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“Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption”

As an historian of the early modern world, I frequently study and teach on the “wounds of modernity”—those assumptions, practices and values which still cause us to reel with their implications. Modernity values the measurable, efficient, impersonal, precise and technical. As humans we know that the most important things in life cannot be measured with such precision or given economic units of value. While academics have been busy exploding the conceits of modernity (the idea of complete know-ability, the reduction of humans to radically isolated political units, the narrative of progress and capitalism, the all-consuming power of the nation-state), the authors in this collection of essays, Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption (edited by Randi Rashkover and C.C. Pecknold), seek to ground the salves for these wounds in the tradition within which modernity arose—what they call the Jewish and Christian roots of the “western world.” (I find this latter assumption problematic and will deal with that later in the review.) They accept the critique of modernity offered by non-confessional academics, but offer alternative visions for the world within their own overtly faithful practices and theologies.

Collections of essays are difficult to review, this one made doubly so by the fact that I am an historian reading works of theology. However, these theological musings include a thick assessment of the concept of “time,” and my historian’s perspective may allow me to say something of substance here. Without treating each essay individually, I will respond to what I believe is a fairly consistent thesis/them throughout the book.

The non-theologian must first make sure she understands the first term in the title—liturgy. This word was not used to describe the communal worship practices that I was raised in, so I had to clarify its definition. It turns out that liturgy does not simply refer to the regular cycle of collective worship patterns which Jews and Christians (differently, to be sure) engage in, but it also contains implications regarding service to the outside community. So for these authors the commitment to congregational working through the Scriptures in a regular manner each year is also deeply connected to the communal work that is done in service to each other and those not part of the congregation or synagogue. There is, then, no real separation between worship and work—they are equally part of the rhythm that we engage in with our fellow believers.

What allows the liturgy to serve as an alternative and even a subversion of the brokenness of the modern world is that it roots us in and makes space for the sacred perspective. All of these authors, in their different ways, made the argument that liturgy roots us and orients us more correctly in relation to God and to the “other”—those of us who are part of the believing community as well as towards those we serve in the world. Because the liturgy, often tied to Sabbath-keeping and the rhythms of the week, undermines the modern, “scientific” idea regarding time, it pushes us to engage in practices and time-keeping which honor the cosmic and sacred and not the “realities” of the world around us. So we are constantly being offered, as long as we choose to make space for this communal worship, this liturgy, an alternative vision for how the world should be ordered, who should be valued, and what “progress” looks like.

In the modern world we commodify time, measure it, and value people by their use of it. Liturgy teaches us to treat time differently. It is not a product, and in liturgical practice we are acting out the ways in which God’s use of time is different than ours. We tend to want to hurry, to push, in order to accomplish our often very noble goals. Liturgy (especially as prayer and service) teaches us to wait. God’s time is different from ours. Liturgy, as subversive of the modern compulsion to measure all knowledge and to define as much of truth into data as possible, forces us to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge. There is humility in this waiting. And this way we can wait without our hearts becoming hard while our service toward justice seems often in vain, or our attempts at reconciliation are rebuffed. Each week we come back to the familiar (and yet strange in this world) patterns of praise, prayer, Scripture reading.

Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption, in addition to arguing that liturgy offers creative and subversive responses to the hurts of the modern world, is also an attempt to demonstrate the way that such difficult conversations can happen across confessional divides. The chapters are equally divided between Jewish and Christian theologians. While not directly engaging each other’s theology, the authors show that they have similar concerns with redemption, reconciliation, justice, and the response of modern man to his Creator. This is also a response to the typically modern notion that proper ecumenical conversations will result in some agreed-upon statement that does justice to none of the parties and elides all difference. Instead, these authors are taking their differences seriously and seem to be positing that creative, diverse responses to the modern world can come out of the very differences between our traditions. We must go back to our traditions and talk out of them rather than trying to come up with some new, modern solution that ignores the realities of our separate identities.

I have not dealt here with the deep theological context of these varied essays, nor with their engagement with post-modern scholarship. Other readers will no doubt have more expertise with which to dissect how well they treated those subjects. But the historian in me is a little concerned about the assumption that it is both Judaism and Christianity which gave us the modern world, at the expense of ignoring Islam. Western Europe (and several of the authors connected modernity to “western civilization”) was not a Judeo-Christian culture—that concept was not invented until the mid-twentieth century. It was Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century who gave us the conceits of modernity and liberalism, and to the extent that Jews were allowed to participate, they did so as converted Christians or, increasingly, “secular” Jews.

Let me clarify that I think the kind of work done in this book is important. But if one wants to have confessional conversations regarding how tradition and the liturgies of collective worship can provide creative responses to the wounds of the modern world, it is very important to include Islam. I think this would be a more creative and thorough set of essays if they had not made the (I must say again) “modern” mistake of trying to equate modernity with “western” (a notion that tries to secularize the Christian tradition of Western Europe) and including Judaism as a way of showing that it this European culture is multifaceted—yet without having to include Islam. Caricatures of Islam, especially in the guise of Orientalism, have too often been the foil for what it means to be modern, and in a book which attempts to provide an alternative to this, I hate to see the editors repeating the same mistakes as those who would privilege a certain secularized/sanitized version of Western European culture and call it “Judeo-Christian.” If we’re naming our traditions, let’s do so honestly.

Ultimately, I found this to be a book about prayer. Reading the scriptures and praying together is what liturgy is about. When I choose to engage in this most-un-practical, un-modern of activities, I re-orient myself to who God actually is and who I am before him in ways that are subversive of the individualized, economically-motivated citizen of the nation-state that the modern world offers. Because of our liturgies, our prayers are bigger than our present moment, and we can more clearly see sin and injustice because we are regularly putting our collective selves into a perspective outside earthly time. As part of our liturgies we engage in actual performances (like Sabbath-keeping) which, partly because they are so very unlike the rest of the world-time (the rest of the week) that we live in, point out the ways we will be unable to live up to our own ideals. Because these practices are rooted in tradition, in the ancient Scriptures and practices, and undermine virtually all of the assumptions of the modern world, the implications are radical, not conservative.

Lisa Clark Diller lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and teaches early modern world history at Southern Adventist University.

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