Last week I mentioned that we are inevitably shaped by worldly liturgies, and so we need something to counteract this.
This is where it will be useful to narrow the definition of leitourgia to how it has been used at least since the LXX as the work of the people in corporate worship.
Most evangelicals today consider corporate worship as simply a Christian’s expression of authentic devotion toward God. Yet here is the sixth peg of my argument: Liturgy—considered now in terms of corporate worship—is not just an expression of “authentic” devotion; liturgy is formative. It is not just expressive, and this is why repetition is necessary, for repetition is necessary for formation. This is how corporate worship fits into the Great Commission: the liturgy of a church shapes the liturgy of life. How a church worships week in and week out forms the people—it molds their culture by shaping their inclinations through habitual practices, because as we have already seen, the shape of the liturgy transmits its values. Like that path through the forest, when people travel along the liturgy that we have provided for them, they will inevitably be shaped by the values and beliefs worn into it. It is in Christian liturgy that a Christian’s heart, as Lewis said, is “organized by trained habits into stable sentiments.” It is in Christian liturgy that a Christian’s inclinations are discipled and trained. It is in Christian liturgy that the negative effects of worldly liturgies may be counteracted.
What is important about a corporate worship service is not just what is said from the pulpit or the doctrine of the hymns, for there are aspects of Christian piety that are inarticuable; much of Christian piety is learned only through doing, and that is what art is—the purpose of art is to incarnate values, and we experience those values as we participate in the art. As that great theologian Mark Twain once quipped, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” This is the power of aesthetics, and so this extends beyond the shape of the liturgy itself to the other aesthetic forms employed in corporate worship. Poetry, music, architecture, and rhetoric each embody inarticuable aspects of Christian virtue that through their use express those virtues. A story is told that once when Robert Schumann played a new composition and someone asked him what it meant, he simply replied, “It means this” and played it again.1 The liturgies and art forms of Christian worship embody and form certain aspects of Christian discipleship in a way that nothing else can.
Now before you worry that this infringes upon the sufficiency of Scripture, let me remind you that the Bible is not simply a collection of propositions. The Bible is a work of literature employing aesthetic devices such as metaphor, simile, tautology, anadiplosis, chiasmus, climax, antithesis, paradox, allegory, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole, personification, and a whole host of others to communicate what could not be otherwise. The shape of Scripture, not only its truth claims, shapes Christian living, and thus the shape of Scripture must inform the shape of our liturgies.
- Donald Whittle, Christianity and the Arts (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1966), 52. [↩]