I had the opportunity to “experience” a version of one of these services in Geneva (Service 10, “Queer”). This was going to be my first “emerging” worship experience, so I came with much anticipation. And I was not disappointed (I still have the shard of broken tile I took from the service). However, I was struck by one thing: the service was remarkably Protestant. By that I don’t just mean to toss out an epithet or a label. I mean it as a shorthand. By describing the service as “Protestant,” I only mean to say that I was surprised at how “heady” the service was, and how text-driven and text-centered the worship was. (Granted, we were just a few yards from John Calvin’s church, so maybe the sermon-centric vibes of the Reformation had wafted over.) While the service included key affective elements (the man’s body being marked by epithets, the very tangible pieces of broken rocks and tiles we could touch), this was happening around a very textual, cognitive, rather sermonic center. Granted, this wasn’t your grandpa’s “three point” sermon or anything, but it still required the sorts of cognitive processing that characterizes text-centered Protestant worship.
Now, why does this matter? Why focus on this point? Well, I think one of the key paradigm shifts that took place in modernity (particularly after Descartes) was the adoption of a new model of the human person that considered the human to be primarily and essentially a “thinking thing”—primarily a cognitive mind that, regrettably and contingently, inhabits a meaty body. As a result, the primary and most important activity that thinking things can undertake is, you guessed it, thinking. This shift manifests itself in the life of the church with the Reformation, which displaced the centrality of the Eucharist (a very tactile, affective, sensual mode of worship) and put the sermon (the Word) at the center. The heart of worship becomes “teaching,” and the shape of worship becomes driven by very cognitive, basically rationalist tendencies. This develops to the point of caricature in the evangelical worship service centered around bullet points on the PowerPoint presentation.
Despite the “postmodern” critiques of religion offered by Derrida, Caputo, et. al., I find that they continue to exhibit this modernist paradigm insofar as they still think that religion comes down to a matter of knowledge (or rather, not knowing). And I wonder if we don’t see the lingering effects of this in the liturgies sketched in Part 2 of How (Not) to Speak of God. Granted, this isn’t a pure rationalism—there are aspects of affective embodiment, and they are ‘liturgies,’ after all; but I do wonder whether they’re still not primarily “driven” by quite heady, cognitive, didactic concerns. In this way, they tend to reflect the kinds of wrestlings and wranglings of a certain class who have had the opportunity to get to have such doubts.
Perhaps I can put a point on this: for me, one of the tests of whether worship is properly “holistic” (and thus animated by a holistic, non-rationalist model of the human person) is the extent to which my children can enter in to worship. (Because of a certain worshiping community I’ve been a part of, I’m also attentive to the degree to which mentally-challenged adults can participate in worship as a criterion.) In the “Queer” service, my kids—who are, I think, pretty sharp—would have had a hard time ‘keeping up,’ had a hard time understanding what was going on. They would have been intrigued by the curiosities of the “marked man,” etc., but there was ALOT of words to process and they would have been lost in a sea of ideas.
I would contrast this to the affective simplicity of a traditional Tenebrae service on Good Friday (a “service of shadows”). While the service is organized by Christ’s seven sayings from the cross, there is not much else text or commentary. Instead, there is the simple amalgam of words, candles being gradually snuffed, sounds and silence. My children, from when they were little, sit enraptured by this service. Its affective simplicity testifies, I think, to a pre-modern understanding of the person as an affective, embodied creature—rational, sure, but not primarily rational.
This is why I wonder whether, for the future of the church, we really need to invent something new, or rather creatively retrieve premodern sources. While some are trying to imagine a new future for the church “after” modernity, I’m betting that the future is Catholic.
I am not sure that I would go quite as far as Smith does here, but I think that he makes some important points. In particular, I think that he is right in observing a connection between a particular — and rather questionable — understanding of the human being and the manner of worship. Protestant worship (and Reformed and Puritan worship in particular) often operates on the assumption that man is primarily a thinker. The rationalism that underlies many Protestant conceptions of worship has been observed by James Jordan and others like him a number of times in the past. The irrationalism that characterizes much contemporary evangelical worship is also largely a reaction to the rationalism that is seen to be the alternative.
Operating with a rationalistic definition of the human being, the worship service must downplay the body and focus on addressing itself to the mind. Candles, incense, clerical vestments, kneeling, processions, silence (except as a time for thinking), fine church buildings, and even in some cases music itself, are seen as distractions from rational worship, which should be removed. Elements of worship such as the Eucharist become increasingly treated as affairs of the mind. The Eucharist is reduced to a sign to be verbally explained, mentally interpreted and reflected upon.
Significant changes in my anthropology and in my view of worship over the last few years are by no means unrelated. Study of the Scriptures, self-reflection and engagement with others have progressively disabused me of any belief that I once held that we are primarily rational creatures. God addresses us at levels far deeper than our rational consciousness. I also believe that the idea that Scripture chiefly addresses us at a rational level should be questioned. The idea that Scripture always speaks first to our minds just seems wrong to me. This does not mean that the Scripture bypasses our minds altogether. However, it means that when the Scripture commands, exhorts, rebukes, comforts or encourages us, our minds are not the primary part of our make-up that God wants to engage with what is being said. God’s Word often addresses itself to our chests, before it ever speaks to our minds (or even to our hearts).
The narratives of Scripture are not primarily there to be picked at by our intellects, but to reform our imaginations. Intellectual reflection on the typology of biblical narratives, such as that which often takes place on this blog, is always a secondary activity, an articulation of something that should be grasped by the trained instinct of the person whose imagination is steeped in Scripture. There is always the danger that people will presume that the mind can substitute for the imagination. Reading a lot of books on biblical typology and symbolism will not reform your imagination in the manner in which attentive and receptive reading of Scripture can (although books on biblical typology can help you learn to be more attentive and receptive).
This is one reason why I like when passages of Scripture are read in Church services without being expounded in any way. Preaching is undoubtedly important, but if God’s Word is only encountered in the form of the preacher’s text — or as something to be rationally expounded — we can miss the point. The reading of passages apart from a preached explanation can encourage us to engage with the Scripture with our imaginations, just as we engage with other narratives and stories.
In my own personal reading of Scripture I often read and reread the same passage half a dozen times or even more. I try to practice listening attentively to the text and try to resist the urge to immediately explain it. I have found such an engagement with Scripture to be of great help in enabling me to imaginatively engage with the text. I begin to pick up things that I would have missed had I adopted a more scientific approach to the study of the text. I might later try to articulate these things in a more ‘scientific’ form, but they were not arrived at by a regular scientific method. It is precisely through holding my rationality back from immediate engagement with the text that I begin to understand it at a deeper level.
In understanding the fact that man is not primarily a rational being, it is helpful to remember that most human communication is non-verbal. This is why liturgical training of the human body in posture, gesture and vesture is so important. As human beings we were designed to communicate with the entirety of our bodies and to receive communication with every part of our make-up. Much of the communication that we give is pre-conscious, as is the manner in which we receive much that is communicated to us. Often the most significant truths that we communicate or receive are the ones that we communicate or receive without even knowing that we are doing so, or without even thinking about it. Good liturgy can train us to communicate in Christian ways subconsciously, not just consciously. It can also communicate powerfully to the youngest person present in a way that a rationalistic service cannot.
There is a common polarization between the heart and the body in much popular Protestantism. It is presumed that if worship is primarily a matter of the heart then the body is relatively unimportant. The problem with this view is that it is quite unscriptural. The Scriptures frequently teach us what we need to do with our bodies. The separation between heart and body is one that exists because of sin and hypocrisy. The Scripture calls us to an integrated loyalty of heart and body. It calls us to a ‘hearty’ performance of bodily actions.
As I argue in the post that I linked to at the start of the previous paragraph, in the Scriptures heart and body are bound together to the extent that the heart cannot truly communicate itself apart from the body. To the extent that rationalistic Protestantism resists ‘body language’ in prayer (kneeling, arms up-raised, prostration, etc.), for example, we must ask to what extent it is failing to pray as truly as it ought.