We sat down with author, David Andersen, to discuss his latest release with 1517 Publishing. Here's what he had to say about In Defense of Christian Ritual, available for purchase today.
1. What initially prompted you to write this book?
This book is the result of my experience in different - and often conflicting - worship settings, and of my journey to understand how the central biblical message - that Christ died for the wicked - relates (or should relate) to the structure of worship. In light of so many Sunday service options, In Defense of Christian Ritual asks the question: Is there a biblical framework for worship that Christians were meant to follow, or was it meant to be a sort of free-for-all that each generation should recreate to fit the spirit of the times? Utilizing an interdisciplinary approach, including an analysis of scripture and early Christian history, this book argues for the former.
2. In the introduction you discuss the influence of a New Communication Media on Christianity, as well as the famous phrase: “The medium is the message.” Why is this an important starting place?
Understanding what lies at the heart of any movement is an important part of unpacking what it is and why it may be fundamentally different than its predecessors. Because of this, the introduction points out that modern popular religion owes much of its substance to how communication evolved over the last century-and-a-half, particularly with the advent of television. How we communicate today has been greatly influenced by the television medium, and it’s had some unfortunate consequences - superficiality perhaps being the most prominent.
Due to its inherent brevity, shallowness defines even the most serious of television programming as its aim is largely directed at emotional gratification. The viewer’s entertainment, rather than her growth, is paramount. And almost nothing has escaped its reach, including Christianity. Wittingly or unwittingly, many preachers have assumed that what’s been believed and confessed in ages past can be transferred to this new entertainment medium without loss of meaning. Unfortunately, they’re wrong. The medium has frequently changed the message from something once serious and worthy of man’s complete allegiance to mere triviality and moralism. Appeasement and emotional gratification are too often the message, as parishioners are offered what they want rather than what they need. The medium, in this sense, has become the message.
Is there a biblical framework for worship that Christians were meant to follow, or was it meant to be a sort of free-for-all that each generation should recreate to fit the spirit of the times?
3. In the first chapter, you say, “We’re all ritualists. Whether we recognize it or not, our lives are full of rituals that guide our behavior, limit our choices, and determine where we go next.” Would you say this is ‘hard-wired’ into our being? If so, how might we understand this as creatures made in the image of God?
From the time we get up to when we go to sleep, much of our behavior is driven by ritual. We tend to drive to work using the same roads, eat roughly the same types of foods, go to the gym at the same time, and perhaps habitually watch TV before heading to bed. Research has shown, in fact, that 40-50 percent of our daily actions are done out of habit. From the evidence it would seem that ritual-like behaviors are indeed hard-wired, and they can be good or bad. If we come home and eat a bag of potato chips before bed every night then there’s little doubt that our health with suffer. On the other hand, if we’ve created a ritual of leaving our workout clothes on the bed over night so that we’re reminded to put them on first thing, then we’ll be reminded to get to the gym and reap the benefits for doing so.
Yet the religious implications can be just as dramatic. If God intended on bestowing his gifts to sinners through ritual enactments, as he did throughout the Old Testament, then as his creation we would do well to recognize the fact. In Defense of Christian Ritual argues precisely that. The case is made that even today God calls sinners into communion with himself through the ritual framework of word (in which we hear the corporate reading of Scripture) and table (in which we partake of the body and blood of the crucified Christ for the forgiveness of our sins).
4. Is the ‘anti-ritualist’ mentality that is prevalent in many religious circles today a modern phenomena?
In answering this question, it’s important we make the distinction between man-made rituals - with no biblical authority - and those instituted by Christ. In Defense of Christian Ritual argues for a catholic (small “c”), and biblical, order of worship that’s been characteristic of both the Western and Eastern church for two thousand years i.e., an order that consists of a word/table framework. While there’s been episodic resistance to this basic structure, modern culture (particularly from the early 1900s onward) has made opposition to it an art form. Viewing all ritual as restricting the Spirit’s outpouring, the nineteenth-century revivalists - and with them, much of popular modern Christianity - jettisoned it as unnecessary and a relic of a bygone age.
5. Do limits lead to creativity? If so, what is the implication for Christian worship?
There exists a pervasive myth that spontaneity lies at the heart of creativity; that creative people have moments of eureka insights and great things suddenly come into being from nowhere. But research from the new science of expertise is showing this narrative to be false. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to creating things. Rather than a moment of inspiration, there’s a lifetime of endurance and monotony. What makes the difference between creators and non-creators is the rigorous attention to details, to attending to a more or less formal structure that constantly guides their progress and growth.
Corresponding to the creativity myth, there’s been a pervasive belief in religious circles that ritual binds - that it constricts the free movement of the Spirit and hampers one’s relationship with God, which should be direct and unmediated. It’s probably not a coincidence that the two myths have flourished side-by-side. Yet as above, In Defense of Christian Ritual argues that Christians don’t grow from spontaneity, but rather from the same sort of formalized structure characteristic of creativity in general - which, in this case, is the word/table liturgical framework; and specifically one that provides them with the mental furniture for both times of crisis and prosperity. As counterintuitive as it sounds, Christian growth thrives on constraints, on being bound by the language of Scripture and the confession of the historic church (as in, for example, its ancient creeds).
6. How does Christian ritual help ‘safeguard the tensions’ of the Christian faith?
Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” True as this has proven to be, we’re too often fooled into thinking in binary terms - that we have to choose one truth over another or hold one at the expense of the other. Modernity has been especially effective at creating a superficial way of thinking that flattens out the world into something that’s always easy to grasp. Trouble is that reality is often much more complex than we want it to be.
This is especially true of the Christian faith. Of its chief figure, our Lord Jesus Christ, the church insisted (as Chesterton remarked) that he wasn’t “a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.” Yet the history of the church is full of attempts to flatten this essential truth (along with others), either by diluting his humanity or his deity. Grievous heresy and unbelief was always the result. It’s here that Christian ritual, as expressed in the church’s liturgy, can help us maintain these truths that often feel in tension with one another. It does so by mimicking Scripture and setting truths side-by-side. Word is set next to table, the Hebrew Scriptures are set next to the New Testament, law is set next to gospel. By its setting, one liturgical thing next to another, the deep structure of biblical language is replicated and evoked - reminding us the same way over and over that we can’t suppress one truth at the expense of another without at the same time forfeiting the very faith that gives us hope.