The word “liturgy,” like the word “art,” is generally used for what happens in liturgical churches on Sunday morning when they trot out a list of already-chosen Bible texts and read them, and they then have a church worship service in which much reflects an order from which the liturgical service rarely departs. Which is only partly true if one knows what happens. Liturgy in this sense differs from low church spontaneous services.
Bruce Ellis Benson contends all of life for all of us is liturgical and all of life for all of us is a piece of art. He does this in his new book Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship.
So, instead of permitting liturgy and art to be high brow, Benson deconstructs this romantic sense and contends that each of us is a work of art living out the liturgical order God has established in the rhythms of creation. Benson is a continental philosopher at Wheaton, which means his discussion partners really are high brow — Jean-Luc Marion, Balthasar, Chretien, et al. Still, his done his best to take those philosophers and let the teach us about turning each of our lives into a liturgical work of art.
It begins with the call and response. Everything about life is a lived response to the call of God. Everything about our life is an improvised response back to God’s call, and each of our improvised responses is at the same time a call for others to improvise on the call of God and the response of others. These are the big ideas. Now more singularly:
Beauty is the call itself … things do not beckon us because they are beautiful but we call them beautiful because they beckon us, they enchant us, or they charm us. The call itself then indicates the beauty.
The call always precedes me; the call is an ongoing series — echoes of echoes — of calls and responses and calls. To respond is to enter into the something that is already going on.
Jazz is not creation per se; jazz means listening, knowing the tradition through hard work, learning how jazz works, and in the moment responding to the jazz lick of others. To be good at jazz improvisation then is simply to learn how to improvise within the tradition. Thus, knowing the past makes the future of that past possible. The improviser, then, is not alone but joins a community of improvisation.
I would contend all of Scripture is improvisation that reflects contextual responses to which the ancient Hebrews and Israelites and early Christians responded. I was asked in my Wheaton Theology Conference about the relation of Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence to the OT sanction of war, which was not a concern of my paper and which would have taken us too far afield in that brief time, but the major point would have to be that Jesus improvised on Israel’s “jazz lick” about God, the world, war, and other nations in a way that both took up previous improvisations and innovated in his own context. Many would like to turn the OT stories into reified templates that become more or less laws or timeless propositions. But they, too, were improvisations on how ancient Near Eastern cultures implicated God in all actions, especially victory and defeat. Jesus improvises with “defeat is the way to victory.”
Life is art, life is a liturgical work of art, in that it responds to the call of God in this life by improvising within the parameters of the existing improvisations.