End of Year Reflections: The Gaudy Fullness of Liturgy, Or Christian Time Travel

by tigermanifesto

In this post, this tiger will attempt to push the conversation started before MGMT week. What does discernment point to? What is the best way for a person, even a feline person, to fracture what Calvin calls “discernment” and emerge from the rubble to engage in what I have tentatively named “stalking?” This will take the form of a reflection on my one and, it turned out, only year as a cultural discerner. This post will be taking up the art form known as liturgy and, in a brief sketch, attempt to convey the source of my discomfort with its use in our cultural discerner meetings.

For those who need a refresher on what “discernment” means, a former cultural discerner and close friend of mine defined it thus:

“Discernment is a posture of paying attention and listening carefully to what we consume. It’s an attempt to train ourselves to become more meditative and mindful about how our culture experiences shape us. Therefore discernment involves an active response rather than passive consumption. One response, for many, is criticism. Criticism helps us evaluate and ground the work in its cultural context. But responses could vary from reflection to creation of new work. So discernment is a spiritual practice (akin to meditation) that helps us become better, more mindful consumers of culture.”

As nutshells go, that is an attractive and relatively helpful one, and it comes from someone much more sympathetic to the work of discernment than I. Therefore, I believe it will work to my advantage to play on this definition for the following few posts. I will take this nutshell and do my best to work within it so that, by the time I am done, I will not recognize what I am doing as discernment. I will break the shell and attempt to re-encapsulate my thought in terms of “culture stalking,” which, I admit, is an impoverished term, not empty of meaning since its two words have their own denotative and connotative values, but as a pair they represent no tradition with which I am familiar. Let us begin by writing on the last sentence of my friend’s description:

“Discernment is a spiritual practice (akin to meditation) that helps us become better, more mindful consumers of culture.”

Spiritual practice is a Christian term, and it generally refers to concrete activities in which people of the church participate in order to strengthen or deepen their faith. If we are willing (and for now, we are) to define discernment under this taxonomy, we can put it alongside prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, and other more classic and well-known examples of Christian “spiritual practices.” The problem facing the project of cultural discernment in an age dominated by popular and mass/niche culture is that the church tradition in which the college is rooted used to be the antithesis of culture-friendly. Cinema was frowned upon in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) only two generations ago, and for most of its history the denomination has done its best to cultivate a practice of denying entry to profane or secular culture. Lingering elements of this resistance continue to persist in the CRC and in Calvin College itself, as demonstrated by the absurd furore over the New Pornographers show a few years ago (their name was what was controversial) and the more minor but equally ridiculous controversy over Fun. earlier in this school year.

I believe that it is because it must respond to such critiques, fundamentally pietistic and separatist and conservative ones, that  liturgical practices became routine at cultural discerner meetings. Remember, because what cultural discerners are doing is basically criticism with a sacred sheen draped over it, there is a fascinating antagonism between appearance and reality.

Every week during cultural discerner meetings, we (I was present in the form of a costume worn by my editor) would read from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. It normally consisted of a communal reading of an evening prayer, the content of which can be seen here. An explanation I was accustomed to receiving when asking about this practice would be that it helped form a community among us and help orient the group toward a more Christ-centred attitude in the meeting. I also think that it has a lot to do with image and posturing, helping us “sacralize” the meeting in order to defend against implicit accusations that we were dabbling in the devil’s work. See? Look at us! We’re praying. Indeed, liturgical readings as I understand them are mainly aesthetic experience, intended to provoke the imagination. As Calvin professor James K.A. Smith writes,

The Gaudy Fullness of Liturgy: Or, Christian Time Travel

“Liturgies are formative because they are both kinaesthetic and poetic, both embodied and storied. Liturgies are covert incubators of the imagination because they play the strings of our aesthetic hearts. Liturgies traffic in the dynamics of metaphor and narrative and drama as performed pictures of the good life, staged performances of some vision of the kingdom that capture our imagination and thus orient our love and longing. By an aesthetic alchemy, these liturgies implant in us a vision for a world and way of life that attracts us so that, on some unconscious level, Liz Lemon-like, we say to ourselves: ‘I want to go to there.’ And we act accordingly.”

One of the virtues of discernment we are supposed to recognize is that it is primarily this-worldly, that it is an active “kinaesthetic and poetic” work, intended to break the hold of a kind of culturally-enforced passivity. It is, in theory, an anti-consumeristic discipline insofar as it criticizes a posture of unguarded consumption. The way I see it, discernment at its best is essentially criticism: entering into a received text and using it to productive means, and to do that one usually has to take work apart and try to understand one’s reaction to it. What are the elements in a work that provoke certain responses? Are those responses earned or forced? Is the work telling the truth (which most people practicing discernment at Calvin would capitalize as “Truth” or maybe even “TRUTH”) or is it perpetuating an unhelpful illusion?

(Aside: I would say unhelpful illusion since even truth, as it can be articulated in language, is in some sense illusory, in that it is not what it seems and is always broken open to re-reading if we are paying close enough attention. The best illusions are ones the good ones, the ones that push us closer to reality, that snap us out of our more confining and dominating delusions.)

Here is one section of the evening prayer we usually invoked:

O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the ever living Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the evening light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
your glory fills the whole world.

There is an essential problem with even lovely texts like this one. The problem is what I have described in the title as a gaudy fullness. Every word of it is a hyperbolic exaltation of the Light, the Triune Godhead. Let us understand what is happening as we recite words like these: we are engaged in a communal reading of an advertisement. Call it propaganda, if you prefer. What is set forth with such words is a comforting illusion. Despite the earlier use of Jeremiah’s request to be “rebuked” by God, we are gathered, through reading, in an expectation of victory and triumph. Our side cannot lose if it is arrayed in alliance with the one whose “glory fills the whole world.” It is, in effect, a denial of the current time. Instead of operating within history, we, in our liturgical time machine, have jumped through Metanarrative Space into a pristine union with the Holy Church, Bride of Christ, victorious forces of God Almighty. It is a place with a sickly kind of excess. We are, even as we begin our work to try to be more intensely in the world, drawing ourselves out of it and into a realm not of critical reflection on our faith, our culture, but rather affirming its pillars, imagining ourselves bathed in a golden radiance of which we are unworthy. The descriptions, if they were directed at a product other than God, would seem hilariously out of place. In a way, we are attempting to enter into these words and reanimate their deadness rather than acting from our own place in the tradition and allowing ourselves to be receptive to new possibilities. These words give us idols to cling to in our journey through the tumult of the meeting to come.

We have, in effect, been drawn into an unhelpful illusion, of the very sort we are meant to criticize and even curse in our work as discerners. At the start of our meeting, we have already assumed too much, closed in our circles, and fortified ourselves. Our confessions, words of praise, and songs are like penance paid in advance. We are wandering in the world, Lord, so, before we go off, let’s have a sprinkling of Spirit. What we need is an active response, not passive consumption. What needs to happen, if we are to guild our meetings with liturgical gowns, is to take these liturgies, indeed our entire assumed foundations, and work within them to open them up. Unfortunately, openness is precisely the opposite of the Reformed way, the way that cleaves desperately to foundations and, in many ways, including this latter-day rediscovery of high church liturgies and formalized prayer, vigorously defends its monopoly on correct view.

My own tigerly inclinations run with Anabaptists and Quakers, who eschew all outward identifiers: no crosses, no liturgies, no formal structures save for the dialogue of community itself. Rather than dictate, as these formal prayers do, the order and content of our encounter together, we should have a radical openness that, if it must be “spiritual,” at least embraces a plural voice, a new statement, one rooted in the old but more open to breaking out and invoking a new possibility. I refuse to be a mere mouthpiece, a marionette, for some other community’s prayers. If I must have old words, and there are many times when I must, I have to be able to reshape and recontextualize them, to engage their plasticity and inner tension. Narratives as presented in Common Prayer Liturgies are reassuring and affirmative of our own holiness as well as the rightness of our cause. This is not the attitude we learned in attempting to understand discernment.