Being Self Critical of our Worship Practices

Over at the IBTS Community Blog I have posted a bit on the lecture by Richard J. Mouw entitled ‘Of Pagan Festivals and Meta-Narratives: Recovering the Awareness of our Shared Humanness’ delivered at Vrije Universiteit as part of Abraham Kuyper annual lecture.

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper

There I focus in on the suggestion that our worship services can be formative of attitudes and behaviour. In respect to this particular lecture the issue being the extent to which they create an empathetic concern for others through a recognition of our shared humanity. The argument being that a commitment to our shared humanity should result from our theological convictions about the nature of grace and the operation of the Holy Spirit in the world. Mouw argues that this is an outcome of Abraham Kuyper’s common grace.

Without debating Mouw’s particular reading of Kuyper’s Calvinistic theology (in which he is something of an expert) I reflect on the idea that if our worship practices are formative, an idea commonly asserted at the moment by such as James K. Smith (although I think that this requires some discussion), then they are of course possible of shaping our ideas and actions negatively as well as positively. In this respect work by Siobhán Garrigan in The Real Peace Process: Worship Politics and the End of Sectarianism (London:Equinox, 2010) demonstrates the way in which liturgies and worship can develop a hostility towards rather than an openness to others.

Siobhán Garrigan

Siobhán Garrigan

The above being the case this raises questions of how we seek to ensure that our worship services are not albeit unintentionally forming narrow and bigoted attitudes towards others who may be different from us rather are forming at least empathetic attitudes if not indeed the neighbour love commanded by Jesus Christ.

Empty ChurchShannon Craigo-Snell in her book The Empty Church (OUP:2014) explores this theme in relation to performance theory and at one point in relation to the work of Bertolt Brecht and his concept of ‘alienation’. Accordingly she argues that we can become self-critical of our established beliefs and ceremonies (doctrines and liturgies) by having them made strange to us.

This can be done in a number of ways.

One way is by us receiving alternative interpretations of familiar Scriptures or beliefs. This can be done by looking at the events from within a text from the perspective of usually the minor character e.g. say Hagar rather than Abraham. Or it can be done by people providing us with a totally different perspective on a text than we are used to. In this respect I remember to this day the preacher who asked the question…and he never answered it…why on the Cross did Jesus as God the father to forgive those who crucified him and not forgive them himself?

The point is not that we have to agree with the new perspective but by bringing us the new perspective it allows at least for a time our cherished perspective to become strange to us which allows us to re-examine its validity.

Another way in which we can be ‘alienated’ from the familiar is to introduce change into our regular practices e.g. the way in which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the way in which we carry out a Baptism, the way in which we preach. People may not like the changes but it allows us to ask why though do we do what we do? What values do they communicate?

Perhaps some might feel that this is messing too much with simple worship – Craigo-Snell argues that here Brecht helps us to see that as well as body and emotion our ‘performances’ require intellect to prevent them becoming harmful rather than helpful in the type of Christian people they are forming.

I think these are interesting ideas…

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