Monday, December 17, 2007

Liturgical Culture (Part Two)

Mark Twain does a great job in Tom Sawyer describing the effects of church on children—the suffocating experience of being made to be quiet on hard benches while an adult's vocabulary is recited over your head followed by a sermon meant to either pacify or incite you.

My Catholic church tried to be more relevant in the 70s, with their contemporary song list, communion served at home services, interpretative dances and processionals on high holy days, and a kiss of peace that lasted about 20 minutes where congregation members and the priest walked through the church greeting each other and catching up for a moment or two before returning to the liturgy. And while I enjoyed these changes post Vatican 2, any time I bring them up my current Catholic friends shake their heads lamenting the sad state of affairs that the church devolved into in the 1960s. Never mind the fact that the Catholics from the 1950s and previous largely lobbied for these changes having grown sick to death of the dead orthodoxy they had inherited.

My own parents attended Catholic schools in the Midwest from Kindergarten to college in the 40s and 50s (Dad is a Notre Dame alum). You should hear what they have to say about "Catholic indoctrination" both in and out of the church before Vatican 2. Let's just say they are mystified that anyone would convert to Catholicism today...

At the same time in the early 1970s, I attended a youth group at Malibu Presbyterian, led by Jesus People college kids (remember the "I Found It" campaign?). I learned that being a Christian had to do with my daily life (how I lived, the ideals I aspired to, the way I cared for others). Reading the Bible and praying were in regular southern California English.

Once I got the gist of faith and practice, of the Bible and its message, liturgy in the Catholic church made more sense. I even enjoyed it (the symbolism, the beauty of the prayers, the Eucharist) and felt like I'd been given a key to faith through the Presbyterians that made my Catholicism meaningful.

Liturgy is most appreciated, I think, when the people following it have made Christianity a deliberate choice, joining doctrinal understanding to faithful recitation. How it is packaged, however, is a relic of another time and cosmology, and requires an act of translation for today's believers. This is what devotees to liturgy often forget or overlook. Their personal passion for being tied to the tradition of church services (the way these liturgical patterns have been handed down generation to generation) obscures their ability to see that they are, in fact, choosing to enter another world when they enter church. They willingly adopt religious practices developed for another time and place and then work to recapture the meaning in them (meanings that were more openly apparent to pre-printing press, non-scientific Europeans of the Middle Ages).

Today, you must be willing and able to do that translation work as you participate. (For some, this is the exhilaration - discovering the riches of symbol and Scripture embedded in the historical prayers and responses that unite them with Christians of all ages.)

But honestly, when I'm in that environment I feel like I've time traveled to medieval Europe. I can't help but ask myself what it has to do with me or the Jesus I find in the Bible. Culturally and cosmologically, I'm out of sync.

Originally, Christianity drew me not because I craved a spiritual dimension to life, but because I was looking for truth I could count on. I wanted meaning, purpose and a reliable moral compass. Jesus was proclaimed as the way, the truth and the life (not church, not a denomination, not a particular religious practice). I looked for a church whose teaching deepened my understanding of how Christianity explained life to me, not a space in which to transcend this world or to contemplate the divine. I put up with the forms of church because I knew I was required to, but I was just as happy to leave them behind when we moved to church-less Morocco. There, we worshiped in small groups and interacted much as Deb suggested in her comments. It was a group experience, created together newly each week.

As I've grown away from that original conception of absolute truth, church has lost any relevance to me. U2 concerts have taken me to that place of transcendence more powerfully than any service I've attended in 20 years. I connect to words and music that speak to me about my ambiguous place in the universe. I don't recite ancient beliefs as though they are factual to affirm a set of cognitive ideas or to plead with a personal God.

Chuck mentioned in his comment that the ancient/future idea put forth by the emergent movement promised some kind of blend between the old and new, but mostly he's just seen the old resurrected. Yes, that's it exactly. To quote Bono, the liturgical church seems "stuck in a moment" (a Medieval moment) it can't get out of and the emergent movement is enamored of it.

I do understand why. Tradition, history, pageantry and the beauty of scripted prayers relieve the participant of having to create shoddy facsimiles of rites that appear to have withstood the test of time. It's nice to rest in these. I get it. But it's equally true that they resemble religion more than Gospel... and I think that must be admitted. Rituals such as "First Communion" or "Confirmation" or even weekly meetings aren't requirements of faith. They are enhancements for those who find that their faith is deepened through them. I'm not one of them.

The attempts of the non-denoms and evangelical churches to be relevant through pop music, Power Point and cafe latte, however, fall equally short for many of us who want more than a sloganized Christianity devoid of a nuanced theology. It's no wonder that there's an attractiveness issuing from liturgical communities. Praying the offices, kneelers, confession, stained glass... these have an exotic appeal after warehouses, gymnasiums and listening to college-style lectures before filtering out to coffee and donuts.

Perhaps some of what it comes down to is how you understand your Christian faith. What is it? How is it nurtured and expressed? More about that in the next installment.


Bob said...

Seems to mirror my journey well. It seems in order to understand RC you need to go through Evagelicalism.

Sandie said...

I am thinking out loud here. I am enjoying reading about liturgy from your perspective because it makes me think about how I would describe it. I had a light bulb kind of moment. The church I grew up in was really more like a family home type church even though it met in a church building. The building had been built by the people who were worshiping in it (nail by nail), the people USED liturgy once a week as a touchstone, but 'real' worship was the group community service projects, potluck dinners followed by theological debates about current issues in the newspaper and then singing joyous songs together after the adults were done "loudly discussing" at each other, taking food, cards, and books to shut ins, sitting and crying together, lock-ins and all night giggle sessions over the 'unmentionable' Bible stories, anyway I could go on, but the liturgy itself would have had no meaning without or separate from the community.

The liturgical chuch I go to now is the closest I could find to what I had. It is pretty far away and while Kayleigh and Athena remember the old church this is the only one Nathan remembers. I can see a HUGE difference in his understanding of the role of church and liturgy in his life than the girls. While I am happy enough here, missing a Sunday or two is no great loss to me anymore. Wednesday nights however are very important. 12-20 people all ages, old liturgy, giving each other Communion, and then eating dinner and studying together afterwards mean a lot to me and when I miss them I feel like there is a hole in my week.

I do feel all the thinks you describe about a liturgical church when I go to chuches that are not my community. I can enjoy them, but it is from that spectator's view point, not the engaged worshiper.

julieunplugged said...

Sandie I loved reading about your first church. I can really see why it was such a loss to you!

My Catholic church growing up, while not as community centered as the one you are describing, was a place that I really loved. It had this aliveness. What made it less attractive was the fact that many of the kids my age did not feel attached to faith at all. And I don't think the church excelled at all in helping me understand the relationship between Christianity and daily life.

I feel as you do when I attend other churches - like an observer, spectator. I have wondered if that would change if I made the commitment to attend anyway. But at this point, I haven't been able to get over that hurdle.

Maria said...


I had a similar experience of appreciating RC liturgy only after my faith had come alive through evangelical contacts. At the time, the ev. churches I visited just didn't seem like worship.

Fast forward 27 years, and I'm coming to the point where I might appreciate liturgy again. I'm tired of the typical Vineyard style worship set, and crave at least a few moments of silence on a Sunday morning. I find myself drawn toward things like Taize services.

And I think I would love to be part of a church like the one Sandie described -- whatever their Sunday morning thing looked like.

my15minutes said...

I don't understand this:
"Tradition, history, pageantry and the beauty of scripted prayers relieve the participant of having to create shoddy facsimiles of rites that appear to have withstood the test of time. It's nice to rest in these. I get it. But it's equally true that they resemble religion more than Gospel... and I think that must be admitted. "
Is anyone NOT admitting that? In my Catholic church, and in the kids' Catholic school, we speak of our "holy religion" and the kids take "religion" classes. No one claims that Catholicism (or Baptist or whatever) isn't religious in nature. It incorporates the gospel, it expresses spirituality.... but it is religion.
I think maybe I'm missing something in understanding what you mean there.

Referring back to your other post, one thing that amazed me when I visited a synagogue service is how similar it was to the Catholic liturgy. The Catholics always said that the early Christian's liturgy developed out of synagogue worship, but it took actually going to a modern synagogue setting to understand how much of its vestiges still cling to Catholic liturgy. So I'd say that Catholic liturgy pre-dates medieval, even! :-)

julieunplugged said...

Religion: In my reading of the Gospels, religion is not what Jesus taught/was about. That religion sprung up from around his legacy is surprising (yet perhaps not given the tendency to ritualize that is human).

That's all I meant.

And I find your comment about synagogue interesting for sure! it would be interesting to see if synagogue has held the same practices throughout the last 2000 years.

Mariam said...

Liturgy is most appreciated, I think, when the people following it have made Christianity a deliberate choice, joining doctrinal understanding to faithful recitation. How it is packaged, however, is a relic of another time and cosmology, and requires an act of translation for today's believers. This is what devotees to liturgy often forget or overlook.

I agree with you here. I think the reason the liturgy is meaningful to me is because I chose Christianity and the liturgy and rituals are some of the tools I use to grow in that choice. So often the collects and common prayers echo what I want to express but don't have the language or the will for. I also agree that some translation is required. The first few times trying to follow the services - standing, sitting, kneeling, the responses everyone else knew by heart - had me wondering what was going on, but it was worth the learning curve. However, for less determined seekers, or those who want to mix entertainment with their dose of weekly religion - I agree, we have a problem.

I also agree that it is religion, and not the heart of Christianity - which should be simply following Christ. However, if we accept the NT accounts, Jesus was no stranger to religion himself and referred to the synagogue as "My Father's house" so he did have a sense of profound respect for sacred space and as an observant and learned rabbi would have participated in religious ritual. He obviously wasn't a big fan of meaningless ritual or ritual used as a barrier rather than an open doorway.

I have been to synagogue as well, and I would agree that the worship style is similar to the liturgical model, especially in the Catholic Church, although I couldn't be sure what the were saying because it was mostly in Hebrew. My friend said there are set communal prayers that are said however and I noticed everybody had a prayer book.

My daughter has an conservative Jewish friend and she occasionally shares Friday night Sabbath meals with them. She told me that his family dresses up, the men wear kippas, while the mother covers her head with a shawl, the table is laid with a white tablecloth, special dishes and kosher bread, fresh flowers are brought in, candles are lit, blessings and prayers are recited, scripture is read. Even in their own home, there is an attempt to create a space apart, a special place for God, to elevate through ritual the physical realm to the spiritual. So for me this is what the ritual and liturgy is about - elevation from the physical and everyday to the spiritual. The ritual is not an end in itself and should never be - it is a means to removing oneself from physical and everyday concerns in order to concentrate on the spiritual. That, in turn, strengthens us and affirms in us the power of God working through us.

There is this aspect too:

Sometimes I don't believe God exists. Sometimes the whole Christian thing makes no sense to me whatsoever. I want to believe but I get this panicked feeling that it is all completely ridiculous, including and especially my pretense at belief. If I tried to pray on my own my tongue would be like a dead fish in my mouth. The recitation of common prayers and the encouragement I feel from sharing rituals gets me through times where my doubt is a lot stronger than my faith. They say when you lose your faith, you should keep praying. I don't think I could do that without my prayer book.

my15minutes said...

Mariam, you elaborated much of what I was thinking. Julie, I guess I was saying that to me, at least in the Catholic realm, it is readily admitted that religion is the human trappings of spirituality. It isn't surprising to me that a religion ('the Church') sprung up from his legacy... from my point of view -- and I"m sure our readings have taken us in different directions -- Jesus very much intended to start a religion in that he founded a church.