In his chapter “Against Sacraments,” Peter Leithart quotes Mike Featherstone, who pointed out that postmodernism “moved beyond individualism with a communal feeling being generated,” which is good, but did so in a way in which people “come together in temporary emotional communities” (AC, p. 74), which is entirely inadequate. To this Leithart observes, “The postmodern city continues the modernist project — civic life without rituals or unifying festivals” (pp 74-75).
The ancient pagan world was bound together with rituals and festivals to their gods, celebrating their civic identity. The young Christian Church challenged this, and the Christian faith did usher in a post-era, and that era was post-pagan. But they did this by means of a direct challenge.
“The political importance of festivals and public ritual was not lost on the ancients . . . When the Church entered the Greco-Roman world, then, she encountered a world awash in civic-religious feasts, and one of the first things she did was to set up a new feast, a new sacrifice, a new set of civic-religious rituals governed by different manners and protocols” (p. 89).
The so-called postmodernists have no intention of any such challenge, unless opaque prose can be considered a challenge. But the liturgical renewal that is occuring in the Church is the most socially potent thing we have done in a long time. This is not to diminish the importance of the Word preached (that is an essential part of biblical liturgy). Liturgy and ritual that is scriptural, and which is offered to God in true evangelical faith, is a direct challenge to the principalities and powers.
“For groups, ritual depicts the world as it ought to be, the real world as it is believed to be, especially the social and political realities of the world” (p. 82).
This makes no sense to many people. “Whaddaya mean, we just blow the trumpets and the walls fall down?” But the fact that it makes no sense does not diminish the potency when it is offered in faith. When we are dealing with the principalities and powers of the age, we are to fight with Christian ritual and worship, and not with carnal weapons. By this means, we tear down strongholds. And this throws defenders of the status quo into a panic, because against this, there are no countermeasures.
When God’s people gather in faith on the Lord’s Day, this is what they are doing. We pray, every week, for God to do His will on earth as it is done in heaven. Well, among other things, one of the things done in heaven is that the name of Jesus Christ is glorified in our worship service. We ascend into the heavenly places, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and by worshipping God the Father in the name of Jesus, we glorify the name of Jesus. We are then in a position to ask God to do on earth what has been done in heaven. “Glorify the name of Jesus here, in our community. Today.”
This is all done with full knowledge that this Christian worship is a public act. Our rituals and liturgy are (in principle) being offered to God from the new public square, from the new city center, and this means that we are offering our town, our state, our nation, and our world up to God. Not only that, but He receives what we offer.
When the Church is obedient this way, she gets into a lot of trouble. The world knows how to fight back, and knows how to try to distract us from what we are called to do. If we want to get out of that trouble, one of the devices we have come up with to seem biblical, and yet to avoid a direct challenge to the citadels of unbelief, is the compromise that modernity offered us through back channels. “Let your religious faith be private, precious to you, but still private. We will run the public life of the people on neutral, secular terms. You leave the public square alone, we leave you alone. Deal?” And to this, far too many Christians have said, “Deal.” And to this, Leithart replies, “Religion is private: This is the heresy of Christianity in a nutshell” (p. 78). The deal is compromised, corrupt. The deal is heretical. The deal is cowardly.
Ritual, as ritual, has tremendous potency. We all testify to this in spite of ourselves. Ask a fundamentalist pastor if he would mind if the VBS kids recited the Apostles Creed first thing every morning. Listen to him explain that to say something over and over again like that devalues it. Act like you finally understand, and ask him if the kids could dispense with saying the Pledge of Allegiance then. This is quite an edifying thought experiment.
This point is one of the reasons why it is so funny watching Leithart’s sacramental enemies try to represent him as galloping off toward some kind of sacramental Romanism. Actually, Leithart is taking the Zwinglian road less traveled.
“It is merely to say that whatever power they have is the kind of power that symbols have, and not the kind of power that a combustion engine or a nuclear power plant has. It is to say that whatever reality they have is the kind of reality that symbols always have. Theology goes into the ditch when it treats symbols as if they were something other than symbols. And at the bottom of that ditch is Christianity” (p. 95).
Low Zwinglians would say that the sacraments are “only” a memorial, “only” a ritual. A high Zwinglian like Leithart would say that the sacraments are rituals, among the most powerful forces in the world. In this chapter, Leithart is telling us that ritual has the power to depose kings. It has the power to usher in a postmodern era, and we believe in faith that it will. In fact, evangelical ritual is so powerful that it can even make true postmodernists out of academic postmodernists, a sons of Abraham out of rocks thing.
Those conservative Christians who are dismayed about the deterioration of our culture need to think this through. What is the answer? Is it more Christianity, kept carefully in little privatized indivual containers? Or is it full-orbed Christian worship, liturgically and ritually biblical, offered to God in the faith that He will use it to transform the world?
In the meantime, what does compromise continue to do? We don’t challenge the modern holidays in the church. There are many evangelical churches that don’t believe in symbols down in the front of the church . . . except for the American flag.
“A test for your local church: which holiday receives more attention, the Fourth of July or Ascension? Mother’s Day or Pentecost? Now why is that?” (p. 90).
For those who want to wrestle with these questions, a fair warning. They are the most politically-charged questions you have ever addressed.