Northwestern professor awarded Vital Worship Grant

A Northwestern College professor is one of 17 teacher-scholars awarded a Vital Worship Grant for 2021–22 by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Dr. John Vonder Bruegge, associate professor of biblical and theological studies, will use the $12,000 grant to continue work on a book of original translations of Jesus’ parables—with accompanying introductions and notes—that will serve as a resource for storytellers in a variety of worship settings.

Collaborating with Vonder Bruegge is Jeff Barker, a retired Northwestern College theatre professor. Ben De Boer, a senior religion major from Orange City, will serve as their research assistant during the summer of 2021.

Vonder Bruegge and Barker’s project aligns perfectly with the purpose of the Vital Worship Grants, which are intended to deepen people’s understanding of worship and to strengthen practices of Christian public worship and faith formation. The two believe that the oral tradition was foundational to the Gospels—especially Jesus’ teachings; that modern worship should include Jesus’ own words; and that modern English translations aim for readability rather than listenability.

“When it comes to Jesus’ parables, in particular,” Vonder Bruegge explains, “the church is missing out on a significant part of the rhetorical force of the parables if our only interaction with them comes from reading the words on a page or a screen, as opposed to seeing and hearing someone deliver those stories in oral form. We do not merely read the music of our favorite hymns; we sing them. In the same way, we should not merely read Jesus’ stories; we should also tell them.”

Vonder Bruegge and Barker’s goal is to produce a book featuring new, collaborative translations of Jesus’ parables. “These are not paraphrases or retellings,” Vonder Bruegge says. “What makes our translations unique is that they strive for a listenability rooted in their oral presentation while at the same time remaining true to the Greek text.”

The parables will be accompanied by introductory remarks and commentary intended for a lay audience. While the book might be useful for personal and group devotional study, it is intended to serve as a useful resource for those who would participate in its ultimate form of dissemination: delivering the texts orally in the context of public worship.

Vonder Bruegge joined Northwestern’s faculty in 2004 and also serves as the college’s dean of arts and humanities and co-director of the Honors Program. He holds a doctorate from Yale University, a Master of Theology degree from Harvard University, and a Master of Divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary. Barker retired in 2020 after 32 years of teaching theatre at Northwestern. He is a playwright with a Master of Fine Arts degree, as well as the author of two books about integrating storytelling with worship.