Dialect |di·a·lect|: A particular form of a language

that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.

We are continuing our summer series on a theology of worship through the lens of language. Before moving forward, let me highlight a few points by way of review:

  • The liturgy lets God have His say with His Word
  • The primary actor in the liturgy is God (God speaks and we listen)
  • The primary verb is the forgiveness of sins (God’s word bestows what it says)
  • The watchwords of worship are reverence and fidelity

The Liturgy as Gospel Dialect

All people worship something or someone. It is not a matter of if someone will worship, but what or whom they will worship. Luther says in his Large Catechism that whatever we cling to most tightly is ultimately what we worship. All worship reflects a particular worldview, which can be defined as the model of reality that governs a people's perception of what is real and right⎯teaching people how to think and also how to live.

While acknowledging the complexity of the issues surrounding the erosion of modernity, Robert Jenson posits that the Enlightenment experiment of the modern era had to fail because it was an attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller (How the World Lost its Story, 21). In other words, by removing God as the universal author and primary actor in the story, the world was left to create its own. In the West, this has led to rampant individualism as everyone sought to create competing stories after their own image⎯including liturgies⎯leading inevitably to a fractured society bereft of objective identity and meaning. Novelist and literary critic A.S. Byatt speaks of the vanishing of a Christian consciousness:

We no longer have God and the biblical narrative to tell us who we are, so we are not even sure that we exist until we see ourselves in the mirror of these media... Christianity used to provide us with the map, now the press does (The Guardian, Aug 25, 2010).

If our lives are to be shaped by the story of Scripture, we need to understand three things: (1) the divine drama of Scripture is a compelling unity on which we may depend, (2) each of us has a place within that great story, and (3) we are immersed in this story every Lord’s Day through enacting the liturgy and receiving the forgiveness of sins in communion with our Lord and one another. The liturgy in this sense is a unique dialect of the Christian faith amongst the world’s competing religions.

The Universal Story

While serving as a missionary bishop in India, Lesslie Newbigin recalls this story of a Hindu man’s response to the Bible:

I can’t understand why you missionaries present the bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion – and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don’t need anymore! I find in your bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it. (Walk through the Bible, 4)

Stories are in principle normative as they define starting points, ways of seeing what is true; and they are comprehensive, since they give an account of the whole. The whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world. Therefore, it is public truth. The story we live in as believers finds its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (i.e. the Gospel). This true story is played out in and through the dialect of the liturgy:

  • We are united to Christ’s story through the rite of baptism.
  • We are sustained in Christ’s story through the rite of Absolution & the Lord’s Supper.
  • We grow in our understanding of this story through the reading and preaching of the Bible.

Enactment through Ritual

In every culture, people develop public rituals that identify what is important to them (sporting events, fireworks on the 4th of July, birthday cakes). In his book, Heaven on Earth, Art Just provides a functional definition of ritual that I’ve found helpful. Ritual is:

  1. a pattern of formal, repetitive behavior
  2. that communicates meaning symbolically
  3. both verbally and non-verbally,
  4. which is necessary for group relationships to operate
  5. in order that the group may stick together and thus survive.

Thus, the Divine Service is a pattern of formal, repetitive behavior that communicates the Gospel story weekly (verbally and non-verbally), helping us stick together. It is a dramatic enactment of the relationship that we have with God⎯a relationship that stems from historical events and continuing until Christ comes again in glory. This happens through recitation and representation.

Next month, we will consider the role of music in the liturgy.