alastair.adversaria » Worship

The Primacy of the Imagination

MC Escher - Concave and Convex

Reformed Christians have traditionally tended to operate in terms of the primacy of the intellect. Even when we deny that we are doing so, our worship and the message that we preach are primarily directed at the mind. Much of our teaching and evangelism operates on the assumption that reality is primarily grasped with the mind. I have long regarded such assumptions and the forms of pedagogy that have resulted from it as fundamentally misguided.

If we are going to talk about the ‘primacy’ of anything in man’s grasping of his world, let us speak of the primacy of the imagination. The very act of perceiving our world necessarily involves the imagination. There is no such thing as mere perception. We do not merely ‘see’ our world; every act of perception is an act of ‘seeing as’. The imagination is that which governs our ‘seeing as’. The facts that the mind deals with are never ‘brute facts’, but facts that result from the imagination’s engagement with the world. The ‘reality’ that the mind thinks about is a reality that has already been processed by the imagination in the act of perception. The imagination provides the foundation upon which the mind and will build.

The imagination provides us with the lenses through which we view the world. Whether we are aware of its activity or not, it acts nonetheless. Those who underestimate the role played by the imagination will become its prisoners. People with incredibly sharp minds, trapped within a false picture and story of the world will often never get out, just digging themselves deeper into the hole that they are in. All of their thinking merely tightens their grip on a false perception of reality. There are few people more frustrating to debate with; not only are they often incredibly arrogant in their conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong, they are also unable to understand how anyone could really see things differently.

The great leaps in thought almost always result from the activity of the imagination. Many of us have experienced paradigm shifts in our own thinking. Such shifts are achieved by the imagination, enabling us to see everything in a new way. Our rational faculty then tightens our new grip on our reality. Training the imagination is very important if we are to arrive at a deeper apprehension of God’s truth. A trained imagination is better able to purposefully and consciously attempt to re-imagine the world. Those with a trained imagination will be better equipped to imaginatively see the world through the eyes of others and will be better able to come to an understanding of and overcome the limitations of their own vision. The ability to consciously re-imagine our world, to see things differently, is one of the most important abilities that we can develop.

The lack of an appreciation of the essential role played by the imagination and the lack of any training for the imagination seriously weakens theology. Even the sharpest mind can be of very limited use in the absence of a trained imagination. Mere logical consistency seldom solves much, as logic generally operates within the reality that the imagination grants us. Logic merely strengthens or slightly corrects our grip on a particular way of viewing the world; by itself it does not enable us to do what the imagination permits us to do: change our way of viewing completely.

By working in terms of an anthropology that presumes the primacy of the intellect, Reformed Christians have often failed to develop and harness the power of the imagination. We talk a lot about ‘worldviews’, but worldviews are generally understood in very ideological terms. A ‘worldview’ is seen as a set of propositions or a conceptual construct that shapes the way that we view reality. However, such ideological grids do not play anywhere near as much of a role in our vision of reality as Reformed people generally presume. Mere reflection on our day to day lives should expose the weakness of the notion that our engagement with reality is primarily mediated by ideological systems.

In reality, ideological systems only play a relatively limited role in our engagement with, and way of seeing reality. By thinking that practically everything can be reduced to thinking, we have made a huge error. The way that we see and engage with reality has far more to do with practices that we engage in unreflectively, the stories that we live in terms of, the symbols that are significant to us, the technologies that we use, the cultural artefacts that we produce, the communities that we belong to, the questions that we ask, etc. Our ‘worldview’ is, thus, a matter as broad as culture itself and is quite irreducible to mere ideology.

By failing to appreciate this, Reformed churches have often tended to produce a lot of ideologues with stunted imaginations and little in the way of a distinct culture. In addressing their message to the mind and failing to address the imagination, they have left Christians dangerously ill-equipped to engage with the world as Christians. In other Church traditions a rich liturgy, sacramental form of worship, use of the Church calendar and regular readings from the Gospels and OT narratives powerfully form people’s imaginations. Reformed Christians lack almost all of these things.

The Reformed faith centres on slogans (e.g. justification by faith alone, TULIP, the solas, etc.), rather than stories. We focus on a doctrine of justification, often at expense of a story of justification. Our worship does not convey a vision of the world, or even a powerful narrative so much as a mere disembodied set of ideas. Practically every part of Reformed worship is addressed to the mind. Even the sacraments are treated as if they were pictures of ideas. When the Eucharist is celebrated, great effort is often expended to ensure that people know what the rite means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. In most Reformed churches the congregant doesn’t participate much with their body. There is no kneeling, no kiss of peace, no walking, etc. The body is treated as if it were primarily a mind-container.

There is also little engagement with the narrative of Scripture. Bible readings are frequently subordinated to the sermon. The narrative is there to be analyzed from without. We also tend to downplay the biblical narrative in favour of the doctrines of the epistles, abstracting the latter from the former. Even when we do treat the narrative parts of Scripture we tend to focus on extracting the important ideas or moral lessons from the narrative. Seldom do we really encounter the narrative as narrative. In other parts of the Church the Church calendar, for instance, encourages people to read the story of Scripture from within. The sort of relationship that one develops with the narrative of Scripture in a liturgical church is very different from the sort of relationship that one develops in the ideological church, where everything is subordinated to preaching. In the latter type of church the narrative of Scripture tends to become obscured pretty quickly and the idea that the Scriptures narrate a world for us to inhabit seems quite bizarre.

The reason why all of this is so significant is due to the fact that liturgy, ritual and the narrative of Scripture are primarily directed, not to the mind, but to the imagination. Mark Searle expresses the purpose of liturgy and ritual well:

By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.

Kneeling, for example, is not an expression of our humanity: it is more an invitation to discover what reality looks like when we put ourselves in that position. The texts of Scripture and the images of the liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until, gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the “Reality” of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought (at least, not immediately), but to mediate encounter. As Heidegger said in another context: “The point is not to listen to a series of propositions, but to follow the movement of showing.”

So there is a discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating, and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning (the res) which they mediate.

Where such a liturgy is absent, we should not be surprised to find that a Christian imagination is also lacking.

As a result of our neglect of the imagination, when it comes to the arts, I think that Reformed Christians are in real danger of seriously underestimating their significance. The most powerful voices in any society are those prophetic voices that present us with new ways of viewing our world. The prophet or visionary presents people with a vision or picture of the world and people begin to live in terms of this new picture. The prophet tells stories and paints pictures, stories and pictures that reshape people’s ways of seeing their reality. This was one of the purposes of Jesus’ parables, for instance. It is not accidental that movements in philosophy are often deeply born out of movements in the arts. Postmodernism is a wonderful example of this. Movements in art and architecture in many ways prepared the ground for and presaged the later movements in ideas. As the artists developed new ways of seeing the world, the philosophers begin to articulate the inner logic of these new ways of viewing the world.

If I am right in my claim that a true ‘worldview’ is practically identical to ‘culture’, it is worth questioning to what extent we can speak of a Reformed worldview at all. Reformed Christians have an ideological system, but an ideological system is not sufficient to constitute a worldview. If we do have a worldview, it gives us a narrowly intellectual and insubstantial vision of reality. As one poet once claimed, Calvinism takes the Word made flesh and makes it word again. Rather than embodying a new culture, we proclaim a rather abstract doctrinal system. Our message is one of disincarnate ideas and our chief contribution to culture may well be capitalism, which despite all of its benefits, is hardly the product of a particularly rich vision of society.

Largely as a result of its neglect of liturgy, the Reformed faith has not really produced many great artists, poets and writers. Distinctly Reformed contributions to culture are few and far between. The great Christian imaginations tend to arise from Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communities. Those in Reformed circles who do possess deeply Christian imaginations and ways of looking at the world have generally spent formative years in one of these communions, or come from Reformed churches with richer liturgies. Despite the confused character of their faith in many respects, I must acknowledge the strong purchase that Christianity has on the imagination of many of the people I know who have been brought up in churches with rich liturgies. Even many of the great non-Christian writers owe much to the visions of the world given by medieval Christianity, for instance. In the Reformation Reformed Christians corrected dangerous errors in the medieval understanding of Christian truth, but lost much of its imagination and vision.

Not recognizing the full significance of the imagination in shaping us, evangelicals and Reformed Christians are at particular risk when it comes to films and literature. Lacking a deep Christian imagination and intuitive sense of the Christian story we are more vulnerable to being misled by the weak stories and visions that our society presents us with. The right ideas alone cannot protect us from the subtly persuasive power of such visions of reality. On the other hand, we are at risk of failing to appreciate the great benefit that can be gained from reading really good literature. A deep faith needs to draw upon far more than theology volumes and the incarnate truths that we encounter in godly visions of reality in literature and the arts are extremely important for us.

The Christian faith presents us with a beautiful story and a compelling vision of the world. Christianity’s hold on the Western imagination is great, even among those who try to reject the faith. The Christian message appeals to our imagination before it addresses our logic and reason. Unfortunately, the vision of the world that most Christians operate in terms of today is quite anaemic and lacks the fullness of classic Christian thought. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Christianity is becoming less and less of a force within our society. People regard Christians as ideologues rather than as people with a rich cultural vision and grasp of the ‘good life’. Christianity is seen as a set of disincarnate ideas, rather than as a world-encompassing story that we can truly be at home within, a form of renewed life and a fertile vision for culture and society. A Christian recovery of the arts and classic Christian literature is an important step toward reformation in this area.

I am convinced that only Christian faith is capable of sustaining a healthy and robust imagination. Only the Church presents us with a story that is truly big enough to inhabit and a story that fertile enough to enable us to grow. In a society that is losing its imagination, the Church has much to offer as an alternative culture. However, before we seek to reach the world we must first cultivate a new culture and vision of the world within the Church itself. We must recover our own imaginations by re-engaging with the Story of Scripture and immersing ourselves in the liturgy. As our imaginations are reformed and we begin to incarnate a rich vision of life and culture within the Church, people will see Christian faith as God intended it to be seen. In light of all of this proper engagement with the arts and cultivation of the imagination is probably one of the key tasks awaiting any Church concerned about mission. We need to recapture the imagination of our society and to do so we must regain our own and begin to understand the reasons why the imagination of the world around is failing.

@ 10:33 pm | 24 Comments

Against the Youth-Driven Church

This video has been posted by a number of people in the blogosphere. Like most others, I strongly disagree with this guy in a number of areas and believe that his argument against the Emerging Church is riddled with problems. However, rather than mocking, I think that it might be helpful to try to see where he might just have a point.

There was a time when many Christians were very concerned to keep away from pop music and TV because they believed that they introduced dangerous ‘worldly’ ways of thinking and acting. As sophisticated and enlightened contemporary Christians we tend to look at such notions with amusement and see the preoccupation with avoiding such ‘worldliness’ as being largely a concern of a naive fundamentalism. We happily watch 18 (or R)-rated movies and provide clever reviews that show the Christian themes that are subtly interwoven with the sex and the violence. We listen to music that celebrates radically unchristian forms of sexuality or to Christian artists that often seek to ape such music. Perhaps we are justified in this; what really troubles me is that the concerns for godliness and a distinctly and transparently Christian way of living exemplified by many of an older generation really don’t seem to register with us to the same extent. For all of the naivete of their vision, they had a vision for such holiness and godliness, which is more than I can say for many of us. For all of our sophistication I sometimes wonder whether we could learn some basic lessons in being a godly and a holy people from an older generation.

We live in a youth-driven society. Whether in the media or on the web, older people are hardly visible. For instance, the very fact that most of our theological discussions occur online prevents most elderly people from having any active voice in the conversation. When older people appear in the media, they are often ridiculed. Their style, their tastes, their knowledge of the world, their ethics and their values are all out of date. The new and the young are to be celebrated and the old is to be sidelined and dismissed.

Many areas of the Church have bought into this way of thinking. They have glorified the ‘new’ and sit very loosely to the accumulated wisdom of older generations. The Emerging Church is one area where this can be observed. The concern to be hip and on the cutting edge often trumps the concern to be faithful and submissive to the wisdom of our fathers in the faith.

The Church should be one place where a radically different culture prevails. It should be a place where older generations are honoured and treated with respect, even when they are wrong. Biblical societies are generally ruled and led by elders, not by young turks. Many contemporary evangelicals have forgotten this and their churches are driven by the desires of their young people and the most influential leaders are under the age of 40 (ideally, it seems to me, churches should not be led by people under the age of 50).

One of the deepest sins of many of the youth-driven trends in the Church is their determined movement away from catholicity. Rejecting a catholic Church they opt for youth churches or stratify the Church into age groups in other ways. Rather than worshipping in a way that reflects the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition, their worship tends to be dominated by (generally sappy and biblically illiterate) songs written by young, popular and rich Western Christian evangelical artists who are within the contemporary Christian music industry. One of the great things about singing traditional Christian hymns is that we have the opportunity to sing words written by people from all over the world, from countless different backgrounds and generations, and with hugely varied vocations. We get to sing songs by laypeople and bishops, by monks and martyrs, by missionaries to pagan lands and travelling preachers, by Reformers and by Catholics. We sing songs written by people many centuries and countless miles removed from us. We sing songs written by people from cultures that are quite alien to our own, but with whom we share a citizenship in heaven. In the process the parochial nature of our own tastes is challenged and we learn to listen with appreciation and humility to people who differ radically from us. Of course, singing the psalms, we have something even better. We have the opportunity to sing words written by Moses and David.

Sadly, rather than express our respect for our older brothers and sisters in Christ by submitting to the wisdom of the Christian tradition of music and worship, we tend to start worship wars, causing tensions and splits in churches because of our (frankly) ‘worldly’ desire to sing songs that conform to our contemporary Western appetites. Generally the modern worship wars seem to be driven by our ever-changing tastes in music, rather than by real theological or biblical concerns. Where are the voices calling for increased use of the psalms? They are few and far between, largely because the psalms do not generally provide what we believe that the ‘worship experience’ should give us. Where are the deep theologies of worship? Much of the worship wars are about our love for ‘thrashing, bashing and crashing’, rather than about any sort of coherent theology of Church music. Although I am someone who believes that ‘thrashing, bashing and crashing’ music should not be ruled out of the Church, I have no desire to align myself with those for whom the introduction of such music is purely an attempt to accommodate the worship of the Church to their their personal tastes in music, rather than an attempt to discern how God would have us worship Him and what is fitting for the praise of the saints.

Our concern tends to be that we have a good ‘worship experience’, rather than that we worship God joyfully and appropriately. If a particular song or style of music doesn’t conform to our personally tastes, so be it. We are worshipping God, not ourselves. Fittingness for the task of worshipping God should always take priority over everything else.

Finally, I have commented in the past on the infantilization of many quarters of the Church. It is not surprising that this tendency is accelerated in churches where the younger generation sets the agenda. The comments that the man makes in this video about the ‘young and stupid’ are not without a degree of correspondence to reality.

All of this, and the biblical command to honour and respect our elders, makes me quite reluctant to poke fun at this man’s expression of his opinion. For all of his misunderstanding and prejudice, he does have some valid points to make and we would do well to pay heed.

@ 9:35 pm | 13 Comments

Shutting the Women Up

Peter Leithart shares some helpful insights on the Apostle Paul’s silencing of women. I would like to see this spelled out in more detail in a reading of 1 Corinthians 14, but it seems to be a promising line to take.

So it has come to this…

Worship and the Cartesian Man

James K.A. Smith writes:—

I had the opportunity to “experience” a version of one of these services in Geneva (Service 10, “Queer”). This was going to be my first “emerging” worship experience, so I came with much anticipation. And I was not disappointed (I still have the shard of broken tile I took from the service). However, I was struck by one thing: the service was remarkably Protestant. By that I don’t just mean to toss out an epithet or a label. I mean it as a shorthand. By describing the service as “Protestant,” I only mean to say that I was surprised at how “heady” the service was, and how text-driven and text-centered the worship was. (Granted, we were just a few yards from John Calvin’s church, so maybe the sermon-centric vibes of the Reformation had wafted over.) While the service included key affective elements (the man’s body being marked by epithets, the very tangible pieces of broken rocks and tiles we could touch), this was happening around a very textual, cognitive, rather sermonic center. Granted, this wasn’t your grandpa’s “three point” sermon or anything, but it still required the sorts of cognitive processing that characterizes text-centered Protestant worship.

Now, why does this matter? Why focus on this point? Well, I think one of the key paradigm shifts that took place in modernity (particularly after Descartes) was the adoption of a new model of the human person that considered the human to be primarily and essentially a “thinking thing”—primarily a cognitive mind that, regrettably and contingently, inhabits a meaty body. As a result, the primary and most important activity that thinking things can undertake is, you guessed it, thinking. This shift manifests itself in the life of the church with the Reformation, which displaced the centrality of the Eucharist (a very tactile, affective, sensual mode of worship) and put the sermon (the Word) at the center. The heart of worship becomes “teaching,” and the shape of worship becomes driven by very cognitive, basically rationalist tendencies. This develops to the point of caricature in the evangelical worship service centered around bullet points on the PowerPoint presentation.

Despite the “postmodern” critiques of religion offered by Derrida, Caputo, et. al., I find that they continue to exhibit this modernist paradigm insofar as they still think that religion comes down to a matter of knowledge (or rather, not knowing). And I wonder if we don’t see the lingering effects of this in the liturgies sketched in Part 2 of How (Not) to Speak of God. Granted, this isn’t a pure rationalism—there are aspects of affective embodiment, and they are ‘liturgies,’ after all; but I do wonder whether they’re still not primarily “driven” by quite heady, cognitive, didactic concerns. In this way, they tend to reflect the kinds of wrestlings and wranglings of a certain class who have had the opportunity to get to have such doubts.

Perhaps I can put a point on this: for me, one of the tests of whether worship is properly “holistic” (and thus animated by a holistic, non-rationalist model of the human person) is the extent to which my children can enter in to worship. (Because of a certain worshiping community I’ve been a part of, I’m also attentive to the degree to which mentally-challenged adults can participate in worship as a criterion.) In the “Queer” service, my kids—who are, I think, pretty sharp—would have had a hard time ‘keeping up,’ had a hard time understanding what was going on. They would have been intrigued by the curiosities of the “marked man,” etc., but there was ALOT of words to process and they would have been lost in a sea of ideas.

I would contrast this to the affective simplicity of a traditional Tenebrae service on Good Friday (a “service of shadows”). While the service is organized by Christ’s seven sayings from the cross, there is not much else text or commentary. Instead, there is the simple amalgam of words, candles being gradually snuffed, sounds and silence. My children, from when they were little, sit enraptured by this service. Its affective simplicity testifies, I think, to a pre-modern understanding of the person as an affective, embodied creature—rational, sure, but not primarily rational.

This is why I wonder whether, for the future of the church, we really need to invent something new, or rather creatively retrieve premodern sources. While some are trying to imagine a new future for the church “after” modernity, I’m betting that the future is Catholic.

I am not sure that I would go quite as far as Smith does here, but I think that he makes some important points. In particular, I think that he is right in observing a connection between a particular — and rather questionable — understanding of the human being and the manner of worship. Protestant worship (and Reformed and Puritan worship in particular) often operates on the assumption that man is primarily a thinker. The rationalism that underlies many Protestant conceptions of worship has been observed by James Jordan and others like him a number of times in the past. The irrationalism that characterizes much contemporary evangelical worship is also largely a reaction to the rationalism that is seen to be the alternative.

Operating with a rationalistic definition of the human being, the worship service must downplay the body and focus on addressing itself to the mind. Candles, incense, clerical vestments, kneeling, processions, silence (except as a time for thinking), fine church buildings, and even in some cases music itself, are seen as distractions from rational worship, which should be removed. Elements of worship such as the Eucharist become increasingly treated as affairs of the mind. The Eucharist is reduced to a sign to be verbally explained, mentally interpreted and reflected upon.

Significant changes in my anthropology and in my view of worship over the last few years are by no means unrelated. Study of the Scriptures, self-reflection and engagement with others have progressively disabused me of any belief that I once held that we are primarily rational creatures. God addresses us at levels far deeper than our rational consciousness. I also believe that the idea that Scripture chiefly addresses us at a rational level should be questioned. The idea that Scripture always speaks first to our minds just seems wrong to me. This does not mean that the Scripture bypasses our minds altogether. However, it means that when the Scripture commands, exhorts, rebukes, comforts or encourages us, our minds are not the primary part of our make-up that God wants to engage with what is being said. God’s Word often addresses itself to our chests, before it ever speaks to our minds (or even to our hearts).

The narratives of Scripture are not primarily there to be picked at by our intellects, but to reform our imaginations. Intellectual reflection on the typology of biblical narratives, such as that which often takes place on this blog, is always a secondary activity, an articulation of something that should be grasped by the trained instinct of the person whose imagination is steeped in Scripture. There is always the danger that people will presume that the mind can substitute for the imagination. Reading a lot of books on biblical typology and symbolism will not reform your imagination in the manner in which attentive and receptive reading of Scripture can (although books on biblical typology can help you learn to be more attentive and receptive).

This is one reason why I like when passages of Scripture are read in Church services without being expounded in any way. Preaching is undoubtedly important, but if God’s Word is only encountered in the form of the preacher’s text — or as something to be rationally expounded — we can miss the point. The reading of passages apart from a preached explanation can encourage us to engage with the Scripture with our imaginations, just as we engage with other narratives and stories.

In my own personal reading of Scripture I often read and reread the same passage half a dozen times or even more. I try to practice listening attentively to the text and try to resist the urge to immediately explain it. I have found such an engagement with Scripture to be of great help in enabling me to imaginatively engage with the text. I begin to pick up things that I would have missed had I adopted a more scientific approach to the study of the text. I might later try to articulate these things in a more ’scientific’ form, but they were not arrived at by a regular scientific method. It is precisely through holding my rationality back from immediate engagement with the text that I begin to understand it at a deeper level.

In understanding the fact that man is not primarily a rational being, it is helpful to remember that most human communication is non-verbal. This is why liturgical training of the human body in posture, gesture and vesture is so important. As human beings we were designed to communicate with the entirety of our bodies and to receive communication with every part of our make-up. Much of the communication that we give is pre-conscious, as is the manner in which we receive much that is communicated to us. Often the most significant truths that we communicate or receive are the ones that we communicate or receive without even knowing that we are doing so, or without even thinking about it. Good liturgy can train us to communicate in Christian ways subconsciously, not just consciously. It can also communicate powerfully to the youngest person present in a way that a rationalistic service cannot.

There is a common polarization between the heart and the body in much popular Protestantism. It is presumed that if worship is primarily a matter of the heart then the body is relatively unimportant. The problem with this view is that it is quite unscriptural. The Scriptures frequently teach us what we need to do with our bodies. The separation between heart and body is one that exists because of sin and hypocrisy. The Scripture calls us to an integrated loyalty of heart and body. It calls us to a ‘hearty’ performance of bodily actions.

As I argue in the post that I linked to at the start of the previous paragraph, in the Scriptures heart and body are bound together to the extent that the heart cannot truly communicate itself apart from the body. To the extent that rationalistic Protestantism resists ‘body language’ in prayer (kneeling, arms up-raised, prostration, etc.), for example, we must ask to what extent it is failing to pray as truly as it ought.

Children, the Word and the Church

Uriesou Brito links to a brief article from Alexander Schmemann on his new blog. The following is a brief quote from Schmemann’s article:—

As a general rule, children like attending Church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in Church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the atmosphere of our Church services. The experience of Holiness, the sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, that mysterium tremendum that is at the root of all religion and is the core of our services is more accessible to our children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness, which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience! Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend Church. It is in Church before every place else that children must hear the word of God. In a classroom the word is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is in its own element. In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in Church, to participate in Church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, all of this presupposes the rich liturgy of Orthodox worship. The claim that the worship of the Church is the place where the Word of God is in ‘its own element’ is simple yet profound. The common idea that our encounter with the Word of God is primarily about reading the text of the Bible, enclosed between two covers, falls far short of the reality of Christian engagement with Scripture for so many reasons.

The story of the Scriptures is a story of progressive incarnation. When the Word becomes flesh He does not merely take a body created out nothing, but a body that has been being prepared for Him since the beginning of creation. He does not merely come as a generic individual human being, but as one who takes the flesh of Israel as has own. The Word does not merely take a biological and Adamic body to Himself, but, as the Messiah, He takes a particular body politic also. This body politic had been formed by the spoken Word of God in successive stages, something that Douglas Knight helpfully compares to the gradual assembling of computer circuitry. The rituals and ceremonies of the OT Law, the worship of the psalms, the structures of the Tabernacle and the Temple: all of these are ways in which God prepares a body for His Son.

The Scriptures create a world through story, symbol, ritual and worship, a world that the people of God are called to live out of. God’s world does not come all at once, but is gradually moulded and developed over time. The Word of God in Scripture is a world-creating Word, no less than the Word of God in Genesis 1. Unfortunately, if our encounter with the Word of God is limited to reading a book the idea that the Scripture creates a world (indeed, is a world) seems a bit far-fetched.

Within the new covenant there is a movement beyond inscription of the Word to incarnation of the Word, not just in Christ, but in the Church, which lives out of Christ’s humanity. This should decisively shape our understanding of the relationship between the Scripture and the ethical life of the Christian community. In the various OT prophecies of the new covenant, great emphasis is put on the fact that the Law of God will now be written on the heart, and not merely on tablets of stone. The initially ‘external’ Law will gradually be consumed into the life of the community until there is no remainder.

In the old covenant the people of God had the tablets of stone at their heart. The new covenant people of God are reconstituted around the risen Christ—the Heart of Flesh. At Pentecost, with the gift of the Spirit, the Church grows out of the resurrected humanity of the Word, as the totus Christus. The telos of Scripture is such incarnation, making us participants in the life of Christ. The Word now indwells us in a living form, by the Spirit. In the OT the Word of God formed the world that the people of God inhabited; in the NT the Word of God is the world that the people of God embody in Christ.

The fact that the transformed community—the totus Christus—is the telos of the text determines our hermeneutical posture. The text can only be properly understood when it is related to this telos. True interpretation of the text both presupposes and results in moral transformation. There is no division between hermeneutics and ethics. The renewed community helps us to read the text properly and the text reads us into the renewed community. The Scriptures can only be properly understood from within the community of faith, in the context of their public performance; outside of the community of faith the text has a veil over it.

This is one of the reasons why the proper context of Scripture reading and study is the life of the Church. Far too much Protestant worship is even less ‘incarnational’ than OT worship. When we read the Scripture we are giving voice to the life that we embody in Christ. The world and the Word that creates and gives voice to that world are mutually interpretative. Reading the Bible apart from the context of the Church is like reading a book describing an alien world. No matter how wise and learned you are, you will know less of this world than a simple child who has lived in this world for a few years (this illustration originates with T.F. Torrance, if I remember correctly), even if they have no idea of the science of their world.

As people reject the sacramental life and community of discipleship of the Church the Scriptures will become darkened to them, a fog of obscure teachings. This is one of the reasons why I continually stress the importance of encountering the Scriptures, not primarily as ‘the Bible’, but as the texts which form the life of the Church through their performance in the liturgy, sacrament and proclamation and as the Word that we embody in Christ.

Let me give just one small example of how this connection between the Church as world and the Scriptures as the Word of that world can empower the proclamation of the Word to a young child. I still remember from my childhood occasionally attending the local Church of Ireland around Christmas time. The thing that really spoke to me was the Church calendar and Advent in particular. I had heard the story of Christmas many times before, but in the worship of Advent and the various readings running up to Christmas I began to live in the story. I began to hear the story as a story of hope, remembrance and anticipation, a story in which I was personally involved. I was feeling hope and anticipation; I was not merely reading about hope and anticipation. The Christmas story opened up to me as never before. I reread the story from within, as it were. Reading from within: this is what Christian encounter with the Scriptures is all about.

Garrison Keillor on Liturgy

Garrison Keillor

The following is a quote from an interview with Garrison Keillor [HT: Michael S]:

Having grown up in the Evangelical, sort of free-form fundamentalist church, I love the liturgical church where we say words together that are not my words and not your words. That really means a lot to me. I grew up listening to men stand up and invent prayers and the idea was that the Spirit was leading them, but in fact they were composing them in their heads and they were writing in a kind of faux King James style—big prayers and they were impressive, and they were seeking to impress, there is just is no other way around it.

And in the name of Devotion they were doing these big set-piece prayers in which they were bringing in stories from Scripture and admonishing people—that’s not prayer. But, when we kneel down and go through a list, and we begin with prayers for leaders of our country and for the nations of the world and then we come down to prayers for other churches and for bishops and priests, and then we come down to those who are in need and those who are sick and we think or we speak their names—to me this is prayer. This is prayer in which one throws oneself before God without a heroic pose.

I believe that this insight is very significant. Liturgy is so important, precisely as borrowed language. People complain about praying someone else’s words rather than their own in the liturgy, but that is the precise point of liturgy. By ‘borrowing’ the language of the Church which has been handed over to us (in tradition) we hand ourselves over to God and to each other (Peter Candler explores this well in his latest book).

The ‘heroic pose’ that Keillor speaks of is one in which the speaker presents God with his own words, deeming his own vocabulary to be sufficient. The reasoning behind such an approach is that the most authentic way of being is that of spontaneity as opposed to imitation. Prayers of spontaneity, no matter how rhetorically brilliant they are, will always fall short of truly public speech. True public speech is shared language, where the words are not the speaker’s own. Spontaneous speech always falls short, drawing attention to the speaker, who often has a desire for people’s praise.

The language of liturgy is public language, precisely because it does not belong to any one particular individual. It has been handed over to all of us and we are given to participate in it. Such language has a pedagogical purpose. As Candler puts it: ‘To enter into this pedagogy is to entrust oneself to a language which is not one’s own, yet which transforms one’s language and orders it to God.’ Such language is a gift and not our own possession.

This is one of the reasons why the book of Psalms and things such as the Lord’s Prayer should be central in our worship. The psalms and the Lord’s Prayer are words that God has given to us. They are words that we ‘borrow’. As we ‘borrow’ these words we are participating in the inspired speech of the Holy Spirit, which will serve to reform all of our language. Such participation in borrowed language transforms us and redeems our speech. It should be regarded as having a salvific and not merely a bare pedagogical purpose. Brian Daley puts it well: ‘The Psalms … do not simply command us to repent of our sins, to bear suffering patiently, or to praise God for his gifts; they actually give us the words by which we can say and do these things for ourselves.’

In handing ourselves over to a language that has been handed over to us in tradition we confess that we do not have the words that are sufficient to approach God. Our verbal works are sinful and poor, so they are not the sacrifice of praise our tongues present to God. The words that we bring are words that have been given to us, words that are not our own. The shared language of liturgy is thus a natural extension of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

When we strive for spontaneity in speech and resist faithful imitation we also fail to hand ourselves over to each other. Worship ceases to be truly public and gradually reduces to the voices of many individuals expressing their private spirituality in front of others. Our private spirituality becomes something of public show. Whether we intend to receive praise from other men or not, private prayer belongs in the private place. When it is brought into the public place it can easily draw attention to the one who prays and away from the One to whom the prayer is addressed. Public prayer is not to be the creation of individual rhetorical brilliance, but the gift of shared speech. The loss of robust liturgies and the rise of individual rhetoric would also seem to have had some effect in the rise of individualistic understandings of the Christian faith. Lacking a shared language we have not handed ourselves over to each other. Our spirituality is a ‘heroic’ spirituality; a spirituality of me and Jesus, without the need for any other.

Within evangelicalism our worship services are primarily about our own speech. The focus of the service is not on the shared language of the liturgy, but on the words of the preacher. It is the preacher who composes the words of the sermon and the words of the prayers. Consequently, the person of the preacher becomes far more central than the priest ever became within medieval Catholicism. In the case of medieval Catholicism it was the office of the priest that became central. However, as the language and rituals performed by the clergy were ‘borrowed’, it was not the priest as a particular person that became central. Within modern evangelicalism it is the pastor (or — heaven help us — the worship leader) that becomes central as a particular person and not merely as an office. Churches become centred on a particular person in a way that is deeply unhealthy.

One of the things that the Church could really benefit from today is a downplaying of preaching within the context of the liturgy and a denial of the primacy of the preacher. The pastor need not stand to teach (although we ought to stand for the reading of the Scriptures); he is not engaging in a rhetorical display. All he needs to do is explain the passage in simple language and make some applications. Under such teaching people will have their lives informed by God’s Word, without the personality of the preacher becoming central (as it tends to do in, for example, the Spurgeon style of preaching). A further thing that is important is to retain the primacy of the reading of Scripture. The sermon is in service of the read Scripture, rather than vice versa. The reading of the Scriptures should not merely consist of the passage that the preacher has chosen for his message.

The relationship between the sermon and the reading of the Scriptures is not unimportant. It will train congregations in their relationship to the Scriptures. Preachers who always choose their own passages can train congregations (in more ways than one) to be people who choose their own passages too and do not submit to the Scriptures as a whole. Pastors who choose Scripture readings purely on the basis of what they want to say, should not be surprised if their congregations become the sort of people who merely trawl the Scriptures for devotional nuggets and never learn to be attentive and receptive to the Scriptures. Having set readings of Scripture trains us to submit to a language other than our own, rather than merely appropriating the language of the Scripture in service of our own speech. Set readings that challenge and unsettle pastors are important. They save us from becoming glib. Congregations who witness their pastor silenced or confused by the set Scripture will learn an important lesson about the relationship between the Church and Scripture, even if they don’t come away understanding the passage itself.

Modern hymns and choruses are another case in point. Whilst I have no objection to choruses and hymns in principle, I believe that we ought to be very careful about how we use them. The language of worship should be ‘catholic’ language and not a language that is private to our particular tradition. To the extent that our hymns and choruses are merely from our own time and narrow tradition we have failed to hand ourselves over to the larger Christian tradition. The insipid choruses that predominate in the worship of many evangelical churches (particularly in more charismatic quarters of evangelicalism) are merely echoes of our own language. People often complain that they cannot relate to the language of older hymns and the psalms. This is because the piety of the psalms is quite alien to the piety that prevails in many contemporary churches.

Chanting psalms and singing hymns that unsettle us plays much the same purpose as set readings. They teach us the deficiencies of our own language. The contemporary worshipper, however, wants the language of worship to sound spontaneous, because he values spontaneity over imitation. The language that comes spontaneously to the modern worshipper is not the language of Christian worship but the language of the silly pop ditties that he grew up with. In the name of spontaneity the modern worshipper tends to unwittingly borrow the romantic language of the world. The purpose of chanting psalms and singing hymns is not merely to glorify our language, but to heal it. The language of worship that is given to us by Scriptures and the Christian tradition informed by the Scriptures is one that is quite unnatural to us. It is God’s purpose that, as we use this language, it will become increasingly natural to us. The words, although they are borrowed, are no longer entirely alien to us, for they have converted us to themselves.

@ 11:15 am | 36 Comments

How Gutenberg Took the Bible from Us: Some thoughts on the Ontology of the Scriptures

Tours Bible

This blog has been pretty quiet over the last couple of months (probably the least constructive months that I have had for well over a year). This is no one’s fault but my own. I lost much of my steam after a tiring January and have taken things very easy as regards my studies recently. Whilst I am keeping up to date with university work, I haven’t devoted much time or effort to anything beyond that which is immediately expected of me. Hopefully the next few months will see more material of substance being posted here.

Over the last day or so I have been thinking a little about the question of the ontology of the ‘Bible’ (or better, ‘Scripture’). This is something that I have pondered a lot in the past, but have never written that much about. All too often we use the word ‘Bible’ as if its meaning were plain, when its meaning is far more ambiguous than we originally might think.

Suppose that you asked different people to define ‘Shakespearian play’. The answer that you would receive from a high school English class might be quite different from the answer given by a troupe of Shakespearian actors. For the English student, the Shakespearian play is a text to be analyzed within the setting of the classroom. It is printed on paper and bound between two covers. For the Shakespearian actor, whilst there is undoubtedly a script, the play is understood primarily in terms of its performance.

The ontology of the play within the two different settings will powerfully inform the manner in which it will be engaged with. For the English student, the interpretation of the play will take the form of literary analysis and criticism. For the Shakespearian actor the interpretation of the play will take the form of a performance. The Shakespearian actor has to ‘inhabit’ the play; he has to live and breathe his character. The English student analyzes the play as an object from outside.

For the actor the Shakespearian play is not a closed text, but is an embodied and animated performance, always open to newer and richer interpretations. Indeed, the play has no existence independent of its many interpretations. These interpretations are not timeless and unchanging. Many possible routes of interpretation may present themselves, by which Shakespeare’s play speaks to people from various cultures and places in history. For the English student, interpretation of Shakespeare will look quite different and will (generally) be far less creative in character. It is far easier for the English student, faced with his Penguin edition of the Shakespearian play, to believe that the play has an existence independent of its interpreters. The play is an independent object to be analyzed and is autonomous in relationship to its interpreters.

Both Shakespearian actors and the English student may claim to love Shakespearian plays. However, we must be aware that they might not mean quite the same thing as each other by such a claim. The ontology of the Shakespearian play differs between their two interpretative communities.

I believe that much the same thing can be observed within the Christian world today. When we speak of the centrality of the ‘Bible’, we do not all mean the same thing. The ‘Bible’ in one community may differ quite significantly from the ‘Bible’ in another community. This is not a matter of the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Apocrypha, or anything like that. Rather it has to do with the manner in which the text is conceived of and engaged with. What many churches identify and seek to defend as the ‘Bible’ bears little relationship to that which Christians throughout most of the Church’s history would have thought of as ‘Scripture’ or the ‘Bible’. Unfortunately, few people seem to pay much attention to this and the profound influence that different conceptions of the Bible have upon the way that we engage with Scripture.

The ‘Bible’ that most Christians think in terms of is a very different kind of entity from the ‘Bible’ that the Church originally received. When one speaks of the ‘Bible’ today, most people have in mind a privately-owned, mass-produced, printed book, which contains 66 smaller books, neatly divided into chapters and verses, with notes and cross-references in the margins, a title page, a contents page and concordance, bound between two covers. Most Christians have more than one copy of this book and are accustomed to relating to it primarily through the act of silent reading off the printed page. Such an entity would have been alien to the experience of most Christians throughout history. A while back Joel Garver wrote a very thought-provoking post on the subject of the Bible in the Middle Ages, which articulated (far more clearly than I ever could) many of issues that I had been thinking about concerning the manner in which we encounter the Scriptures. Within the post he observed just how different the Bible that the Christian in the Middle Ages had was from the Bible as we have it in our churches.

The fact that our ‘Bible’ is the type of entity that it is encourages certain forms of engagement with it. The ease with which our Bibles are produced and transported shapes the manner in which we use them. The fact that our Bibles are privately owned can make the idea that the Bible has been given to the Church, rather than to the world in general, strange to us. A mass-produced printed text simply does not have the same character as a manuscript.

The fact that the text is bound between two covers also seems to establish a greater degree of closure to the text. This closure stands in contrast to the openness of the medieval Bible, which consisted of many volumes or separate books. Complete Bibles were very rare as multi-volume sets, let alone as single volumes.

It also stands in contrast to the openness of the text that is encountered primarily through the ear, as it is read aloud in the liturgy, for example. The heard word involves passage in time, successive sounds dying on the air; the written word is mapped onto unchanging space. The written word has a form of immediacy and presence that is denied to the spoken word. It is already there, rather than something that arrives gradually over the course of time. The written word (and far more so the printed word) lends itself to the downplaying of the significance of time. I wonder how this has played into, for example, understandings of the covenant as an abstract theological construct, rather than as a developing historical entity. Print may have encouraged people’s minds to become primarily spatially organized, leaving far less of a role for temporal categories. The role of anticipation and remembrance in our engagement with Scripture may be downplayed as a result.

It is far easier to treat the printed text as an object than either the written or the spoken word. Each written manuscript is individually produced by a particular agent at a particular moment in history and, as such, is more like an ‘occurrence in the course of conversation’ or an ‘utterance’ (to use Walter Ong’s expressions — in Orality and Literacy) than the printed text is. Ong observes the manner in which print encouraged the idea of the book as an object ‘containing’ information, rather than as a form of utterance. In the age of print title pages for books became more and more common. The fact that every single book in an edition was physically identical to every other invited people to regard them as objects needing labels, rather than as forms of personal utterance. Print encourages us to think in terms of the autonomy of the text. The printed text exists independently of an ongoing conversation.

The idea of the Bible as an impersonal object containing information is encouraged by the printed, bound form in which we encounter it. Were we to encounter the Bible primarily in the context of the heavenly ‘conversation’ of the spoken liturgy the personal character of the Word might be more apparent to us.

The authority of the printed text (thought of as an object ‘containing’ information) will most likely be conceived of very differently from the authority of the written or spoken word. The authority of the printed text is the authority of the rule book, the encyclopaedia or the how-to manual. The authority of the spoken or written word is far more personal in character. I have remarked at length on the contrast between the Word encountered through the eye as printed text and the Word encountered as sound through the ear in the past, so I won’t repeat those thoughts here. I will just remark that the manner in which we understand the authority of the Word will most likely be affected by whether our encounter with the Word is primarily with the Word as spoken in the Church’s liturgy or as printed text.

I could say a lot more regarding the manner in which technology shapes the manner in which we have grown accustomed to engaging with the text. I could comment on the huge effect that chapters and verses, concordances and other Bible helps have on our consciousness. I could also raise concerns about the way in which recent and forthcoming technological developments (electronic books, online Bibles, search functions, etc.) change the character of the biblical text even further. However, a complete analysis of technology’s shaping of the Bible is not the goal of this post.

The primary point of this post is to argue that the ‘Bible’ that we have come to think in terms of has blinded us to a number of important things. The purpose of the above comments is to make the technology that so shapes our engagement with Scripture ‘strange’ to us once again. We need to contemplate what bringing the Bible into a print culture (and also into the ‘information culture’ of the computer age) does to the text and our understanding of it. My intention is to counteract what Neil Postman has termed the tendency for technology to become ‘mythic’. The ‘technology’ of the modern Bible is something that we tend to regard as part of the natural order of things. We need to be alerted to its presence once more. The more that we are alerted to its presence, the more I believe that we will appreciate that it has shaped, and in many respects distorted, our understanding of the Scripture.

There are a few key things that I wish to draw out for particular attention in conclusion.

1. The importance of the relationship between our world and the world of the text. The technology that shapes the Scriptures will powerfully influence our understanding of the relationship between our world and that of the text. It is my firm conviction that the Bible presents us with a narrative that we are called to ‘inhabit’. The narrative of Scripture is not some closed entity. Rather, the narrative of Scripture establishes a world in which we are called to participate. The movement beyond such ‘pre-critical’ exegesis was probably empowered by the invention of the printing press more than anything else. As soon as the Bible comes to be regarded primarily as an object containing true propositions the pre-critical appropriation of the text will seem bizarre. A printed and bound text is far harder to ‘inhabit’ than Scriptures read out in the context of the Church’s ongoing liturgy.

2. Notions of the Bible’s authority. I have already remarked that the technology of our Bible tends to depersonalize the concept of authority. It also tends to make the concept of authority far more static. Rather than the authority of God being dynamically enacted through the Scriptures, the Scriptures come to be regarded as a static repository of timeless truth.

3. The relationship between the Bible and the Church. I have already observed that the modern Bible attenuates the connection between the Bible and the Church. A Bible printed with many thousands of copies in a single edition by a multinational corporation, independent of the authority of the Church, and privately owned by people within and without the Church will not be regarded in the same way as the Bible was prior to the invention of the printing press.

In Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Stanley Hauerwas has argued that no more important task faces the Church than that of taking the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in America. Amidst Hauerwas’ characteristic overstatement, there is a very important point. As Hauerwas points out, the printing press and the mass production of the biblical text has led to the impression that people can interpret the Bible ‘for themselves’ without moral transformation or any need to stand under the authority of a ‘truthful community’ in order to learn how to read (the exaltation of private and individual spirituality over public faith has roots here also).

If the Bible was given to be encountered primarily as a printed or written text the Church is not that necessary. However, I believe that the Bible was given to be ‘performed’ (much as the Shakespearian play). The chief ‘performance’ of the Bible is that which occurs in the Church’s liturgy. It is read aloud in the lectionary. It is prayed, sung, meditated upon, memorized and recited. Its story is retold in various forms. It is our conversation partner and our guide.

Our lives are incorporated into the story of Scripture throughout the liturgy. We are taught to remember the story of God’s saving acts in the old and new testaments as our story. We are taught to speak of and see the world in a Christian way as we learn liturgical responses and are instructed through preaching. Our world is gradually translated into biblical categories. As Peter Leithart has observed, the use of the Bible in worship also trains us psychologically: ‘Singing the Psalms makes the biblical story and biblical language part of us, knits it into the fabric of our flesh.’ The Bible (in stark contrast to contemporary worship choruses) gives us the vocabulary with which to respond to the difficulties and the joys of life.

The narrative of Scripture also serves to structure the Church’s life on a larger scale, through the Church calendar. In A Community of Character, Hauerwas writes:—

…[T]he shape of the liturgy over a whole year prevents any one part of scripture from being given undue emphasis in relation to the narrative line of scripture. The liturgy, in every performance and over a whole year, rightly contextualizes individual passages when we cannot read the whole.

Unfortunately, in many churches that pay little attention to the shape of the liturgy, it is the shape of the confession of faith or the systematic theologians that the pastor read in seminary that are most clearly apparent. Pet doctrines take on a prominence that bears no relationship to the place that they are given in the story of Scripture. I sometimes wonder what the Reformed doctrine of election, for example, would look like had the Church’s reflection on election been more firmly situated within the context of an overarching narrative which structured the Church year. The Reformed tradition has all too often lost sight of the centrality of the Story as people’s encounter with Scripture has increasingly been dominated by a the text understood non-liturgically.

The Bible also gives all sorts of ‘stage directions’. The institution of the various biblical rites (e.g. the Eucharist) can be read as such. Like all stage directions, the point is to be found in their performance. Those who believe that the meaning of the Lord’s Supper can be wholly ascertained from Scripture are like people who believe that the recipe makes the cake superfluous.

Throughout the liturgy the Word is central. However, the Word is never mere letters on a page, which is what it has been reduced to by many Protestants. The Word in the liturgy is living and active. He works upon us and transforms us. He comforts us and rebukes us; He encourages us and exhorts us. The written text is the score from which the symphony of liturgy is performed. The true revelation takes place in the performance, not primarily in the score. This is where I must take my stand with those who refuse to speak of the mass-produced, privately-owned, printed and bound text as the Word of God in an unqualified sense.

4. The impact upon our doctrine of Scripture and the discipline of theology. The set of ‘ideas’ contained in the technology of the modern Bible has profound ramifications for our doctrine of Scripture. I am continually amazed at how little attention theologians give to this issue. It seems to be widely taken for granted that what we call the ‘Bible’ bears a one-to-one relationship with that which Christ originally gave to His Church.

If one believes that the Bible is primarily encountered in the course of the liturgy, a far closer relationship between Bibliology, Theology proper and Ecclesiology begins to emerge. The Bible that most modern Christians think in terms of is an object; what we encounter in the liturgy is nothing less than the personal Word of God, Jesus Christ Himself.

God breathes out His Word in the Spirit into the Church, speaking the Church into existence as the body of Christ. This act occurs chiefly in the context of the liturgy of the Church’s gathered worship. God’s gift of His Word should not be first sought in what we have come to understand as the ‘Bible’. ‘Performing’ the Bible involves learning how to inhabit the Word (which means nothing less than learning how to be ‘in Christ’). The process of ‘learning’ how to be in Christ is not predominantly a matter of cognitive processing. Rather, it is a training of character.

The Word was made flesh and Protestants have all too often tended to make Him mere ‘word’ again. Bibliolatry is perhaps one of the greatest errors within Protestantism today. The Bible has been transformed into an object to be used and the idea that it is primarily designed to do things to us in the course of the liturgy has been forgotten. In the process it has become akin to an idol. The Bible that God gave to the Church is to be understood as something to be incarnated — embodied in the life and worship of the community. We have tended to neglect the performance of the symphony in favour of reflecting on the score. Whilst reflection on the score has its place, it can never take the place of performance.

By ‘embodied’ I am not primarily referring to the need to obey biblical commands. Rather, I am referring to the need to ‘put on’ the narrative of Scripture, to ‘inhabit’ it, to relate to the text more as actors than as academics. Interpretation of the Scripture is not chiefly something that the Church is to do; the Church is called to be the interpretation of Scripture. From a slightly different angle, using N.T. Wright’s classic analogy, we are called to improvise the fifth act of the biblical narrative.

If we were informed by such considerations I believe that our doctrine of Scripture would take a radically different shape.

5. The relationship between the Bible, liturgy and hermeneutics. Unfortunately, the whole theological endeavour has also been shaped by the modern understanding of the Bible. Hauerwas makes an important point when he writes:

It is important not only that theologians know text, but it is equally important how and where they learn the text. It is my hunch that part of the reason for the misuse of the scripture in matters dealing with morality is that the text was isolated from a liturgical context. There is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with individuals reading and studying scripture, but such reading must be guided by the use of the scripture through the liturgies of the church… Aidan Kavanagh has recently observed, “the liturgy is scripture’s home rather than its stepchild, and the Hebrew and Christian bibles were the church’s first liturgical books.”

For many theologians, however, the kind of entity that the text is is determined more by the context of the academy than by the context of the Church’s liturgy.

Picking up on some earlier points, the written and the spoken Word partake more of the character of actions than the printed text can. Written and spoken words more clearly do things. Printed words are easier to regard as passive things to be acted upon. The primary engagement with the printed text is one of analysis as we act upon the text using our rational faculties. However, when we are faced with the spoken Word it becomes far more apparent that the purpose of the engagement is primarily for the Word to act upon us, rather than vice versa. A theology that refuses to objectify the Bible will differ markedly from other forms of theology.

Emphasis on the printed word has also encouraged the development of highly rationalistic ways of thinking about Scripture and has deeply infected our theology in the process. The Bible is conceived of as a collection of propositions. However, much of the Bible consists of ‘phatic’ speech. Its purpose is not that of conveying information. Rather, it is designed to strengthen and mould relationship. The Word, considered this way, is more concerned with modifying a life situation than with conveying information in a more detached fashion. Our interaction with the Word in the liturgy brings us to a knowledge of God, not merely a knowledge about God.

Walter Ong writes:—

The condition of words in a text is quite different from their condition in spoken discourse. Although they refer to sounds and are meaningless unless they can be related — externally or in the imagination — to the sounds or, more precisely, the phonemes they encode, written words are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being. The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words.

Yet words are alone in a text…. [Orality and Literacy, 100]

By taking the Bible out of the context of the liturgy, the Bible has been put into a context where its words are alone and detached from a particular life situation. It addresses no one in particular from a position of detachment. The text becomes autonomous in a way that it never could if it were regard as a liturgical text.

It seems to me that the displacing of typological and liturgical ways of reading Scripture and the rise of pure grammatical historical exegesis owes much (for numerous reasons) to the invention of the printing press. Whilst Protestants are used to singing the praises of the printing press as that which led to people having the Bible, I want to argue that, in some very important senses, the printing press led to the people of God being robbed of the Bible.

The ubiquity of the printed text makes it very difficult for us to recover a more Christian engagement with the Scripture. Even within the gathered worship of the people of God, people are incessantly reading their printed Bibles. This is akin to someone attending a production of Hamlet and paying little attention to what is taking place on the stage because he is too busy reading along in the text.

Liturgy provides us with a hermeneutical context for reading the Word of God. The rise of the printed word has led, I believe to a reshaping and restructuring of liturgy. Biblical liturgy has been displaced by liturgical minimalism. Merely grammatical historical exegesis is, I believe, intrinsically bound up with minimalistic forms of liturgy (I have already commented on this). Both are encouraged by an engagement with Scripture that is primarily engagement with a printed text.

The medieval manuscript was far more likely to be physically beautiful than the modern Bible. The printing press brought with it a certain form of austerity. The complex and decorative characters of older scripts were simplified down to basic and constant forms. The colourful illustrations, flourishes and artistic binding of older manuscripts were discarded for functional purposes. The Bible gradually ceased to be regarded as, among other things, a work of art and came to take on the character of a purely functional object.

When your chief contact with the Bible is with printed letters surrounded by white space, you will be far less likely to appreciate the role of incense, symbols, images, song, architecture, bread and wine, posture, gesture and vesture in our relationship with God. Seeing is the sense that makes the least immediate physical impression on us (seeing very bright light being a notable exception). The printed text makes far less demands on the senses than the written text does. Our engagement with God in His Word becomes primarily a matter of the mind, the body being largely bypassed.

To a large measure, the austerity and rationalism of much Reformed worship may grow out of such a typographic consciousness. The unadorned simplicity of the printed page has been imposed as the model for biblical worship, in general disregard of all the traditional and biblical forms of worship (take, for example, the worship of the book of Revelation). When you have been trained in such a consciousness the various elements of high liturgy will tend to be regarded as fripperies that complicate what should be a simple engagement with God’s Word (i.e. engagement with that which is found in the printed text). In a typographic culture it is easily forgotten that engagement with God’s Word is something that involves the whole of our beings, body and mind.

There is a relationship between the way that we worship and the way that we will read God’s Word. Our liturgies are, in many respects, the embodiment of our hermeneutics. Typological readings of God’s Word will be encouraged by those whose form of engagement with God’s Word in worship go far beyond that of reading off a page and instruction directed primarily at the mind. Typological readings of God’s Word are more a matter of a sanctified form of aesthetics than a scientific technique. Austere worship has little place for the development of a Christian aesthetics and will consequently give rise to hermeneutics that consistently fail to grasp the musical, symbolic and literary character of the biblical text.

Richly liturgical worship trains the person at every level of their being. It does not merely consist of truths to be mentally digested. Such training of character is absolutely essential if we are to be the sort of people who read the Bible correctly.

I could say much, much more on these issues but I have rambled on quite long enough. Despite the amount that I have written above, I really haven’t begun to scrape the surface of the matters that could be raised surrounding the question of the ontology of the Bible. I haven’t even addressed many of the issues that I originally intended to (e.g. the relationship between Scripture and tradition). Perhaps I will return to some of the loose threads in the above arguments sometime in the future. In the meantime, please feel welcome to comment.



The Primacy of the Imagination

MC Escher - Concave and Convex

Reformed Christians have traditionally tended to operate in terms of the primacy of the intellect. Even when we deny that we are doing so, our worship and the message that we preach are primarily directed at the mind. Much of our teaching and evangelism operates on the assumption that reality is primarily grasped with the mind. I have long regarded such assumptions and the forms of pedagogy that have resulted from it as fundamentally misguided.

If we are going to talk about the ‘primacy’ of anything in man’s grasping of his world, let us speak of the primacy of the imagination. The very act of perceiving our world necessarily involves the imagination. There is no such thing as mere perception. We do not merely ‘see’ our world; every act of perception is an act of ‘seeing as’. The imagination is that which governs our ‘seeing as’. The facts that the mind deals with are never ‘brute facts’, but facts that result from the imagination’s engagement with the world. The ‘reality’ that the mind thinks about is a reality that has already been processed by the imagination in the act of perception. The imagination provides the foundation upon which the mind and will build.

The imagination provides us with the lenses through which we view the world. Whether we are aware of its activity or not, it acts nonetheless. Those who underestimate the role played by the imagination will become its prisoners. People with incredibly sharp minds, trapped within a false picture and story of the world will often never get out, just digging themselves deeper into the hole that they are in. All of their thinking merely tightens their grip on a false perception of reality. There are few people more frustrating to debate with; not only are they often incredibly arrogant in their conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong, they are also unable to understand how anyone could really see things differently.

The great leaps in thought almost always result from the activity of the imagination. Many of us have experienced paradigm shifts in our own thinking. Such shifts are achieved by the imagination, enabling us to see everything in a new way. Our rational faculty then tightens our new grip on our reality. Training the imagination is very important if we are to arrive at a deeper apprehension of God’s truth. A trained imagination is better able to purposefully and consciously attempt to re-imagine the world. Those with a trained imagination will be better equipped to imaginatively see the world through the eyes of others and will be better able to come to an understanding of and overcome the limitations of their own vision. The ability to consciously re-imagine our world, to see things differently, is one of the most important abilities that we can develop.

The lack of an appreciation of the essential role played by the imagination and the lack of any training for the imagination seriously weakens theology. Even the sharpest mind can be of very limited use in the absence of a trained imagination. Mere logical consistency seldom solves much, as logic generally operates within the reality that the imagination grants us. Logic merely strengthens or slightly corrects our grip on a particular way of viewing the world; by itself it does not enable us to do what the imagination permits us to do: change our way of viewing completely.

By working in terms of an anthropology that presumes the primacy of the intellect, Reformed Christians have often failed to develop and harness the power of the imagination. We talk a lot about ‘worldviews’, but worldviews are generally understood in very ideological terms. A ‘worldview’ is seen as a set of propositions or a conceptual construct that shapes the way that we view reality. However, such ideological grids do not play anywhere near as much of a role in our vision of reality as Reformed people generally presume. Mere reflection on our day to day lives should expose the weakness of the notion that our engagement with reality is primarily mediated by ideological systems.

In reality, ideological systems only play a relatively limited role in our engagement with, and way of seeing reality. By thinking that practically everything can be reduced to thinking, we have made a huge error. The way that we see and engage with reality has far more to do with practices that we engage in unreflectively, the stories that we live in terms of, the symbols that are significant to us, the technologies that we use, the cultural artefacts that we produce, the communities that we belong to, the questions that we ask, etc. Our ‘worldview’ is, thus, a matter as broad as culture itself and is quite irreducible to mere ideology.

By failing to appreciate this, Reformed churches have often tended to produce a lot of ideologues with stunted imaginations and little in the way of a distinct culture. In addressing their message to the mind and failing to address the imagination, they have left Christians dangerously ill-equipped to engage with the world as Christians. In other Church traditions a rich liturgy, sacramental form of worship, use of the Church calendar and regular readings from the Gospels and OT narratives powerfully form people’s imaginations. Reformed Christians lack almost all of these things.

The Reformed faith centres on slogans (e.g. justification by faith alone, TULIP, the solas, etc.), rather than stories. We focus on a doctrine of justification, often at expense of a story of justification. Our worship does not convey a vision of the world, or even a powerful narrative so much as a mere disembodied set of ideas. Practically every part of Reformed worship is addressed to the mind. Even the sacraments are treated as if they were pictures of ideas. When the Eucharist is celebrated, great effort is often expended to ensure that people know what the rite means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. In most Reformed churches the congregant doesn’t participate much with their body. There is no kneeling, no kiss of peace, no walking, etc. The body is treated as if it were primarily a mind-container.

There is also little engagement with the narrative of Scripture. Bible readings are frequently subordinated to the sermon. The narrative is there to be analyzed from without. We also tend to downplay the biblical narrative in favour of the doctrines of the epistles, abstracting the latter from the former. Even when we do treat the narrative parts of Scripture we tend to focus on extracting the important ideas or moral lessons from the narrative. Seldom do we really encounter the narrative as narrative. In other parts of the Church the Church calendar, for instance, encourages people to read the story of Scripture from within. The sort of relationship that one develops with the narrative of Scripture in a liturgical church is very different from the sort of relationship that one develops in the ideological church, where everything is subordinated to preaching. In the latter type of church the narrative of Scripture tends to become obscured pretty quickly and the idea that the Scriptures narrate a world for us to inhabit seems quite bizarre.

The reason why all of this is so significant is due to the fact that liturgy, ritual and the narrative of Scripture are primarily directed, not to the mind, but to the imagination. Mark Searle expresses the purpose of liturgy and ritual well:

By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.

Kneeling, for example, is not an expression of our humanity: it is more an invitation to discover what reality looks like when we put ourselves in that position. The texts of Scripture and the images of the liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until, gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the “Reality” of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought (at least, not immediately), but to mediate encounter. As Heidegger said in another context: “The point is not to listen to a series of propositions, but to follow the movement of showing.”

So there is a discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating, and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning (the res) which they mediate.

Where such a liturgy is absent, we should not be surprised to find that a Christian imagination is also lacking.

As a result of our neglect of the imagination, when it comes to the arts, I think that Reformed Christians are in real danger of seriously underestimating their significance. The most powerful voices in any society are those prophetic voices that present us with new ways of viewing our world. The prophet or visionary presents people with a vision or picture of the world and people begin to live in terms of this new picture. The prophet tells stories and paints pictures, stories and pictures that reshape people’s ways of seeing their reality. This was one of the purposes of Jesus’ parables, for instance. It is not accidental that movements in philosophy are often deeply born out of movements in the arts. Postmodernism is a wonderful example of this. Movements in art and architecture in many ways prepared the ground for and presaged the later movements in ideas. As the artists developed new ways of seeing the world, the philosophers begin to articulate the inner logic of these new ways of viewing the world.

If I am right in my claim that a true ‘worldview’ is practically identical to ‘culture’, it is worth questioning to what extent we can speak of a Reformed worldview at all. Reformed Christians have an ideological system, but an ideological system is not sufficient to constitute a worldview. If we do have a worldview, it gives us a narrowly intellectual and insubstantial vision of reality. As one poet once claimed, Calvinism takes the Word made flesh and makes it word again. Rather than embodying a new culture, we proclaim a rather abstract doctrinal system. Our message is one of disincarnate ideas and our chief contribution to culture may well be capitalism, which despite all of its benefits, is hardly the product of a particularly rich vision of society.

Largely as a result of its neglect of liturgy, the Reformed faith has not really produced many great artists, poets and writers. Distinctly Reformed contributions to culture are few and far between. The great Christian imaginations tend to arise from Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communities. Those in Reformed circles who do possess deeply Christian imaginations and ways of looking at the world have generally spent formative years in one of these communions, or come from Reformed churches with richer liturgies. Despite the confused character of their faith in many respects, I must acknowledge the strong purchase that Christianity has on the imagination of many of the people I know who have been brought up in churches with rich liturgies. Even many of the great non-Christian writers owe much to the visions of the world given by medieval Christianity, for instance. In the Reformation Reformed Christians corrected dangerous errors in the medieval understanding of Christian truth, but lost much of its imagination and vision.

Not recognizing the full significance of the imagination in shaping us, evangelicals and Reformed Christians are at particular risk when it comes to films and literature. Lacking a deep Christian imagination and intuitive sense of the Christian story we are more vulnerable to being misled by the weak stories and visions that our society presents us with. The right ideas alone cannot protect us from the subtly persuasive power of such visions of reality. On the other hand, we are at risk of failing to appreciate the great benefit that can be gained from reading really good literature. A deep faith needs to draw upon far more than theology volumes and the incarnate truths that we encounter in godly visions of reality in literature and the arts are extremely important for us.

The Christian faith presents us with a beautiful story and a compelling vision of the world. Christianity’s hold on the Western imagination is great, even among those who try to reject the faith. The Christian message appeals to our imagination before it addresses our logic and reason. Unfortunately, the vision of the world that most Christians operate in terms of today is quite anaemic and lacks the fullness of classic Christian thought. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why Christianity is becoming less and less of a force within our society. People regard Christians as ideologues rather than as people with a rich cultural vision and grasp of the ‘good life’. Christianity is seen as a set of disincarnate ideas, rather than as a world-encompassing story that we can truly be at home within, a form of renewed life and a fertile vision for culture and society. A Christian recovery of the arts and classic Christian literature is an important step toward reformation in this area.

I am convinced that only Christian faith is capable of sustaining a healthy and robust imagination. Only the Church presents us with a story that is truly big enough to inhabit and a story that fertile enough to enable us to grow. In a society that is losing its imagination, the Church has much to offer as an alternative culture. However, before we seek to reach the world we must first cultivate a new culture and vision of the world within the Church itself. We must recover our own imaginations by re-engaging with the Story of Scripture and immersing ourselves in the liturgy. As our imaginations are reformed and we begin to incarnate a rich vision of life and culture within the Church, people will see Christian faith as God intended it to be seen. In light of all of this proper engagement with the arts and cultivation of the imagination is probably one of the key tasks awaiting any Church concerned about mission. We need to recapture the imagination of our society and to do so we must regain our own and begin to understand the reasons why the imagination of the world around is failing.

Against the Youth-Driven Church

This video has been posted by a number of people in the blogosphere. Like most others, I strongly disagree with this guy in a number of areas and believe that his argument against the Emerging Church is riddled with problems. However, rather than mocking, I think that it might be helpful to try to see where he might just have a point.

There was a time when many Christians were very concerned to keep away from pop music and TV because they believed that they introduced dangerous ‘worldly’ ways of thinking and acting. As sophisticated and enlightened contemporary Christians we tend to look at such notions with amusement and see the preoccupation with avoiding such ‘worldliness’ as being largely a concern of a naive fundamentalism. We happily watch 18 (or R)-rated movies and provide clever reviews that show the Christian themes that are subtly interwoven with the sex and the violence. We listen to music that celebrates radically unchristian forms of sexuality or to Christian artists that often seek to ape such music. Perhaps we are justified in this; what really troubles me is that the concerns for godliness and a distinctly and transparently Christian way of living exemplified by many of an older generation really don’t seem to register with us to the same extent. For all of the naivete of their vision, they had a vision for such holiness and godliness, which is more than I can say for many of us. For all of our sophistication I sometimes wonder whether we could learn some basic lessons in being a godly and a holy people from an older generation.

We live in a youth-driven society. Whether in the media or on the web, older people are hardly visible. For instance, the very fact that most of our theological discussions occur online prevents most elderly people from having any active voice in the conversation. When older people appear in the media, they are often ridiculed. Their style, their tastes, their knowledge of the world, their ethics and their values are all out of date. The new and the young are to be celebrated and the old is to be sidelined and dismissed.

Many areas of the Church have bought into this way of thinking. They have glorified the ‘new’ and sit very loosely to the accumulated wisdom of older generations. The Emerging Church is one area where this can be observed. The concern to be hip and on the cutting edge often trumps the concern to be faithful and submissive to the wisdom of our fathers in the faith.

The Church should be one place where a radically different culture prevails. It should be a place where older generations are honoured and treated with respect, even when they are wrong. Biblical societies are generally ruled and led by elders, not by young turks. Many contemporary evangelicals have forgotten this and their churches are driven by the desires of their young people and the most influential leaders are under the age of 40 (ideally, it seems to me, churches should not be led by people under the age of 50).

One of the deepest sins of many of the youth-driven trends in the Church is their determined movement away from catholicity. Rejecting a catholic Church they opt for youth churches or stratify the Church into age groups in other ways. Rather than worshipping in a way that reflects the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition, their worship tends to be dominated by (generally sappy and biblically illiterate) songs written by young, popular and rich Western Christian evangelical artists who are within the contemporary Christian music industry. One of the great things about singing traditional Christian hymns is that we have the opportunity to sing words written by people from all over the world, from countless different backgrounds and generations, and with hugely varied vocations. We get to sing songs by laypeople and bishops, by monks and martyrs, by missionaries to pagan lands and travelling preachers, by Reformers and by Catholics. We sing songs written by people many centuries and countless miles removed from us. We sing songs written by people from cultures that are quite alien to our own, but with whom we share a citizenship in heaven. In the process the parochial nature of our own tastes is challenged and we learn to listen with appreciation and humility to people who differ radically from us. Of course, singing the psalms, we have something even better. We have the opportunity to sing words written by Moses and David.

Sadly, rather than express our respect for our older brothers and sisters in Christ by submitting to the wisdom of the Christian tradition of music and worship, we tend to start worship wars, causing tensions and splits in churches because of our (frankly) ‘worldly’ desire to sing songs that conform to our contemporary Western appetites. Generally the modern worship wars seem to be driven by our ever-changing tastes in music, rather than by real theological or biblical concerns. Where are the voices calling for increased use of the psalms? They are few and far between, largely because the psalms do not generally provide what we believe that the ‘worship experience’ should give us. Where are the deep theologies of worship? Much of the worship wars are about our love for ‘thrashing, bashing and crashing’, rather than about any sort of coherent theology of Church music. Although I am someone who believes that ‘thrashing, bashing and crashing’ music should not be ruled out of the Church, I have no desire to align myself with those for whom the introduction of such music is purely an attempt to accommodate the worship of the Church to their their personal tastes in music, rather than an attempt to discern how God would have us worship Him and what is fitting for the praise of the saints.

Our concern tends to be that we have a good ‘worship experience’, rather than that we worship God joyfully and appropriately. If a particular song or style of music doesn’t conform to our personally tastes, so be it. We are worshipping God, not ourselves. Fittingness for the task of worshipping God should always take priority over everything else.

Finally, I have commented in the past on the infantilization of many quarters of the Church. It is not surprising that this tendency is accelerated in churches where the younger generation sets the agenda. The comments that the man makes in this video about the ‘young and stupid’ are not without a degree of correspondence to reality.

All of this, and the biblical command to honour and respect our elders, makes me quite reluctant to poke fun at this man’s expression of his opinion. For all of his misunderstanding and prejudice, he does have some valid points to make and we would do well to pay heed.

Shutting the Women Up

Peter Leithart shares some helpful insights on the Apostle Paul’s silencing of women. I would like to see this spelled out in more detail in a reading of 1 Corinthians 14, but it seems to be a promising line to take.

So it has come to this…

Mark Horne argues for icons in worship.

Worship and the Cartesian Man

James K.A. Smith writes:—

I had the opportunity to “experience” a version of one of these services in Geneva (Service 10, “Queer”). This was going to be my first “emerging” worship experience, so I came with much anticipation. And I was not disappointed (I still have the shard of broken tile I took from the service). However, I was struck by one thing: the service was remarkably Protestant. By that I don’t just mean to toss out an epithet or a label. I mean it as a shorthand. By describing the service as “Protestant,” I only mean to say that I was surprised at how “heady” the service was, and how text-driven and text-centered the worship was. (Granted, we were just a few yards from John Calvin’s church, so maybe the sermon-centric vibes of the Reformation had wafted over.) While the service included key affective elements (the man’s body being marked by epithets, the very tangible pieces of broken rocks and tiles we could touch), this was happening around a very textual, cognitive, rather sermonic center. Granted, this wasn’t your grandpa’s “three point” sermon or anything, but it still required the sorts of cognitive processing that characterizes text-centered Protestant worship.

Now, why does this matter? Why focus on this point? Well, I think one of the key paradigm shifts that took place in modernity (particularly after Descartes) was the adoption of a new model of the human person that considered the human to be primarily and essentially a “thinking thing”—primarily a cognitive mind that, regrettably and contingently, inhabits a meaty body. As a result, the primary and most important activity that thinking things can undertake is, you guessed it, thinking. This shift manifests itself in the life of the church with the Reformation, which displaced the centrality of the Eucharist (a very tactile, affective, sensual mode of worship) and put the sermon (the Word) at the center. The heart of worship becomes “teaching,” and the shape of worship becomes driven by very cognitive, basically rationalist tendencies. This develops to the point of caricature in the evangelical worship service centered around bullet points on the PowerPoint presentation.

Despite the “postmodern” critiques of religion offered by Derrida, Caputo, et. al., I find that they continue to exhibit this modernist paradigm insofar as they still think that religion comes down to a matter of knowledge (or rather, not knowing). And I wonder if we don’t see the lingering effects of this in the liturgies sketched in Part 2 of How (Not) to Speak of God. Granted, this isn’t a pure rationalism—there are aspects of affective embodiment, and they are ‘liturgies,’ after all; but I do wonder whether they’re still not primarily “driven” by quite heady, cognitive, didactic concerns. In this way, they tend to reflect the kinds of wrestlings and wranglings of a certain class who have had the opportunity to get to have such doubts.

Perhaps I can put a point on this: for me, one of the tests of whether worship is properly “holistic” (and thus animated by a holistic, non-rationalist model of the human person) is the extent to which my children can enter in to worship. (Because of a certain worshiping community I’ve been a part of, I’m also attentive to the degree to which mentally-challenged adults can participate in worship as a criterion.) In the “Queer” service, my kids—who are, I think, pretty sharp—would have had a hard time ‘keeping up,’ had a hard time understanding what was going on. They would have been intrigued by the curiosities of the “marked man,” etc., but there was ALOT of words to process and they would have been lost in a sea of ideas.

I would contrast this to the affective simplicity of a traditional Tenebrae service on Good Friday (a “service of shadows”). While the service is organized by Christ’s seven sayings from the cross, there is not much else text or commentary. Instead, there is the simple amalgam of words, candles being gradually snuffed, sounds and silence. My children, from when they were little, sit enraptured by this service. Its affective simplicity testifies, I think, to a pre-modern understanding of the person as an affective, embodied creature—rational, sure, but not primarily rational.

This is why I wonder whether, for the future of the church, we really need to invent something new, or rather creatively retrieve premodern sources. While some are trying to imagine a new future for the church “after” modernity, I’m betting that the future is Catholic.

I am not sure that I would go quite as far as Smith does here, but I think that he makes some important points. In particular, I think that he is right in observing a connection between a particular — and rather questionable — understanding of the human being and the manner of worship. Protestant worship (and Reformed and Puritan worship in particular) often operates on the assumption that man is primarily a thinker. The rationalism that underlies many Protestant conceptions of worship has been observed by James Jordan and others like him a number of times in the past. The irrationalism that characterizes much contemporary evangelical worship is also largely a reaction to the rationalism that is seen to be the alternative.

Operating with a rationalistic definition of the human being, the worship service must downplay the body and focus on addressing itself to the mind. Candles, incense, clerical vestments, kneeling, processions, silence (except as a time for thinking), fine church buildings, and even in some cases music itself, are seen as distractions from rational worship, which should be removed. Elements of worship such as the Eucharist become increasingly treated as affairs of the mind. The Eucharist is reduced to a sign to be verbally explained, mentally interpreted and reflected upon.

Significant changes in my anthropology and in my view of worship over the last few years are by no means unrelated. Study of the Scriptures, self-reflection and engagement with others have progressively disabused me of any belief that I once held that we are primarily rational creatures. God addresses us at levels far deeper than our rational consciousness. I also believe that the idea that Scripture chiefly addresses us at a rational level should be questioned. The idea that Scripture always speaks first to our minds just seems wrong to me. This does not mean that the Scripture bypasses our minds altogether. However, it means that when the Scripture commands, exhorts, rebukes, comforts or encourages us, our minds are not the primary part of our make-up that God wants to engage with what is being said. God’s Word often addresses itself to our chests, before it ever speaks to our minds (or even to our hearts).

The narratives of Scripture are not primarily there to be picked at by our intellects, but to reform our imaginations. Intellectual reflection on the typology of biblical narratives, such as that which often takes place on this blog, is always a secondary activity, an articulation of something that should be grasped by the trained instinct of the person whose imagination is steeped in Scripture. There is always the danger that people will presume that the mind can substitute for the imagination. Reading a lot of books on biblical typology and symbolism will not reform your imagination in the manner in which attentive and receptive reading of Scripture can (although books on biblical typology can help you learn to be more attentive and receptive).

This is one reason why I like when passages of Scripture are read in Church services without being expounded in any way. Preaching is undoubtedly important, but if God’s Word is only encountered in the form of the preacher’s text — or as something to be rationally expounded — we can miss the point. The reading of passages apart from a preached explanation can encourage us to engage with the Scripture with our imaginations, just as we engage with other narratives and stories.

In my own personal reading of Scripture I often read and reread the same passage half a dozen times or even more. I try to practice listening attentively to the text and try to resist the urge to immediately explain it. I have found such an engagement with Scripture to be of great help in enabling me to imaginatively engage with the text. I begin to pick up things that I would have missed had I adopted a more scientific approach to the study of the text. I might later try to articulate these things in a more ’scientific’ form, but they were not arrived at by a regular scientific method. It is precisely through holding my rationality back from immediate engagement with the text that I begin to understand it at a deeper level.

In understanding the fact that man is not primarily a rational being, it is helpful to remember that most human communication is non-verbal. This is why liturgical training of the human body in posture, gesture and vesture is so important. As human beings we were designed to communicate with the entirety of our bodies and to receive communication with every part of our make-up. Much of the communication that we give is pre-conscious, as is the manner in which we receive much that is communicated to us. Often the most significant truths that we communicate or receive are the ones that we communicate or receive without even knowing that we are doing so, or without even thinking about it. Good liturgy can train us to communicate in Christian ways subconsciously, not just consciously. It can also communicate powerfully to the youngest person present in a way that a rationalistic service cannot.

There is a common polarization between the heart and the body in much popular Protestantism. It is presumed that if worship is primarily a matter of the heart then the body is relatively unimportant. The problem with this view is that it is quite unscriptural. The Scriptures frequently teach us what we need to do with our bodies. The separation between heart and body is one that exists because of sin and hypocrisy. The Scripture calls us to an integrated loyalty of heart and body. It calls us to a ‘hearty’ performance of bodily actions.

As I argue in the post that I linked to at the start of the previous paragraph, in the Scriptures heart and body are bound together to the extent that the heart cannot truly communicate itself apart from the body. To the extent that rationalistic Protestantism resists ‘body language’ in prayer (kneeling, arms up-raised, prostration, etc.), for example, we must ask to what extent it is failing to pray as truly as it ought.

Children, the Word and the Church

Uriesou Brito links to a brief article from Alexander Schmemann on his new blog. The following is a brief quote from Schmemann’s article:—

As a general rule, children like attending Church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in Church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the atmosphere of our Church services. The experience of Holiness, the sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, that mysterium tremendum that is at the root of all religion and is the core of our services is more accessible to our children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness, which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience! Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend Church. It is in Church before every place else that children must hear the word of God. In a classroom the word is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is in its own element. In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in Church, to participate in Church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, all of this presupposes the rich liturgy of Orthodox worship. The claim that the worship of the Church is the place where the Word of God is in ‘its own element’ is simple yet profound. The common idea that our encounter with the Word of God is primarily about reading the text of the Bible, enclosed between two covers, falls far short of the reality of Christian engagement with Scripture for so many reasons.

The story of the Scriptures is a story of progressive incarnation. When the Word becomes flesh He does not merely take a body created out nothing, but a body that has been being prepared for Him since the beginning of creation. He does not merely come as a generic individual human being, but as one who takes the flesh of Israel as has own. The Word does not merely take a biological and Adamic body to Himself, but, as the Messiah, He takes a particular body politic also. This body politic had been formed by the spoken Word of God in successive stages, something that Douglas Knight helpfully compares to the gradual assembling of computer circuitry. The rituals and ceremonies of the OT Law, the worship of the psalms, the structures of the Tabernacle and the Temple: all of these are ways in which God prepares a body for His Son.

The Scriptures create a world through story, symbol, ritual and worship, a world that the people of God are called to live out of. God’s world does not come all at once, but is gradually moulded and developed over time. The Word of God in Scripture is a world-creating Word, no less than the Word of God in Genesis 1. Unfortunately, if our encounter with the Word of God is limited to reading a book the idea that the Scripture creates a world (indeed, is a world) seems a bit far-fetched.

Within the new covenant there is a movement beyond inscription of the Word to incarnation of the Word, not just in Christ, but in the Church, which lives out of Christ’s humanity. This should decisively shape our understanding of the relationship between the Scripture and the ethical life of the Christian community. In the various OT prophecies of the new covenant, great emphasis is put on the fact that the Law of God will now be written on the heart, and not merely on tablets of stone. The initially ‘external’ Law will gradually be consumed into the life of the community until there is no remainder.

In the old covenant the people of God had the tablets of stone at their heart. The new covenant people of God are reconstituted around the risen Christ—the Heart of Flesh. At Pentecost, with the gift of the Spirit, the Church grows out of the resurrected humanity of the Word, as the totus Christus. The telos of Scripture is such incarnation, making us participants in the life of Christ. The Word now indwells us in a living form, by the Spirit. In the OT the Word of God formed the world that the people of God inhabited; in the NT the Word of God is the world that the people of God embody in Christ.

The fact that the transformed community—the totus Christus—is the telos of the text determines our hermeneutical posture. The text can only be properly understood when it is related to this telos. True interpretation of the text both presupposes and results in moral transformation. There is no division between hermeneutics and ethics. The renewed community helps us to read the text properly and the text reads us into the renewed community. The Scriptures can only be properly understood from within the community of faith, in the context of their public performance; outside of the community of faith the text has a veil over it.

This is one of the reasons why the proper context of Scripture reading and study is the life of the Church. Far too much Protestant worship is even less ‘incarnational’ than OT worship. When we read the Scripture we are giving voice to the life that we embody in Christ. The world and the Word that creates and gives voice to that world are mutually interpretative. Reading the Bible apart from the context of the Church is like reading a book describing an alien world. No matter how wise and learned you are, you will know less of this world than a simple child who has lived in this world for a few years (this illustration originates with T.F. Torrance, if I remember correctly), even if they have no idea of the science of their world.

As people reject the sacramental life and community of discipleship of the Church the Scriptures will become darkened to them, a fog of obscure teachings. This is one of the reasons why I continually stress the importance of encountering the Scriptures, not primarily as ‘the Bible’, but as the texts which form the life of the Church through their performance in the liturgy, sacrament and proclamation and as the Word that we embody in Christ.

Let me give just one small example of how this connection between the Church as world and the Scriptures as the Word of that world can empower the proclamation of the Word to a young child. I still remember from my childhood occasionally attending the local Church of Ireland around Christmas time. The thing that really spoke to me was the Church calendar and Advent in particular. I had heard the story of Christmas many times before, but in the worship of Advent and the various readings running up to Christmas I began to live in the story. I began to hear the story as a story of hope, remembrance and anticipation, a story in which I was personally involved. I was feeling hope and anticipation; I was not merely reading about hope and anticipation. The Christmas story opened up to me as never before. I reread the story from within, as it were. Reading from within: this is what Christian encounter with the Scriptures is all about.

Garrison Keillor on Liturgy

Garrison Keillor

The following is a quote from an interview with Garrison Keillor [HT: Michael S]:

Having grown up in the Evangelical, sort of free-form fundamentalist church, I love the liturgical church where we say words together that are not my words and not your words. That really means a lot to me. I grew up listening to men stand up and invent prayers and the idea was that the Spirit was leading them, but in fact they were composing them in their heads and they were writing in a kind of faux King James style—big prayers and they were impressive, and they were seeking to impress, there is just is no other way around it.

And in the name of Devotion they were doing these big set-piece prayers in which they were bringing in stories from Scripture and admonishing people—that’s not prayer. But, when we kneel down and go through a list, and we begin with prayers for leaders of our country and for the nations of the world and then we come down to prayers for other churches and for bishops and priests, and then we come down to those who are in need and those who are sick and we think or we speak their names—to me this is prayer. This is prayer in which one throws oneself before God without a heroic pose.

I believe that this insight is very significant. Liturgy is so important, precisely as borrowed language. People complain about praying someone else’s words rather than their own in the liturgy, but that is the precise point of liturgy. By ‘borrowing’ the language of the Church which has been handed over to us (in tradition) we hand ourselves over to God and to each other (Peter Candler explores this well in his latest book).

The ‘heroic pose’ that Keillor speaks of is one in which the speaker presents God with his own words, deeming his own vocabulary to be sufficient. The reasoning behind such an approach is that the most authentic way of being is that of spontaneity as opposed to imitation. Prayers of spontaneity, no matter how rhetorically brilliant they are, will always fall short of truly public speech. True public speech is shared language, where the words are not the speaker’s own. Spontaneous speech always falls short, drawing attention to the speaker, who often has a desire for people’s praise.

The language of liturgy is public language, precisely because it does not belong to any one particular individual. It has been handed over to all of us and we are given to participate in it. Such language has a pedagogical purpose. As Candler puts it: ‘To enter into this pedagogy is to entrust oneself to a language which is not one’s own, yet which transforms one’s language and orders it to God.’ Such language is a gift and not our own possession.

This is one of the reasons why the book of Psalms and things such as the Lord’s Prayer should be central in our worship. The psalms and the Lord’s Prayer are words that God has given to us. They are words that we ‘borrow’. As we ‘borrow’ these words we are participating in the inspired speech of the Holy Spirit, which will serve to reform all of our language. Such participation in borrowed language transforms us and redeems our speech. It should be regarded as having a salvific and not merely a bare pedagogical purpose. Brian Daley puts it well: ‘The Psalms … do not simply command us to repent of our sins, to bear suffering patiently, or to praise God for his gifts; they actually give us the words by which we can say and do these things for ourselves.’

In handing ourselves over to a language that has been handed over to us in tradition we confess that we do not have the words that are sufficient to approach God. Our verbal works are sinful and poor, so they are not the sacrifice of praise our tongues present to God. The words that we bring are words that have been given to us, words that are not our own. The shared language of liturgy is thus a natural extension of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

When we strive for spontaneity in speech and resist faithful imitation we also fail to hand ourselves over to each other. Worship ceases to be truly public and gradually reduces to the voices of many individuals expressing their private spirituality in front of others. Our private spirituality becomes something of public show. Whether we intend to receive praise from other men or not, private prayer belongs in the private place. When it is brought into the public place it can easily draw attention to the one who prays and away from the One to whom the prayer is addressed. Public prayer is not to be the creation of individual rhetorical brilliance, but the gift of shared speech. The loss of robust liturgies and the rise of individual rhetoric would also seem to have had some effect in the rise of individualistic understandings of the Christian faith. Lacking a shared language we have not handed ourselves over to each other. Our spirituality is a ‘heroic’ spirituality; a spirituality of me and Jesus, without the need for any other.

Within evangelicalism our worship services are primarily about our own speech. The focus of the service is not on the shared language of the liturgy, but on the words of the preacher. It is the preacher who composes the words of the sermon and the words of the prayers. Consequently, the person of the preacher becomes far more central than the priest ever became within medieval Catholicism. In the case of medieval Catholicism it was the office of the priest that became central. However, as the language and rituals performed by the clergy were ‘borrowed’, it was not the priest as a particular person that became central. Within modern evangelicalism it is the pastor (or — heaven help us — the worship leader) that becomes central as a particular person and not merely as an office. Churches become centred on a particular person in a way that is deeply unhealthy.

One of the things that the Church could really benefit from today is a downplaying of preaching within the context of the liturgy and a denial of the primacy of the preacher. The pastor need not stand to teach (although we ought to stand for the reading of the Scriptures); he is not engaging in a rhetorical display. All he needs to do is explain the passage in simple language and make some applications. Under such teaching people will have their lives informed by God’s Word, without the personality of the preacher becoming central (as it tends to do in, for example, the Spurgeon style of preaching). A further thing that is important is to retain the primacy of the reading of Scripture. The sermon is in service of the read Scripture, rather than vice versa. The reading of the Scriptures should not merely consist of the passage that the preacher has chosen for his message.

The relationship between the sermon and the reading of the Scriptures is not unimportant. It will train congregations in their relationship to the Scriptures. Preachers who always choose their own passages can train congregations (in more ways than one) to be people who choose their own passages too and do not submit to the Scriptures as a whole. Pastors who choose Scripture readings purely on the basis of what they want to say, should not be surprised if their congregations become the sort of people who merely trawl the Scriptures for devotional nuggets and never learn to be attentive and receptive to the Scriptures. Having set readings of Scripture trains us to submit to a language other than our own, rather than merely appropriating the language of the Scripture in service of our own speech. Set readings that challenge and unsettle pastors are important. They save us from becoming glib. Congregations who witness their pastor silenced or confused by the set Scripture will learn an important lesson about the relationship between the Church and Scripture, even if they don’t come away understanding the passage itself.

Modern hymns and choruses are another case in point. Whilst I have no objection to choruses and hymns in principle, I believe that we ought to be very careful about how we use them. The language of worship should be ‘catholic’ language and not a language that is private to our particular tradition. To the extent that our hymns and choruses are merely from our own time and narrow tradition we have failed to hand ourselves over to the larger Christian tradition. The insipid choruses that predominate in the worship of many evangelical churches (particularly in more charismatic quarters of evangelicalism) are merely echoes of our own language. People often complain that they cannot relate to the language of older hymns and the psalms. This is because the piety of the psalms is quite alien to the piety that prevails in many contemporary churches.

Chanting psalms and singing hymns that unsettle us plays much the same purpose as set readings. They teach us the deficiencies of our own language. The contemporary worshipper, however, wants the language of worship to sound spontaneous, because he values spontaneity over imitation. The language that comes spontaneously to the modern worshipper is not the language of Christian worship but the language of the silly pop ditties that he grew up with. In the name of spontaneity the modern worshipper tends to unwittingly borrow the romantic language of the world. The purpose of chanting psalms and singing hymns is not merely to glorify our language, but to heal it. The language of worship that is given to us by Scriptures and the Christian tradition informed by the Scriptures is one that is quite unnatural to us. It is God’s purpose that, as we use this language, it will become increasingly natural to us. The words, although they are borrowed, are no longer entirely alien to us, for they have converted us to themselves.

How Gutenberg Took the Bible from Us: Some thoughts on the Ontology of the Scriptures

Tours Bible

This blog has been pretty quiet over the last couple of months (probably the least constructive months that I have had for well over a year). This is no one’s fault but my own. I lost much of my steam after a tiring January and have taken things very easy as regards my studies recently. Whilst I am keeping up to date with university work, I haven’t devoted much time or effort to anything beyond that which is immediately expected of me. Hopefully the next few months will see more material of substance being posted here.

Over the last day or so I have been thinking a little about the question of the ontology of the ‘Bible’ (or better, ‘Scripture’). This is something that I have pondered a lot in the past, but have never written that much about. All too often we use the word ‘Bible’ as if its meaning were plain, when its meaning is far more ambiguous than we originally might think.

Suppose that you asked different people to define ‘Shakespearian play’. The answer that you would receive from a high school English class might be quite different from the answer given by a troupe of Shakespearian actors. For the English student, the Shakespearian play is a text to be analyzed within the setting of the classroom. It is printed on paper and bound between two covers. For the Shakespearian actor, whilst there is undoubtedly a script, the play is understood primarily in terms of its performance.

The ontology of the play within the two different settings will powerfully inform the manner in which it will be engaged with. For the English student, the interpretation of the play will take the form of literary analysis and criticism. For the Shakespearian actor the interpretation of the play will take the form of a performance. The Shakespearian actor has to ‘inhabit’ the play; he has to live and breathe his character. The English student analyzes the play as an object from outside.

For the actor the Shakespearian play is not a closed text, but is an embodied and animated performance, always open to newer and richer interpretations. Indeed, the play has no existence independent of its many interpretations. These interpretations are not timeless and unchanging. Many possible routes of interpretation may present themselves, by which Shakespeare’s play speaks to people from various cultures and places in history. For the English student, interpretation of Shakespeare will look quite different and will (generally) be far less creative in character. It is far easier for the English student, faced with his Penguin edition of the Shakespearian play, to believe that the play has an existence independent of its interpreters. The play is an independent object to be analyzed and is autonomous in relationship to its interpreters.

Both Shakespearian actors and the English student may claim to love Shakespearian plays. However, we must be aware that they might not mean quite the same thing as each other by such a claim. The ontology of the Shakespearian play differs between their two interpretative communities.

I believe that much the same thing can be observed within the Christian world today. When we speak of the centrality of the ‘Bible’, we do not all mean the same thing. The ‘Bible’ in one community may differ quite significantly from the ‘Bible’ in another community. This is not a matter of the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Apocrypha, or anything like that. Rather it has to do with the manner in which the text is conceived of and engaged with. What many churches identify and seek to defend as the ‘Bible’ bears little relationship to that which Christians throughout most of the Church’s history would have thought of as ‘Scripture’ or the ‘Bible’. Unfortunately, few people seem to pay much attention to this and the profound influence that different conceptions of the Bible have upon the way that we engage with Scripture.

The ‘Bible’ that most Christians think in terms of is a very different kind of entity from the ‘Bible’ that the Church originally received. When one speaks of the ‘Bible’ today, most people have in mind a privately-owned, mass-produced, printed book, which contains 66 smaller books, neatly divided into chapters and verses, with notes and cross-references in the margins, a title page, a contents page and concordance, bound between two covers. Most Christians have more than one copy of this book and are accustomed to relating to it primarily through the act of silent reading off the printed page. Such an entity would have been alien to the experience of most Christians throughout history. A while back Joel Garver wrote a very thought-provoking post on the subject of the Bible in the Middle Ages, which articulated (far more clearly than I ever could) many of issues that I had been thinking about concerning the manner in which we encounter the Scriptures. Within the post he observed just how different the Bible that the Christian in the Middle Ages had was from the Bible as we have it in our churches.

The fact that our ‘Bible’ is the type of entity that it is encourages certain forms of engagement with it. The ease with which our Bibles are produced and transported shapes the manner in which we use them. The fact that our Bibles are privately owned can make the idea that the Bible has been given to the Church, rather than to the world in general, strange to us. A mass-produced printed text simply does not have the same character as a manuscript.

The fact that the text is bound between two covers also seems to establish a greater degree of closure to the text. This closure stands in contrast to the openness of the medieval Bible, which consisted of many volumes or separate books. Complete Bibles were very rare as multi-volume sets, let alone as single volumes.

It also stands in contrast to the openness of the text that is encountered primarily through the ear, as it is read aloud in the liturgy, for example. The heard word involves passage in time, successive sounds dying on the air; the written word is mapped onto unchanging space. The written word has a form of immediacy and presence that is denied to the spoken word. It is already there, rather than something that arrives gradually over the course of time. The written word (and far more so the printed word) lends itself to the downplaying of the significance of time. I wonder how this has played into, for example, understandings of the covenant as an abstract theological construct, rather than as a developing historical entity. Print may have encouraged people’s minds to become primarily spatially organized, leaving far less of a role for temporal categories. The role of anticipation and remembrance in our engagement with Scripture may be downplayed as a result.

It is far easier to treat the printed text as an object than either the written or the spoken word. Each written manuscript is individually produced by a particular agent at a particular moment in history and, as such, is more like an ‘occurrence in the course of conversation’ or an ‘utterance’ (to use Walter Ong’s expressions — in Orality and Literacy) than the printed text is. Ong observes the manner in which print encouraged the idea of the book as an object ‘containing’ information, rather than as a form of utterance. In the age of print title pages for books became more and more common. The fact that every single book in an edition was physically identical to every other invited people to regard them as objects needing labels, rather than as forms of personal utterance. Print encourages us to think in terms of the autonomy of the text. The printed text exists independently of an ongoing conversation.

The idea of the Bible as an impersonal object containing information is encouraged by the printed, bound form in which we encounter it. Were we to encounter the Bible primarily in the context of the heavenly ‘conversation’ of the spoken liturgy the personal character of the Word might be more apparent to us.

The authority of the printed text (thought of as an object ‘containing’ information) will most likely be conceived of very differently from the authority of the written or spoken word. The authority of the printed text is the authority of the rule book, the encyclopaedia or the how-to manual. The authority of the spoken or written word is far more personal in character. I have remarked at length on the contrast between the Word encountered through the eye as printed text and the Word encountered as sound through the ear in the past, so I won’t repeat those thoughts here. I will just remark that the manner in which we understand the authority of the Word will most likely be affected by whether our encounter with the Word is primarily with the Word as spoken in the Church’s liturgy or as printed text.

I could say a lot more regarding the manner in which technology shapes the manner in which we have grown accustomed to engaging with the text. I could comment on the huge effect that chapters and verses, concordances and other Bible helps have on our consciousness. I could also raise concerns about the way in which recent and forthcoming technological developments (electronic books, online Bibles, search functions, etc.) change the character of the biblical text even further. However, a complete analysis of technology’s shaping of the Bible is not the goal of this post.

The primary point of this post is to argue that the ‘Bible’ that we have come to think in terms of has blinded us to a number of important things. The purpose of the above comments is to make the technology that so shapes our engagement with Scripture ‘strange’ to us once again. We need to contemplate what bringing the Bible into a print culture (and also into the ‘information culture’ of the computer age) does to the text and our understanding of it. My intention is to counteract what Neil Postman has termed the tendency for technology to become ‘mythic’. The ‘technology’ of the modern Bible is something that we tend to regard as part of the natural order of things. We need to be alerted to its presence once more. The more that we are alerted to its presence, the more I believe that we will appreciate that it has shaped, and in many respects distorted, our understanding of the Scripture.

There are a few key things that I wish to draw out for particular attention in conclusion.

1. The importance of the relationship between our world and the world of the text. The technology that shapes the Scriptures will powerfully influence our understanding of the relationship between our world and that of the text. It is my firm conviction that the Bible presents us with a narrative that we are called to ‘inhabit’. The narrative of Scripture is not some closed entity. Rather, the narrative of Scripture establishes a world in which we are called to participate. The movement beyond such ‘pre-critical’ exegesis was probably empowered by the invention of the printing press more than anything else. As soon as the Bible comes to be regarded primarily as an object containing true propositions the pre-critical appropriation of the text will seem bizarre. A printed and bound text is far harder to ‘inhabit’ than Scriptures read out in the context of the Church’s ongoing liturgy.

2. Notions of the Bible’s authority. I have already remarked that the technology of our Bible tends to depersonalize the concept of authority. It also tends to make the concept of authority far more static. Rather than the authority of God being dynamically enacted through the Scriptures, the Scriptures come to be regarded as a static repository of timeless truth.

3. The relationship between the Bible and the Church. I have already observed that the modern Bible attenuates the connection between the Bible and the Church. A Bible printed with many thousands of copies in a single edition by a multinational corporation, independent of the authority of the Church, and privately owned by people within and without the Church will not be regarded in the same way as the Bible was prior to the invention of the printing press.

In Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Stanley Hauerwas has argued that no more important task faces the Church than that of taking the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in America. Amidst Hauerwas’ characteristic overstatement, there is a very important point. As Hauerwas points out, the printing press and the mass production of the biblical text has led to the impression that people can interpret the Bible ‘for themselves’ without moral transformation or any need to stand under the authority of a ‘truthful community’ in order to learn how to read (the exaltation of private and individual spirituality over public faith has roots here also).

If the Bible was given to be encountered primarily as a printed or written text the Church is not that necessary. However, I believe that the Bible was given to be ‘performed’ (much as the Shakespearian play). The chief ‘performance’ of the Bible is that which occurs in the Church’s liturgy. It is read aloud in the lectionary. It is prayed, sung, meditated upon, memorized and recited. Its story is retold in various forms. It is our conversation partner and our guide.

Our lives are incorporated into the story of Scripture throughout the liturgy. We are taught to remember the story of God’s saving acts in the old and new testaments as our story. We are taught to speak of and see the world in a Christian way as we learn liturgical responses and are instructed through preaching. Our world is gradually translated into biblical categories. As Peter Leithart has observed, the use of the Bible in worship also trains us psychologically: ‘Singing the Psalms makes the biblical story and biblical language part of us, knits it into the fabric of our flesh.’ The Bible (in stark contrast to contemporary worship choruses) gives us the vocabulary with which to respond to the difficulties and the joys of life.

The narrative of Scripture also serves to structure the Church’s life on a larger scale, through the Church calendar. In A Community of Character, Hauerwas writes:—

…[T]he shape of the liturgy over a whole year prevents any one part of scripture from being given undue emphasis in relation to the narrative line of scripture. The liturgy, in every performance and over a whole year, rightly contextualizes individual passages when we cannot read the whole.

Unfortunately, in many churches that pay little attention to the shape of the liturgy, it is the shape of the confession of faith or the systematic theologians that the pastor read in seminary that are most clearly apparent. Pet doctrines take on a prominence that bears no relationship to the place that they are given in the story of Scripture. I sometimes wonder what the Reformed doctrine of election, for example, would look like had the Church’s reflection on election been more firmly situated within the context of an overarching narrative which structured the Church year. The Reformed tradition has all too often lost sight of the centrality of the Story as people’s encounter with Scripture has increasingly been dominated by a the text understood non-liturgically.

The Bible also gives all sorts of ‘stage directions’. The institution of the various biblical rites (e.g. the Eucharist) can be read as such. Like all stage directions, the point is to be found in their performance. Those who believe that the meaning of the Lord’s Supper can be wholly ascertained from Scripture are like people who believe that the recipe makes the cake superfluous.

Throughout the liturgy the Word is central. However, the Word is never mere letters on a page, which is what it has been reduced to by many Protestants. The Word in the liturgy is living and active. He works upon us and transforms us. He comforts us and rebukes us; He encourages us and exhorts us. The written text is the score from which the symphony of liturgy is performed. The true revelation takes place in the performance, not primarily in the score. This is where I must take my stand with those who refuse to speak of the mass-produced, privately-owned, printed and bound text as the Word of God in an unqualified sense.

4. The impact upon our doctrine of Scripture and the discipline of theology. The set of ‘ideas’ contained in the technology of the modern Bible has profound ramifications for our doctrine of Scripture. I am continually amazed at how little attention theologians give to this issue. It seems to be widely taken for granted that what we call the ‘Bible’ bears a one-to-one relationship with that which Christ originally gave to His Church.

If one believes that the Bible is primarily encountered in the course of the liturgy, a far closer relationship between Bibliology, Theology proper and Ecclesiology begins to emerge. The Bible that most modern Christians think in terms of is an object; what we encounter in the liturgy is nothing less than the personal Word of God, Jesus Christ Himself.

God breathes out His Word in the Spirit into the Church, speaking the Church into existence as the body of Christ. This act occurs chiefly in the context of the liturgy of the Church’s gathered worship. God’s gift of His Word should not be first sought in what we have come to understand as the ‘Bible’. ‘Performing’ the Bible involves learning how to inhabit the Word (which means nothing less than learning how to be ‘in Christ’). The process of ‘learning’ how to be in Christ is not predominantly a matter of cognitive processing. Rather, it is a training of character.

The Word was made flesh and Protestants have all too often tended to make Him mere ‘word’ again. Bibliolatry is perhaps one of the greatest errors within Protestantism today. The Bible has been transformed into an object to be used and the idea that it is primarily designed to do things to us in the course of the liturgy has been forgotten. In the process it has become akin to an idol. The Bible that God gave to the Church is to be understood as something to be incarnated — embodied in the life and worship of the community. We have tended to neglect the performance of the symphony in favour of reflecting on the score. Whilst reflection on the score has its place, it can never take the place of performance.

By ‘embodied’ I am not primarily referring to the need to obey biblical commands. Rather, I am referring to the need to ‘put on’ the narrative of Scripture, to ‘inhabit’ it, to relate to the text more as actors than as academics. Interpretation of the Scripture is not chiefly something that the Church is to do; the Church is called to be the interpretation of Scripture. From a slightly different angle, using N.T. Wright’s classic analogy, we are called to improvise the fifth act of the biblical narrative.

If we were informed by such considerations I believe that our doctrine of Scripture would take a radically different shape.

5. The relationship between the Bible, liturgy and hermeneutics. Unfortunately, the whole theological endeavour has also been shaped by the modern understanding of the Bible. Hauerwas makes an important point when he writes:

It is important not only that theologians know text, but it is equally important how and where they learn the text. It is my hunch that part of the reason for the misuse of the scripture in matters dealing with morality is that the text was isolated from a liturgical context. There is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with individuals reading and studying scripture, but such reading must be guided by the use of the scripture through the liturgies of the church… Aidan Kavanagh has recently observed, “the liturgy is scripture’s home rather than its stepchild, and the Hebrew and Christian bibles were the church’s first liturgical books.”

For many theologians, however, the kind of entity that the text is is determined more by the context of the academy than by the context of the Church’s liturgy.

Picking up on some earlier points, the written and the spoken Word partake more of the character of actions than the printed text can. Written and spoken words more clearly do things. Printed words are easier to regard as passive things to be acted upon. The primary engagement with the printed text is one of analysis as we act upon the text using our rational faculties. However, when we are faced with the spoken Word it becomes far more apparent that the purpose of the engagement is primarily for the Word to act upon us, rather than vice versa. A theology that refuses to objectify the Bible will differ markedly from other forms of theology.

Emphasis on the printed word has also encouraged the development of highly rationalistic ways of thinking about Scripture and has deeply infected our theology in the process. The Bible is conceived of as a collection of propositions. However, much of the Bible consists of ‘phatic’ speech. Its purpose is not that of conveying information. Rather, it is designed to strengthen and mould relationship. The Word, considered this way, is more concerned with modifying a life situation than with conveying information in a more detached fashion. Our interaction with the Word in the liturgy brings us to a knowledge of God, not merely a knowledge about God.

Walter Ong writes:—

The condition of words in a text is quite different from their condition in spoken discourse. Although they refer to sounds and are meaningless unless they can be related — externally or in the imagination — to the sounds or, more precisely, the phonemes they encode, written words are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being. The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words.

Yet words are alone in a text…. [Orality and Literacy, 100]

By taking the Bible out of the context of the liturgy, the Bible has been put into a context where its words are alone and detached from a particular life situation. It addresses no one in particular from a position of detachment. The text becomes autonomous in a way that it never could if it were regard as a liturgical text.

It seems to me that the displacing of typological and liturgical ways of reading Scripture and the rise of pure grammatical historical exegesis owes much (for numerous reasons) to the invention of the printing press. Whilst Protestants are used to singing the praises of the printing press as that which led to people having the Bible, I want to argue that, in some very important senses, the printing press led to the people of God being robbed of the Bible.

The ubiquity of the printed text makes it very difficult for us to recover a more Christian engagement with the Scripture. Even within the gathered worship of the people of God, people are incessantly reading their printed Bibles. This is akin to someone attending a production of Hamlet and paying little attention to what is taking place on the stage because he is too busy reading along in the text.

Liturgy provides us with a hermeneutical context for reading the Word of God. The rise of the printed word has led, I believe to a reshaping and restructuring of liturgy. Biblical liturgy has been displaced by liturgical minimalism. Merely grammatical historical exegesis is, I believe, intrinsically bound up with minimalistic forms of liturgy (I have already commented on this). Both are encouraged by an engagement with Scripture that is primarily engagement with a printed text.

The medieval manuscript was far more likely to be physically beautiful than the modern Bible. The printing press brought with it a certain form of austerity. The complex and decorative characters of older scripts were simplified down to basic and constant forms. The colourful illustrations, flourishes and artistic binding of older manuscripts were discarded for functional purposes. The Bible gradually ceased to be regarded as, among other things, a work of art and came to take on the character of a purely functional object.

When your chief contact with the Bible is with printed letters surrounded by white space, you will be far less likely to appreciate the role of incense, symbols, images, song, architecture, bread and wine, posture, gesture and vesture in our relationship with God. Seeing is the sense that makes the least immediate physical impression on us (seeing very bright light being a notable exception). The printed text makes far less demands on the senses than the written text does. Our engagement with God in His Word becomes primarily a matter of the mind, the body being largely bypassed.

To a large measure, the austerity and rationalism of much Reformed worship may grow out of such a typographic consciousness. The unadorned simplicity of the printed page has been imposed as the model for biblical worship, in general disregard of all the traditional and biblical forms of worship (take, for example, the worship of the book of Revelation). When you have been trained in such a consciousness the various elements of high liturgy will tend to be regarded as fripperies that complicate what should be a simple engagement with God’s Word (i.e. engagement with that which is found in the printed text). In a typographic culture it is easily forgotten that engagement with God’s Word is something that involves the whole of our beings, body and mind.

There is a relationship between the way that we worship and the way that we will read God’s Word. Our liturgies are, in many respects, the embodiment of our hermeneutics. Typological readings of God’s Word will be encouraged by those whose form of engagement with God’s Word in worship go far beyond that of reading off a page and instruction directed primarily at the mind. Typological readings of God’s Word are more a matter of a sanctified form of aesthetics than a scientific technique. Austere worship has little place for the development of a Christian aesthetics and will consequently give rise to hermeneutics that consistently fail to grasp the musical, symbolic and literary character of the biblical text.

Richly liturgical worship trains the person at every level of their being. It does not merely consist of truths to be mentally digested. Such training of character is absolutely essential if we are to be the sort of people who read the Bible correctly.

I could say much, much more on these issues but I have rambled on quite long enough. Despite the amount that I have written above, I really haven’t begun to scrape the surface of the matters that could be raised surrounding the question of the ontology of the Bible. I haven’t even addressed many of the issues that I originally intended to (e.g. the relationship between Scripture and tradition). Perhaps I will return to some of the loose threads in the above arguments sometime in the future. In the meantime, please feel welcome to comment.