Friday, July 20, 2007

De-Ritualized: Organically Free or Empty Structure

Piggy-backing on the previous post, I’m ruminating on the notion of liminality and communitas. It occurred to me that in Michael Frost’s beautiful explanation of these concepts from Victor Turner that it was in the context of ritual/ceremony that this idea developed. In Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Frost moves toward application in secularized circumstances. In other words, any harrowing or adventuresome group experience might catalyze communitas. Examples were given of rights activists and church mission trips creating communitas. Carl Starkloff wrestles with these same anthropological concepts in his article “Church as Structure and Communitas: Victor Turner and Ecclesiology” (Theological Studies v. 58 (Dec. '97) p. 643-68). Starkloff brings a Catholic perspective on the same topic and thus has a heightened sensitivity to the value of ritual.

My background is thoroughly Evangelical Baptist, thus the element of ritual has always been minimized unless we were talking about Wednesday night fried chicken. Americans (and Westerners in general), for a long time, neglected the importance of rituals and ceremonies in everyday life. Even the church has worked very hard at minimizing or commercializing our symbolically-rich ceremonies. The rituals that are observed have been reduced to an express version of the former. Funeral ceremonies have become lighter life celebrations. Wedding ceremonies are lightning fast and then its on to the reception. The rich symbolism is hardly given a second thought.

In this void of meaningful rituals and celebrations, individuals and groups are scrambling to create their own or dig them up from obscure corners of history. Among the ritual ideas proposed by Carole Kammen and Jodi Gold (Call to Connection: Bringing Sacred Tribal Values into Modern Life, 1998) are ceremonies for a woman’s first menstruation or the return to singleness after a divorce. They also submit ideas for ritualizing Christmas and Thanksgiving. (Kammen and Gold, 215) Isn’t it remarkable that people have to create rituals for Christmas because all they see is frenetic gift-buying and commercial hype?

Kammen and Gold demarcate a void in our culture. Their solutions, however, come off as cheaply manufactured imitation ceremonies. The fun might be as long-lasting as the novelty of a theme-party. Once it is over, it is time to move on. They are attempting to reintroduce forms without the meaning.

Evangelicals have taken the opposite approach, locating the focus squarely on the meaning devoid of ritual form. Monological exhortations (“sermons”) have become the primary focus in the primary gathering of the church. Even in churches that still celebrate the sacraments in ritual manner, the deep sense of awe and mystery seems noticeably underwhelming. It has become too staid and thus no longer a ritual that demands communitas.

This has become a meandering line of thinking. So, to rein these thoughts back in, how do we celebrate in ritual the rich meanings of Christ in forms that spur us toward liminal experiences and theretofore communitas?


Anonymous said...

The term rituals can mean different things to different people. I personally enjoy high church rituals in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition. I know I enjoy new experiences and trying different things in worship, so my enjoyment could be attributed to growing up Baptist and enjoying something different. If I experienced these same rituals every week for years, would they still have the same meaning or would they become meaningless and an uninspiring as some of our Baptists traditions have become for me?
Your question really deals with the use of rituals in developing community, but if these rituals do not continue to have rich meaning then they become boring habits that we continue to do out of obligation. I wonder if we can create rituals and traditions that are much more flexible so the newness would not wear off. Am I speaking just out of my own preferences due to my personality type or would this work with everyone? Are they still rituals and traditions if there is a lot of flexibility?

Daniel said...

Ritual lends context to our experiences, but is not a thing to be pursued in itself. Rituals anchor the unique experiences of individuals and groups to those of the entire community. For example, the boys who survive the wilderness have a special experience among themselves, but the ritual sending and receiving of the boys by the tribe brings their experience into the context of the entire group.
So to answer your question as best as I see it, the rituals don't necessarily spur us toward liminal experiences as much as they connect discreet experiences to the history of the entire community.
What we are longing for is a connection with something bigger than ourselves after buying into the lie that we can accomplish and acquire enough on our own to be happy.

Don-nie said...

I agree with Daniel's line of thought. And maybe that lends something to the reasons ritual has been subverted in many evangelical circles. That the criticism of ritual, overt or hidden, was one that dealt with the ritual itself. That ritual became the key element, and what the ritual pointed to was ignored. Somewhat, like preaching today or sermon. That the sermon is the important primary activity, not what the sermon is designed to point to. Ritual can be good, but not in and of itself. So, if that mystical symbolic element is ignored or distorted, then ritual can just as easily be dangerous or distracting.

sdawg said...

I am struck by Banks' thoughts in "Paul's Idea of Community" where he argues that Paul pretty much consistently put the Way of Jesus in de-ritualized terms. For example Paul used a kind of "secular" term for church (ekklesia) instead of the myriad ritual-related religious terms available at the time.

In addition he adopted religious ritualized language in reference to ordinary things like work and eating food. He seemed to have been presenting the way of Jesus as something different that ritualized religion, and more of a faith related to the attitude of the heart, moral transformation, with concrete social application.

Chris and Tiffany said...

M, you got me there. I have to say.......I have ABSOLUTELY no idea.

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