Monday, April 30, 2007

In memory of Robert E. Webber, 1933-2007

Last Friday afternoon Bob Webber died of pancreatic cancer. Both my wife and I studied under Bob. I took several classes from him while at Wheaton Grad School in the mid-90s, and then Ellen did a MA in Worship & Spirituality with him at Northern Seminary in the early 2000s. Bob was a visionary and a maverick, and students loved him or didn't. It was said that Bob just had one class that he reconfigured multiple ways, whether as Historical Theology or Christian Traditions or Theology of Worship or whatever. No matter the class, he always led us through the various stages of church history - patristic, medieval, reformation, modern, postmodern. He always wanted us to see the full sweep of our Christian heritage and bring us back to the experience and practice of the early church.

He was a champion of all things worship, editing the massive The Complete Library of Christian Worship and penning dozens of books on the topic. He launched the ancient-future movement of contemporary evangelicals rediscovering the riches of history and liturgy. Years ago he wrote Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, which chronicled how American evangelicals were discovering Anglicanism. In my own Anglican congregation, many folks have shared how they became Anglicans through Webber's influence.

Here's my favorite Bob Webber story. Every year in various classes, when talking about the history of evangelicalism, he would describe the evangelistic preaching methods of folks like Billy Sunday. He would launch into full evangelistic preacher mode, with dramatic heights of oration and convicting language. And to cap it all off, he would leap onto the desk at the front of the classroom and stand on top of it, bellowing at the top of his lungs, exhorting sinners to come to Jesus.

Well, in 1995 or so, in one of the classes I was sitting in, Bob worked himself up into a frenzy and launched himself above the table. But his shoes were slippery or something, and he lost his footing. He crashed to the floor, flat on his back. The class was aghast, shocked into silence, all of us wondering, "Was that supposed to happen? Was that part of the act?"

After a beat or two, Bob jumped back up and said, "I'm okay! I'm okay!" Then he more carefully climbed up onto the table and finished his spiel, to much applause and relief.

Bob was always a recovering fundamentalist. He would tell stories of his days at Bob Jones University, where he was called "Hollywood Bob" by the irked administration. Bob was allergic to all things modernist, and said that Enlightenment rationalism had so compromised the Christian faith that the postmodern turn and skepticism toward modernity was the best thing to come along in centuries. I remember challenging him in class on this point; my sense was that the genius of Christianity was that it was true and relevant no matter the era, that Christianity is rational and thus can be contextualized to a modernist era, just as it is also experiential and thus can be contextualized and relevant to a postmodern era. Bob didn't quite buy that, but I think his fundamentalist upbringing just made him incapable of accepting that any good could come of modernist forms of Christianity.

Bob, we'll miss you. You were always uneasy with the evangelical subculture, but evangelicalism is better for having had you with us.

Emerging Anglican posted these prayers in honor of Bob:

REMEMBER thy servant Bob Webber, O Lord, according to the favour which thou bearest unto thy people, and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, he may go from strength to strength, in the life of perfect service, in thy heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

O ALMIGHTY God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, who by a voice from heaven didst proclaim, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; Multiply, we beseech thee, to those who rest in Jesus, the manifold blessings of thy love, that the good work which thou didst begin in them may be perfected unto the day of Jesus Christ. And of thy mercy, O heavenly Father, vouchsafe that we, who now serve thee here on earth, may at last, together with them, be found meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; for the sake of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Al - grace and peace to you! I, too, was shaped by Hollywood Bob. :) I loved his raucous laugh, I loved his absolute lack of fear of spirited debate. I am an Anglican too - after a LONG journey into mega-church evangelicalism - largely because he made it 'ok' with me to land back in this camp.. not sure how else to say it. I think the thing is, he was able to put into words what i knew I believed but couldn't say.

So glad to have found your blog. I'll be a frequenter!

Steph Seefeldt