Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Body of Liturgy

For sometime now there has been a Hauerwas' quote floating around the internet about the value of liturgy. It goes like this: 
"One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend." — Stanley Hauerwas, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, p.89.
I first came across this quote seven years ago, and at the thought it was overstatement and hyperbole. But recently, thanks to James K.A. Smith and the Journal of Biblical Counseling, I think I now understand how it could be true. What we do with our bodies matters. As embodied beings, our habits and practices are training our hearts and our minds in particular ways.Smith defines liturgy as the habit-forming practices that shape and mould our love and desires:

“Liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.” James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 25.
This is a broader definition of what liturgy is, which usually describes what happens in corporate worship. These include the customary patterns of church, but also include the habits of daily life, including sitting in front of the television for three hours each evening, or visiting the shopping mall. Smith defines liturgies as the habitual practices which have power to shape what one ultimately loves. Inasmuch as liturgies are the embodiment of our desires, they are pedagogical stories told by – and told upon – our bodies, thereby embedding themselves in our imagination, becoming part of the background that determines how we perceive the world. Our habits train our desires, and nurture our love towards something. For example, one does not wake up and suddenly decide to ignore one’s family; it is an attitude that has been formed by years of tardiness and missing family meals.

Habitual actions matter in our sanctifcation, whether  seemingly  mundane  (brushing  your  teeth),  or  seemingly  unproblematic (going to the mall), or presumably serious (participating in worship). “Our heart’s desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate daily and weekly."

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