The Fullness of Time in a Flat World: Globalizations and the Liturgical Year

Arthur Boers

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 1 (Winter 2010)

In my largely homogenous high school, three minorities – Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians – periodically reminded us that they lived by the beat of a different clock. The seemingly small fact of another calendar made them distinct. How one lives in and with time is a key part of religion. A crucial aspect that set the Essenes apart from other Jewish groups, for example, was their observance of a solar rather than a lunar calendar. In early Celtic Christian history, a major controversy revolved around the dating of Easter. In faith, time matters.

Not that you’d know it by looking at the average church-going Christian. We are as busy and distracted as most in our culture. We too are caught up in what has been called “time poverty” and “hurry sickness.” In the last church I pastored, congregants determined that busyness was one of their primary spiritual challenges and pleaded with the Elders for help. The Elders agreed, but then took two years to respond because they themselves had too much to do.

The reality is that people are busier today than forty or even twenty years ago. This is neither idle imagination nor neurotic nostalgia. But Christian resources for interpreting and responding to these new realities are scanty and scarce. Does Christian faith have anything to offer as a way forward? Political scientist Scott Waalkes believes so.

Waalkes is a Dutch Calvinist informed and influenced by the likes of John Howard Yoder, Wendell Berry, G. K. Chesterton, and William Cavanaugh. He brilliantly juxtaposes an exposé of globalization’s costly effects with the rich reorientation of living by the Christian liturgical year. He certainly agrees with Thomas Friedman (of The World is Flat) that globalization profoundly alters our way of life. But, unlike Friedman, he is not so enamoured with the results. Waalkes notes that globalization poses huge ethical challenges and argues that the best way to respond is by observing the church calendar and living out its implications for faithfulness.

Christians bear witness to God’s Reign by annually re-living and reflecting on salvation history. While Waalkes does not put his contention in these terms, this is a crucial place for us to live out what it might mean to be “in but not of the world.” The “dominant narrative of globalization” (and this is his terminology) need not have the last word.

Waalkes came to these insights and convictions unexpectedly. At first he, like many evangelicals, was fond of the flat world, preoccupied with the blessings and opportunities it ostensibly offered. He gradually came to see, especially because of international travels, that globalization also has profoundly adverse consequences – economically, ecologically, politically, and culturally. Our flattened world contributes to disempowerment, disenchantment, time scarcity, and diminished morality. Moreover, the “flatness” is deceptive; rhythms of consumption replaced liturgical rhythms.

The other reason his convictions emerged slowly is that it is only in the last decade that he came to understand the rich spiritual potential of the Christian year. Nevertheless, his Calvinist upbringing did teach him at a young age that prioritizing Sabbath-keeping helps us to live differently than many neighbors, especially in trusting that there is always time enough for the most important things, including labor and leisure.

This is a surprisingly long book, weighing in at 362 pages. Waalkes carefully walks through crucial realities of globalization and contrasting them with what the liturgical year proposes and enacts: for example, Advent and the end of history, Christmas and globalization of finance, Epiphany and globalization of work, Lent and global consumption, Holy Week and American hegemony, etc. He challenges false gods of productivity, speed, efficiency, success.

Waalkes invites us to take seriously the importance of how we live out our days. Our choices around vocation, peacemaking, consumption, food, and so on all have opportunities for living sacramentally. Along the way, he celebrates testimonies and stories of many familiar heroes – including Christian Peacemaker Teams and Elias Chacour.

I have considerable interest in both of this author’s foci – the shape of how we live today as it is affected by economic and political forces, and how we honor Christian traditions of time. Yet to date I have not seen anything that compares with this book in putting those two spheres in conversation. This volume may well convince you that things are worse than they seem at first blush, but at the same time it offers us imaginative and hopeful ways forward.

Arthur Boers, Associate Professor, R. J. Bernardo Chair of Leadership, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, ON