IVP - Strangely Dim - Alter Calls

August 20, 2010

Alter Calls

I'm pro-homophone. There. I said it. Homophones, for the uninitiated, are words that sound alike (and often spelled alike) but carry different meanings. The most obvious are words like their and there, yielding cute sentences like "I can count to two too!" The less obvious are, quite honestly, the most entertaining, the most intriguing. Like the song "Had a Bad Day" by Daniel Powter. (Sound it out . . .) Or the one I have in mind a lot these days: the altar call.

An altar call is, historically, an invitation from a preacher to get up from one's pew and move toward the front of the sanctuary (where the altar sits) as an indication of a changed life. Preachers issue altar calls to encourage people to come to faith, to separate themselves from their lives of sin, to give big chunks of money to a church building project, whatever. The altar is situated such that anything happening there is public and seemingly sacred: "I have decided to follow Jesus," we sing from the pews, but only from the altar does the next line--"no turning back"--carry any real weight.

Here's the problem: no one knows how to spell anymore, and no one cares when they spell something wrong. For all the texting and blogging and tweeting and status updating we do these days, we've become an aural culture, and our writing reflects it. We spell like we're spraying graffiti on Plymouth Rock, like we're LOLing at something Cotton Mather just orated. We spell like we're functionally illiterate.

And that's when the magic happens. Imagine, for example, if instead of "altar calls"--which so often devolve into superficial acts of public piety, where people go forward simply because it's been a while since they last did--we engaged in "alter calls." Same purpose: to leave something behind, to embrace something new, to emerge different from how we were when we entered. But now the emphasis is not on place--on the altar--but on the act: on the altering.

There's a place for calling people out, I suppose, asking them to put their face where their impulses are. When Martin Luther supposedly said, "Here I stand; I can do no other," where he was standing was significant: he was on trial, asked whether he believed enough in what he had written to be persecuted for it. He did, and his life going forward reflected his conviction. He had decided to follow Jesus; no turning back.

But that's Martin Luther, and in this case his call was to defy the existing ecclesial authorities. Imagine, by contrast, the apostle Paul standing in front of some Roman ekklesia, his image sketched out in grape juice on large papyrus screens to his left and his right. Picture him shouting, "Who wants to be transformed by the renewing of their mind today?!?" Maybe some first-century equivalent to organ music is wafting softly from behind the rail, some sandaled ushers discreetly waiting in the wings to catch the Spirit-slain. Maybe some parents are nudging their children, some spouses trading evil eyes. Maybe some stomachs are rumbling, as distracted disciples silently hope that whoever goes forward does so quickly so the ekklesia can move on to coffee and donuts.

Then again, this is the apostle Paul we're talking about. Who wouldn't want this hot shot itinerant to lay hands on him? Who wouldn't want to be seen by her friends and neighbors as transformed, her mind renewed? The spectacle far too easily trumps the discipline, I fear.

No, Paul's invitation is more dynamic than mere spectacle. Paul's invitation is not to be showcased, celebrated and prayed for but to be changed--sacrificed, even--and then left to test and approve the will of God. The altar call is a coda; all that's left is to serve the snacks. The alter call is a prelude, with a whole new life ahead of you.

That's why I like homophones: at their most innocuous, they annoy or entertain, but more often than not they subvert our assumptions and stretch us beyond our status quos. For those who have ears to hear, so to speak, they alter us.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at August 20, 2010 9:41 AM Bookmark and Share


I should mention that the forthcoming Likewise book Mobilizing Hope, by Adam Taylor, has as its starting point a sermon by no less than Martin Luther King on no less than Romans 12:2, this post's central text. MLK interpreted it thusly: "This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. . . . The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority." Sounds like a serious alter call to me.

Comment by: Dave at August 20, 2010 9:51 AM

Great post, Dave. I've always liked the notion of "Idle Worship" myself. :)

Comment by: Steve at September 1, 2010 9:41 AM

Comments are closed for this entry.

Get Email Updates

You'll get an email whenever a new entry is posted to Strangely Dim

Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

Subscribe to Feeds