Prophetic Lament – Soong-Chan Rah

From Volume 1, Issue 2, 201

According to Soong-Chan’s research the American church is sorely lacking in a key element to the Christian Faith … Lament. This is a concept that is foreign to most Christians in the US, so he may be right. Read on as we talk with him about his story and research, then come to your own conclusion.

EOF: As I was reading your book I noticed that it is part of a series, or will be part of a series called the Resonate Series. Could you tell the audience a little bit about the series before we dive into the book?

RAH: Sure. It’s a commentary series that tries to integrate what I hope is sound exegesis along with cultural theological reflection. There are a number of commentaries out there that are superb at providing the strong exegetical work that is needed for Bible studies and for sermon prep, etc. This series is really trying to go even another step further, particularly in the area of social cultural engagement. There are going to be different books of the Bible. In my case, I did a commentary on the Book of Lamentations because it is so popular. I do the exegetical work that is needed, but also take it to the next step to say, “Here’s some ways we can apply this text into our culture.” This should be some fresh material that people have not encountered before. Not only was it exegesis, not only was it textual work, but really trying to think: “What does Lamentations have to say to our world today? How can we understand Lamentations in our unique social-cultural context?”

You brought up Lamentations as the popular way to go. In the introduction of the book you write about the church that you helped get established by beginning with Lamentations. Maybe you could share that story?

I teach in the area of church growth, church planting and evangelism at my seminary, North Park Seminary. I don’t know if I would actually suggest to people in my church-planting class to start by looking at the book of Lamentations as an opening-sermon series. It is a little strange because it’s not your typical sermon series. When I speak around the country, I do a quick survey of those who have ever heard a sermon series on Lamentations. Out of a hundred you might get one or two people. So it was very much an unconventional choice for a church plant, where you are trying to draw in people and not lose people, to begin with a book that by all accounts seems very depressing or a bit of a downer. I am looking back now and I am thinking, “Boy, was God in the middle of that decision-making process.” God really did point me in the right direction by opening the church plant with that series. Part of it has to do with the context of the ministry that I was doing. We were planted in the city of Cambridge which is a really interesting intersection of the very affluent, privileged, and accomplished students at MIT and Harvard, and yet at the same time the neighborhood in which our church was located is considered an inner-city, urban kind of neighborhood. I realized that the themes of Lamentations really spoke to both communities and that we needed to hear the stories that came out of Lamentations which are oftentimes the stories of the marginalized and the suffering. Those are the stories that really need to be heard by the affluent and the privileged. Despite on the surface seeming like it’s a really difficult passage to start a church plant, I think it ended up being a really good choice for us.

In the book, you mention that the American churches minimized lamenting or even reading Lamentations, and why it is important that we should lament. Could you explain?

I was noticing that the absence of lament is very noticeable in the context of worship. One of the clues for this was through the work of Denise Hopkins, who is a professor at Wesley Seminary. She went through the major liturgical traditions in the U.S. and that would be Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopalian; the kinds of communities that would follow the guidelines of the Prayer Book, or Liturgy, or the Church Calendar, etc. She was noting, as someone who is from the liturgical tradition and trying to understand that tradition, mostly that they were being left out. What she notes is that, even in the liturgical traditions where they are governed by certain readings that are supposed to be done, often the lament Psalms or Lamentations are left of the process; left out of the regular life of the church. This is true not only for the liturgical traditions, but other traditions as well. If you look at the Baptist hymnals and Presbyterian hymnals, only about 15 to 20 percent of those hymnals would have songs of lament. Whereas, in the Bible, the Psalms are 60 percent praise and 40 percent lament. In the Psalms, in the worship life of Israel, you see a pretty strong representation of lament Psalms. But, they seem to underrepresented in our hymnals. They seem to be dropped quite often in our worship life. They seem to be glossed over. It is not the type of passages that pastors want to take on. So there seems to be an absence of lament in our worship life, in the liturgic tradition in the evangelical hymnal tradition. In contemporary worship it may be even more pronounced. All the songs tend to be triumphalist songs. Songs about victory, songs about success and we are missing the narrative of lament and the suffering that accompanies lament. A lot of that, I think, reflects American cultural values, especially triumphalism. We want to talk about victory. We want to sing about victory. We want to read about victory. In that process, we neglect the laments Psalms, the book of Lamentations that actually talk more about suffering.

Why is it so important in spiritual life to not only discuss victory, but to have that lamenting that we can focus on?

The absence of lament really leads to an incomplete theology. Walter Brueggemann’s writings are very influential in the shaping of my views on lament and the Psalms. Brueggemann writes about the difference between those who are the “haves”and those who are the “have-nots,” and that the “haves” have a particular way of understanding theology and the world that comes out of an affluence, comes out of an abundance, comes out of a celebration context. You have to contrast that worldview with those who are coming from the places of suffering; the “have-nots” who lack some of the resources that the “haves”might possess. What Brueggemann points out is that the Psalms of praise and victory that come out of the celebration “haves” are only half of the equation. You also have to have the Psalms of lament that come out of the place of suffering of the “have-nots.” If our theology only emphasizes one part of that story, of the “haves” and the celebration and the victory, then we are missing half of the Gospel message. Maybe another way to look at that is to say, “When we talk about Christology, when we talk about the person of Jesus, if we only talk about the resurrection and we don’t talk about the crucifixion, then we have half the gospel and vise versa.” If we only talk about the crucifixion, and we don’t talk about the resurrection, we have half the Gospel. So, by only having Psalms of victory and triumph, which tend to reflect our cultural values, we are significantly missing out in our theology. Our theology is incomplete until we hear the Psalms of lament, until we engage the stories of suffering. We will tend to look at Christianity from this triumphalist, exceptionalist worldview, rather than realizing actually the Canon of Scripture has a much broader understanding of worshipping God — not just Psalms of triumph, but also Psalms of lament.

For the early Greeks, philosophy was more important for a virtuous life than their religions were and you had separate gods as well. The gods that the wealthy worshipped, which they believed partied and did what they wanted, and the gods of the poor were going to help them get the better life. Of course, we are influenced by Western Civilization, so we attempt to manipulate God’s word to fall into what makes us feel comfortable.

Yeah. I think that’s where covering lament is a very important theological move. In the West, in particular. I think that the narratives that we missed out on because we focus so much on this triumphalist Western narrative, is that we have an error in our Christian history right now because it is such a globalized story, not just an American Christian story. It is clearly an African, Asian, Latin American, Non-Western narrative in terms of demographics, the dominant demographic in global Christianity. If our theology is so sequestered and so limited into the world of the triumphalist American narrative, then we are really denying ourselves the fullness of the witness of God. Part of this is the capacity to listen better to our fellow believers in other parts of the world. But also pointing out that this is also a great opportunity for cross-racial dialogue here in the United States.The Anglo-European community here in the U.S. tends to have a triumphalist narrative for a number of different reasons. The absence of engagement with the African American story is suffering, the Native American story is suffering. And so we’ve gone to a point where our cultural captivity to triumphalist narrative prevents us from being in a genuine, authentic relationship and community with those whose narratives might differ; the narrative of suffering, the history of the black church, the history of the genocide of the native, and yet the face that which is retained despite that genocide. So, we’re missing out, we’re denying ourselves some important stories even within our nation’s own history.

Let’s say someone picks up your book, Prophetic Lament, or they just happen to listen to the airing of this interview and they want to get involved; what are the next steps to get the church and the Christian communities to lament? Is it just the individual member becoming aware and growing it from the bottom up, or what is next?

 

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