Embodying the word of God is our liturgy (a response to a Gospel Coalition piece today)

Over at the Gospel Coalition Australia there’s a self-admittedly click-baity piece by Peter Orr titled Against Liturgy: The Word of God is Enough. It’s a relatively standard modernist-evangelical response to the push to recapture ‘liturgy’ led by James K.A Smith, but which you’ll also find in the water of the writing of lots of theologically Reformed types grappling with how to follow Jesus against a post-modern, post-Christian, back drop (so also, for example, in books by Mike Cosper (Recapturing Wonder), Alan Noble (Disruptive Witness), Tish Harrison Warren (The Liturgy of the Ordinary).

Now, while I’m a big fan of Smith’s framework, I have problems with how he applies or prescribes it (and similar problems with other pushes for liturgy that land on the practices of the institutional or medieval church — the church of the cathedral rather than the household). I suspect the helpful emphasis Smith, and others, bring to the forms our practices take not just to the message are a sort of double edged sword that also cut into forms developed at a time that Christianity was in the cultural and political ascendency — we might need to ask what sort of aesthetic, cultural practices, and forms the story of the Gospel most naturally produces (more on that in my review of Disruptive Witness and a thing on what a ‘Christian aesthetic’ might involve).

Orr’s summary of Smith’s framework, which he critiques, is as follows:

“For Smith, the Scriptures are the answer, but they work powerfully in us through patterns of worship. Smith is not denying the power of Scripture—at this point—but arguing that Scripture will only (or mainly) transform us as it is combined with the liturgical habit and practice of Christian worship.”

For Smith, such habits and practices do indeed involve images and the way they seep into the imagination. For Orr, this framework threatens the power of the living word of God. He says:

“Smith’s basic assumption here seems to be that the Scriptures are just like any other piece of information. That is they are inert and do not effect transformation unless they are supplemented by the implicitly more powerful practices of liturgy and habit. The theology of Scripture underlying Smith’s thesis at this point seems to assume that Scripture has no innate power of itself. Although he absolutely believes that the Bible is the Word of God, it won’t transform unless it is combined with the liturgical practices that allow its message to be internalised. It does not seem to have any innate power in itself.”

He then says the Bible is where God speaks, and where transformation comes from.

“What will call the wanderer back? What will strengthen the struggler? What will nurture children? What will encourage the mature believer? The living and active word of God. Do we need to think about how the liturgies of our services help people internalize the Scriptures? Yes! But these liturgies have to be built around the conviction that the Scriptures are ‘the word of God written’ and, as such, are powerful in and of themselves. We don’t need the false ‘liturgy’ of paintings or gowns to call us back to Jesus but the wonderfully powerful word of God.”

Having read a fair chunk of Smith over the years, I’m not sure Orr is fairly representing Smith’s views as opposed to creating a strawman. I’m equally not excited about Smith’s description of how his framework might shape kids ministry or the life and imagination of believers through the use of images, but I have a problem with the flattening of the dynamic of God’s word that might come from Orr’s click-baity title and how it frames the content of his piece.

Because the title is fatally flawed.

God’s word inevitably produces a liturgy. If liturgy is a series of practices, repeated as an expression of worship, in the pursuit of transformation, or the formation of character, then such practices are inevitable and inextricable caught up with God’s speaking to us and acting in us by the Spirit as we hear his word. You can’t split what the Bible doesn’t.

The living WORD of God, Jesus, says this, recorded for us in the written word of God (already there’s a fun dynamic going on there):

Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” — Luke 6:46-49

There’s a connection between hearing God’s word and putting them into practice. Repeatedly and habitually. A connection Orr acknowledges; but that is undermined by the heading of the piece.

If it’s true that everybody worships something, that to be human is to worship, and this is the part of Smith’s framework that Orr likes, then it is also true that everybody has a liturgy, every church has a liturgy, every Christian has a liturgy — a set of habits and behaviours that form us. The question is what liturgy, what forms or mediums support the word of God in its transforming work in our lives. For many, and perhaps for Orr, the reading, singing, and preaching of the words of Scripture in our gathering together is the liturgy required to emphasise that God speaks and acts through his word… but I’m not sure that’s the liturgy that God’s word itself suggests. I’m not sure it cuts it, because that alone is not the liturgy — the set of practices — that God’s word supplies, or that were the common practices of the early church.

In Romans 1 Paul uses one of the three words translated as ‘worship’ in the New Testament, to make the claim that Smith makes in his cultural liturgies series — that we are creatures shaped and oriented in the world by our worship; that our thinking often follows the desires of our heart.

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” — Romans 1:25

This is the description of our nature as worshippers who adopt a set of practices — a liturgy — that conforms with our gods. On this, it seems that Orr and Smith are in agreement (at least inasmuch as Orr consistently praises Smith’s insights). What’s interesting, though, is that the ‘worship word’ is the one translated as ‘served’ (λατρεύω — latreo), the word translated ‘worship’ here is about being awestruck (σεβάζομαι —sebazomai). Paul comes back to this idea of worship as service — as habitual service — later in this letter to the Roman church. The letter that talks lots about transformation (Romans 8), and about the role of God’s word in that transformation (Romans 10), but in terms of our ongoing formation and the place of liturgy, I suspect this is where I depart from Smith and Orr. Paul has a particular vision for the practices that bring transformation (or that conform us into the pattern and image of Jesus rather than the world), and while I think formation has to be embodied it’s not statues and stations of tactile learning in the kids church area (though I’d be all for more play-based and tactile pedagogical practices in kids churches, as opposed to exclusively head-focused practices that our modernist practices have normalised). Paul has a particular shape for our liturgy that comes from keeping God’s WORD in view as we hear God’s word, a liturgy given to us in God’s word.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Here Paul uses the noun form of the verb he used in Romans 1 — our hearts will worship something, our bodies will practice some sort of worship. God’s word tells us that our liturgy should be ‘in view of God’s mercy’ an offering of our bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular). He goes on to talk about how this works in context of the church — the body of Christ, the members belonging to one another — in the rest of Romans 12 with a set of liturgical practices that embody the Gospel to one another, as we live lives shaped by God’s spirit in us. It’s not just hearing God’s word that God’s word says transforms us  — it’s God’s word enacted by the Spirit at work within us, through our new worship, is where transformation by the Spirit happens.

So here’s my contentious claim contrary to Smith’s desire to have our imagination shaped by tactile statues — in our liturgy, our imaginations are to be shaped — our habits caught — from the lives of the saints, who are passing on the liturgy or practices taught and commanded in God’s word — putting into practice the teaching of Jesus. We don’t learn God’s word and what it looks like to apply it in a vacuum — God’s word points us to God’s WORD, and we learn what a liturgical life shaped by his sacrifice looks like from God’s word, the Bible, and from those in the body of Christ — the community shaped by the proclamation and practicing of that word. This is what ‘making disciples’ looks like.

And by this I don’t just mean long dead figures whose names we append ‘St.’ to, I mean the living breathing examples of the people of God around us as we gather as embodied people to hear God’s word and put it into practice. This is why Paul so often appeals to his example in the lives of the churches he pastors, and connects that to the example of Jesus. The word of God is full of examples of people, like Paul, talking about embodying the Gospel and imitating Jesus, and instructions to do likewise — to take up a liturgical way of life. You can’t say the Bible has authority and in the next breath say that liturgy has no value and that God’s word is enough. The liturgy of offering ourselves as living sacrifices is what we pass on from generation to generation, and it’s these examples of the love of Jesus, reflecting and inextricably linked to the word and WORD of God, that are most powerful in those circumstances where we’re tempted to doubt or to worship some other created thing.

Consider the dynamic Paul describes here, in God’s word, what it demonstrates about the connection between hearing God’s word and experiencing it being practiced in the lives and liturgy of his faithful church:

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus — 1 Thessalonians 2:7-14

And perhaps my favourite liturgical passage (alongside the description of the life of the church in Acts 2, which seems to look a lot like the life Paul calls Christians to in Romans 12).

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” — Colossians 3:15-17

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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