Crosses, Rainbows, Yoga, and Jesus

 

The title of this article is intended to get one’s attention by sparking curiosity.   The implicit question posed by the title is, “What do crosses, rainbows, yoga, and Jesus have to do with one another?”  This article seeks to give an answer to that question and to show why this is immensely important to each of our lives.

It may be a shock to some to find that a Christian world view begins with creation, not salvation.1 In order for salvation to matter there needs to exist something worth saving. That something is creation, and not creation as narrowly understood to refer to Man only. Creation is valuable to God as evidenced by his constant care for it (cf. Ps. 104 where human beings are almost a footnote in comparison to the rest of creation). And because creation also shares in the curse of Man’s Fall (Gen. 3:17, 18) we ought to expect it to share in Man’s redemption, which is exactly what we find. The consistent witness of scripture points to the future restoration of all creation resulting in a New Heaven and a New Earth (Isa. 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Rom. 8:18-25; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:15-20; 2 Pet. 3:8-13; Rev. 21:1-22:5).

This comprehensive redemption of all creation ought to be normative for our relationship towards creation, which includes that which we create, namely culture. Instead of regarding creation as bad and something to be fought against or suppressed we ought to regard it as something in need of redemption. A quick look at how this paradigm works itself out in practice will help to illustrate exactly what I mean. We begin with the very cross of Christ itself.

Crosses
The cross of the ancient world already had a symbolic meaning long before Christians gave it its contemporary significance. Insofar as it was the Roman Empire’s death of choice “It already had a social meaning: ‘We are superior, and you are vastly inferior.’ It had a political meaning: ‘We’re in charge here, and you and your nation count for nothing.’ It therefore had a theological or religious meaning: the goddess Roma and Caesar, the son of a god, were superior to any and all local gods.”2 The association of the cross with the horrific practice of crucifixion made the cross a topic not to be mentioned in polite company. Cicero, the Roman orator, speaks directly to this point: “The mere mention of the word ‘cross’ is shameful to a Roman citizen and a free man.”3 The cross, then, was a powerful symbol of shame as well as one of Roman power. This makes the Christian symbol of the cross all the more shocking and instructive.

The pre-Christian symbolism of the cross is what causes Paul to describe the gospel as “foolishness” to unbelievers. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18a). However, Christ’s redemption, accomplished by the cross, redeemed even the symbolism of the cross itself. This is why Paul is able to go one and say “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18b). We must be careful not to overlook the significance of this. If there were anything in the ancient world worthy of being completely abolished it was certainly the cross. But instead of rejecting the cross God recruited it to serve his purpose. Now, instead of being a symbol of shame and defeat the cross has become a symbol of victory and salvation. For this reason Paul is able to say, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). It is because of the redemption of Christ that Paul was able to boast about it. Without the work of Christ, the cross would have remained a symbol of shame. Many today still refuse to wear the cross, believing it to be horrific. They make it analogous to wearing a noose around one’s neck, or a charm shaped like an electric chair. And so it would be if it were not for the atonement of Jesus Christ. No part of God’s creation, even something so ghastly as the cross, is beyond the pale of Jesus’ reconciling work. “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19, 20).  The blood of Jesus’ cross reconciled even the cross itself.

Rainbows
Consider another ubiquitous symbol of the present day: the rainbow. The rainbow, especially the rainbow flag, has become a widely recognized symbol of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) movement. Insofar as homosexuality is outside of God’s intention for Mankind (cf. Gen. 2:22-24; Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:24-27; Jude 7) one Christian response might be to “give up” the symbol of the rainbow, as many have given up the cross. But, if we hold firm to the redemption of all of creation we cannot forfeit the rainbow. God is not willing to give up any part of his creation, and neither should we.

The rainbow is a great example of the holistic redemption I am describing because the rainbow is explicitly mentioned as an original symbol of God’s mercy. After Noah and his family exited the ark which saved them from the judgment of the flood God said:

“‘I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.'” (Gen. 9:11-17)

Whereas this was the original meaning of the rainbow another meaning was hoisted upon it by the LGBT community. This should not deter us, however, from consistently affirming the goodness of its original symbolism. The rainbow, then, illustrates in miniature what has happened to all of creation. All of God’s creation is good, just like the rainbow. But, just like the rainbow, God’s good creation has been put into services which are at variance with God’s good intention. And, just like the rainbow, we should refuse to forfeit God’s creation to such uses. We affirm the goodness of everything God created so long as it is line with God’s good intention. Whenever any part of the created cosmos is put into the service of anything but the Creator himself we do not abandon that bit of creation to misuse. We, through the power of Christ’s redemption, seek to take it back for God’s glory. We aim to help God’s good creation be all that it can be so that, once again, it might “tell the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1).

Yoga
I have been a regular practitioner of yoga for some months now.4 Because yoga is technically a religious practice some have wondered how a Christian can conscientiously participate in yoga.5 The answer, as you might have guessed, lies in the goodness of creation and the redemption of Christ. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. The bodily movements involved in yoga are neither good nor bad. It is the meaning we attribute to those movements that determine its goodness (or badness). If the “Sun Salutations” are in fact performed as worship to the Sun then one finds one’s self firmly in the sphere of idolatry, worshipping “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).  Other poses are intended to honor gods of the Hindu pantheon or Hindu sages. If one performs them with that particular intention then, again, one is participating in idolatry. But if the asanas (poses) of yoga are viewed from the perspective of creation and redemption one is able to see how a Christian can practice yoga without fear of idolatry.

First, consider the asanas from the perspective of God’s good creation. If the Fall had never taken place and a human being, faithfully reflecting God’s image in the world, was to perform the exact same stretches and poses we would never think that there was anything inherently evil in the arrangement of his limbs in such a way. We might think that he was being a good steward of the body which is part of God’s good creation, but we would not think that there was something irreverent about his exercise.

Second, consider asanas through the redemption of Christ. A Christian worldview cannot ignore the Fall (even though imagining a world without it can sometimes be helpful). Man has consistently failed to submit himself to God’s rulership and, as a result, has used God’s good creation in service of idol gods, as is the case with some yoga. This does not mean, however, that we are content to leave his creation in bondage to idols. Just like we will not forfeit the rainbow to the LGBT community we will not forfeit yoga. And just like Jesus’ work on the cross was able to redeem even the cross itself, so Jesus’ atonement is able to reconcile yoga to God’s good intention.6 One may practice yoga (since the poses themselves are not inherently evil) with the intention of glorifying God and be successful. A Christian is expected to present his “body as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1, 2). Often the only difference in a Christian’s use of his body and an atheist’s is his intention. So it is with yoga. One may perform the exact same movements either to the gods of the Hindus or to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The choice is his.

Conclusion
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond Christ’s redemption. This is because nothing is inherently evil. Evil is always derivative, never original. It is always a perversion of what is good. The goal of redemption is to “buy back” that original goodness. And good news, the price has already been paid by Christ. One might object, “Nothing is beyond redemption? What about idolatry or pornography?” Although certain things diverge farther from God’s original intention than others, and consequently (in some sense) require more “redemption” than others, we must still affirm that nothing is beyond reconciliation. Concerning idolatry, it is not golden images which are inherently evil but their intention. The Israelites made a golden calf and worshipped it as god (cf. Ex. 32). They were justly condemned for idolatry. Just before this incident, however, the very same Israelites were commanded to create golden images of cherubim (Ex. 25:17-22) even though images of “anything that is in heaven” were also prohibited in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:4). What made the difference? It was the intention. One was properly formed to the glory of God and the other deformed and reduced the image of God to creature instead of Creator. The things that made the golden calf into idolatry are absent in the construction of the cherubim. Moving on to pornography: there is hardly anything in all of creation as detestable as the sexual slavery involved in the production of pornography. But even it is merely a perversion of an inherently good thing. Sex is a part of God’s original creation and his good intention. This good thing was merely “hijacked” by those who have departed from that intention. All of the things that make this sex act into pornography are absent in the consensual sex between husband and wife. It is no wonder that new creation is often attached to the image of fire (cf. 2 Pet. 3). The things which “infect” the goodness of creation are “purified by fire” until all that remains is God’s unadulterated good creation. When all idolatry is removed from statuary they become works of art to God’s glory. When all abuse and exploitation is removed from pornography what remains is the joining of man and woman which itself mirrors the intimate relationship between Christ and the church.

Too often our impoverished theology has forced us to reject certain parts of culture. What we need is to bring everything under the Lordship of Christ. What we need is a vision like Zechariah’s where everything is dedicated to God. “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of horses, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ And the cooking pots in the house of the LORD shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 1:20, 21). This is just a part of fulfilling our calling as human beings. So join me in being simply human. You were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 43.
2. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 60.  All of chapter 3 is dedicated to explaining the ancient pre-Christian symbolism of the cross..
3. Cicero, Pro Rabirio 5.16, as quoted in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fully revised 4th edition (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2002.
4. You can see my yoga practice on my Instagram Profile here.
5. This concern lead to the establishment of Praise Moves which advertises itself as “The Christian Alternative to Yoga.”
6. It is significant that Praise Moves recognizes the redemptive power of Christ in this regard, though they do not apply it consistently. E.g. they refuse to use the Anjali Mudra (prayer hands) because of its association with the Hindu religion, despite the fact that the prayer hands are a widely recognized Christian symbol. It seems that Praise Moves, while recognizing the redemptive power of Christ, considers some things to be beyond the pale of Jesus’ reconcialiatory power. You can read their explanation here.

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 5)

 

To quickly recap before we round up this series of articles: we are primarily loving/desiring things, not thinking things.  Our desires are created and shaped by our practices and rituals.  Those rituals which touch us nearest to our core move our ultimate love and is therefore just another way of saying that it teaches us what to worship.  Worship means ultimate love.  So, those practices which touch us most deeply can rightly be termed liturgies.  While involving ourselves in certain secular liturgies (e.g. going to the mall, the stadium, the university, etc.) our loves are being deformed.  They are being created in the world’s image, not the image of God.  As a result we need a practice which will act as a counterformation to these secular liturgies.  A Christian naturally looks to Christian worship to be this practice.  Sadly, however, even much “Christian” worship turns out to be “Jesusfied” versions of secular liturgies.  The practices themselves have stories built-in to them.  So whenever our worship looks like the coffee shop or the mall we still learn that Story even if the Story of Jesus is preached.  We learn to be consumers or customers instead of servants and worshippers of the true God.  In light of all of this we ask, “What would worship look like if it accurately embodied the True Story of the World?”1

Time2
Before entering the church building we are already being prepared for a practice which is counterformative. The banners and signs and colors announce the Christian season within the liturgical calendar (Violet for Advent and Lent, White for Christmas and Easter, Red for Good Friday etc.). The Christian’s year is, quite literally, determined by the life of Christ (each season corresponds to the events of the life of Jesus) instead of the secular calendar. Experiencing time within the worship of the church is different than it is experienced outside of it. The church creates a different world in which we live, move, and have our being. This sense of time is intentionally counter cultural.  The practice of keeping time differently embeds in the Christian a sense of living differently than the world while remaining in it.

Call
Apart from the Christian seasons there is the simple fact that we gather on Sunday. For the rest of the world Sunday is a day to sleep in and recover from the shenanigans of the past two days and to prepare for returning to work on Monday. For Christians, however, Sunday is at once the climax of the week and the beginning of another. We wake while much of the world sleeps and we gather together. Why? Because God has called us into his presence. Not only does our simple gathering reflect this calling there ought to be an active recognition of this fact. Beginning worship with “Good morning” or “We’re glad you’re here”, as often happens, subtly suggests that we are the ones who have called this assembly. Likewise, beginning with the announcements suggests that we are here to “do business” rather than to enter the presence of the living God. A way of recognizing God’s call is to offer it. The worship leader, as God’s servant, welcomes others with “The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Or perhaps he opens the service by saying “The Lord be with you all” with the congregational response, “And with you.”  This response teaches us that all of life is in response to our God.  The creation began as a response to God’s divine fiat and it continues that way today (Gen. 1; Heb. 1:3).  Life itself is a response to God’s will (Acts 17:24, 25).  And even though we have largely lost our sense of “calling” we still regularly describe our jobs as our “vocation” (from the Latin vocare, “to call”).3 Issuing the Call of God to enter into his presence offers the Christian the opportunity to reorient himself. In a world whose mantra is “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”4, this response to God’s call trains us to constantly recognize God’s authority as our Lord and our response-ability to him. This practice is, therefore, intentionally counter cultural.

Law
Thomas Cranmer in his monumental and seminal liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, begins with the reading of certain passages which call attention to our sinfulness in order to lead one to the confession which follows. E.g. “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive” (Eze. 18:27); “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).5 A reading of the Law (and certain sections of the epistles) would also be suitable here. In a world which aggressively fights against the idea of an absolute Truth, a transcendent rule of ethics, the reading of God’s Law reminds us that there are universal norms. There is a way that the world ought to be, and by this reading we are invited to join in embodying that vision of shalom (i.e. peace and wholeness). This also reminds us of our creatureliness. We are not our own masters. Rather, we come as a community gathered together in service of the same Master. The Creator of the universe revealed his will on Sinai. At once the reading of the Law calls us to obey it and it condemns us for having broken it, which leads to the next movement.

Confession and Absolution
Cranmer rightly sees the reading of scripture as call which evokes a response.

“Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of the Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.”6

The response is bilateral: We confess our failures while recommitting ourselves to obedience. The prayer which embodies this two-fold response is reproduced here:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord: And grant, O merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.”7

This communal confession carries the most weight when we remember it within its context. First, God’s mission is not to save us from the world but rather to redeem the world. In this light the Law is not simply a test which God gives in order to determine whether he lets us into heaven when we die. The Law embodies a vision for the world. It is a societal vision and we have a part to play. This vision is a vision of True Humanity, humanity the way it was meant to be. Therefore, breaking the Law is not just failing a test. It is a failure to be fully human. Second, this confession takes place within worship. This is the place where we rehearse the True Story of the World, the way things are supposed to be. This means that we are not only concerned with confession of wrongs but we are also concerned with righting of wrongs. This means that we recommit ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s vision for the kingdom. It also means that we seek absolution; we seek forgiveness. We confess our wrong and want to be put right. Again, Cranmer sees this clearly. A pronouncement of forgiveness follows the confession of sin and commitment to righteousness.

“Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather than he may turn from his wickedness and live; and hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore, let us beseech him to grant us to repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. The people shall answer here, and at the end of all other prayers, Amen.”8

This movement is about things being put right. This is about that which has been divided being reconciled again, and reconciliation is always two sided. That is why the pronouncement of forgiveness is necessary. When we confess our sins to God he is not silent. He responds with mercy and compassion. This movement in the liturgy embodies that. It also teaches us what God’s kingdom is supposed to look like. This is the place where hurts are healed, brokenness is mended, the estranged are reconciled, and division is conquered by love. By this practice we are learning to long for justice; we learn to long for the world to be put right.  And by confessing our own sins we learn that injustice is not just “out there.”  Sin runs right through all of us.  If the world is to be put right it must begin with us.  Longing for the reconciliation of the world means longing for my own reconciliation with God.

Passing the Peace
This movement quite naturally follows our reconciliation to God.  This is so because reconciliation is always vertical and horizontal.  One cannot exist without the other.  I cannot be right with God if I am not right with my brother.  I also cannot be right with my brother if I am not right with God because it is God which puts me right and enables me to love my brother as he deserves.  Having now been put right with God, the community which was likely fractured throughout the week (perhaps in slight ways beyond our recognition) is not made whole again.  This is embodied by the passing of the peace.  Neighbors turn to one another and share an appropriate sign of good-well.  They kiss, they hug, they shake hands, and even offer the manual “Peace” sign from a distance.  Accompanying this is the blessing “Peace be with you” which is answered with “And with you.”  Having confessed to God the sins which fractured shalom we now embody its restoration and reality.  And it is a peace shared across every boundary.  We greet young and old, man and woman, the CEO and the garbage man, the red, and yellow, black, and white.  This is God’s multi-ethnic multi-cultural kingdom just as he would have it.  Here we learn to live out shalom, God’s very own vision for the world.

Song
The book of Isaiah offers many pictures of New Creation, some of which are followed by a hymn of praise to the God who has finally put the world right.  E.g. “Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth” (Isa. 12:5).  “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!  For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (49:13).  It is, therefore, appropriate for us to praise him for his act of New Creation in our midst.9
Our songs are perhaps one of the most important parts of our worship, partly because they are the most easily distorted. Songs “get in our bones.” We may hear a song we haven’t heard in 10 years and still sing the words with immense accuracy. This makes them especially powerful and especially dangerous. There are a great many errors that we sing on a regular basis.10 And by repetition the bad theology may work its way into our hearts. Most of us will not remember the sermons that we have heard but we will forever remember the hymns. Songs, therefore, are some of the most important vehicles for theology. The Catholic Church is supposed to have said of Martin Luther, “He has done us more harm by his songs than his sermons.” This is because they are powerful and memorable. Singing is the language of the kingdom. We must be careful we are learning the right language and speaking with the appropriate accent.
Singing songs is also one of the most holistic/embodied worship acts we perform. We often stand, we hear the melody, we match our own voices to the harmony, the music moves our “gut” and grabs our emotions; we smile, we shout, we laugh, we cry, we mourn. It is, therefore, also one of the most transcendent acts that we perform. We “get lost” in the music. This world is a world within a world. We have stepped into a place where things are different than they are “out there.” The goal, however, is always to take some of this music with us when we leave. The dissonant sounds of heartbreak may be cheered by our echoes of heaven. And worship is where we learn the Song.

Prayer
Prayer is a time where much discipleship takes place. Even in “non-liturgical” traditions, like my own, our liturgy appears most in our prayers. Certain stock/ritual phrases appear again and again, passed down from generation to generation, whose origin is now forgotten. “Guide, guard, and direct us.” “Bring us back at the next appointed time.” “Help us to partake of this in a manner well pleasing in thy sight.” Although prayers, like our songs, may take many forms (praise, lament, petition, intercession) we’ll examine just briefly The Lord’s Prayer which will be heard in most Christian churches throughout the world.
The very first word of the prayer, “Our”, reminds us that we live within community. My life is not just about God and me, my personal salvation, and whether or not I go to heaven when I die. My life is lived within community and therefore I pray within community. I recognize my shared relationship with others by recognizing our mutual relationship with God. “Our Father”, not “My Father.”
Next we recognize God’s uniqueness.  “Hallowed be thy name.”  Being holy/hallowed indicates being set apart, “in a class of his own.”  This emodies the wish that all of our idols would be overthrown.  This God is nothing like the pantheon of gods we serve day to day.  This prayer, like the entire liturgy, is a rebellion against the idolatry which lobbies for our love throughout the week.
At the center of the prayer lies the point of the entire Story, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is no escapist prayer which wishes to pass a test in order to leave earth behind. Each time we pray the prayer we are situated within the larger Story of New Creation where God’s glory floods the earth “as the water covers the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). We are reminded of our part in bringing that into reality.
Following that we are immediately reminded that this kingdom is not divided ontologically. It is not a kingdom which separates the physical and the spiritual. The requests for bread and forgiveness come back to back. “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins.” Both are necessary in this kingdom.
This kingdom is not divided socially. It is no Us-Against-Them sort of kingdom. We are not The Righteous Few going to conquer The Wicked Other. The very thing that God intends to overthrow in the world must also be overthrown in us. We pray, “Forgive us our sins.” Yes, we have our sins too. We must be willing to be reconciled to God as well as to other people. And so we pray, “As we forgive those who sin against us.” God’s Story is about reconciliation: the reconciliation of Heaven and Earth, Spiritual and Physical, Jew and Gentile, Men and Women, Citizen and Non-Citizen, Greeks and Barbarians, Us and Them. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is heaven that means the reconciliation of everything. All that divides the world must be overcome and the peace of God must reign.
This prayer also teaches us that there is real messy world all around us. While we come together on Sundays to tell The True Story of the World, to remind ourselves of how the world should be, and to practice being citizens of that kingdom, this is not nieve make-believe. We never let ourselves forget that the vision of God’s future is, in some sense, still future. When we leave the confines of the sanctuary there will be more battles to fight, and we dare not trust our own strength. So we pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but delver us for evil.” But the good news of it all is that although there are still battles to be fought the outcome of the war has already been decided. And so we pray, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” Yes, there are still battles to fight. But the kingdom belongs to God and one day we will see that kingdom come fully. So this prayer situates us within the Story, and while it is realistic about the present it remains confident about the future.

Gospel
Worship ought to be a Story filled experience. Too often our scripture reading is short and singular. It would be beneficial, I believe, to have a number of scripture readings and longer readings. This way we are able to feel the grand sweep of the Story instead of just being fed little bits. Within those readings there ought to be something in regard to the life of Jesus (whether from the Old Testament, the Gospels, or the Epistles). Jesus is the center of our worship, the climax of history, the Lord of the world, and Good News for all creation. He is the one that has made worship, as it is, possible. His life, death, and resurrection are what brought New Creation to birth. He changed the Time which governs the church. He issues the call which gathers us together. He fulfilled the Law that we have broken and he extends forgiveness to its transgressors. He created the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community of shalom that we have prayed about, sang about, longed for, and enjoyed. There is a very real way in which Jesus re-narrates the entire world. He is the Logos (Jn. 1:1), the True Story of the World. Christian worship without Jesus is a Story without a meaning.

Creed
Having just heard the Story of our Lord we know affirm our commitment to him. Although the recitation of The Apostle’s Creed is not common in all traditions I feel safe in saying it is more common than not.11 This is yet another moment which recognizes our unity in Christ. We are a people bound together by belief/trust in Christ and that is never more explicit than it is here (except possibly in the Supper). This is like our Constitution or Pledge of Allegiance, and we pledge allegiance to Jesus, not to the State, the Union, the Emperor, President, or Prime Minister.12 This, again, is a counter-cultural practice.  While others consider their highest allegiance to “King and Country”, ours is higher still.  This practice instills in us the importance of “obeying God rather than Man” (Acts 5:29).
Recitation of the Creed is also counter-cultural because it connects us to an ancient tradition.  It rebels against the chronological snobbery which says, “New is always better.”  “Advances” in science do not mean that we have advanced beyond the need for religion.  That will never happen.  We unabashedly commit ourselves to a tradition which is 2,000 years old.  We are unashamed of that which others label as superstition.  We confess with one voice our belief in God as Creator, Jesus as virgin born and resurrected.  We confess our belief in the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and the life ever lasting.  This is not superstition to us.  This is a commitment to living a different sort of life, a life enchanted with the life of God himself.

Sermon
Once we have committed ourselves to our Lord we receive our marching orders.  While we have already had a number of readings from scripture there is a place also for commentary.  This is where the Story of the World is extended and expounded.  If we have made the mistake of hearing the Law and the Gospel as dry and dusty documents the sermon will not allow us to do so any longer.  The sermon renarrates the world and reminds us that the Story is still being written.  The sermon tells each one “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”13 The play has gone through its previous acts, climaxing in the Fourth Act with the Christ Event. We now live in the Fifth Act improvising our way to the end which has already been settled and revealed. We know where we are going, but there is still work to do.14 The sermon becomes for us something like stage directions. We are bound by certain facts. We cannot act in discontinuity with the previous acts and we cannot change the ending. But exactly what it looks like between here and there is always changing because history is always changing. Early Christians did not have to face questions of internet pornography, nuclear war, stem-cell research, or the separation of church and state. So we are guided along within the confines of the authoritative text. We are a troupe of actors gathered together on the stage of history to try and tease out what the next scene should look like. This too is counter-cultural because the Play we’re rehearsing is different altogether from the rest of the world. They are working towards an ending which will never arrive. Out there we will look as if we are the ones who are on the wrong stage, but that cannot be helped. We know the Writer and Director. He has assured us that we are where we are supposed to be. And he looks forward to seeing his troupe bring his Masterpiece to life! And so we shall.

Eucharist
There is much to say about the Eucharist in an already long article so brevity will have to suffice.  First, the Supper is itself an abolition of the social stratification that takes place “outside.”  In a world where most in the West enjoy feasts and those in the rest of the world suffer famine we gather around a table where everyone takes an equal share.  There are not Haves and Have-Nots here.  We enter into a vision of the world where everyone has enough.
Second, it sanctifies the common.  The Meal is common bread and wine, and yet it is where we meet the God of bread and wine.  There is no secular/sacred divide here.  The Meal that Jesus gave us is a rebellion against the disenchantment of our secular world.
Third, the Meal collapses Time into itself.  It connects us to the past.  We eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Jesus broken body and shed blood (cf. Mat. 26; 1 Cor. 11).  It also reminds us that the Story is still being written.  This is not a ritual relegated to by gone ages.  We still gather around the table today.  We still need forgiveness.  We still need bread and wine, body and blood.  And we also look forward to the future.  It anticipates Jesus final coming (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26) as well as the Messianic Banquet at which death itself will be swallowed up (cf. Isa. 25:1-10).  In this way it is a kind of celebration.  We enjoy the future victory now.  In a world so full of death and tears we may sometimes forget how to laugh.  But we have rehearsed the Story and we know the end.  We have stepped into a different world where forgiveness is the rule, where God’s peace reigns, because Jesus has fulfilled the Law, conquered sin and the grave, and we have heard the announcement of the Gospel.  We have committed ourselves to following the victorious King and now we celebrate our independence!  We feast and enjoy the spoils of our King’s war with Death.  This is the Meal that makes every funeral bearable.  We are emboldened against Death itself because we have learned to anticipate its full and final defeat.  The Supper is not just a memorial, it’s a party.  And all weary travelers are welcome.

Offering
We cannot celebrate the defeat of Death while simultaneously colluding with its power.  This next act, the offering, is a further rebellion against a culture which stinks of Death because it is so often in his company.  In a world where the top 1% now owns half of the world’s wealth, sharing is defiance.15  The only way the rich stay rich is by keeping the poor poor. This culture contributes to the deaths of many. And so week after week we learn that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We have seen a vision of God’s kingdom where Death is overthrown, none go hungry, all are clothed, and all have places to sleep. We’ve captured a glimpse of that vision and that vision has captured us, so we live into it right now. We give to support those whose struggle with Death is more fierce than our own. This is insurrection. We will not allow Death to overcome. So we give. And by giving we give life.

Sending
Rehearsal is, by definition, not the show. All practice is preparation. We have rehearsed the True Story of the World and practiced its virtues. But the show is intended to be seen. Virtue is for the sake of The Other. We leave the confines of our gathering to step out onto the stage of history. But we do not merely leave. We are sent. This is not just worship, it is a Mass.16 We are sent with the power and blessing of God himself.  The minister, as God’s representative, commends us to God’s care.  “The Lord bless you and keep you” (Num. 6:24-26).

 

Conclusion
We have come a long way in this series.  We discovered that we are primarily embodied creatures, not brains-on-a-stick.  This means that we are not lead primarily by our thoughts/beliefs but by our loves/desires.  We also learned that we are teleological creatures.  Our loves are “aimed” at a particular vision of The Good Life, and because those visions are always social they can rightly be termed “kingdoms”.  We then investigated two texts which offer us visions of God’s Kingdom.  We looked at the commission given to Man in Genesis 1-2 and what that commission would look like fulfilled as pictured in Revelation 21, 22.  The conclusion was that we are not made to evacuate earth and live in a disembodied heaven.  Rather, we are intended to rule over God’s creation by being instruments of his goodness, compassion, love, mercy, justice, and creativity.  We are to create cultures–to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The question we were left with was, “How does God work in us to develop those virtues which are necessary to fulfilling our vocation?”  The answer, we have seen, is worship.  Our habits are built by our rituals and when those rituals touch us nearest to our center they teach us what is most important.  They teach us what to love ultimately, and because what we love above all else is the thing that we worship then our rituals teach us what to worship.  While the rituals of the world are deforming us, the worship of the God of heaven is supposed to work as a counterformation against the secular habituation.  The difficulty is that many Christian worship services have adopted the same rituals which deform our loves.  We were lead to question what a Christian worship service would look like if it rightly embodied the True Story of the World.  We asked what rituals would “aim” our hearts towards God’s kingdom.  And here we are.  The liturgy above (imperfect I’m sure) is one which removes the secular/sacred divide.  By being an active and embodied liturgy our bodies are embraced, not shunned.  We are not taught to overcome or suppress our bodies’ loves; Rather, we are taught to aim our bodies’ loves in the right direction.  We have learned about forgiveness and reconciliation, not by word only but by action.  We have practiced forgiveness.  We have learned that there are standards of right and wrong through the reading of the Law.  We have learned about Christ’s redemption of creation through the reading of the Gospel.  We have placed our stamp of approval upon cultural work by singing the songs that are themselves products or poets.  We have learned to see the holy in the mundane by meeting Jesus in common bread and wine.  We have learned that sharing, not upward mobility, is the virtue of the kingdom.  We have been sent into the world to carry this vision to others.  We are practicing for the kingdom.  This alone is what it means to be simply human.  So join me in being human.   Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. A caveat is necessary at this point. I do not pretend to know what a “perfect” liturgy would look like. This should not deter us, however, from attempting to embody the True Story of the World as best we can. So two things ought to be kept in mind. First, this is only a broad outline. There is still room for variation of order and “style” within the framework pictured here. Second, I recognize that not all worship services look like the one I will describe. (My own tradition is is “non-liturgical” [admittedly a misnomer; all churches have “liturgy”], which is, in my opinion, lamentable. Indeed, my analysis here could very well serve as a critique of my own tradition). To differ from the liturgy suggested here is not “wrong.” However, if I’m right about the things discussed in past articles then we have to say that form matters. Practices are not neutral. This requires that we think long and hard about the liturgies in which we submerge ourselves from week to week.
2. Though my liturgy is not a whole-sole transmission of Smith’s, I am largely dependent on James K.A. Smith’s analysis in Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic 2009), 155-207.  I am also indebted to Constance M. Cherry and her work The Worship Architect, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). Specifically, her description of each event in worship as having a “movement” (either in, down, up, or out) was influential to my understanding of worship and to the order of the liturgy I suggest here. 
3. New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
4. William Ernest Henley, Invictus.
5. A word in defense of the archaic language used here. There has been a regular movement, even–perhaps especially–in our churches, to remove the transcendent and replace it with the mundane. The motivations behind this are legion, some being laudable and others less so. I think, however, that this loss of transcendence (what Charles Taylor calls “disenchantment”) is a vice, not a virtue. Because one goal of worship is to counter the deformation of secular society it is beneficial, I believe, for worship to have its own “ritual language.” For this reason Joseph Campbell, in his book The Power of Myth, (New York: Doubleday, 1988), lamented the ruling of Vatican II which resulted in translating the Mass from Latin to English. “There’s been a reduction in ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, my God–they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language that has a lot of domestic associations … They’ve forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time” (84). Though I do not know whether his reasons are the same as Campbell’s, J.R.R. Tolkien is also well known as having opposed this rule of Vatican II. After the decision Tolkien continued to make the responses in Latin as loudly as possible as a form of protest. The point is the one that we have repeatedly made: form matters. This includes the form of our language. Perhaps a poetic “ritual language” is not a bad thing, despite its reputation in recent years. It may be time to ask ourselves whether conducting worship in the vulgar (literally “common; ordinary”) language is really beneficial to the formation of true human beings in an increasingly secular world.
6. Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 70.
7. Ibid, 70, 71.
8. Ibid, 71. A few things need to be pointed out: The minister is not the one granting forgiveness. The “He” that pardons is the same one who has delivered “his holy Gospel”, i.e. God. The minister only serves as a representative of God. There is no power in the minister himself. He is only an instrument. Also, this pronouncement of forgiveness is not some sort of magic which effects forgiveness apart from faith.  There is a recognition within the prayer that forgiveness is received where true repentance and contrition reside. The point of the action is to comfort the afflicted, not the impenitent.
9. The forgiveness previously pronounced is not merely the transfer of information. It actually accomplishes what it describes. In this way it is an act of creation, or New Creation to be exact. God created the world much as an artist might make a painting. Our sins, which fracture the original shalom of God’s kingdom, are acts of uncreation in the same way that chemicals in the air have eroded the colors of the Sistine Chapel. The restoration of that chapel in the 1980s, sometimes called “the restoration of the century”, was so stunning as to be nearly an act of New Creation, even causing one writer to say that “every book on Michelangelo would now have to be rewritten.” In the same way, the restoration of the shalom which we have destroyed can rightly be termed an act of New Creation. And so in our worship we enact–not just re-enact as if it were merely a rehearsal–the True Story of the World. In our worship we confess our Fall and we actually experience New Creation, the creation of God’s shalom here on earth.
10. E.g. Songs like I’ll Fly Away and When We All Get to Heaven suggest that the goal of history is to evacuate earth and reside in a disembodied heaven.
11. My own tradition has historical rejected all creeds. “No Creed but the Bible,” they say. Despite our official rejection of Creeds they still exist ipso facto and can usually be found on our church websites under the link labeled “What We Believe.” I think this rejection of Creeds is unfortunate. First, because every one has a Creed (the word Creed comes from the Latin credo which simply means “I believe,” and everyone believes something) we do not have a choice between creed and no creed, only between a good creed and a bad one. When we rejected Creeds it was not long before we replaced them. Only now the things which my tradition disliked about Creeds became all the worse because we do not label them as such. Second, this rejection of Creeds was, in effect, a rejection of tradition. By cutting ourselves off from the ancient Christian tradition we left ourselves with an impoverished knowledge of who we are and where we come from. We are left now with no central statement of belief around which to unify (which is ironic because my tradition began as a unity movement). Granted, there are some within the Churches of Christ who recite the Creed, recognize the value of tradition, and openly practice liturgy as such, but those exceptions are so rare as to be negligible.
12. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom,  190-191.
13. Walt Whitman, O Me! O Life!.
14. N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 121-127.14
15. Daniel Bentley, “The Top 1% Now Owns Half the World’s Wealth”, Fortune (October 14, 2015), available from http://fortune.com/2015/10/14/1-percent-global-wealth-credit-suisse/ ; Internet; accessed December 5, 2016.
16. “Mass: … –ORIGIN Old English maesse, from ecclesiastical Latin missa, from Latin miss- ‘dismissed,’ from mittere, perhaps from the last words of the service, Ite, missa est ‘Go, it is the dismissal.'” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). We come to be sent.16

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 4)

 

I begin this article with the one thing I want you to remember: what we do matters even more than what we say.  This isn’t another way of saying “Actions speak louder than words.”  That’s true, but this is about something different.  This is about how we worship God.  This is about form and content.  Many think form is neutral and optional.  The “necessary thing” is Jesus, i.e. the content.  So long as we preach Jesus nothing else matters.  But if the conclusions of past articles are true then we cannot believe this.  Because we are not primarily thinking-things then the message is not the most important part of Christian worship.  People may preach Jesus (the most cognitive part of worship) and we may believe in Jesus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are learning to be disciples of Jesus.  Because we are loving-things whose love is pointed/produced by what we do then it is the action of worship which is most important.  This means that in worship the form is at least as important as the content, if not more.1

There are literally billions of Christians in the world and who knows how many millions of churches.  Their messages may be the same but their discipleship is quite different.  The disciple produced by worship which imitates a coffee shop or a mall is different than the disciple produced by the Easter Orthodox Catholic Church, even if their messages are the same.  Why?  Because what we do matters even more than what we say.  Even a “Christian” worship service may teach us to worship something other than the God of heaven.

 

“Only worship that is oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies.  Not everything that calls itself ‘worship’ today will have this counterformative power, since so many of our worship services are little more than Jesusfied versions of secular liturgies.”2

 

Making Christian worship like the coffee shop, the concert, the mall, or the movie theatre comes from a sincere and laudable motive.  We want to make the gospel attractive to outsiders.  We want it to be accessible.  We want them to feel comfortable enough to visit.  So we package the content (Jesus) in appealing forms (coffee shops, concerts, etc.).  Why?  Because we believe that the form does not matter, only the content.  We see the forms as “neutral.”  But if we have learned anything so far we must have learned that there is no such thing as a neutral practice.  Everything we do is either teaching us to love God or something else.  “As we’ve seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.”3 If, for example, I attend worship at a place which intentionally mimics the mall then I may hear about Jesus but I am trained by the very atmosphere to consider him a product designed to make me happy, like everything else I meet in the mall. “And while I might eagerly want to add him to my shelf of stuff, we shouldn’t confuse this appropriation with discipleship.”4 Or, if worship is formatted like a concert then I tacitly learn that Christianity is about my entertainment. I learn to see it as something that I can turn off when I get bored with it, like I do the television or the radio. And because its very purpose is my entertainment then when I find myself bored or unenthused the fault inherently lies in the worship, not in me the worshipper/”customer”. One final thing to consider: if Christian worship feels just like the mall or the coffeee shop or the concert (only a little more “judgy”) then what makes it special? Christian worship is supposed to be where we come into contact with the transcendent God of the universe. Going to Christian worship and experiencing the same thing I do in other mundane places subtly teaches church-goers that the transcendent does not exist. Church is just like every where else. God is not here. Or perhaps he is here and every where else.  But if I can get the same thing every where else, and do it without being made to feel guilty, then it isn’t difficult to see why so many go every where else. Our churches are empty. Why? Because the malls are full. And the malls we’ve created in our worship aren’t nearly as interesting as the mall down the block. The bottom line is: form matters. What we do is even more important than what we say.

Most Christians will know the story of the golden calf. God had rescued the Israelites from Egypt and brought them to the foot of Mount Sinai where he would deliver his law to them. Moses was called up to the mountain to receive the law on behalf of Israel. But while he was away the people began to worry. They wondered whether or not he would return. As a result they turned to Aaron, Moses’ brother, as their new leader. They requested that they make for them a golden calf to worship. Aaron does just that. The most interesting thing is how the calf is identified. They said of the calf, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:8). They appear to be worshipping the right God but by the wrong form. Often God identifies himself by pointing to the Exodus. “I am the LORD your God who brought you up out of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2; cf. also Num. 15:41; Ps.81:10; Mic.6:4). Which God were they to worship? Answer: the God who brought them up out of Egypt. But, by worshipping God this way they were tacitly learning to conceive of the God of heaven as equal to idol gods. They were learning to think of him as creation instead of Creator. God vehemently insists that he is not like other gods and one of the ways in which he differs from them is by being Creator. In Deuteronomy 4 Moses points to the Israelite’s unique experience of their unique God as the reason that they are not to make any images of the God of heaven, which was itself unique in the Ancient Near East.

 

“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice … Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure … For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him” (Deu. 4:12, 15, 16, 32-35)

 

The form of Israelite worship had a lesson “built into” it. God is unique. God is unlike all the others gods which appear in the golden forms of men, women, cattle, and fish. And because he is different the forms of their worship ought to be different. Regardless of whether one might identify the god as “the LORD God who brought us out of Egypt” the very form itself was wrong. Why? Because it did not tell the truth about God. Form matters. What we do is even more important than what we say.  This is why worship which apes the concert and coffee shop does not make a disciple oriented towards God’s kingdom.  That sort of worship does not tell the truth about God and his good world.  It is not an experience of transcendence.  It is the same experience one gets by the brick and mortar sanctuaries of the secular world.  But in Christian worship we are called out of that world into another one.  This should be (quite literally) embodied in our worship.  When it is not danger lurks near by.

This article has said much more about worship that dehumanizes us than it has about worship which makes us truly human.  But sometimes in order to build a solid foundation we must first clear away the debris.  In the next article we will attempt to describe the sort of practices which help to orient us towards God’s kingdom.  It’s that sort of worship which lies at the center of what it means to be human.  So join me, this week and the next, in being simply human.  Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. I believe that we know intuitively that form matters, and that the message received may differ with the form even if the information is exactly the same. Consider the different meanings “I’m sorry” can carry depending upon the “form” (i.e. inflection). If said sincerely it expresses remorse. If said smuggly it means something more like, “Well, tough luck!” If said reluctantly it may not mean “sorry” at all. It may mean, “I still think I’m right but I will placate you by going through the motions.” Even when the words are exactly the same the message is different because the form is different. One more example of how we implicitly understand the important of form is the recent meme with the title “Fonts Matter.” The pictures is a side-by-side of two letters with the exact same words: “You’ll always be mine.” One, however, is written in beautiful calligraphy and signed with a heart. The other is written in rugged strokes and signed with a blood spatter. We immediately understand that one indicates affection and the other indicates a threat. Are we to believe that “form matters” in all of these areas but not in worship? I suggest that the “message” that people receive in worship also differs along with the form, even if the sermon is exactly the same.
2. James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 79.
3. Ibid, 76.
4. Ibid.

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 3)

 

In our discussion of habits we have learned that habits are formed through the “frequent and constant pairing of internal responses with external events.”1 We described this in terms of Charles Duhigg’s “habit-loop.”2 We also described how habits can actually create love/craving.3 This, however, presents us with a problem which is the subject of this article. Because habits are formed by “frequent and constant pairing” it is possible to learn bad habits without knowing it.

Some habits we choose to develop through practice. We choose to undergo the routine of piano practice or dance practice or learning to drive. These habits have their own habit-loops. And we choose to create them. But it is also possible that habit-loops are formed without our knowing. Someone may be commandeering our humanity for their own purposes. (The Power of Habit is about just that–about how companies, through knowledge of the habit-loop, create habits in us without us knowing). Consider a few examples of how we might learn something without knowing it.

Most of us are familiar with The Karate Kid even if we haven’t seen it.  At least we are familiar with the famous Wax-On-Wax-Off scene.  A younger generation may better know the newest incarnation of the film with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan.  For them Wax-On-Wax-Off has become Jacket-On-Jacket-Off.  In the film Dre Parker comes to Mr. Han and asks him to teach him Kung-Fu.  The first lesson is a lesson in respect.  Dre has a bad habit of throwing his jacket on the floor instead of hanging it up.  Mr. Han insists he put his jacket on, take it off, throw it on the ground, and then hang it up.  Dre thinks this is all about respect.  He comes to learn that while his mind may have been learning respect his body was learning Kung-Fu.  The movements involved in his jacket exercises are the same ones used to defend and to strike in Kung-Fu.  Dre is astonished at all that he learned without even knowing.  Mr. Han explains this phenomenon by saying, “Kung-Fu lives in everything we do, Xiao Dre.  It lives in how we put on the jacket, how we take off the jacket.  It lives in how we treat people.  Everything is Kung-Fu.”  Just like he learned Kung-Fu without realizing it we can also learn to love a particular vision of The Good Life without realizing it.  We could paraphrase Mr. Han and say, “Love lives in everything we do … Everything is love.”  We can do so because “no habit or practice is neutral … All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person.  So one of the most important questions we need to ask is: Just what kind of person is this habit or practice trying to produce, and to what end is such a practice aimed?”4

I doubt many of us will be learning Kung-Fu from Jackie Chan, but that does not mean that we do not learn things in a similar manner. We often learn things without intending. First, consider the fact that many people know the Wax-On-Wax-Off reference even if they’ve never seen the movie. The reference is simply “in the air” and, like much of our knowledge (including habits), it is “caught not taught.” Second, there is a whole set of words called collocations which we know “by heart” without ever having been taught.  These are word pairs which always appear in the same order.  There is no rational reason as to why they must appear in that order but native speakers know in which order they are supposed to occur, and they recognize how odd those pairs sound in the wrong order.  Phrases like “back and forth” sound odd when arranged as “forth and back.”  “Down and out” also sounds off if reversed to become “out and down.”  Native speakers would likely understand the meaning if the collocations were used incorrectly but they would also know that it is incorrect.  Further, if a student was to ask why they must be in that order we would have no answer except, “They just are.”  Collocations are “caught not taught.”  We learned them simply by being regularly exposed to their “frequent and constant pairing.”   Chances are most native speakers reading this never knew collocations existed.  They were certainly never sat down with a list of word pairs and taught that these words must always appear in that order.  That’s not how it works.  We learned these things without knowing we were learning them.

These examples are different but the mechanism is the same.  And the difference between these things is an important one.  Certain habits touch nearer to the center of who we are than others.  Learning collocations does not change us nearly so much as learning Kung-Fu.  And learning to be compassionate touches us even nearer to our core.  James K.A. Smith names these greater and lesser habits “thick” and “thin” practices.

 

“There seems to be an important difference between the goal of learning to type automatically and the goal of being the sort of person who forgives ‘automatically.’  There’s a difference between automatic habits that enable one to drive a car and automatic habits that make one dispositionally nonviolent.  Brushing one’s teeth may be an automated activity, but it seems significantly different from being compassionate automatically.”5

 

Remember, habits have the capacity to create love. Whether it’s a craving for tingling gums, a head of shampoo suds6, or a craving for justice, habits can create these desires. But when these habits are “thick” and touch our ultimate desires/loves then these habits can be effectively described as liturgies. “Liturgies are the most loaded forms of ritual practice because they are after nothing less than our hearts. They want to determine what we love ultimately … Our ultimate love is what defines us, what makes us the kind of people we are. In short, it is what we worship.”7 In other words, these practices are quite literally teaching us what to worship. And because this sort of automation happens through “frequent and constant pairing”, often without our knowledge, we could very well be learning to worship things other than the God of heaven without even knowing it.

Take the mall for example.8   It has its own liturgies with its own recognition of “sin” and promise of redemption. This liturgy creates a love of “stuff” which promises me freedom from my own mediocre life and redemption from social ineptitude. The following is an exegesis of the Story within the liturgy of the Mall.

1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.9 The mall has its own version of sin and brokenness. In the Message of the Mall my brokenness is not ethical but material, physical, and social. I am faced with all of the “stuff” that makes families in the ads so happy and at the same time tells me that I don’t have that same stuff. Each mannequin and photoshopped portrait I pass convicts me of my failure to measure up to media standards. And the happy smiles surrounding the man/woman with the new shoes remind me that I am not surrounded by those same smiles. And each one of these while condemning also offers redemption. If only I bought the stuff I could be happy. If only I were as skinny I could be pretty. If only I had the shoes I could be popular. “As such, the liturgies of the market and mall convey a stealthy intuition about my own brokenness (and hence a veritable need for redemption), but in a way that plays off the power of shame and embarrassment.”10

2. I shop with others.11 We could just as well say “I shop against others.” The social relationship fostered by the liturgies of the Mall is not one of mutual respect and communion but one of subjective comparison and competition. Just as the Mall trains us to compare ourselves to the standards of mannequins and paintshopped models, it also trains us to see other people that way. We learn to assess others in a blink to recognize whether they measure up to the ideals of the Mall. We also learn to “keep score” in our competition with others. When we measure our opponents against the Perfect Example (incarnated in mannequins and photoshopped ads) we also measure ourselves against them. We either thrill at the victory of having won this battle (“I have the newest shoes and hers are so last year”) or we feel embarrassed once again at failing to be all that we feel we should be (“That guy is so ripped. I really should put more time in at the gym.”).

3. I shop (and shop and shop), therefore I am.12 The Gospel according to the Mall is one of redemption. The feeling of brokenness and insufficiency in us is paired with the promise of redemption held out by the hands of perfect plastic models. And we buy it. But the startling realization settles in all too quickly–we still do not look like they do. We still do not have the life they promised. We return from the mall to our same old routine. The hips we had going to the Mall are the same hips we have when we come home from the Mall and no new pair of jeans is going to change that (though we still believe they should). We still have to wash our hair, deal with acne, do our homework, and wash the dishes. The thrill of the purchase begins to fade and that new outfit we were sure would make us the belle of the ball is now dated and needs to be replaced. And there’s the rub. Replacement. Disposability. This is the Story latent in the liturgy of the Mall. “What the mall valorizes as sacred today will be profaned as ‘so five minutes ago’ tomorrow. Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness. What makes such serial acquisition consumptive is just this treatment of things as disposable.”13 The liturgies of the Mall train us to discard. Things are replaceable. We get rid of the old when it no longer pleases us and we trade it in for the new and updated. We learn to crave the novel. Our love is being pointed in the wrong direction. We no longer treasure things as sacred but dispose of them as profane.

4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.14 The liturgy of the Mall also trains us to ignore the dirty under belly of the consumer world. We rarely stop to ask ourselves, “Where did this stuff come from? And why is it so cheap?” We would much rather picture The Good Life as it is presented to us in the advertisements than to picture the oppression that our American Dream creates. We do not want to see those who work long hours just to make ends meet, and all that just so we can bring home a new (and cheap) t-shirt that we will discard in a matter of months.

 

“What the liturgy of the mall trains us to desire as the good life and ‘the American Way’ requires such massive consumption of natural resources and cheap (exploitive) labor that there is no possible way for this way of life to be universalized … The liturgy of consumption births in us a desire for a way of life that is destructive to creation itself; moreover, it births in us a desire for a way of life that we can’t feasibly extend to others, creating a system of privilege and exploitation. In short, the only way for this vision of this kingdom to be a reality is if we keep it to ourselves … Don’t ask; don’t tell; just consume.”15

 

This brief exegesis by James K.A. Smith of the liturgy of the Mall is just one example of the different visions of The Good Life which are latent in all sorts of activities in which we engage. We are thrown into these secular liturgies throughout our lives. The “frequent and constant pairing” of these “internal responses with external events” both create love and direct love whether we are aware of it or not. And when these liturgies touch us so near to our hearts they are training us to worship. But, because they are not aiming our hearts at the God in whose image we are made, they are actually de-humanizing us. For that reason we must beware. Not only that, we need something which will counter the de-formation of our hearts. (This is the place of Christian worship and will be the topic of the next two articles).  We need a liturgy which will present to us the True Story of the World. We need a liturgy which will aim our hearts at the Kingdom of God. We need worship which will remind us of what it means to be human. We need worship which will help to make us human. That’s what we need. We need to be human, because we were born to be.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” American Psychologist 54, (1999), 462-79, as quoted in James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 80.
2. Charlges Duhigg, The Power of Habit, Random House Trade Paperback Edition (New York: Random House, 2014), 3-30.
3. Ibid, 31-59.
4. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 83.
5. Ibid, 82.
6. Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 56-59.
7. Smith,Desiring the Kingdom,87.
8. Chapter 3 of Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is dedicated to “Cultural Exegesis of ‘Secular’ Liturgies.” Included in his analysis are liturgies of the mall, the stadium, and the university, 89-129.
9. Ibid, 96-97.
10. Ibid, 97.
11. Ibid, 97-99.
12. Ibid, 99-100.
13. Ibid, 100.
14. Ibid, 101-103.
15. Ibid, 101.