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Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History

Robbie F. Castleman
Published by IVP Academic in 2013

Reviewed by Andrew M. McCoy, Center for Ministry Studies, Hope College

What makes worship “biblical?” This question would seem important for all Christians, but especially for those from evangelical and pietistic traditions for whom the Scriptures generally serve as a primary source of truth. Like many who grew up in these congregations, my earliest memories of worship echo with loud refrains of “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the book for me” and “I love to tell the story… the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” The great biblical story of the God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ is the heart of Christian worship, and yet how worship happens, especially in churches which emphasize a heart-felt faith, has undergone significant revision in recent decades. Often change has been wrought in the name of bringing worship closer to an evangelical reading of the Bible: going into all the world to design worship which invites those outside of the church inside to join in the celebration of God shared by those who attend church week in and week out. Evangelicalism, by definition, habitually seeks to share its experience of faith in worship. Yet the best of evangelicalism also makes a habit of testing its own experience and practice against the revealed truth of God in Scripture. And as evangelicals think about worship, there still remain signs that this latter habit has not been completely lost.

One such example is Robbie F. Castleman’s Story Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History. Castleman describes her work as a “text to help evangelicals, especially those in historically independent communities of faith, rediscover in the great story of God’s salvation related in the Bible, God’s design for worship that is focused on God’s pleasure” (13). On her account, her intended audience currently struggles with weakened ecclesiology and a lack of sacramental theology and so can benefit from her proposed “canonical-theological” model for worship. The canonical aspect of this model derives from Castleman’s priority on the whole of Scripture when making liturgical judgments, particularly by reflecting on New Testament proclamation of Christ in the light of the drama of God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament. Theologically speaking, this model works to expand evangelical engagement with the liturgical patterns that result from how the Christian faith has engaged with Scripture over time, allowing God’s story to be told throughout the church’s history and practice. The dual emphasis which results locates Castleman amidst the company of N. T. Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, Todd Billings and others whose recent work develops the relationship between the canon of Scripture and theological tradition while also keeping an eye toward the contemporary evangelical context. Castleman’s own aim, though, is much more practical and pedagogical than scholarly in focus; she explicitly desires “to help students, teachers, worship leaders and congregations,” and so each chapter in the book ends with a suggested “workshop” of discussion questions and topics designed to aid learning and practice.

The chapters themselves are organized into two main sections, the first concerned with the “story-shaped liturgy” derived from biblical patterns, and the second with historical patterns which Castleman describes as “interpretations of worship.” Chapter 1 fittingly starts with Genesis and an examination of the story of Cain and Abel as the “first worship war.” Castleman proposes that the real problem between offerings made by the two brothers in Genesis 4 concerns Cain’s self-centered disposition in worship which leads to divine rejection and culminates in Cain’s murder of his brother. True worship—whether that of Ancient Israel or that which comes to be characteristic of Christian faith—focuses not on the one offering worship but instead on the Creator God, whose creation exhibits the divine intention for both “rhythmic orderliness” and “creative variety.”

The development of Israel’s identity through its worship provides the focus for chapter 2 where Castleman explains how the Pentateuch narrates and develops the role of the law. She discusses the Decalogue, the place and function of annual festivals and other practices, especially the Sabbath. This liturgical rhythm found in the Old Testament remains an important metaphor as Castleman stresses how the “pattern of worship-through-reenactment” carries over from Israel to Christian faith. These patterns also provide a helpful corrective to worship practices which become steeped in personal preference rather than biblical reflection.

Chapter 3 concerns sacred space and the importance of understanding worship to oc- cur in a particular location and time. Castleman notes how the practice of “setting apart” aspects of creation for worship is portrayed in Exodus, Deuteronomy and later informs Christian belief. In particular, she argues that Christ, as great High Priest and mediator, actually becomes the “space” in which all worship takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit. This can lead Christians to assume that worship can happen anywhere and at any time, but Castleman argues that honoring the holiness of God means continuing to set apart space and time for worship “both as an echo of God’s invitation to come near and as a sense of care in how worshipers do this” (65).

Chapter 4 provides Castleman’s most focused proposal for the liturgical pattern of worship which she finds at the center of biblical witness and Christian practice. She presents a sevenfold sequence (call to worship, praise, confession, forgiveness, hearing God’s Word, responding to God’s Word, blessing) which has formed and informed Christian liturgy throughout the ages. Exactly because this sequence is a pattern of worship that is found repeatedly throughout Scripture, Castleman argues that this not a matter to be determined by preference or contemporary style, but should become “the rhythm of a believer’s life” (92).

The remaining chapters in the first section continue to develop canonical patterns and themes for worship, working from the progression of the Old Testament to the New. Chapter 5 makes use of several negative biblical examples (aspects of the life of David portrayed in 1 and 2 Samuel as well as the improper offering of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) in order to underscore the “dangerous ambiguity” when people make worship a matter of preference or a means to a particular end rather than the end result of a life lived in the light of who God is and what God says. This theme of holiness continues in chapter 6 where Castleman examines a wide selection of biblical texts from Psalms, Isaiah, Amos, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and also parts of the gospel of John, in order to argue that worship necessarily integrates Christian faith with Christian mission in all aspects of life. Chapter 7, the final chapter on biblical patterns, considers the development of worship in the time of Christ and the New Testament. Castleman discusses the place and importance of Jewish synagogues and their relationship to the rise of the early church. She also studies various patterns of corporate worship presented in the Gospels, in the book of Acts, and in the New Testament epistles and concludes that “[t]he connection between ecclesiology and worship, the connection between who the church is and how the church glorifies the Lord and attends to God’s pleasure, cannot be separated” (138).

The book’s second section consists of three chapters which ambitiously attempt to treat patterns of worship found throughout Christian history. Chapter 8 reflects on the clarification of faith practice through the worship of early Christianity. After describing the ancient ecclesial text of the Didache as “a particularly transparent window” to early practices, Castleman discusses how the Didache works in concert with Scripture to develop the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Chapter 9 examines the context and content of Reformation influences on the sacraments and related patterns of worship. Particularly, Castleman looks at how the medieval rise of clerical influence and power led to the practice of concomitance (the offering of the Eucharist without the cup and the understanding of the bread as the only necessary element to receive both the body and blood of Christ). She contrasts this practice with the emphasis placed by the Magisterial Reformers on the priesthood of believers and full participation in both elements of the Lord’s Supper. While Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin have well-known differences when it comes to understanding exactly what happens in communion, Castleman discusses the contributions of each as a combined movement toward refocusing the “how” of sacramental practice on “who” God is in Christ. Chapter 10 moves the contemporary context to the fore where Castleman wrestles with individualistic understandings of worship which seem, on the one hand, disconnected from Scripture as the story of God’s salvation of Israel and the world, and, on the other, disconnected from the church and even the local congregation as the gathering of those identified in Christ. Castleman concludes by stressing that worship must be understood in the context of the gathered faithful who reenact and embody the scriptural story, or rather, who come to embody this scriptural story through reenacting it through faith in Christ.

Story-Shaped Worship, as a whole, presents a wide array of themes portrayed within the canon of Scripture and strives to draw these themes together within the contexts of both historical and contemporary concerns for Christian liturgical practice. Castleman pointedly argues not for a particular style of worship but for an approach which can encompass many worship styles when Christians take the Bible seriously in its entirety. This renders Castleman’s explanation and development of her canonical-theological method very important, but she is often stronger when applying discrete readings of biblical texts rather than framing those readings within a larger argument. In chapter 4, for example, she introduces the reader to the sevenfold sequence of Christian liturgy through a thoughtful reflection on Isaiah 6. Still, Castleman describes this sequence as the shape of biblical worship and discusses it at different times in later chapters. This leaves one to wonder why this sevenfold sequence did not play a more central role in how the overall book is organized and developed from the beginning. Likewise, Castleman’s desire to emphasize the liturgical implications which result from theological readings of Scripture sometimes get lost in historical discussions which are too brief and cursory to satisfy the scholar and too unfocused at points to connect readily with the concerns of the worship practioner (the book’s included glossary is a welcome addition for this latter group while the two excursus sections are likely unnecessary). At times, one gets the sense that Castleman is trying to write many books at once, a task which she pursues with evident passion but nonetheless also presents problems as she works to communicate her ideas.

These concerns aside, Castleman clearly joins her voice to those of others who are pointing toward the need for biblical and confessional renewal in worship settings where contemporary evangelical influence pervades. All those with a passion for biblical teaching and liturgical formation will find much on offer in her work.

Cite this article
Andrew M. McCoy, “Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:4 , 421-424

Andrew M. McCoy

Hope College
Andrew McCoy is Associate Professor of Ministry Studies at Hope College.