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Ritual, History, Place– No! The Cool Kind

This morning I was reading a blog post which invoked the blessed Trinity of postmodern tropes. It said that an “incarnational” religion is one that values “ritual, history, and place,” and then it went on to say that Protestantism, by its very nature, does not do these things.

Now, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that “incarnational” here is being used where “anthropological” would actually be the correct term. After all, there’s nothing about “ritual, history, or place” which suggest that a divine hypostasis would add a human nature to itself. No, the point is that “ritual, history, and place” are necessary to create a deep and meaningful human community. That’s what we are after, and we believe that a certain kind of religion will provide this– a religion other than Protestantism.

The timing was too good to pass up. You see, last night a group from my church went to a local independent living facility and sang hymns with the residents there. We sang some of our own favorites: robust 17th century German tunes and some Genevan Psalms. These went over ok, I guess. Even though they had history and all that, they didn’t really mean anything to senior citizens in Central Florida. Which hymns did connect with them? Amazing Grace, of course, but also There is a Fountain and O Worship the King. These were the hymns that the 90-year old woman remembered from long ago, the ones that took her back to where she grew up, her family, her ancestral culture– you know, her roots.

In fact, I bet if you were to sample most 70-90 year old adults in America, you would find a pretty significant amount of religious uniformity. John Newton and the King James Bible would top the list, and not just for Baptists. As for ritual, I would suspect a certain sort of prayer life, Sunday morning and Sunday evening church attendance, and a, well, traditional patriotic and civic life would also make itself clear. But these are almost always not the roots that religious and philosophical discontents are looking for. Why is it that post-postmoderns, in their search for ritual, history, and place, don’t want to return to the place that they actually came from but instead to some far-away and exotic land, much removed from anything they have ever actually experienced?

To ask the question is mostly to answer it, I think. The quest for “ritual, history, and place” is really a quest for refined tastes, stately aesthetics, and a daddy that we never had but imagine we would like if we could craft him after our own image. It’s a niche-consumerism for intellectual and affluent people, a spiritual Stuff White People Like.

Is that too harsh? Probably. But prove me wrong. Go sit with the folks in the nursing homes. Learn about your history, your history– the one you came from. Respect and honor your parents. Listen to your pastor, your actual pastor. Love your physical neighbors. Put the needs of others above your own, even those folks with inferior tastes. I’ll even give you a Latin word for all this. Recover pietas.

If that doesn’t sound like it solves your existential problem, then welcome back to modernity. It turns out that you never left. But if you do give it a try, you might be surprised what you find. While shopping for Heidegger, you might just end up stumbling across Isaac Watts or King David, and hopefully, after all that, we can, all of us, find Jesus.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

5 replies on “Ritual, History, Place– No! The Cool Kind”

I absolutely share your distaste — maybe irritation is not too strong a word — with those who want to write off Protestantism as gnostic, placeless, disincarnated, etc. I think Newman’s famous quip about being deeply immersed in history was about the dumbest thing he ever said (which admittedly is not saying a whole lot because he mostly did say really smart things).

However, I think we should guard against overreaction as well. The US Protestant tradition tends to lean heavily on the 19th century and the Second Great Awakening, and there is a lot about that tradition that needs to be critiqued and, frankly, discarded. The best among the hipsters are making attempts to do that, attempts not unalloyed with error and failure, but necessary attempts nonetheless.

And as far as music goes, I think Ken Myers made a good point that there is value in evaluating music (shock!) musically instead of as a badge of cultural identification (whether hip or traditional). It should be permissible, then, to ask what kind of music is best in strictly musical terms.

And there is indeed some semantic overlap between “incarnational” and “anthropological,” for reasons which are probably too obvious to mention.

I think this post could helpfully color and inform the “lenten” practices of the American/Evangelical church (particularly, those in the PCA who really wish they were Anglican, or something even “higher”). It’s prosaic to be like “everyone” else who simply believes in the “good book” and trusts Christ exclusively as their only hope of salvation. What began as a good and needed remembrance of the doctrines of grace quickly slid into smells, bells, kneelers and an obsession with aesthetics and art (both within and outside the walls of the church). Then, we’ve got these simple-minded, gospel-preaching “Gideons” – who in their “blind” ignorance clung to their bibles and “less than reformed” hymns all these years, and look where it’s gotten them? On the edge of death, looking it squarely in the face with a clear conscience and a faithful witness. Is that really enough for us (the informed, wealthy, sophisticated Christian)? I hope so!

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