. Our preaching and worship professors attempted to instill within us a deep knowledge and appreciation for the riches of the various seasons of the Christian year (e.g., Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.), while also teaching the dos and don’ts of services related to these liturgical seasons.
As a recovering fundamentalist, I found the depth of meaning in this more expansive liturgical calendar to be a beautiful expression of various seasons within our own spirituality. In that seminary space, though, I learned that some ministers and worship leaders approach those dos and don’ts with a certain rigidity and seriousness. Stories and shop-talk filtered through from professors, authors, pastors, and interns about their frustrations of working with congregations who “ignorantly” defied these orthodoxies: a rogue choir leader who wanted to sing glad Easter tidings in the final weeks of Lent or youth leaders who allowed their children’s choir to sing Christmas songs during Advent. Prematurely advancing through one stage of the calendar, apparently, was a serious offense.
On another liturgical occasion, a zealous and progressive young seminarian was deeply angered that communion had been served during a Church-related gathering without the presence of a sermon. In the Reformed tradition, the sacraments should always be accompanied by the proclaimed Word (i.e., Scripture and/or some exhortation on a biblical text). While the student embraced a robust theological imagination for progressive Christian and political causes, serving communion to a gathered group of Christians without at least a brief homily proved deeply offensive. With the imprint of my fundamentalist Baptist upbringing still fresh in my mind, I was astonished by this reaction. I could see the logic both in adhering to a tradition’s norms and in coupling communion with Scripture, but of all the problems in the Church and the world, I couldn’t make sense of the strength of the response.
Similar experiences abounded during these heady seminary days. While drinking deeply from progressive theological wells, of which I had known nothing in the first twenty years of my life, I constantly encountered eager pastors-in-training and professors who seemed to find some measure of joy and purpose in becoming the guardians of liturgical orthodoxy. My mind was constantly discombobulated. On the one hand, my new friends and colleagues embodied a theological openness that didn’t see conventional fundamentalist sins to be sins at all (e.g., drinking alcohol, cursing, being LGBTQ+, embracing feminist thought, being a Democrat). On this we agreed and for these reasons I cherished these spaces. But on the other hand, I watched as some of the same colleagues embraced a very serious and fastidious concern with whether a church sang “O Holy Night” a week before Christmas. I wondered if I had moved from one purity culture into a new one that was aimed at a different type of boundary keeping.
Experiences such as these led to a place in which I found myself politically comfortable in mainline Christian space but also disturbed to discover that these more progressive leaders found ways to police the boundaries of their own preferred brand of orthodoxy. Surely, some might quibble with me using the term orthodoxy to refer to certain liturgical traditions as opposed to a doctrinal tenet like the two natures of Christ or the internal operations of the Trinity. But on my read, orthodoxy includes not only accepted theological tenets but also the rules, customs, or traditions that – when transgressed – provoke deep, gut-level reactions. The things we deem worthy of fighting over and for which we parade our virtue, in fact, are better indicators of what we actually hold to be sacred.
And so it was that I became disillusioned with the Church for a number of years to come – not because I failed to see the importance of certain aspects of the work of the Church, but because these types of aforementioned debates proved both triggering of my fundamentalist past and, also, I found them uninteresting. I knew too well what it was like to live and move within a shared theological imagination that painstakingly scrutinized one’s actions and intentions behind those actions. I knew the smug sense of superiority that came with being a defender of the faith. Unfortunately, I was well versed in it myself. Still, the disintegration of my inherited fundamentalism thrust me forward to find a more fluid, less rancorous type of Christianity.
In effect, I teetered on the edge of trading one orthodoxy for another, a fundamentalist one for an enlightened, liberal one. What I hadn’t considered was that I could engage the Church in my own unorthodox way, as have many predecessors and movement leaders and heroes and villains within Christian history. While some seminary students enjoy picking apart and spouting the errors of certain famed “heretics” (the Gnostics, Arius, Nestorius, Servetus), I felt sympathy for them – not only because some suffered exile or worse, but because they demonstrated a degree of courage to think expansively and hold dear to their faith in spite of legitimate threats and political pressure. The benefit of being a student of theology on this side of history is to see the grand sweeping changes in our knowledge of the universe and the world and to realize of what little value certain of these “major” disputes in the life of the Church actually were – something some contemporary Christians will dispute. But so it goes.
All this to say, I came to find a certain joy in heresy. Though the ghost of my fundamentalist God still haunts me and makes this a fleeting joy, I try to return to the sure knowledge that my understanding of and interaction with the Divine is my own experience to navigate. The Church and other faith traditions offer a richness of resources to help us make sense of these experiences, but given that there has never been a singular orthodox approach to Christianity, we’re in good company if we move away from what our self-appointed orthodox protectors deem acceptable.
Admittedly, embracing heresy means to live in a liminal space when it comes to belonging to and holding vocations and leadership roles in discrete faith communities and denominations. We have certain prescribed expectations regarding particular traditions, practices, and beliefs, which is understandable. But, for some of us, there can be great joy not in breaking a theological rule for its own sake, but in doing what is authentic and what actually brings joy and comfort to ourselves and other individuals. This doesn’t mean that heretics are necessarily lacking an ethical baseline. The guiding question for me is whether a practice or belief brings suffering, violence, or material oppression to another individual or community. Singing Christmas hymns during Advent does not cause physical harm. Serving communion with or without the proclamation of scripture, likewise, does not – nor do such things contribute to a wider ecosphere of normalized violence or oppression.
In recent years, some progressive Church leaders have sought to rehabilitate the image of orthodoxy by arguing that conservative Christian support for social sins like white nationalism, mass incarceration, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments are evidence of heretical forms of Christianity. The question is not whether these practices are abhorrent and counter to some of what we see in the Bible but, rather, what is served by rehabbing the categories of orthodoxy and heresy? Having lived through one major expression of policing, boundary guarding fundamentalism, I know all too well the joy and sense of power that comes with the subjectivity of being in the right, being a gatekeeper, and informing others of their ignorance. It’s appealing, seductive, and mesmerizing.
Any system in which “we” are always right and “they” are always wrong ought to merit some concern. One can be both committed to one’s cause and yet also take oneself entirely too seriously. Contrasting divine mercy with this seriousness, the Catholic monk Thomas Merton once wrote:
Mercy is inconsistent….It liberates us from the tragic seriousness of the obsessive world which we have ‘made up’ for ourselves by yielding to our obsessions. Only mercy can liberate us from the madness of our determination to be consistent – from the awful pattern of lusts, greeds, angers and hatreds which mix us up together like a mass of dough and thrust us all together into the oven.[i]
Rather, the mercy found in Christianity and other traditions subverts our orthodoxies and the seriousness with which we take them. Merton goes on to write:
To say that Christ has locked all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is seriousness and damnation, inside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved – while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy which alone is truly serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.[ii]
Out of such a spirit – returning to the pianist of the vespers service – I simply asked, “You know the congregation better than I do. Do they enjoy singing Christmas hymns during Advent? Does the timing matter to them?” She replied that they loved it. So, we sang a few Christmas hymns that night, breaking a liturgical rule or two, and the world continued to turn, and the Church continued to survive, and we felt a joy which temporarily broke the seriousness and anxieties of an already busy holiday season. I think that’s enough. Or, at least, that’s a vision of mercy and a type of heresy in which I’d rather place my hope.
[i] Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), 32.
[ii] Ibid., 33. Emphasis in original.