Liturgy, ritual, imagination, and worship


Thoughts about ritual worship, shared with my friend Danny on Facebook, with updates (and paragraphing !):

As for ritual worship: I used to go to churches with two parts to the services: sing songs and then listen to the sermon. Since I’ve joined Trinity, I’ve been able to memorize portions of the liturgy because they are repeated week after week. These phrases from Scripture and our godly heritage have come back to me in difficult moments and sustained me.

Furthermore, I think the less-liturgical and less-ritualized services ignore the full human being. Our lives are run more by our emotions and our imaginations than by our rational, cognitive faculties.

By imaginations, I don’t mean daydreams but I mean the unique image-based structures of our thoughts and feelings [memories and expectations tend to be associated not with abstract thought but with sensory impressions, whether visual, auditory, smell, taste, touch].

Protestant worship, as noted elsewhere by Thomas Howard, tends to focus on the sermon because of the abstract, cognitive orientation of evangelicalism. The unstated message is, God is for the mind, reality is essentially Mind, and spiritual living is mind over matter. Get the ideas right and, supposedly, everything else will follow. This seems much like Descartes’ famous conclusions following his sensory-deprivation experiment.

When I was at L’Abri Fellowship, surely an evangelical outfit if there ever was one, Descartes took punches for too radically dividing the human being. God made humans as creatures within a Creation, and any part of our Protestant heritage that delegitimizes that doctrine ought to be left in the past. We are promised resurrected bodies, not glowing orbs of souls that float upward to heaven.

So, people try to *will* themselves into good Christian living and worshipful lives, but their feelings and imaginations are saturated with popular movies, music, TV and the never-ending bombardment of marketing and advertising prompts (which in many cases do more to create our assumptions of reality than anything else).

Much worship today imitates mass media instead of providing a counterpoint to it.

The stories of Scripture and sermons can help the imagination enormously, but unfortunately, our short-attention-span culture does not provide meditative time to soak these stories into our “hearts.” The regular ritual helps the meditative process by working good words and good images into our feelings and imaginations. There is really nothing else like it available.

Of course, ritual delivers content — some specific kind of content and meaning, so ritual should be focused around good things: at Christmas, maybe great-grandmother’s recipe; in church, around the Risen God.

All in all, the more I learn about current brain research and breakthroughs in neuroscience, the more I think our liturgical worship is best. Changes in liturgies don’t matter so much as their historical antecedents and the content delivered by the liturgical rituals. The brain makes connections in certain ways. Liturgical rituals correspond to the brain better than rock concert-style worship.

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