Sacred Signposts (Benjamin Dueholm) - A Review

SACRED SIGNPOSTS: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance. By Benjamin J. Dueholm. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018. X + 180 pages.

Much has been written in recent years about spiritual practices. These are the practices like prayer, study, acts of contemplation, among other things we do that reflect and define our faith. In his letter James calls on us to be not mere hearers of the word, but doers. I believe that Lutheran pastor and author Benjamin J. Dueholm would agree with James, for he suggests that "if nothing else, a religion is what it does" (p. 1). While I do believe that what we believe influences what we do, what we believe has little value if it doesn't lead to doing something.

Benjamin Dueholm, the author of Sacred Signposts, is an Evangelical Lutheran pastor serving in Wauconda, Illinois. His book takes us on a journey through a series of sacred signs or faith practices, which he calls "holy possessions." The subtitle includes the words "and other acts of resistance." That reference is an important one at this moment in time, though in this context it refers to something beyond simply political resistance. Dueholm seems concerned that we be spiritually ready to resist the cultural dynamics that see to form us. There are political implications to these holy possessions, but not merely political. It might be surprising to some to hear this message from a Lutheran pastor, but I think Luther would approve. His point is simple. Our faith practices form us and the world in which we live. He writes: They offer a pointed critique of the unjust and unhappy reality in which they take place and they offer the outrageous possibility of an alternative. And they do this, as often as not, despite the best efforts of Christians to thwart them" (p. 2). 

Dueholm writes to a Christian community struggling to make sense of life in a post-Christendom age. No longer do we live in a world that incorporates religion into its ethos. It is in this context that these sacred signs enable people of faith to live faithfully and resist those elements of our reality that are unjust and lead to unhappiness.

The book is composed of seven chapters that lift up the Word (Scripture), which he calls the "archive of the inconsequential." It may be that, at least in the sight of this world, but it is also that which "prepares us for the work of all the holy possessions that follow" (p. 35). It sets the table for the journey. From Word we move to "The Water," that is, baptism. It is baptism that marks insiders from outsiders. It is the signpost of initiation. As a Lutheran, the author assumes the rite of infant baptism, a rite different from my own tradition, but not my own experience. What it does, however, is raise the question of boundaries, and that is an important question for churches that seek to be open to all. 

The next holy possession is the Meal, the Eucharist. As one who is part of a tradition that gathers weekly to the Table and sees the Table as central to our life together, I especially enjoyed this chapter. He recognizes the diversity of practice, but emphasizes the centrality of the meal and the importance of recognizing Christ's presence at the meal. He notes our struggle with our practice, especially our concern for health and hygiene, which he suggests is an expression of our fear of the other. He notes that "fear of biological contagion is hard to distinguish from social contagion. Yet, here stands the Meal as a sign of community.” It may say something about my own concerns and interests, but this chapter is well worth the price of the book.

The next possession is confession, and our struggle with the reality of sin, which leads to a conversation about forgiveness. We move from this focus to ministry. As a pastor, he understands the blessings and challenges of this calling. He notes that when it comes to ministry, much is a mystery. As for the examples of leadership that we find in scripture, they are not, he suggests, encouraging. Consider that in Scripture leaders get killed, rejected (or worse ignored), if heard, the results are unpredictable and often unwelcome. More often than not leaders in Scripture fail. Despite the challenges, he suggests that "somebody has to do it." Those who answer the call experience life on the margins, but "to leave the margin is to fail, and to stay there is to be absurd." Perhaps, but then Dueholm declares: But Christianity is absurd, so there we are" (p. 118). Yes, there we are.

The next stop is "Prayer, Praise, and Worship." This is, he suggests the "people's work," the liturgy. The danger is for us to try to make this practice, this holy possession, useful, and thus impoverish it. We can, he writes, "make worship yet another task or else make it into a spectacle for us to consume." The worship he invites us into as holy possession is something different. In his mind, prayer and worship critique that culture, and create an alternative to it." Unfortunately, worship is too often an act of consumption, but it needn't be. As a holy possession, worship and prayer are intended to form us as the people of God. May it be so.

It should not surprise us that a Lutheran would conclude with a meditation on the cross. The theology of the cross was central to Luther's vision, as well as Bonhoeffer's. I know we struggle as Christians with the cross. We sometimes glorify the gore, and at other times we either turn away or beautify it. But here is a vision of the suffering God that has great value in our day. This practice, the suffering of the cross, is a possession that "can only be imposed.” It is difficult to fully describe what Dueholm has in mind, thus, I will simply say, that this is a chapter that deserves meditative attention.

There are many books written on Christian practices. Some are how-to books. This is not one of them. This is an invitation to dive more fully into the Christian faith, and let it transform us. It is beautifully written. Katherine Willis Pershey in her endorsement on the book’s back cover speaks of the "breathtakingly beautiful prose," but notes that it is much more than that. She highlights his theological genius. I think Katherine is on to something. It is both beautifully written and—though not lengthy—it is theologically deep. I believe this is a book that will speak to many in our day, and thus is highly recommended.

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