Friday, November 05, 2010

American Syncretism in Christian Worship

Couldn't come up with a better title.  This week in the seminary's worship class they are looking at acts of worship beyond baptism, communion, and other sign acts (last week involved everything from tongues to footwashing).  We're talking weddings, funerals, and things we might put in the category of "civil religion," including the frequent intersection of nationalism with Christian worship.

For example, I don't get too bent out of shape over it, but it seems very peculiar to put an American flag in the pulpit area.  We are so used to this practice that it is hard for us to see how truly bizarre it is.  To try to get at the bizarreness, imagine how Dietrich Bonhoeffer would respond if he had walked in after seeing Nazi flags in German churches?  Picture a Brazilian flag on a pulpit in Brazil or a Russian flag in a Russian Orthodox chancel.  Are we saying that we worship our country along with God or that our country is as holy as the cross.  Imagine how we Protestants would react to an icon of a Christian saint up front--and it's at least Christian!  God smiles.

There are other perspectives you commonly hear from worship professors, things that most American ministers have never even thought of.  For example, although I think God is very patient, I would strongly urge couples getting married to include the congregation in communion if they are having it.  Communion is not something two people do in private.  It is a body of Christ thing. 

Other things worship experts often say, perhaps with less force than the above: 1) having a wedding outside rather than in a church building hints at a mindset that is probably leaning more secular than Christian; 2) the Wedding March comes from A Midsummer Night's Dream, hardly a Christian drama, and is odd in a worship service; 3) close the casket at a funeral because a Christian funeral should be a worship service, and a worship service is more about God than the individual who has died; 4) some even argue against the typical time of testimonials to the dead person in the worship service of the funeral proper.

What are your thoughts?  I always smile at a church that makes a big deal out of Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Mother's Day, but couldn't tell you what Advent or Ash Wednesday was to save its life.  This is the typical syncretism of religion and culture that takes place everywhere in all religions.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Sacred and secular distinctions dissolve in one's understanding when "life" is gift and not seen as a struggle . Why make such distinctions? But, then, one should always be aware that ethics is ethics, whether sacred or secular. And our country's values of life and liberty is universal.

Struggle is about survival, and distinctions, while gift is the "whole". And liberty is the place of and for 'faith".

Ben Robinson said...

Although I understand the idea behind 3), it is one of the areas where I think our worship can become "reality denying." A funeral is a worship service, sure, but a particular kind of worship service. It is a service in which the power of death has made itself known, and is a palpable reality. We worship with death in our midst, the body of a loved one. Yes, the service is about God (and thus we may need to rethink how we envision liturgically the role of testimonials), but God is for the person who has died and the constellation of folks mourning that loss.

I have been to funerals that interpret "worship" as exclusively celebratory. This has the effect of 1) not giving space for the mourning to grieve and 2) ironically mitigating the full significance of the resurrection of Christ; Christ's victory over death, the power of which is observable and to be acknowledged if Christ's victory is to have any meaning.

Funerals must include aspects of celebration (resurrection), albeit that celebration has to be held in tension with the horror of what has happened: a person has died, and all of those bound to that person (and thus the church) will carry that death with them in variegated ways. The Psalms, obviously, give us liturgical pattern for trying to give witness to this tension.

But ultimately this is a tension we cannot bear; the tension between hope and despair. So a funeral is a particular kind of worship service that gives witness to the One who bore this tension in his very body and was not overcome by it. The One who utters both the "cry of dereliction" and a witness of faithfulness, "into your hands I commend my spirit." If the service can seek to give such a witness I am not chiefly concerned with whether the casket is opened or closed. I think there are possibilities for witnessing the crucified and raised body of Jesus in both formats.

Ken Schenck said...

Well put, Ben.

Angie, certainly even some Christians deny any distinction between sacred and secular any more. There might also be historical and political reasons, though to question some of our practices, although thus far they seem to have been innoculous enough.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I was just about to write about those very difficulties, when you responded.

Practically, one must organize, discriminate, and choose how and what one wants to do. This is true for the individual as much as the organization/institution or government.

So, practically, it is a matter of faith and choice as to value in discriminating about one's priorities.

Thanks, Ben for addressing the human aspect of "loss", as some Christians would defend a "joy in all circumstances" stance in regards to emotional pain.

π² said...

I think marriage needs a bit more flushing out. While I do believe the institution of marriage is a sacred act, a sacrament in fact, historically a wedding was a family event (likely with religious ovetones), not necessarily community worship. Fathers performed marriages, not clergy. It is my understanding that clergy performed weddings became the norm when the state wanted clear records of who was married for purposes of inheritance and taxes. It may not have been so much their authority from God, but the fact that clergy knew how to write, that got us into the wedding business.

That said, I think it is appropriate that clergy perform weddings, but we must realize that it is a family/social, civil, and religious act. Weddings (and funerals) are more than Sunday services with a special act thrown in. There are some things I do in a wedding ceremony because I am a Christian pastor. There are other things I do because the state requires it. And I have flexibility in my script to allow for, and in fact encourage, the bride and groom to bring in their heritage.

In the end, I want what I do as celebrant to be an act of worship. If the couple is Christian, then I want them also to engaged in worship. Depending on the service choices, the congregation may be more or less involved involved in the worship, but I am satisfied if they are there, participating with me in my prayers and viewing the mystery.

Ken Schenck said...

Looks like the beginnings of a post, Paul ;-)

To get into really rough waters, I could go next to my sense that there is a marked difference between a civil union and a Christian wedding. With regard to the first, my sense is "What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem..." ;-)

π² said...

I've already copied what I wrote into my introduction for assignment 3 for this week :-)

npmccallum said...

Allow me to share some thoughts from another tradition (Russian Orthodox), if you don't mind. ;) This is just our tradition, not a critique of yours.

1. For Orthodox, marriages are a sacrament. Weddings outside are forbidden unless there is a permanent altar. This is because marriage is a sacrament of the mystical union of Christ (the bridegroom) with his Church (his bride) in the partaking of the Eucharist. As the man cleaves unto his bride and they become one flesh, so to the Church cleaves unto Christ in the Eucharist and by partaking of His body we *become* his body. In an Orthodox wedding, there are no vows, but instead a symbolic crowning with the crowns of martyrdom. The husband and wife die a martyrdom to each other, and in doing so they unite themselves to Christ. As such, and in keeping with the close symbolic relationship between marriage and the Eucharist, Orthodox weddings are usually held on Saturday or Sunday and almost always after a Divine Liturgy. The entire parish, having just celebrated the Eucharist together, is invited to the wedding. We have no wedding march since the ceremony starts at the back of the nave with the "betrothal" where the couple professes that they are not legally bound to any other person. This echoes the rite of baptism which begins in the same place in the Church and also starts with a renunciation of "the world" in order to cleave unto Christ. Thus, the wedding itself is a mirroring of the process of baptism and Eucharist.

npmccallum said...

2. Closing a casket is foreign to our tradition, even in the case of disfigurement (though in this later case there has been some Americanization). The Orthodox funeral is designed to confront us with the reality of death, for St Paul is quite clear that if we are to be raised with Christ, we must die with him, and this is indeed a real death. Thus, in confronting death, indeed in uniting ourselves to it, we partake in Christ's resurrection. Thus, it is our custom for every member of the parish to kiss the body of the deceased before the casket is closed. The body is than transported to the grave-site and buried facing East (the direction from which Christ will come) with a cross at their feet in the hope of the resurrection of the dead at the return of Christ. Cremation is absolutely forbidden, except in the case where it is required by law (Japan; I've heard several Protestants argue that the acceptance of Cremation is when the Protestant belief in the bodily resurrection began to wane in practice, but I digress). Embalming is also forbidden, but in America most morticians are unaware of our practice leading to some laxity in this regard.

The famous hymn from our funerals is "Memory Eternal" where we ask God to give eternal rest to the departed ( In general it can be said that the tone of our funerals is the same as that on Holy Friday and Saturday where we commemorate the death of Christ and his resting in the tomb (respectively). In fact, on Holy Friday/Saturday a cross with an icon of Christ and a large icon (burial shroud) respectively are placed in the exact same place in the church as the coffin and we kiss them just like we do the departed. Also, it is not uncommon at the end of the Holy Friday/Saturday and burial services for the parish to sit in silence and/or crying. In short, we are liturgically teaching people that we must truly unite ourselves to Christ's death so that we may be united to his resurrection.

Two final notes are necessary. While the service is typically extremely somber, even to the point of inducing tears, if a person dies in the week after Easter (Bright Week) the tone of the whole service is exuberant. For instance the dirge of "Memory Eternal" is replaced with shouts of "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"

Lastly, in the Orthodox Church funerals are only given to members in good standing (ie regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church). Thus, the setting is that of the parish commending a loved one to God rather than merely family and friends. As such, there are no testimonials since they would serve no liturgical purpose.

npmccallum said...
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npmccallum said...

Two final notes are necessary. While the service is typically extremely somber, even to the point of inducing tears, if a person dies in the week after Easter (Bright Week) the tone of the whole service is exuberant. For instance the dirge of "Memory Eternal" is replaced with shouts of "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"

Lastly, in the Orthodox Church funerals are only given to members in good standing (ie regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church). Thus, the setting is that of the parish commending a loved one to God rather than merely family and friends. As such, there are no testimonials since they would serve no liturgical purpose.

3. Regarding flags, you are right that Orthodox do not see them as having a place as a permanent fixture in the church. However, it would not be uncommon to see a flag or state oriented statue outside the church (ie in the plaza). However, there is one symbol you will find frequently in an Orthodox church: the Byzantine two-headed eagle. The purpose of this symbol is to communicate that the state and church are separate but related entities, both given by God for the well-being of the people. Although many would suspect otherwise, this symbol does not refer to a specific state as it is used in Orthodox churches everywhere. Finally, while we don't have flags in our churches, we do pray for our leaders, troops, etc. far more than a typical protestant Church would (3-4 times per service).

4. In my experience, most American civil holidays (Mother's day, etc) are usually given only very minor recognition. One unique thing is Orthodox also celebrate monastic Mothers (ie nuns) on Mother's day. Memorial day usually occasions morning prayers for the departed soldiers. One holiday that has caught on, however, is Thanksgiving. American Orthodox Christians set aside their 40 day advent fast for one day to celebrate Thanksgiving. This day usually starts with vigil the night before and a Eucharistic celebration on Thursday morning (how appropriate given that Eucharist means thanksgiving...).

Thanks for letting me share. I hope it was beneficial. :)

π² said...

Thank you for sharing! It seems the more Eastern theology and practice I learn and integrate, the more my Christian practices, and God's revelation, become richer.

npmccallum said...

Ben, I agree wholeheartedly.

Paul, I think the relationship is more complex and culturally conditioned than you expect.

It is true that in the first 5 centuries or so that church weddings were unheard of. However, to suggest that they were uninvolved is really not true. By the end of the 5th century the church already had a well defined set of canons (rules) defining when a person can and cannot be married and maintain Eucharistic fellowship. It also had canons regulating divorce and infidelity. So clearly the Church was not an uninvolved bystander.

The practice of the wedding blessing arose probably in the 4th century. Its main purpose was to demonstrate to the congregation that the couple, while officially married outside the church, had met the church's requirements and could participate fully in all the church's sacraments.

After the fall of the Western half of the Roman empire, whose capital had been moved to modern-day Istanbul, Western Europe lacked the civil structure in many places to perform the wedding ceremony. Thus, the church in the West took over this responsibility and would officiate the wedding on the steps of the church (it was not an official church ceremony) and then immediately go inside for the marriage blessing. Over time in the West, the priest became the official arbiter of marriage.

The format in the Eastern half of the Roman empire was somewhat different. The betrothal portion of the service (the first 25%; described in my comment above) in the back of the church served not as the "official" ceremony, but as the church verifying that the couple had met the requirements for a marriage blessing. They then proceeded into the church for the blessing. This pattern is still held to this day. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in the 15th century, the bishop of Constantinople was put in charge of all Christian marriages and imposed no requirements on the church.

In short, in the West the church assumed the role of the state as it collapsed and in the East the state simply accepted the marriage blessing as an official marriage. Regardless, it is the universally held opinion of ancient Christianity that those who do not follow the church's requirements for marriage, divorce and infidelity as outlined in the scriptures and clarified in the church canons will be denied communion.

π² said...

You said, "Its main purpose was to demonstrate to the congregation that the couple, while officially married outside the church, had met the church's requirements and could participate fully in all the church's sacraments," and seemed to begin your history with the history of the christian church.

We need to define if we are speaking of "marriage" or "Christian marriage." Marriages happened before Christianity. Also, what defines Christian marrage? the couple being Christian, the celebrant being Christian, both, or neither because all marriages are "defacto" Christian because the God of the Bible instituted marriage?

I believe Dr. Schenk's original post, and the Russian Orthodox follow up stayed within the bounds of Christian marriage, whereas my initial post gave an example of how one might incorporate civil and social marriage into Christian ceremony. And I was left with the impression that from at least the Eastern point of view, one doesn't incorporate civil and social marriage.

Thanks for the great conversation.

npmccallum said...


Well, you've asked some profound metaphysical questions. ;)

My point is that historically Christianity is largely unconcerned with what people in society did, but was *extremely* concerned with what those who were "united to Christ" did. In short, the ancient church believed that taking communion unworthily was spiritually (and even physically) detrimental. They therefore had great concern to protect people from damaging themselves, perhaps even to the point of death, by partaking unworthily.

There is a sort of modern Christianity which wants to abandon the complex relationship of "church" weddings with state marriage requirements, especially in the face of new laws which define marriage as something other than what is allowable within a Christian context. This I somewhat support and the marriage blessing practice of antiquity provides clear precedent for this. However, these Christians are often woefully unaware of the noetic relationship between marriage and the Christian Eucharistic celebration. To put it another way, I once wrote an article which argued that the ideological progression of The Episcopal Church toward open marriage was set in motion by its previous ideological commitment to open communion. If you read the theological arguments they make (not the more common sociological or exegetical arguments), this connection becomes quite apparent.

There is, thus, an ideological connection between the fact that the Episcopal Church baptizes animals, serves anyone the Eucharist, and considers any modern sexual relationship as marriage. The solution to these problems is closed communion, even with confession (which is frankly not foreign to Protestantism, even in Pietist [review] and Wesleyan [class meeting] circles).

I don't see as theologically helpful however the dialectical model which attempts to reduce the sacramentality of "Christian" marriage to a singular cause. This is a sort of spiritual voyeurism which makes me quite uncomfortable. Marriage, like all profound mysteries of God, is life-giving when united to Christ.

npmccallum said...

Regarding the importing of "civil and social" marriage into the church. Are you talking about "by the power vested in me..."? If so, we have no similar insertion into our marriage service. Nor am I aware of any state which requires such insertions (perhaps Dr Schenk could correct me here...).

If you mean, "what does the church do when someone gets married in a civil or social wedding?" This is quite common in Russia actually as millions are returning to the faith after having been married in a civil ceremony due to the oppression of the church under communism. The solution for this is quite clear from the canons: they receive a church marriage blessing (which is a smaller form of the marriage rite) indicating that this marriage fulfills the most basic requirements. If they refuse such a blessing, for whatever reason, they have excluded themselves from fellowship in the church and are not eligible to receive communion.

Keep in mind as the marriage ceremony is largely a retelling of the baptismal and Eucharistic acts, to reject such a blessing is to reject the Christian rites of initiation. You are essentially saying "I do not desire to be a Christian." Neither Christ nor the church will force anyone to be saved.

Perhaps I can answer your question about what makes a Christian marriage another way. Aristotle invented the terms we now translate as "potentiality" and "actuality." A boy has the potential to become a man. In this regard we may call him a "little man" as regards this potential, in spite of his not actualizing manhood. An elephant however has no potentiality to become a man.

Similarly, polygamy, infidelity, betrayal, distrust, etc have no potentiality to image Christ and his mystical marriage to the church. The church blessing ensures that the basic potentiality is present: that a marriage be of one man and one woman, uniting by their own free will and that they not be betrothed to another. If this is true, basic potentiality has been achieved and the church blesses their growth into actualizing the mysteries of Christ.

npmccallum said...

One last note since I just re-read your post. I'm very hesitant of the "God of the Bible" type arguments as they tend to view the OT as merely a metaphysical treasure map than the far more nuanced hermeneutic of the NT and post-apostolic writings. I think it more theologically appropriate to say that the scriptural vision of marriage reveals the mystical union of Christ to mankind and that we may, in our marriages, participate in the divine revelation of Christ by the Holy Spirit.

π² said...

I guess the major difference between what you are describing as a Christian wedding or marriage blessing is that you describe it as "a retelling of the baptismal and Eucharistic acts" whereas I was taught it is a covenant ceremony, with marriage itself, not the ceremony, being the picture of Christ and the church. Growing up in a tradition with only two ordinances, I had not given much thought to the interrelatedness of the seven sacraments.

JohnM said...

I'm suprised there aren't more comments ref the peculiarity of American flags in the church. I concur with you Ken. I'm used to seeing it, and once upon a time didn't give it a second thought. However, I've come to consider it inappropriate. Even more inappropriate, in VBS it's common to have the children recite the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, right along side the pledge to the Christian flag, and the Bible.

As far as weddings are concerned, once you've made the legal commitment you've also made the moral commitment, whether you intended to or not. A church ceremeony is nice, but it doesn't make a couple any more married than they are without a one, and I don't know as any ceremony makes a couple any more devoted to one another.

npmccallum said...

Viewing the wedding/marriage blessing as a covenant ceremony is essentially a Calvanist view of marriage. Note that "covenant ceremony" it is also the Calvanist view of the Eucharist and baptism. Thus covenant theology and hermeneutic of the OT features very prominently in most Protestant communions.

It must be noted that this emphasis is largely "missing" from Christianity before the Reformation. I think it can be demonstrated that this is due to a shift in hermeneutic from what many people call "allegorical" (which I think a poor name) to a historical/critical approach. Certainly this is a gradual transition that lasts hundreds of years, but at the heart of the transition lies the Reformation.

Yet I do not think this approach is a new one. I've argued academically in the past that this technique is the one used by the judiasers. One important question raised by Paul in his arguments with the judiasers is whether the law is the prototype of Christ or Christ is the prototype of the law (see Gal 3, among other places). This question is not resolved at the council of Jerusalem, but at Nicea where Christ is declared as being homoousias with the Father and the prototype for all creation ("through whom all things were made").

My difficulty thus with covenant theology (and sacramentology) is that it is essentially a form of Arianism where the covenant is the prototype for Christ's coming and not Christ the prototype for the covenant. It is relatedly mired in Platonic/Augustinian concerns that virtues be eternal forms which we contemplate and thereby obtain our own eternality. The covenant model reinforces this by suggesting that God's faithfulness (qua eternal form) is revealed in the covenant and then revealed more fully by Christ. The Nicean model would simply say that Christ is the faithfulness of God that is revealed in the covenant. The covenant is no longer necessary since the faithfulness itself has come (cf Paul's "tutor of Christ"). Certainly Calvin doesn't intentionally do this, he inherits it implicitly as the theological progeny of late medieval readings of St. Augustine.

It is precisely this reason, that Christ is the prototype of all things, that makes it more appropriate to say that marriage reveals Christ rather than Christ revealing the institution of marriage (the later makes marriage ontologically prior to Christ, and therefore Arianism).

Regarding the distinction between the marriage itself and the ceremony, Orthodox hold that distinction as well. However, it is in the ceremony that the mystery of the marriage is revealed. The ceremony unfolds the notion for us that marriage, like baptism and communion, is a renunciation of the the world and cleaving unto another and becoming one flesh.

npmccallum said...
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npmccallum said...
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Anonymous said...

The placing of a the US flag in the Sanctuary is part of what some call Christian Americanism. It is taught by many Fundamentalist Baptists and A.C.E. Schools. Those who advocate this position describe it as follows:
"Christian Americanism places emphasis upon the greatness of America's heritage and the sacrifice of her heroes. America's Constitution guarantees liberties to educate in order to preserve freedom. We unashamedly teach the Biblical doctrines of self-discipline, respect for those in authority, obedience to law, and a love for God, flag, and country. Students will be required to memorize and quote the following pledges every morning."