Protestants, Writing, Sacraments

Protestants, Writing, Sacraments February 1, 2016

My two-part essay on why Protestants can’t write got a lot more attention last week than it did when first published in Credenda/Agenda. Clarifications are in order.

Behind the bluster, bombast, and hyperbole of the essay lie an assumption, an assertion, and an argument.

The assumption is that liturgy forms culture. What we do before God in worship shapes how we engage God’s world outside worship. Water – fresh or poisoned – flows from the sanctuary to the land and out to the world. Many things contribute to the formation of a way of life, but exposure to the Lord’s word and table, and how we are exposed to them, are the most determining factors. If you want to get to the root issues of a culture, you’ve got to trace back to the cultus.

The assertion: The worship of many Protestant churches (by no means all) is didactic. Liturgy is sermon-centered, and preachers are less inclined to explore the poetry of a passage than to lay out its doctrinal and practical thrust. This is not a dismissal of didactic or doctrinal preaching. It’s simply a claim about the way the word is delivered to the saints in many Protestant churches, against the background assumption that the mode of delivery has an effect on the imaginations of the people who listen.

Another side of the assertion: Many Protestant churches (often the didactic ones) celebrate the Eucharist infrequently; many are deliberately, self-consciously anti-sacramental. Their worship consists of teaching but not doing, word but not sign. When they do celebrate the Supper, many Protestant churches are informed that it is a sign rather than a reality.

This is a simplification of what goes on in many Protestant churches. It is not, I think, a caricature.

The argument, based on the assumption and the assertion, comes in several stages: Churches whose worship focuses on didactic, doctrinal teaching are going to shape minds, imaginations, and hearts in a particular way. Churches with infrequent communion, and churches that treat communion as “mere sign” are also shaping the imaginative lives of their members.

Churches with didactic preaching and unsacramental worship, I submit, do not produce poets.

A poetic imagination is cultivated in churches where the beauty of Scripture is as important as its truth. Poetic imagination is cultivated in churches that celebrate Eucharist regularly. Every week, their worship climaxes with a great sacramental metaphor, a metaphor that is more than metaphor, a metaphor that also states (in some fashion) what is the case: “This is my body. This is my blood.”

By this argument, some forms of Protestantism – Anglicans with their prayer books and Eucharistic piety, Lutherans with their ins-withs-unders – are more conducive to cultivating poetic imagination than others.

Part of the argument is empirical. Who was the last great Protestant poet? Who are the great Protestant novelists? And, what kind of liturgical life nourished the hearts of said poets and novelists? Is there actually a connection between cult and literary culture? I made a few scattered gestures toward this part of the argument, but my essay was, admittedly, empirically thin.

That would be one way to rebut the essay. Another would be to tick off pagans and apostates who have great literary skill. That weakens but doesn’t necessarily refute my argument. Joyce, for instance, was hardly your died-in-wool Catholic, but his Catholic formation shows up on every page.

Another tack would be to claim that there is no, or at least no significant connection between liturgy and literary culture. Or, alternatively, that other factors are at play and are more significant. No doubt many things go into the formation of an artist, but I confess that my initial assumption is too deeply held to conclude that liturgical experience has negligible effect on cultural formation.

For a complementary argument, far more sophisticated and nuanced than my essay and with more specificity, see Lori Branch’s wonderful Rituals of Spontaneity, which I reviewed here.

I have not yet been able to review the published responses to my essay. I hope to respond directly later this week.


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