Posted on: February 17th, 2009 Pickstock & McLaren on Liturgy & Art

Brian McLaren, who will soon be speaking at my the Seminary of the Southwest here in Austin soon, suggests that worship is art. He rightly states that “there is a huge difference between propoganda and art. Art says, ‘Hey, I’m telling the truth as I see it. And the truth might not be pretty.’”

Much of what McLaren says here is good and true, it seems to me. He is right to call out “the worship industry” in its propaganda-like consumerism, displayed in its attempts to create a pre-packaged “experience” for “worshippers.”

He is right to imply that for an artist to pander to people’s consumeristic desires cheapens her art.

However, worship is not reducible down to art; worship is not art. Worship and liturgy may contain esthetic qualities, and it is and should be beautiful. In The Pillar and Ground of the Truth Pavel Florensky describes Russian startsky’s as “connoisseurs of beauty.” However liturgy is not artistic expression.

I have been searching for an example to show how this is the case, and today Catherine Pickstock gave it to me. In her article “Asyndeton: Syntax and Insanity,” she praises writers like Joyce and Pound for their use of disorder in their writing in order to depict the disorder of the fragmented, modern world around them. In doing this they were consummate artists. This is good and true artistic expression. It is beautiful in its truthfulness (as McLaren would say).

However, what if the liturgy were to attempt to mirror this cultural disorder by itself becoming disordered? In fact this very thing has (unwittingly, perhaps) been attempted in the modern church, as Pickstock labors to point out in this article. Twentieth-century Anglican revisions of the Creed have used asyndetic syntax in the attempt to make the Creed more palatable or acceptable to the modern worshipper. (Hmmm … this actually sounds like what McLaren rightly critiques above: the desire to pander to the consummeristic urges of modern people.)

But not only is this bad art; it is damaging to the people, for it distorts the true purpose of worship and liturgy. Unlike art, the purpose of the liturgy is not to prompt people to reflect more deeply on the world around them, as noble a purpose though this be.  (This might, however, be a purpose of preaching.) Rather, the purpose of the liturgy is to put people into participatory contact with the transcendent God. And this is something which art – no matter how good – can never do.

I am yet again forced to the conclusion that the problem with “the emergent church” is the way it thinks (to the extent that this movement is a monolithic “it”) about liturgy and worship. It has many good things to say about art. And yet, there are lots of good artists and philosophers out there who can teach us about art.

Teaching about art is not the primary role of the church. The role of the church, again, is to enact the ritual, liturgical participation in God, which is, as Alexander Schmemann tells us, the life of the world.

This is something that artists cannot do. It is something that only the church can do.

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