Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why Liturgy?

I perceive the potential for a powerful analogy here. As I re-read my previous post, I spotted an apparent contradition, a paradox. While atonal, serialist music sought to retrain the hearer to listen to music without reference to canons of harmony and voice leading, the very same music was grounded in a very strict school whose founder, Arnold Schoenberg, laid down very specific rules. So it wasn't really a flight from rule-bound tradition to anarchic liberty, but from one set of rules to another.

You see the same kind of flight in Christian churches that reject the historic liturgy. In practice, it works out to a switch from one form of liturgy to another. Anyone who seriously tries to abandon all semblance of ritual is chasing a pipe dream. For it is impossible for any creative individual or group to keep up a constant flow of originality for very long. Eventually, to save themselves from burnout, they will resort to some sort of template, a common structure, even a form of words being repeated week after week, year after year. The same crowd that shrinks back in horror from any vestige of ritual, inevitably ends up explaining that some ritual - such as the church year cycle of Bible texts, for example - is not just "liturgically correct" but also "Christ-centered." (A column in the September 2009 issue of Worship Leader magazine does exactly that.) What they've realized is that they can't escape from the need for some type of external ceremony, the very sort of thing they used to condemn as legalistic - and now they need a new set of princples to make sure that whatever they are repeating is of God and not just of man.

There is no escape. You're holding out on going to church because you don't like "religion," in the sense of slavish adherence to tradition and ritual. But at some point, you're going to need the objectivity of ritual, the reliability of tradition, to reassure you that your sense of being personally saved isn't just a case of the vapors. And let's face it, its repetitiveness is precisely its strength. The liturgy, properly employed, is the most powerful aid to memory the church has at its disposal. Kids need the liturgy to teach them the faith, because chances are they aren't going to absorb much in the classroom setting. Old folks need the liturgy to refresh their memory at a stage in life where the mind tends to leak like a sieve; as one of my spiritual mentors liked to say, "The first thing in is the last thing out."

And the generations in between need the liturgy to keep them from going "every one to his own way," from being drawn away by vain conceits and alluring deceits. They need its horizon to give their faith a sort of spacial orientation. They need its rhythm to mark time while they wait for the next new thing to happen. They need its light to show them the way home when they stumble and stray. They need its Law and Gospel utterances, to call them to repent and assure them of forgiveness in season and out of season. They need its encouraging exhortations to comfort the brokenhearted, to sustain the afflicted, to strengthen the tempted, to give confidence to those who risk all for the kingdom, and to send the dying onward to possess their crown. They need its unvarying solidity to bring disparate cultures and generations together on common ground, and to keep the guy up front in the cheap suit from making it all about him and his pet ideas.

In short, even non-liturgical Christians need a liturgy, the same way that Schoenberg realized that even atonalism needed a book of music theory. They can't avoid having one. If they won't accept a liturgical heritage passed down from earlier generations, they will make one up for themselves. The question then becomes, what is their liturgy teaching them? Where does it come from? What does it point to? Where does it get its power from? Who is saying what, who is doing what, and to whom? What seed is it planting in the soil of their hearts? Could the word of God dwell in them any more richly than it does through the historic liturgy? Whatever the answer to these other questions may be, the answer to that last one, I think, is "No."

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