Friday, November 18, 2005

Some bits of my presentation

So I'll give you a taste of my presentation from yesterday, which I thought went extremely well considering I wrote it while running a fever and delivered it while on many drugs!

Gail Ramshaw is interested, above all else, in practicality, not theoretical academics. She doesn’t speak to other liturgical theologians – her concern is for the average churchgoer. She wants to make the worship experience more hospitable and applicable to everyone who participates. To do this, she focuses on the language used in worship (surely her Lutheran background has something to do with this attention to word).

Language is an extremely powerful tool in worship. It can bring warmth to the room. It can comfort, connect, and caress. It can also grate and alienate. One of the most important things for worship leaders to realize is that their words, particularly their words for God, will deeply impact their hearers’ understanding of who God is.

I hope we can all agree that language is not static, and that at the least through the process of translation, we’ve updated the language of liturgy multiple times since Jesus’ day. Ramshaw’s goal is to bring our worship language into our current vernacular – that is, to carefully determine whether the words we use, which may once have been perfect, are still appropriate for the 21st century church.

Ramshaw defines liturgical speech as “Metaphoric Rhetoric.” She uses the term rhetoric because worship language is persuasive, formalized speech. We are trying to persuade the people that God loves them, or God that we are sorry for our sins, or each other that we love one another. We are always working on persuasion in worship. Part of the power of our words lies in this fact: they are meant to make something happen.

Rhetorical speech also chooses words carefully, weighing their meaning, crafting sentences which will most perfectly elucidate the hearer. This means the speech is not too lofty but also not too low. We are familiar with using formalized language in rituals: indeed, a wedding or a Presidential inauguration just wouldn’t seem the same in everyday parlance. And therefore, it is entirely appropriate to come before the throne of God with, if not completely formal language, then at least extremely carefully chosen words and finely tuned phrases. She has a wonderful word about casual talk in worship: “All too often, this talk is devoid of image, shallow in theology, sentimental in emotion, and not nearly as humorous as the presider thinks it is.” (Reviving Sacred Speech, 11). But this is serious business, for every utterance from our lips in the sanctuary is teaching someone something about God.

Ramshaw would say that what people believe about God they largely learn from the way we talk about God in worship. Speech leads us to believing certain ways about ourselves and the world around us, it moves us to action. The law of belief follows the law of words, of prayer, for the majority of Christians. Our lex orandi cannot help but inform our lex credendi. She says, “Although liturgical language is not identical with doctrinal language, the faith expressed in the liturgy is the faith we are called to believe.” (RSS 32) Thus, to have a proper understanding of Christian doctrine, people must not be misled by liturgical speech that uses words which may have evolved past their original theological intent and meaning.

So we see that sacred speech is indeed a volatile weapon to wield. There is one more compelling reason for this: its near-constant use of inaccurate speech, also known as metaphor. Ramshaw was strongly influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s theories on metaphor. Metaphor is “that use of speech in which the context demonstrates that a factually or logically inaccurate word is on the deepest level true.” (Liturgical Language, 7).

Ramshaw holds that it is the only way we can talk about God, period. We talk about God in metaphor because human speech cannot fully verbalize God. So we call God Rock, Lord, Shaddai, Abba, Spirit, Father, and Son.

The paradox of sacred speech is that we cannot possibly convey the divine in our language, yet Christianity is a religion of words: Christ the Logos, Scripture, preaching, praying, systematic theology. But metaphor is a great way to talk about spiritual things, because (as Ramshaw says): “[it] can be more true than fact [because] it contains many layers of meaning simultaneously....A multivalent metaphor opens up an archeological dig, available for exploration at whichever level each believer can undertake.” (LL 8) Metaphors are communal words, available to many people because they work on so many levels.

Well-chosen words are wonderful tools for teaching doctrine through worship. There is “no end to our discovery of Christ in liturgical language” (RSS 146) – What can we learn about Jesus by calling him Rock? Lamb? Word?

When looking at what our speech means, we must examine the metaphors we are using (for we are necessarily using them when speaking of the divine), how we use them (both historically and currently), and especially why those particular ones (where did they come from? What are their meaning(s)), and we must subsequently consider their many real and potential effects on the members of our congregations. (RSS 9)

Ramshaw says, “the rhetorical character of liturgical speech must serve the hospitable unity of the assembly” (RSS 10) – that is, it must speak to everyone present – and this is much more complicated than we might at first imagine. “To be Christian liturgy, the sacred rhetoric is to be communal rhetoric.” (RSS 20-21) “The liturgy is the expression of all the people of God, and all those people need to have their voices heard.” (LL 10) This is the real business of being inclusive: including people not only physically, but linguistically, in the Body of Christ (another metaphor).

“Ricoeur teaches that words…have meaning only within a specific context and within a specific community of discourse.” (LL 10) We cannot escape the fact that words mean different things to different people in different cultures and contexts and especially throughout different times in history.

British citizens hear "king" and Kingdom, or even "Lord", differently than Americans; spiritual "blindness" has wildly different meanings for people who've always and never been sighted (and I would assume a most interesting meaning for one who has been both). Ramshaw reminds us that to use "the image of blindness as a sign of human need excludes [people]" (LL 33), and certainly representing human need, loss, or stupidity with the word "blind" is not really sensitive. What about referring to snakes, lepers, winter, Egypt, darkness, as shorthand for evil?

For better or worse, our culture understands words more literally than ever. Also, colloquialisms change meaning regularly (she has one great line about “just when you get a psalm perfectly rendered in today’s language, the word ‘gay’ changes meaning”).

Another reality is that our pronoun system has changed, and no longer are pronouns “he” and “she” applied to anything other than gendered creatures. Even in the good old days when one could say “mankind,” male terminology actually included women when it chose to. (LL 20) For instance, “all men are created equal” included women, but not “all men can vote.” This is important to remember when we wax rhapsodic about the supposed simplicity of historic speech.

Ramshaw reminds us: “We cannot act surprised or chagrined when in a religion of incarnation the divine vision is diminished by the speech of the receiving culture.” (RSS 77) Christianity is a religion of the incarnate God, and it has to speak to the people where they are.

She is simply asking us all to take a step back and really think about what we are saying. If it is true that the law of prayer is the foundation of the law of belief, or that the two are inextricably woven together, then we absolutely must be conscious and careful regarding our sacred speech – and not only that, but we must make it beautiful, proper, and theologically correct.

It will only harm our credendi to have our orandi using words which are significantly confusing about the nature of God. Calling God only Father does imply that God is gendered and male. Ramshaw asks us to consider the subtle, creeping ways our belief is shaped by our prayer language. If you pray to “Father” long enough, you can’t help but begin imagining God as an old man with a white beard meting out reward or punishment (depending on your own experience of fatherhood). For many of us, especially women, this can cause cognitive dissonance.

“We cannot ignore the resonances of father imagery in mythology, philosophy, patriarchal culture, psychology, and personal experience. We must…[stress] the specifically biblical theological meanings and [weed] out the inappropriate growths that choke the Christian message.” (RSS 47-48) Some connotations of Father are appropriate and helpful, and other things it has meant are harmful. We cannot ignore the latter because we prefer the former; we must take all into account and seriously weigh the results of continued use. There are ways to soften and balance metaphors without losing the good things they represent for us.

Ramshaw sees inclusiving language as a several-decade effort – not to be done rashly. For “our vision of God is at stake.” (RSS 78) She understands the gravity of what she’s proposing, but also warns that: “We must beware lest by sanctifying a metaphor we legitimate social, psychological, and ethical positions we would choose not to perpetuate.” (Tree of Life, 56)

So how does she propose we responsibly update language without distorting theology or capitulating to political correctness? She resolutely insists that Scripture be the primary resource of our metaphoric language and the foundation of all sacred speech. (RSS 22-23: more evidence of a good Lutheran!).

Her words: “I urge: always open it up, open it up. Open up the Bible, to see what the images mean. Open up the tradition, and find there Christian riches long forgotten, religious jewels locked up in dusty chests. Open up other religions and cultures, to compare, to contrast, to borrow, yes, also to criticize and to reject. Open up the memories of the conservative grandparents, for whom the traditional imagery conveyed mercy. Open up the creativity of the newfashioned writers, who can share with others fresh metaphors of mercy. Open it up, open it up. By the power of the Spirit, life, not death, will enter and grow.” (RSS 81)

She is hopeful that we can retain some beloved, if androcentric, metaphors (like King or Lord), by compromise: keeping the meaningful words of our faith but absolutely providing teaching so that meaning is clear. Still, something being liked isn’t enough reason for it to keep being used: “As symphony orchestras know all too well, audiences clap louder for pieces they know, perhaps applauding their own knowledge as much as the musicians' performance. Separating out the well-beloved from the stylistically excellent is not an easy task.” (LL 44)

We, as worship leaders, liturgical theologians, have to be aware of and avoid overuse of androcentric terminology. Our tasks are to free traditional metaphors through more creative exposition of scriptural images, and to incorporate more feminine metaphors to balance the overwhelmingly male use throughout history. Ramshaw says, “the Church needs metaphors accurate enough to convey the historic faith, deep enough to contain human experience, inclusive enough to speak to many different peoples.” (LL 45) “Always the stories of faith must be retranslated into the latest vernacular, always the metaphors explicated anew. Only well versed in the tradition are we able to choose among the connotations that present themselves before us.” (RSS 48)

In all these details, we must always keep this daunting truth before us: “Our assembly contains the words, but even the heavens and earth cannot contain God. The mystery of Christian worship is that in our sacred speech, in our little bread and wine, God chooses to be revealed. But our liturgy does not contain all there is of God.” (RSS 164-5)

We must, in the end, accept that all our speech will never live up to the reality of God – this is the humbling and necessary “no” we speak to our liturgical work. But at the same time, “even liturgical theologians, perhaps especially liturgical theologians, must resist the NO on Sunday morning. To be Christian is to assemble on the day of the resurrection and to practice once again our insertion in to the metaphors of grace.” Even if we didn’t write the words and don’t like them, we still “join together for the theophany, offering and communion.” (RSS 37)

When we worship together, Ramshaw says, “We are all practicing the ritual, hoping to do it better this week than last. Of course religious ritual is practice: religious faith itself is practice.
…It’s like sex. You both get better and better at it. And you like to stay in practice, because it’s different every time.” (TL 117) [This is my favorite quote from her!]

Perhaps you will, as I have, begin to hear more carefully the words used in worship, and start to examine their applicability. If we begin to do this, Ramshaw will have accomplished her goal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow -- Gail Ramshaw sounds fantastic. I agree with everything of hers that you cited.

I've long been interested in these questions. In my own worship, I like to mix my metaphors, using a variety of names for the Unnameable in order to keep my conceptions from calcifying. So: Lord, Queen, Source, Wellspring, Avinu malkeinu and Shekhina m'kor ha-chayyim.

But this can be problematic for novices to Jewish tradition, particularly when one mixes up the Hebrew. (For those who cling desperately to the familiarity of beginning with Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, switching to N'varekh et ayn ha-chayyim can be disjunctive to the point of impossibility.)

So what to do? More and better education is the only solution I can think of...