Restoring Liturgical Imagination

By Timothy Troutner

By the time I returned from Turkey this summer, I’d become convinced that American Christians have a lot to learn from the builders of the underground cities and towering domes that I and the rest of my class in the Honors Program had wandered through on our three-week trip. The iconography and Marian devotion displayed in ancient near eastern Christianity presented a jarring contrast to the contemporary practice of many in our group, but the striking perseverance of the Turkish church through intense persecution raised a vital question for us all: Do we still cultivate through our worship a vision that will allow the church to live faithfully in the modern world, or has our imagination been captured by the powers of our age, individualism and consumerism?For some of us, that question was answered as we faced a jarring transition from icons and monasteries to contemporary Christian worship in the city of Ephesus. No one knew quite what to expect as we approached the towering façade of one of the largest libraries in the ancient world for a vaguely titled “Ephesus meeting”. It soon became clear that we and several other tour groups from American colleges had been thrust into the center of a Christian gathering featuring lectures that ranged from dry to obscure (including one on the search for Noah’s Ark) and punctuated by popular songs from the contemporary Christian music canon. Afterwards, the response from the Hillsdale contingent was mixed.

Some were shell-shocked: we had been dropped without warning into a gathering of American tourists—organized by the tour agency—and expected to enter into a time of American-style worship immediately after experiencing the riches of the Christian heritage. The American worship music rang sentimental and shallow in contrast, and the veneer of commercial tourism was hard to shake. Where was the church body that could provide a genuine social context for this gathering? What was the logic underlying the order of the worship and lectures? Where were the sacraments? Above all, how could this impoverished liturgical imagination sustain Christian community in the midst of the dominant Islamic and secular cultures that surrounded us in Turkey and at home in America?

Not everyone shared this reaction. For some, the night was a taste of home, an opportunity to fellowship with other Christians in Turkey, of all places. Despite not knowing each other, Christians had the opportunity to express their personal relationship with God. Paying a lot of attention to liturgical details was beside the point.

While sincere believers in many Christian traditions, both low church and high church, worship God through their liturgies and go out into the world to counter cultural trends that fail to conform to their faith, there is too often a disconnect between liturgy and intention. In many cases, the church has failed to appreciate how powerful and subversive its liturgy can be. As a result, many American liturgies miss out on critical opportunities to provide an alternative to the individualism, sentimentalism, and presentism of modern American culture. These three symptoms—the image of the individual worshipper as consumer, the dominance of sentiment, and the supremacy of the present—provide evidence that our liturgical imagination has been captured by the spirit of the age.

The Liturgical Imagination

In the Christian churches and Muslim mosques we toured in Turkey, our group caught a glimpse of what I will call “the liturgical imagination”: the cultivation of practices and art that shape a community, providing a holistic vision of life that can withstand opposition.

The way the community worshipped and the way it lived were intertwined: for instance, the church or mosque was the center of the community both physically and symbolically. This is how liturgies work. In the Jewish and Christian tradition, as American theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, the Ten Commandments begin by forbidding certain liturgical practices—idols and images—and move on to what we would consider “ethical” issues. As he put it, “One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics.” The liturgy of a people defines that people and the way they live.

This imagination that builds a community often does so in the face of opposition. In Turkish caves and monasteries and on the walls of churches that had later become mosques, beautiful icons stood as reminders of the power of beauty as Christian witness, even in the midst of hostile cultures. The church’s strength came from its ability to capture the liturgical imagination—dominated by imperial power and the cult of the emperor among other things—and build around icons and the celebration of the sacred mysteries a community that survived persecution. As Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat put it in their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, “the primary responsibility of Christian proclamation is to empower the community to reimagine the world as if Christ, and not the powers, were sovereign.”

I suspect that at the bottom of some of the discontent among those at the Ephesus meeting was a suspicion that what we were seeing was somehow more representative of American consumer culture than the heritage of the church. Although not all low church worship is compromised by these tendencies, too often Christian traditions have resorted to fighting modern culture with its own tools rather than forming souls through practices that subvert and challenge it. With the abandonment of the richness of communal liturgical life, an opportunity is lost to present a radical alternative to modern society.

The high church liturgical tradition possesses the greatest resources for the liturgical imagination. It is not free from influence by sentimentality and consumerism, and many parishes attempting to catechize properly indeed fail to take advantage of their heritage. Nevertheless, the participatory, habitual, sacramental worship expressed in the beautiful, solemn art of the ancient Turkish Christians—a rich tradition still preserved in high church liturgies–offers an opportunity to check the worst tendencies of Americanism. Christians in low church traditions can learn from the elements of their heritage present in these liturgies in order to resist capitulation to secular culture and offer an adequate response to the modern world.

The Consumer Replaces the Member of the Body

Our age is the age of the consumer. Surrounded by abundant choice, bombarded with endless advertising, and inundated with entertainment options, modern men conceive of themselves as autonomous, an image that is reinforced by a world that seeks to cater to their every pleasure. The individual is supreme and the world exists to serve him. Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon have written that “Our society, in brief, is built on the presumption that the good society is that in which each person gets to be his or her own tyrant.”

Manifesting Christian spirituality in an age like this requires that we train ourselves to recognize our dependence on others and involve ourselves in tasks that are greater than our own desires and plans. We are not consumers, standing at the top of the food chain, but servants, called to participate in a great work. In the traditional understanding, worship is centered on a liturgy. The root of liturgy could be translated as “the work of the people”. The people prepare themselves together, confessing their sins to each other, hearing the gospel and participating in receiving it with thanksgiving. In the caves and underground cities of Turkey, the mutual dependence of Christian worship was unmistakable. When their communities were literally set apart, working together to provide for daily needs and avoid persecution, it was impossible to conceive of Christianity as individualist. While this dependence is not as outwardly obvious in Christian communities today, the church’s liturgy should serve to remind believers that they need one another and are working together in worship.

Traditional liturgies reinforce this truth in a multitude of ways. For example, in the Catholic Mass, everything is centered on participation. The very shape of the churches emphasizes participation and community. The altar serves as a visual reminder that the drama does not take place solely in the heart of the individual, but between the worshipping community and God. The ritual prayers turn the focus toward the other Christians throughout the world, the parish and diocese, ensuring that the liturgy cannot remain private. Finally, the centrality of the Eucharist means that the service focuses on involves the idea of a sacrifice participated in by the people as a whole. The Eucharist emphasizes not only the reception of Christ’s real presence, but the unity of the church as “one loaf”. As a result, the people together go through a series of communal acts: confession, prayer, and recitation of the creed, preparing themselves to participate in the drama of the Eucharist. Practices like these in traditional liturgies emphasize that this is not a performance for an audience or a passive reception by consumers but participation in a divine economy that transcends time and place.

Too often, low church liturgical practices, by contrast, fail to take advantage of the opportunity to subvert the image of the worshipper as individual consumer. 

The outward manifestations of worship do not emphasize the concept of common work, but often take the form of performances before an audience. The buildings are more likely to resemble places of entertainment, with the prominence of the stage presenting a dangerous potential to bifurcate the body into consumers and performers. The importance placed on having a dynamic band or personable worship leader and the existence of CCM, the Christian music industry, further reinforce the performance mentality.

Instead of focusing on mutual dependence, these churches fall into one of two errors: turning outward or turning inward to the individual. 

The “seeker-sensitive” church tries to cater to those who are not a part of the believing community, further eroding the concept of the liturgy as shared participation in a divine mystery. Megachurches merely represent the logic taken to its extreme, sharing marketing strategies and posturing to capture youth with catchy phrases and logos. The concept of shared participation in a joint sacrifice is almost entirely absent.

Many low church worshippers avoid the danger of consumerism only to replace it with a “me and Jesus” spirituality that emphasizes worship as an emotional expression of the individual’s relationship with God. In other words, it is still about the individual, who even if not a consumer, is participating not in a communal act but in a highly personal communion with God directly.

While individual spirituality is important, the liturgy of the church represents something more—an opportunity to join in a work that makes God present to man, to participate in a moment where eternity meets human temporality. In an age in which individuals are pursuing satisfaction of their own desires and coming up empty, such worship represents an opportunity to break out of individual consumerism. Churches from all traditions can learn to emphasize communal practices and seek to understand their liturgies as common work. Renewed focus on the Eucharist can be a powerful encouragement toward countercultural community.

Sentiment Divorced from Order and Reason

In our world of short attention spans and consumerism, appeals to sentiment are everywhere. Seldom are well-reasoned cases made in either politics or advertising, both of which favor thirty-second sound bites that cajole the audience through fear, hope, or jealousy. There is little time for organization of a message into a carefully crafted presentation, and thus both reason and order have taken a back seat to the sentiments. Given this cultural background, Stanley Hauerwas has written, “The greatest enemy of the church is not atheism, but sentimentality.”

High church liturgies once again offer an opportunity to check this tendency. First, high church liturgies ground sentiment and liturgical expression in structure and order. Recognizing that God is not a God of disorder (1 Corinthians 14), high church liturgies seek to ground the passions in an order of worship that allows for their expression. The liturgy seeks not only to be an outlet for the passions, but to channel and shape them rightly. For example, confession and the ritual recognition of sin offer an opportunity for sorrow and repentance and the Eucharist allows for individual communion with God. The songs and prayers are not interchangeable expressions of emotional praise, but fit within a structure that ensures that passion is informed by reason. Each prayer and song has a place in advancing the community’s participation in the sacrifice of the Mass, forming either preparation or a response for the Liturgy of the Word or the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The passions can lead one astray, but when moderated and guided by reason and order, they too can lead the community toward God. 

Second, the richness of high church liturgical tradition always connects sentiment with reason and truth. The liturgy is intended to reach the whole person. In large part, this is due to the structure of the liturgy itself, which rewards careful attention. Something can be learned from the very order of worship. In the creeds and prayers, the liturgy always contains profound truths from the Christian heritage. Perhaps most importantly, the high church liturgy does not separate sentiment and reason by separating worship and the sermon as starkly as low church traditions often do, instead reinforcing the union of head and heart in the Christian life. Rather than towering over the service, the short homily is placed within the liturgy and serves to draw out connections between the readings that will enrich the church’s life. This integrated vision represents a profound and appealing contrast to the shallow sentiment of modern culture. 

Third, the prominence of habit in high church liturgies provides an opportunity to edify and supplement sentiment when emotion and passion are not fully engaged, as is often the case. Even if you are not “in the mood”, going through the rituals and practices can shape your soul. 

Unfortunately, too often American worship has settled for the sentimentality of popular culture instead of mining the past for alternatives. First, low church worship is notoriously suspicious of order and repetition. Too much order and liturgical habit seems to many Evangelicals to smack of the “vain repetition” Jesus warned against. However, this lack of order means that there is little attention paid to shaping the emotions. This can result in there being little room for emotions other than joy—no time of confession or contrition. Too often, there is a simple separation between a time of joyful worship and a time of passively listening to the sermon. As a result, sentimentality is given free rein, and too often it reflects only a limited range of the human passions.

Second, low church worship often fails to take advantage of the heritage of theological truth it has inherited. This often results in a lack of substance, leaving the worshipper to be sustained merely by emotion. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the notorious resemblance of certain worship songs to shallow love songs. The popular “How He Loves Us” with the line “heaven meets earth like sloppy wet kiss” is merely the most egregious example of this trend. The problem with praise songs like this is not the usage of romantic imagery—read the Song of Solomon. Rather, it is that the imagery is not supported and upheld by deep theological truth. Most worship songs express one’s love for God, which is a noble truth. However, largely missing are reflections on the Church, the Eucharist, and the divine economy. The content is not the deposit of the faith entrusted to the church, but the heart of the one singing the song.

Finally, the absence of habit and the extreme focus on authentic sentiment provides little for those who aren’t “feeling it”. With little substance holding the sentiment together, low church worship is often subject to the fickleness of human emotion. When you aren’t “feeling it,” how can you worship?

In each of these ways, low church worship appears to have neglected the most powerful tools for involving the entire person. Given the cultural dominance of emotion divorced from order and reason, faithful Christian liturgy requires an integration of reason and emotion, held together by order. Looking to the resources of the past still present in high church liturgies can help maintain this balance.

The Dominance of the Present

Finally, our age is one dominated by the present. Once again, consumerism plays a part. The search for the latest and greatest innovation drives industry and advertising. The philosophies of our age emphasize progress and being on “the right side of history,” which is coincidentally always the future and never the past. Traditions have been dismissed as mere evolutionary stages to the civilization of the present, and huge swaths of history have been dismissed as “the Dark Ages” or “the Middle Ages”. Human life has become focused either on the momentary now or on the promise of a utopian culture.

Orthodox theology emphasizes the importance of the time of the incarnation and the cross, which ripple through history, forming its center. The church today depends upon centuries of faithful tradition. It must always look backward to move forward. 

In the celebration of the Eucharist, the church learns to offer not only the bread and the wine but the entirety of the present moment as a sacrifice, in a real sense transcending our temporality and standing rooted in the past, at the foot of cross. Finally, the celebration of the liturgical year trains the imagination to mark time in terms of Advent, Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost, and the feasts of the Saints. Each of these serves as a reminder that we are not merely creatures of the present. We can access an eternal moment in the Eucharist, look to the Church’s past, and mark our days by the liturgical calendar. As Hauerwas has written, “God saves by making possible the existence of a people who are formed by God’s time.” The Church has its own mode of time, which can only subvert the presentism of American life.

Once again, low church liturgies downplay each of the elements that mark a distinctively Christian mode of time: the real access to a timeless sacrifice in the Eucharist, the importance of tradition, and the liturgical calendar. Instead, Evangelicals have too often been captured by the search for novelty or “relevance”. Churches need to adopt rock music or have a culturally hip worship pastor to keep up with the youth. Worship wars pit the newest generation of music against the old. Neither is defending a continuous tradition; rather, each expresses its preference for a particular brand of worship, one the status quo and one the newest trend.

High church liturgy is not a celebration of the old for its own sake, but rather of a tradition normed by the church’s center and attentive to its past. In this framework, one can raid the cultures of the present to “plunder the Egyptians”, as Augustine put it. However, the present is not dominant, but must be put in its place by Christ, tradition, and the church calendar.

Learning to decenter the present will require using the resources of high church liturgies to recapture the imagination of the church.

The church in our increasingly post-Christian age needs to learn from its heritage how to capture the “liturgical imagination” in order to create the communities our world needs. This will mean subverting the powerful forces of modernity: consumerism, sentimentality, and presentism. Unfortunately, the church has too often abandoned its resources and capitulated to what it should be fighting.

If I were to answer my low church friends who were not bothered by the Ephesus meeting, I would ask them to open their imagination. Consider the possibility that the way you are used to singing, praying, and worshipping might be influenced by modernity. Study other traditions and the history of the church and let yourself be shaped by your heritage, not secular culture.

For me, visiting Turkey was an opportunity to do this in person. Not everyone has this opportunity to visit the roots of their faith. However, Hillsdale is a community uniquely prepared for these conversations across traditions. Visit other churches. Talk to your peers. Ask about why your church sings and prays the way it does. Perhaps you will find that your church has not taken full advantage of the “liturgical imagination”. Either way, such a search can only deepen our joint quest for faithful Christian worship in our modern world. 

Timothy Troutner is a senior studying history and philosophy.

Image courtesy Emily Lehman.


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