Liturgy In Secular Imagination

Liturgy In Secular Imagination September 22, 2017

Alastair Roberts’s contribution to Our Secular Age, a collection of essays on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, focuses on the effect of secularism on liturgical piety.

Taylor identifies “authenticity” as one of the features of our secular age, and Roberts observes that this can take the form of a consumerist approach to liturgy:

“This age of authenticity is one in which consumption plays a crucial role: various companies provide us with the images, styles, and brands by which we can fashion our identities for ourselves and signal them to others. Taylor was writing at the outset of the revolutionary rise of online social media; ten years later, his observations have never seemed more pertinent. Social media like Facebook or Twitter are some of the purest examples of spaces of mutual display. In the world of online social media, cut loose from the heavily textured fabric of concrete society and its differentiated identities, we are all reduced to cookie-cutter individual profiles. We each choose our own affiliations, defining ourselves by patterns and objects of consumption and the image we present of ourselves for others. The identities forged in such a manner are themselves commodified for the use of advertisers to sell us more products and services. The intensity of this shared realm of display can produce an acute self-reflexivity, akin to perceiving one’s face in a mirror for the first time. Within the age of authenticity, we can approach Christian liturgy chiefly as a means of self-expression, and forget its character as communal action and formation. While many speak of their desire for ‘community,’ the community they seek is often of an ersatz character, participating only in the shallow and fleeting ‘community’ that can be enjoyed in the ‘lonely crowd.’ Churches can attempt to achieve ‘community’ through affected informality and friendliness or through the elevated emotions of the music-driven worship event, which may produce a similar effect to the rock concert. We have identified community with a feeling that can be synthesized, rather than a bond of deep mutual commitment and the shared disciplines that powerfully and enduringly unite us in the pursuit and celebration of common objects of love.”

On the other side, consumerism can appear in “traditionalist” liturgical piety: “Attending a church with a higher liturgy can be a worshiper’s means of signaling refinement, elevated aesthetic judgment, ecclesiastical pedigree, and socio-economic class. In such cases, tradition may be valued principally for its vintage feel or ancient dignity, rather than for the truth that first animated its creation.”

Roberts shrewdly notes that recent Evangelical advocacy of liturgy has failed “to reckon adequately with the degree to which our liturgies can be radically transformed by the prevailing social imaginary. . . . That the liturgy will, with sufficient repetition, bring the imagination around to an appropriate understanding is not self-evident. Would not evidence suggest that, with an imagination lacking the appropriate modes and postures of receptivity to its images, the practice of the liturgy can fail to exert its intended transformative power – indeed that it might become a process of malformation?”

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