I read an article recently on the decline of the Modernist movement in art. The piece was entitled “The Dustbin of Art History: Why is so much contemporary art so awful?” (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/05/why-is-modern-art-so-bad/)
The article got me thinking about liturgy and the current “trends.” The modernist movement had an undeniable impact on liturgical practice. The stripping away of mystery, the desire for “accessibility,” the movement from a vertical encounter with God to a horizontal exchange about God, and the drive for “function” over embellishment have marked much of contemporary liturgy.
One source on modern art describes the modernist art project as being about seeking to be “experimental, imaginative, exciting, and free.” It is based on “inner vision, breaking from the past, and self-consciousness” and “whatever was established or instituted must be deconstructed, reconstructed, questioned, and even destroyed.”
We see the constant craving within churches to accomplish much of this. There is a drive to be imaginative, exciting, and experimental – to break from the past and inspire the congregation to some new level of awareness.
Modern liturgical praxis seems often wrapped up, however, in the same qualities that the article cites as marking the decline of modern art: Formulae, narcissism, sentiment, and cynicism.
What was once ground-breaking and exciting (and a necessary challenge to ossified church dynamics) has now become dogmatic adherence. The aforementioned article states, “…we are told, originality is over, appropriation is in, style is dead, pluralism is the order of the day. Yet this is true of the end-phase for any great movement.”
I recently watched a discussion of liturgy in a parish. The person leading the discussion said to her audience, “We might try some new language, but we are not trying to force you back to the bad old days where you had kneelers and everyone had to kneel to get Communion.”
What had once been ground-breaking, that “we are made worthy to stand before” God and Christ, had now become inviolable and unquestionable praxis. The new and the theologically significant had become just formulaic admonition.
It is not that I think standing for Communion is “wrong” but that the attitude around it – as the obvious way to do it right – needs questioning. In an age when the dominant culture is absolutely steeped in narcissism we may need a place where we kneel every once in a while. This is just one small example of the rejection of the “old” becoming its own dogma.
What is the point of the liturgy? The answer now seems to be “us!” Our enlightenment, our edification, our enjoyment, our participation. When I am in planning meetings about liturgy in various and sundry places, inevitably the questions seem to center on what people will get out of it. Will it move them? Will they like it?
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the center of worship. The adoration of God is the primary purpose of worship. It is the work of the people offered for the praise of God.
Yet, we now want to be in a circle so we see each other. We want to interject exclamations in the Eucharistic prayer. We want to stand. We want the language to feel less penitential. We want shorter sermons. We want a longer peace (so we can catch up).
Yet doing the “traditional” without intentionality and joy is equally destructive. When mass is offered because that is what we did the Sunday before, we are equally off-course.
When worship becomes about self-gratification and the comfortable as opposed to self-giving (when it becomes formula and rule), then we have profoundly and utterly lost the focus of the action. Worship is a thanksgiving for the action of God not a celebration of our own action.
We seem increasingly unwilling to enter another’s space, to be made uncomfortable, to be challenged – because we don’t have to be. So worship becomes ever more about providing a comfortable environment (or an exciting one) rather than a holy one.
It also becomes about the narcissism of the celebrant or the preacher as they seek to be seen as enlightened or warm or funny or whatever other need we think we want filled for it is “they” that give meaning to the liturgy and the scripture.
The Book of Common Prayer protects the congregation from the neediness of any one priest. We are too often subject to the tyranny of the new and the living in which the preacher or celebrant who is not “relevant” is less than – for they are not giving us what we want.
While we obsess about becoming relevant we lose sight of what makes the Church truly relevant, its willingness to stand and hold culture accountable for the sake of Jesus Christ. Standing against greed, oppression, injustice, and hate are all brought about by a sense of the dignity of all humanity that is imparted in the dignity with which we approach God. It is not hearing about God that brings these radical challenges to society but an encounter with God – which can never be trivialized.
The Christian life is not about what we want but about what we need. We now have entire TV channels, stores, and websites devoted to every whim and desire of the individual. Church cannot be one more place where the wants of “me” overshadow the profound and real presence of God.
Pluralism and self-actualization have now become the order of the day. Rather than plumb the depths of our shared heritage – we now seek to ever expand the options while degrading our shared identity and mutual dependence for the sake of self-expression.
For the sake of dismantling the old we brought in the “new.” Formal prayers, careful hymns, choral mass settings, east facing altars, pulpits, kneelers, stained glass, organs, and the rest were deemed archaic and fussy. So we brought in things that made us feel better somehow. We mistook a sense of happiness for the true comfort for the Holy Spirit.
The article on art offers this, “Art has become small, superficial and self-indulgent in its emotional range: sentimental rather than truly intellectual or moving.”
We have lost sight of what it means to offer worship full of dignity and beauty (the best we have to offer) to God. It is that pursuit that truly moves the heart and mind in worship. When offered with grace, dignity, and true joy (as opposed to mere happiness) worship naturally becomes a thing which transports and lifts us beyond the superficial and the bland.
As the “old” was tossed out what did we replace it with? The sentimental – for it was what we knew and made us happy out of church so why not bring it into church? Rather than the common being made holy we are driving for the holy to be common.
All the while, as church begins to look more and more like daily life and the extraordinary exchange that takes place between the divine and humanity is trivialized and made an extension of what makes us happy – what is cute.
As the author points out about art, “…these works of art are not necessarily ‘bad’—neither are the paintings of Bouguereau and Boucher—but they are kitsch.” Are we settling for kitsch in worship these days?
The liturgy need not be a thing of elaborate opulence to be deeply beautiful. Many of the most moving masses I have been part of have been low mass at 8:00 am or 5:30 pm on a Thursday. Their beauty grows out of the way the language, rhythms, and patterns become a part of us – transforming us without our even realizing it.
I have seen extraordinarily beautiful, even breathtaking, single black lines drawn by Chinese brush artists on a stark white background – yet those single lines require years and decades of training and striving for perfection. It is not the form only that defines that beauty but the deep longing and aspiration for the beautiful that strives beyond the self.
What is before us? The author says of the end of the modernist movement, “A surprisingly honest sense of failure, hopelessness and a bankruptcy of ideas are fundamental components of this end-phase…”
There is that thin thread that runs through conversations with people about the church more broadly and worship more specifically that “this is all we can do.” The controlled descent mentality has afflicted not just out thinking about the future of the Church but our thinking about worship.
“Madame de Pompadour is depicted looking at her reflection, and holding her powder brush as if she is an artist painting a self-portrait. Here is art celebrating its own superficiality. In doing so, it absorbs any criticism made against it…”
Where are we like the artist painting the self-portrait? Obsessed with the narrative, story, picture of the self while looking away from the world around – because we are doing what we can? We are focusing on what we have been culturally formed to focus on – us.
Instead of offering all that we have, stretching ourselves to do more, striving to offer ever more perfect praise, we get by, and because it is comfortable, common, cute, and “new” it gets by without critique.
I recently attended a mass that was designed to trigger a response and had a particular ideological bent. Someone who went with me said, “that was just off.” It was actually rather well done (as a piece of craft) and yet something was critically and deeply lacking. The mass was not offered as a way to ask God to help us or even to praise God for all that has been given to us – it was offered as a way to edify and instruct and motivate the congregation to new action. It was worship with an agenda – rather than worship with a Purpose.
Those who planned and offered the service knew that this worship was going to take advantage of and manipulate rather than to offer praise and glory. It was cynical even as it was well-meaning.
When worship becomes about us then it also becomes a tool and spectacle to manipulate us rather than to deeply transform us as we offer our selves, and souls, and bodies.
If an end then what next?
For many, what was “new” has become underwhelming. Anecdotal evidence might be found in the number of young people at Compline at Christ Church, New Haven and in Seattle. It might be seen in the number of young adults looking at semi-monastic communities. It might be found in the renewed interest in the Latin Mass in the Roman Church. It might be seen in the number of young people attending Solemn Mass in Louisville rather than the “alternative” service in the chapel. It might be found in the renewal of interest among non-liturgical traditions in the Creeds and Sacraments.
Recapturing dignity and mystery seems to be an unspoken need of a generation that knows there must be more.
This is the stuff of a future entry!