Up To Our Eyeballs In Liturgy

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the day which inaugurates the Lenten season. It commemorates the beginning of Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness while simultaneously ushering in that period of fasting and prayer which culminates in Holy Week (Lent’s forty weekdays correspond to Jesus’ forty days of testing). In many traditions yesterday believers received the imposition of ashes on their foreheads in the shape of a cross by a minister and were told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes serve as symbols of repentance, self-denial and mortality. What’s interesting is that it’s predominantly celebrated in traditions of a more “high church” variety, though- you won’t find many Baptist churches offering an Ash Wednesday service! I can’t help but think that this stems less from solid theological reasoning and more from a general distrust of and bewilderment towards liturgy.

Liturgy’s got sortuva bad rap. Ask the average evangelical [1] for their thoughts on liturgy and most likely one of two things will happen: he’ll say, “Gesundheit!” and ask you to finish your question, or he’ll furrow his brow and mutter, “That stuff’s for Catholics.” Brothers and sisters, it just isn’t so.

Liturgy is usually understood as a highly formal, ritualized performance in the context of a worship service, and while this may be true in some instances it isn’t the essence of what liturgy is. Liturgy is a pattern of symbolic action that reinforces a shared story. It’s a rhythm cycling at regular intervals throughout the life of a culture and its people, arcing along and mimicking the pulses and patterns of the story they inhabit. It both is and isn’t religious insofar as the broad sweep of human existence both is and is not religious. The word originally described services discharged to the state, then was stretched to include any service rendered to the community or to another human being. In time a more specialized religious definition settled into use which covered cultic and festive services which saw to the gods’ needs [2]. Nowadays we tend to associate it with all the pomp and ceremony we see in a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox mass; subsequently, the popular, ill-informed evangelical phobia of all things Roman deters a great many from seeing any good in it.

The colossal irony within this dismissal, however, is the uncritical posture so many evangelicals adopt with regard to media and culture. Evangelicals tend to consume just as much TV and waste just as much time on Facebook and YouTube as any other class of human being alive. For whatever reason, the liturgical actions these organs call for them to make are easier to stomach than, say, a corporate confession of sin. The unreflective nature which characterizes too much of the evangelical world manifests itself at precisely such a moment as this, a moment in which our unexamined commitments become agitated, get wrenched out of solution and foam over in a mess of ironies. Evangelicals may say they dislike liturgy but they don’t: they certainly have a pathological distrust of anything which looks “too Catholic”, but they love more secular brands of the same phenomena. Again, liturgy is symbolic action reinforcing a shared story. Ask yourself: have you ever…

  • sang the national anthem?
  • tuned in for the Olympics’ opening ceremony?
  • toasted the bride and groom?
  • waited in line for the release of a new gaming console?
  • sent a valentine?
  • bought someone a Christmas present?
  • voted?

Then you, my friend, have participated in liturgy. But more than that: you are almost certainly, without a doubt, shaped by the liturgies you see and hear on TV and the internet each and every day. You might object that no one calls these things “liturgy”, but catch yourself before you make the word-concept fallacy. If one thing closely corresponds to another in substance, then it’s appropriate to analyze the first thing in terms of the other. There’s no getting around it then: evangelicals have no problem with liturgy qua liturgy; it’s the overtly religious ones many of them disapprove of. (Do you start every morning with a cup of joe? Guilty as charged.) The supposed evangelical aversion to liturgy is false and the hypocrisy is outrageous.

It’s this more covert brand of liturgy that so many evangelicals have no problem with at all that distresses me so much. Again, liturgies reinforce shared stories; they fortify the narratives we inhabit and base our lives around. The repetition of the moves immerses further into that story, makes it ours. Left unexamined, these liturgies wield more influence on our worldview than what we explicitly confess as true. We’re all entrenched in a hundred liturgical systems we don’t want to own up to, and the socio-economic/political affiliations they give rise to tend to define us more than our lives of discipleship do. Liturgy trains allegiance. These insidious liturgies are greater threats, I would suggest, to Christian identity and confession than all the (insert anathematized cultural items here [3]) ever created piled up on top of each other.

Case in point: the advertising world’s liturgy fosters a sort of commercialized Stockholm syndrome, holding us captive and reprogramming our loves. It wants us to look at our possessions and our status to gauge our wholeness. Corporations want us to shape our identities around the products they mass produce for our consumption. The narratives we’re sold in commercial after commercial depict the glamorous, fulfilled lives we all could live if we simply buy x. We believe these stories and invest and consume and come up short, time and time again, willing victims to the marketers’ theologies of glory, always believing we’re just one more purchase away from freedom and authenticity and happiness and sex appeal, etc. etc. etc.

It isn’t only in the commercials we subject ourselves to on TV and billboards, though. After decrying the spirit-less routine of high church liturgy many evangelicals turn tail and un-ironically embrace Republican liturgy, La Leche League liturgy, homeschooling-only liturgy, Don’t-Buy-Foreign liturgy, Whole Food liturgy (it’s all organic), whatever; it doesn’t matter which one it is because they all overlap so well, just in slightly different registers of fallenness. They make the calls and we make the moves. We put up no resistance whatsoever to those symbolic routines which cater to our bourgeois sentimentality.

All of this sounds suspiciously like what Marxist critics call false consciousness [4]. False consciousness is the view of society and the world held by exploited classes of people, a view imposed upon them which they embrace as accurate and benevolent. It isn’t, of course, and this dissonance is what perpetuates their exploitation. Basically, false consciousness assumes that I have all my cognitive and emotional ducks in a row, that I am in control, that I own my possessions and not they me; it then goes on to assume that of course having a newer, sleeker car is better than my older, working one; of course this new pair of shoes can win me acceptance at school; of course a two-party liberal democracy is superior to a monarchy; of course sleeping with my fiancee is a wise way to determine if I truly want to spend the rest of my life with her; of course invading Iraq was a good idea; of course Disney has a hidden pro-gay agenda! These wrongheaded views alienate modern man even as he feels more at home than ever and contribute to the general sense of inauthenticity which pervades so much of our culture [5]. We’re hooking ourselves up to an IV of despair and pushing the button not only whenever life gives us an upset, but even when things seem to be going swimmingly! Herbert Marcuse describes it in his One-Dimensional Man:

To the degree to which they correspond to the given reality, thought and behavior express a false consciousness, responding to and contributing to the preservation of a false order of facts. And this false consciousness has become embodied in the prevailing technical apparatus which in turn reproduces it.

All of this is made simpler due to the fact that we tend to marginalize or outright reject those things which threaten our number one preoccupation: ourselves. Evangelicalism by and large enshrines individualism [6] to the exclusion of anything larger. Why else would churches in the modern era be defined as “voluntary associations of believers” rather than something corporate in nature centering around and headed by the risen Christ? The revival movements which gave shape to modern evangelicalism fostered a mass of isolated (albeit ostensibly converted) egos with no church identity. “My personal relationship with Jesus Christ” began to occlude communion with God through fellowship with the saints. This hyper-personal emphasis dovetailed nicely with modernism’s presupposition of the independent,  rational I, and well, the rest is history, right?

At bottom, liturgy is disliked because a bunch of individuals are told to do the same thing everyone else around them is doing. How can we distinguish ourselves in the midst of litugical action? We can’t, and that’s part of the point. It’s not that we have to forget who we each are (as if individual consciousness is an evil) so much as we are to unite in action and merge with the will of the Spirit who indwells and directs us and remember for once that, contrary to what we hear everywhere else, the identities we assert for ourselves aren’t of paramount importance. Liturgy can subvert the agendas we are exposed to on a daily basis and help to restore a proper sense of self and our place within creation and the church.

There are liturgical abuses, of course. Liturgy can be lifeless, can be used to stultifying effect, can systematically root out the joyful spontaneity of the Spirit. Liturgy isn’t the panacea to all of life’s woes- that’s the gospel. However, to disown the entire thing because of these abuses is hardly the answer. Abusus non tollit usum, the saying goes: abuse does not preclude proper use. The question we each have to answer isn’t, “Are you for or against liturgy?” but “Which liturgies are you going to be for or against?” The reality is that we are surrounded by and enmeshed within liturgy every single day of our life, so be examine it- scrutinize it! Interrogate it and ask what narrative it’s reinforcing, and resist those which militate against the Christian confession. Stop listening, and stop compulsively buying, and especially stop trash talking liturgy when you are just as plugged into liturgical routine as any Anglican church but are completely oblivious to it.

At the end of the day, perhaps Ash Wednesday doesn’t line up with all of your theological persuasions, but don’t disparage it because it “looks Catholic.” Be sensible and be charitable, and listen to the theological reasoning of its adherents and be willing to hear the Spirit speak through Christ’s church.

[1] I promise I’m not trying to pick on evangelicals here- I flippin’ am one! But grace allows us to call a thing what it is, right?

[2] David Peterson, Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press: 1992), pp. 66-67. He lists “choruses, hymns, dances, filling the streets with the savour of sacrifices, and wearing garlands” as concrete examples of citizens “serving the god[s]” (p. 67).

[3] Take your pick: blue jeans, rock ‘n roll, alcohol, comic books, fur coats, SUVs, disposable diapers, blah blah blah.

[4] I am not a Marxist, in case you’re wondering. But dang, if those guys and gals don’t nail it sometimes!

[5] And by “our culture” I mean worldwide civilization because, seriously, where haven’t we exported all of our crap? There’s almost nowhere left on the planet you can’t find a McDonald’s in walking distance.

[6] Not individuality, mind you; individualism emphasizes the supreme importance of crafting an identity over and against the collective mass of humanity you find yourself within. It perfectly plays into the consumerist cult which tirelessly works to provide you with goods to construct “your very own” identity with.


One thought on “Up To Our Eyeballs In Liturgy

  1. Pingback: Liturgical Abe and America’s Civil Religion | Glimpses Elsewhere

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