Wednesday, February 02, 2011

300 Pages Toward Liking Robert Francis Taft

Liturgy is interesting to me. Not so interesting that I'd write essays to comprise a 305 page book about it, however. Robert F. Taft, though, did just that, and I'm glad I read his Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding.

Honestly, some of the chapters were difficult to read, and almost impossible to skim. I just don't need to know that much yet about the methodology behind tracing the origins and developments of particular parts of liturgy over several centuries.

Others, though, got me thinking. A lot. I almost skipped the last chapter in the book, which is a written response from a journal called Worship when Taft received the 1985 Berakah Award. But there are some gems in there, and I present them here for your thoughts.

On ecumenism...
"The most important new language I learned in those years, however, was the language of ecumenism. Ecumenism is not just a movement. It is a new way of being Christian. It is also a new way of being a scholar. Ecumenical scholarship means much more than scholarly objectivity, goes much further than just being honest and fair. It attempts to work disinterestedly, serving no cause but the truth wherever it is to be found. It seeks to see things from the other's point of view, to take seriously the other's critique of one's own communion and its historic errors and failings. ... it seeks to put the best interpretation on what the other does and says, to shine the exposing light of criticism evenly, on the failings of one's own church as well as on those of others. In short, it seeks to move Christian love into the realm of scholarship, and it is the implacable enemy of all forms of bigotry, intolerance, unfairness, selective reporting, and oblique comparisons that contrast the unrealized ideal of one's own church with the less-than-ideal reality of someone else's."

And elsewhere, a quote from St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises: "... every good Christian ought to be more willing to give a good interpretation to the statement of another than to condemn it as false."

That's huge. We need to come out from behind our denominational doctrines and embrace our brothers and sisters as true intellectual and spiritual equals. We're all trying to just figure it out, what it means to follow Jesus Christ, and we have so much to learn from each other. The Church (capital "C") is not about us coming to the same doctrinal conclusions. It's about embracing the rich tapestry of orthodoxy and praxis and being the Church, the body of Christ, with all its different parts and movements and strengths and weaknesses.

Another quote, this time on creativity in worship. He's talking about how creativity -- of composers, artists, liturgists, poets, etc. -- becomes liturgy (the work of the people) only when it's received by the church...
"Creativity within a tradition is a creativity guided and limited by something more important than the creator.

"Does that mean that tradition stifles creativity? To maintain that is to fly in the face of the entire history of music, drama, literature -- and liturgy. Would anyone seriously wish to argue that musicians performing a Beethoven symphony are not being musically creative unless they rearrange the movements, interpolate a few melodies of their own, and throw out half of what Beethoven composed? Is an actor no artist unless he wrote the play, a soprano no diva unless she composed the aria? Are Shakespeare's tragedies or sonnets less creative because he did not invent the genres? Is T.S. Eliot no poet because he wrote in English instead of in an Esperanto of his own making?

"I think it is time that we liturgists came out strongly against this school-play approach to the awesome worship of God, and returned to the people the tradition that is theirs, not just ours. Let us preach what the church has always told us, that the first spontaneity and creativity of Christian worship is that of hearts and minds freely raised to God in love and song and prayer.

"What I am trying to say is that I must let the liturgy speak for itself instead of trying to make it speak for me, instead of exploiting it as a medium of self-expression. Like medieval cathedrals, liturgies were created not as monuments to human creativity, but as acts of worship. The object of worship is not self-expression, not even self-fulfillment, but God."

We run the risk of setting up creativity as an idol before God. It is human nature to recognize and praise that which is unique and beautiful and awe-inspiring. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. If anything, we should always give words of encouragement to the artists around us, who are doing their best to be creators in the Spirit of the Creator.

But it becomes sin when, once we've recognized something wonderful, we don't then turn and recognize the Creator behind the creator.

Artists, I'd also venture that it's a sin to put our own self-expression above the needs and worship expressions of our churches. It's beautiful selfishness. Don't hear me wrong: be creative, absolutely! But don't use the church as a stage for your creativity. If you are bringing creativity into times of corporate worship, then serve the corporate setting. Serve the church. Serve the body of Christ that it might be built up and encouraged to do the work of God in the world. That is a noble and worthy use of our art. It's beautiful self-sacrifice, an imitation of Christ that will last long after our art is forgotten.

1 comment:

SCoop said...

Well said.