In the fall of 2012, when I started the second year of my graduate studies at Oakland University, I invited a dozen of my friends to gather around my kitchen table once a week to read the Church Fathers. We convened every Thursday evening on the second floor of my 1970s apartment. The past spring, Trevor Katona, whom I had met years earlier while recording music in his brother’s home studio, drank coffee with me on that quiet balcony behind the apartment and we tried to figure out why so many of our friends had given up on God and the Church.
Many of our remaining Christian friends spent their weekends church shopping. A friend remarked that he loved the community at his church, but his skinny jeans wearing pastor gave exasperatingly shallow sermons. A second friend said he was altogether done with sermons, so he attended Taize services once a month. A third loved the green initiatives and David Foster Wallace inspired messages at his church, yet he felt awkward about the shortage of working class and poor people in the pews.
Around Christmas time, I had picked up on this restlessness among my friends and looked around for answers. Trevor and I agreed church shopping was a dead end. And neither of us trusted our own judgment. These words of Thomas Oden’s struck a chord with us:
We would not even have the Bible without its reliable transmission, which is another way of talking about the work of God the Spirit. Orthodoxy understands that God is at work in the body of Christ to form that body in history, awaiting God’s own coming in the return of Christ. Christ promised the early church the Spirit, who came on the first Pentecost and continues to dwell in the lives of the faithful. He promised that the Spirit would abide with this community, guide it, lead it to all truth, and help it recollect the words of the Lord. This is just what has been happening for the 20 centuries since the ascension. We’re moving in the wrong direction when we say individualistically, “I’ve got my Bible; I don’t need anything except these words.” Protestants now need to recover a sense of the active work of the Spirit in history and through living communities. Our modern individualism too easily tempts us to take our Bible and abstract ourselves from the wider believing community. We end up with a Bible and a radio, but no church.
When Oden insists that Protestants must understand that the Holy Spirit is leading the Church into all truth, he wants Christians to see they don’t need to shop for the right speaker or band or circle, don’t need to make up their own creeds or commandments, and don’t need to retreat from the hypocrites at their church to follow Jesus in the sanctity of their own home. These individualistic convictions, even though rarely stated outright, make up the consumer Christianity all around us.
Despite the confusion, Oden had found the right path. As Trevor and I learned about the early Church, we saw that it lined up with the Church in the book of Acts. The first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Oden himself had grown up in a family that cared more about political activism and abortion rights than the Apostle’s teaching and the prayers. It wasn’t until Will Herberg, a repentant ex-communist and rabbinic Jew, challenged Oden to read the first Christians that he turned his back on consumer Christianity.
So there was hope. With a humble attitude and willingness to learn, we could find out how the first Christians prayed, worshiped, lived, and interpreted the scriptures. We could also turn our backs on consumer Christianity. Trevor and I called our agnostic and evangelical friends. I made copies of Oden’s introduction to the Doctors of the Church and put on a full pot of coffee. People came with Bibles and growlers in hand. We opened the first meeting by confessing the Apostles Creed in unison and talking about its origins. New to the whole concept of the lectionary, we read the upcoming Sunday scripture readings with commentary from the Church Fathers. The Phos Hilaron had caught my eye as I prepared for the study, and we said the words of the prayer as the sun was setting:
O gladsome light,
pure brightness of the ever-living Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing praises to God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.
Back on the balcony, we packed pipes and rolled cigarettes. Oden had made the prayers and commentaries of the first Christians matter to us: college students, landscapers, programmers, baristas, waiters, designers, and tutors. I passed Trevor a box of matches as he wondered why the churches where we grew up never said these prayers, talked about communion, or mentioned that priests and bishops led the early Church. I was pretty sure Eastern and Anglican Christians still did all these things without the extra-Biblical Roman Catholic changes. Joshua, disoriented after a stint designing videos for a mega-church, cupped his hands around my pipe as I struggled to relight, and offered to visit one of these old time churches with us. We made plans to catch an evening service at St. Mark Orthodox and St. John the Apostle Anglican Church.