Saturday, July 28, 2007

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Liturgy

The American religious heritage, by and large, is anti-liturgical. Not just non-liturgical, but against it. As far as I can tell, this has deep roots not only in the (especially) Scots-Irish Presbyterian past of the nation, but also in the early political turmoil of secession from Britain. I think that this is why both Anglicans and Roman Catholics had a harder time finding acceptance in the "New World" than Presbyterians. The liturgy of both those "high" churches was indelibly linked to their politics. Anglicans = head of church is king of England, whom (as you might recall from history class) was not a favorite to early Americans. Catholics = head of church is Pope, another obvious connection due to the decidedly Protestant flavor of America (to this day even). Many Protestants reacted so strongly against these liturgical traditions as to deny any liturgy at all. However, just like the Campbellite movement, which claimed "No Creed but Christ" follows their own formalized statements of faith, non-liturgical Christians follow their own liturgies. A liturgy is technically nothing more than an order of service in a formalized worship setting. So whether it is the "Our Father" or "3 hymns and a sermon", it is still a liturgy. If we are going to meet together to worship, we are going to have a liturgy, implicitly or explicitly. Liturgy is an inescapable concept. In other words, it isn't a question of "liturgy or no liturgy", but what, or rather whose, liturgy it is. Here is where the political background of the Presbyterian reaction to liturgical traditions shines the strongest. It has to do with what exactly, apart from the technical understanding, liturgy is.

I've become more and more convinced over the past couple of years that humans attain knowledge through stories. I cannot here defend the idea, but there is plenty of good reading out about it nowadays. Our actions tell stories, have backgrounds that explain them, and subvert or clarify larger stories that others tell. This is what story-telling looks like at an individual level. However, once individuals come together as groups, they start to tell similar stories (or vice versa--I'm not intending to start a "chicken-egg paradox" here). These founding myths, or worldviews, color how people relate to each other. There are always those elders, who are well versed in the traditional stories, who have power in the community precisely because they tell the "authorized" versions of the stories. Hence the clash of Jesus with the scribes, Pharisees, and priests--an unaccredited upstart retelling Israel's story not centered around Torah, but around himself! The book of John basically seems to revolve around this story-telling clash, hence the judicial feel of the book. But to return to the point, the story-tellers of any group rule that group. Liturgy, conceived as the weekly (or preferably daily in the family setting) retelling of God's story, is intimately connected to power. What version of God's story are they telling? Is it the "authorized" version, the "orthodox" version? In other words, who is telling the story and why do they have the right to tell it (II Corinthians is taken up with whether Paul was an authorized story-teller)?

To return briefly to the political climate, if the American people, recently freed from British rule, submit to British liturgy, what does that say about this people? The British would still rule. If Protestant people, separated by the Reformation gulf, returned to Catholic liturgy, what does that say about this people? The Reformation would be over. Interestingly enough, because of the secularization of the American Protestant tradition, nationalist politics has controlled the liturgy ever since--the main mantra, of course, being "religion is a private affair, with no place in the public square" (it even rhymes).

However, this story, the story of God's dealings with the world, is too important to just be left in the hands of others, no matter how well intentioned they might be. Ephesians 4 has an interesting passage in which it says that some are called to be pastors, teachers, evangelists (traveling story-tellers), etc. so that the people of the church might do the ministry. "Ministry" has never been intended to be relegated to a professional class. It is the bread-and-butter of the everyday Christian, not just those who hold a "degree". What if the American political story was changed? What if someone were to say that the American Revolution was anti-Christian (and, therefore, morally wrong)? Wouldn't that person run the risk of being labelled as "un-American" (leniently) or even suffering physical harm (severely)? Why? Because they are messing with the founding story, what gives this country its legitimization, not just for existence, but to continue its course in the present and future.

How about if someone told the story of God that synthesized pagan philosophical beliefs with the very Jewish roots of Christianity? What if they changed the story from God saving his creation from ruin-by-sin to say that God's intention was to take his people out of created reality (presumably to become ontologically one with the uncreated) and destroy this creation? Needless to say, those who control the story control the Church.

Stories give meaning, purpose meaning, to our lives. Our communities live on stories, but what stories are they and who is telling them? More importantly, possibly, what legitimizes someone as being an "authorized" story-teller, whether you want to call them apostle, elder, pastor, evangelist, or heretic?

This is what gives liturgy its power. The story of God is retold weekly in worship services all across the world. It is a story that deals with very historical events, from the creation of the world through the call of Abraham and on to the death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus. Even so, it has great applicability today and all Christians should be concerned with the story they are hearing. Is it the true story or an imitation? And how would we know the difference?

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