Tag Archives: homo liturgicus

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

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The Persecution Complex: Everyone has a ‘religious’ agenda, even the secularists

There is always an agenda.

Every person has one. Every group. Every ideology. Mostly every person. But sometimes we can cobble together around an object of common love and push a shared agenda. Usually in doing that there’s a bunch of compromise. So Catholics Anglicans, and even Muslims can come together for certain moral causes while sharing very different — fundamentally different — reasons for doing so. And the union at that point is only as good as the sharing of ‘the agenda’…

This week the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales is in the news because they appear to be worried about ‘the homosexual agenda’ (at least that’s how the story frames it, and they can frame it that way because we Presbyterians used the words “the homosexual agenda”). The lede of this story proclaims:

“Sydney’s most expensive private school has asked the Presbyterian Church for advice on what the church describes as the “homosexual agenda”, in the event that a same-sex couple wanted to enrol their child at the school.”

When I hear the words “the homosexual agenda,” I picture a secret cabal that programs the universal homosexual response to every issue with the end goal of making everybody gay; but I fear the setters of the “gay agenda” may sometimes be as at odds with members of the gay community as the Australian Christian Lobby are with some Christians; and I’d rather listen to what people are asking for and figure out why than simply label every issue someone raises as part of a bigger agenda (though I admit things almost always are part of some bigger agenda).

As an aside, before the story about Scots falls too far into the background — I find it profound that a school that charges more than $30,000 a year is more worried about homosexuality than greed, or the idolatry of education…

I’ve always found it odd when Christians speak of a ‘gay agenda’ — not because I don’t think there are groups out there who have united around a common cause — but because it seems an easy way to not listen to people, or to dismiss a ‘counter-agenda’ simply on the basis of an ad hominem style “well, we know they are simply representing their own interest” dismissal. There are groups like GLAAD and Australian Marriage Equality who are out there trying to further ‘an’ agenda, just as there’s a National LGBTI Health Alliance. These groups definitely advocate particular ‘agendas’ for the sake of their community. And probably with good reason. I’m not sure we can ever treat agendas as totally homogenous (even for individuals, because we often have agendas that compete for our time and attention, and with each other in contradictory ways).

We seem to use ‘agenda’ as a pejorative — a reason not to listen — especially if it competes with our own agenda (though because an agenda is a thing we treat as a negative we always want to pretend we are unbiased, either with no agenda or an agenda purely for the common good). That a position is put forward by people with ‘agendas’ is an odd reason to push back rather than listen. And an even worse reason to exclude their position from a place in the metaphorical ‘public table’… That we disagree with an agenda is also not a great reason to exclude it from this public table unless we can show it isn’t for the common good, or rather, that it causes harm. So. For example. We get enough people behind agendas that rule out murder or other common objects that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ — and that would rule out pro-murder agenda should it ever appear on the scene. And that’s good. It’s also why the worst thing you can do to an alternative agenda is suggest that it is actually harmful (and that’s the strategy people are adopting over and over again to silence the church).

Perhaps the ‘homosexual agenda’ is simply an attempt by a community within our civil society to provide a better life for homosexual people according to a particular vision of what it looks like for people to thrive or flourish. It’s not nefarious or secret. Even if there are people setting some sort of agenda in meetings somewhere. It’s consistent with a view of the world and the human person and what ‘good’ is. And so agendas aren’t just to be dismissed out of hand because we have a different view. We have to work out how to live at peace with one another. There’s another constructive reason I think we should listen to people that I’ll outline below that lines up with our ‘Christian agenda’… Agendas are everywhere. But to speak of ‘agendas’ as though they’re the product of some cabal somewhere rather than just a product of our humanity is odd, and an exercise in ‘othering’ rather than listening. We all have agendas. There’s a homosexual agenda to provide better health and happiness for homosexual people (including to push for marriage/social inclusion/safety for LGBTIQA people). There’s also a ‘queer’ agenda (articulated quite directly in various places by Roz Ward from Safe Schools) that would like sexual fluidity to be the norm; for us all to be queer, which rather undermines the idea that to be queer is to be different; it is possible that this agenda might say some interesting and valuable things that we should listen to in order to understand the queer community too…

We can’t be naive about agendas that are operating around us. But nor is an ‘agenda’ in and of itself a bad thing, and a secular society probably has the responsibility to accommodate as many competing and conflicting agendas as possible.

Our agendas are set by our worship

Let’s try replacing the idea of an agenda with the idea of all of us being homo liturgicus — creatures who worship.

Let’s assume that each of us worships something, and that this object of worship orients our hearts, minds, and lives. That it captures our imaginations and our desires. Let’s assume our worship supplies our agenda. Whoever we are. We’re pushed out into the world with an ‘agenda’ — a picture of human flourishing; first for ourselves, as worshippers, but then for others, as image bearers of our objects of worship who are living breathing ambassadors of our chosen deity. Let’s also assume that most of us think love for other things is ordered by our love for the thing we love ultimately. That all of us order our love, and understand love, based on this object of worship. So the thing that is first in my heart defines not just how I love other things or people in my life but what I think love looks like when I direct it to them. If I love money above all else, then that frames how I treat money, but it also means I show love for others by giving them money, or not taking money from them unfairly. If I love my sexuality above all else, if my fundamental desire is for sex and freedom to pursue sex and identity where I see fit, then the way I love others involves either sex (drawing them in to a shared act of worship) or fighting for their sexual freedom. That’s the gay agenda. Or one of them.

Here’s how James K.A Smith puts it in You Are What You Love:

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere.

To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship. And worship isn’t optional. Even a writer like David Foster Wallace, who had no theological agenda, recognized that to be human is to worship.

Every idol has an agenda. There is no space that contains people that is a ‘worship free’ zone. Every time we gather at a table with others, each person’s agenda, in some way, is driven by whatever they view as ‘ultimate’ — the ultimate picture of the ideal person, the ideal community, the ideal shared way of life.

Truly ‘secular’ space isn’t freed from religion and thus ‘neutral’ — it allows space for these competing agendas, and works toward a ‘common’ good. Often these agendas will have very different visions of good — but sometimes they’ll dovetail; like in the case of Roz Ward whose (self acknowledged) Marxist agenda saw her views align with others in the LGBTIQA community, and educators, who want to make schools safer for LGBTIQA students. But though Ward is a member of the LGBTIQA community her particular Marxist/Queer agenda is at odds with other members of the ‘T’ community like Catherine McGregor, who says she believes strongly that gender being a binary thing is important or she wouldn’t have transitioned… We always line our agendas up with others for convenience, but that allegience will only take us so far if we don’t share a common object of worship (not just love).

We shouldn’t ‘fear’ agendas, or try to silence them simply because our ‘agenda’ may happen to be true, or simply because we believe it leads to good things, and other view. True secularism is about figuring out how competing agendas — competing visions of human flourishing (and personal flourishing) — views including our own — might exist side by side. But we should be prepared, as a society, to discern what agendas involve harm, and that might bring many agendas together, and we should, as Christians, consider how much it is possible for us to share agendas — or platforms — with other idolatrous views in order to respond to a particular idolatrous view as though the harms can be easily ordered simply because some moral visions line up with our own.

Why we should listen to, and how we should live alongside, other agendas

It has always interested me that Paul, as a faithful Jew who no doubt loved Deuteronomy 7 and its call to purity from idols, didn’t walk through Athens with a sledgehammer, but with open eyes and ears. And that when he speaks, he speaks in a way that articulates the Gospel as the answer to the imagination and desire of the Athenians, and the Athenian Agenda. I think this is because he’s carrying out the Christian agenda — which is no less than the Deuteronomic agenda to topple idols. But the thing that topples idols is a toppling of stone hearts formed by the worship stone idols, that comes from the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26), who comes via Jesus. Make no mistake. Paul topples the idols of Athens in the hearts of those who turn to God. But he’s happy not to topple them for anyone else. He’s happy to be another voice in the marketplace of ideas and in the courtroom that decides which gods have legitimacy — the areopagus.

Our agenda, as Christians, is clear. It’s to worship God, and in doing so, to bear his image. To glorify him. And the result of doing that faithfully looks, I think, a lot like what we are re-created to do as Christians. Our new cultural mandate. The Great Commission. This sets the agenda for us.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20

We’re Great Commission people; sent out into a world full of worshippers who are being formed into the image of their idols. Discipled by counter-liturgies. Pursuing counter-agendas.

One way we fulfil the great commission is, I think, by listening well to the world we live in and seeing the universal human desires at the heart of people’s agendas — seeing where God’s design is being distorted by idolatry so that we can invite people to rediscover the telos — the purpose and fulfilment — of that desire in having their loves and desires ordered around Jesus. Listening and understanding is also, in itself, an act of love. Its a way that we can show people we care; that we want to understand their wants and needs, and that we want to live at piece not conscript their desires and imaginations in order to force a conversion. Attempting to make people live as though they worship God isn’t our job — and trying to do that is bound to be frustrated anyway given that Romans 1 says people love and worship what they love and worship because God has given their thoughts and desires over to their idolatry.

Instead of dismissing the ‘homosexual agenda’ perhaps we should listen to what objects of common good those pushing that agenda are pushing for — like more safety for kids who don’t fit the norm — but we should also listen for the desire for love, intimacy, and a sense of satisfying identity that people are craving so that we can connect those desires with where God designed them to be ultimately fulfilled. Not in sex. But in an intimate relationship with our creator.

And listening informs our speech. We aren’t called to speak to caricatures, but to people. People who worship. And our message must be one that replaces a false god with the real one; or rather; God does away with these idols via our preaching with what Thomas Chalmers calls The Expulsive Power of a New Affection; a sermon in which he points out our task is not simply to fill an empty space in a person’s heart with a new God, but to replace an old object of worship with a new, better, more complete, God.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…”

This act of ‘encountering the charm’ and the ‘pleasure’ in order to dissipate them means listening well to what is driving other agendas, and observing what they do and don’t deliver; not simply dismissing them. In a secular world it means (so long as we have a place at the table) finding a place at the table for agendas we disagree with even when we believe all such idolatry leads to eternal harm; because we have no tool to fight idolatry but the Gospel. Silencing or dismissing other agendas rather than generously engaging with the people behind them isn’t love. Everyone has an agenda. Maybe we should start being more open about our own, and more worried about who we’re worshipping and what we’re seen to be worshipping if we make morality or natural law our tool for taking down idols — not the Gospel of Jesus.