Allegiance of the Faithful
It’s really quite easy to claim an allegiance to something these days. Whether it's a sports team, a country, or a faith, we stand ready to recite a unifying cheer, slogan or chant and establish our place in the order of things. People of the United States are equally eager to talk about our individualism yet from adolescence through old age we often strive to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Robert D. Cornwall, in his recent book Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord's Prayer, takes a different look at an all too familiar prayer, often recited by rote, that suggests this need for community is a fundamental part of our disposition as creatures of God and one that comes into direct conflict with many of the principles that are lifted up and cherished in our culture.
Cornwall is not writing a psychological treatise but a brief yet broad study of the Lord's Prayer. He lays the prayer out chronologically, studying and explaining it line by line but he also sets out a subtext slowly encircling three basic concepts: that God is, in fact, God and we are not; that we desperately need God; and, that we need each other, in spite of our tendency to think that we don't. Cornwall manages these themes nicely through the text, reinforcing their importance without being overly repetitive. More important, he weaves them together through historical teaching and application, revealing the context in which the prayer comes into being while also providing insight into how these frames of reference play out in our society.
Cornwall takes advantage of his premise by using the text to expose and illuminate how we often fall into routine in our lives, going through the motions of our days without examining the implications of our actions. Challenging popular conventions about what we believe to be the nature of God (God is Holy or God is Love), Cornwall invites us to think more broadly with an understanding that God cannot be pigeon-holed into what we want Him to be. Cornwall chooses to use the noun pater as the basis of his translation for God the father as opposed to the more familiar abba, particularly because the implications of pater require more of us. Establishing God as a patron, Cornwall places God in the superior role and challenges us to admit our role as inferior. The description of God as pater also provokes us to see more of God than just his mercy or just His holiness. The text invites us to find a way to perceive the implications of God as both and much more.
Cornwall also establishes a relationship between our dependence on God with our dependence on each other. It is through the community established in this prayer that God builds His kingdom here on earth. However, that is totally dependent on our actions. The reader is encouraged to see more in themselves, recognizing that we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world and this recognition, no matter how seemingly small in its impact, will change the world. Using Jesus' analogy of yeast in many of his parables, Cornwall explains that "[t]he community of faith, as it seeks to be agents of the kingdom, can change the tone of the conversation in society. It can also change the focus of our culture's attention away from spectacle, greed, and the search for power. That is, after all, what yeast does – it changes things."
As we recognize that we are totally dependent on God for provision in our lives, the illumination of the fallacy of independence and the 'up by your bootstraps' mentality, Cornwall transitions into how the prayer identifies what it takes to actually live out this truth. God call us to forgive, to be merciful. Without mercy we will not uphold community and kingdom. This is a point on which Cornwall challenges our religious convention. He emphasizes that the text is clear that we must forgive in order to be forgiven ourselves. Grace is given to us freely by God but it is not free; His grace requires that we too must be graceful. It is through our grace, our forgiveness, that we restore broken lives, including our own, within our families, communities and nations. Without it we are lost even though we may be 'saved'.
Cornwall moves to an exposition of the final petitions of the prayer and brings home the understanding that to face the temptations of our culture and be delivered from evil we must see these petitions in relation to our daily life and not just as a request to save us from apocalyptic doom. While God may not tempt us or bring evil into our lives, the text speaks to the fact that evil does exist in our midst and that the only way to overcome it is to allow God to lead us through it. We must, he says, allow temptation to mature us and bring us closer to where God wants us to be, trusting completely in Him. As we mature we are better able to stand against our cultural evils and stand with God, loving Him and our neighbor as we build the kingdom here on earth through His grace.
Cornwall closes this brief study by elaborating on the one portion of the prayer that is not found in the biblical text of the teaching. Although this stanza may not exist in the New Testament teaching he makes a concerted effort to show the biblical roots of these words in the Old Testament. Cornwall focuses on the four key words 'kingdom', 'power', 'glory' and 'forever' to summarize the entire prayer and reinforce our dependence on God, the sense of His eternal life as well as the thanksgiving and praise that we have for Him. He argues that these characteristics of God free us to participate fully in His life as Our Father. It is a compelling discussion but it's also one in which he misses an opportunity to discuss another possible subversion, the subversion of religion and the stranglehold it sometimes has upon our beliefs and actions. Jesus often speaks about how we become blind to God's will because of our religion.
Cornwall overlooks this issue by asserting early on that the prayer is abrupt, suggesting even that the prayer as transcribed in the Gospel ends on a dark and improper note. While we would probably all agree that the prayer ends in an abrupt manner, it seems consistent with Jesus' chastisement of religious practices of prayer by the Jews and Gentiles of His day, the former being haughty and self-righteous with the latter unnecessarily flowery seeking to earn grace through rhetoric. This could have been a fantastic dialog about how religion influences practice and either brings one closer to or farther from God while also building true community or constructing weak facades of togetherness. However, the loss of this opportunity does not detract from the premise of the book or its effectiveness in beginning a meaningful dialog about our faith and what that means in the exercise of our lives.
Ultimate Allegiance is a fabulous little book that is equally effective for solitary reflection or for small group study. It is accessible at many levels and offers references and resources for more in depth investigation. There is a commitment to extolling God’s beauty, grace and glory without resorting to sensational language or invented melodrama. It does challenge the reader to evaluate their personal commitment of faith through understanding the allegiances that are exemplified in their action. It’s this aspect of Cornwall's text that makes it most valuable and hopefully will draw the reader into a more committed faith-filled life in Christ.
Thank you for gracious and generous review of the book -- and for pointing to a place in which I might have expanded or engaged. I'll have to think about how the prayer subverts religion itself!!
Thank you Pastor Bob for making the time to cultivate this book. I really was challenged and enjoyed it.
I think the question of subverting religion is as much or more about religion trying to subvert faith, placing our orthodoxy and orthopraxy ahead of God's will. much in the same way that Jesus railed against the Pharisees.
When does our practice of religion become more important than the realization of our faith?
Chuck, why would you refer to Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees as being one of their "orthodoxy and orthopraxy"? Jesus accused the Pharisees of the exact opposite. They lost the intent of the law and perverted it and thus their practices as well.
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