Hauerwas on Liturgy: Take 2

Hauerwas on Liturgy: Take 2

Published: May 23, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

It seems that putting up a provocative Hauerwas quote without explanation is a bad idea. Which is fair because he usually requires some explanation and context</a>. So, in lieu of a reply to a comment, here is simply "Take 2" on Hauerwas.

Here is the quote:

One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.

No, Hauerwas isn't joking. He may be exaggerating for effect, something at which he is particularly good, except that he, and I, think that there is truth in what appears to be a rather extreme association.

I must admit, I ran across this quote and am citing it completely out of context. It tickled my perverse funny bone. So, I will take a stab at giving it some context, albeit Orthodox rather than the methodist or episcopal context of Hauerwas.

Hauerwas firmly believes that liturgy, how we worship, shapes who we are and how we are. This theology is deeply embedded in the Orthodox understanding of liturgy. WHO and HOW are almost synonymous, in that we are what we do. In Orthodox language, to be virtuous is to participate in God by participating in the attributes of God (Gregory of Nazianzus). We learn those virtues in our liturgy by the words we say or sing, the way we stand, kneel, process, etc. The problem arises when our liturgy fails to teach us virtue, whether because it cannot be understood (not in the vernacular) or because its content isn't worth understanding (sappy), or when our liturgy embodies practices which are simply wrong (hmm...the exclusion of women?). Poor liturgy teaches us something, but it might not be virtue.

The key is the word 'eventually.' I suspect that even Hauerwas would acknowledge that there are many steps between a sappy song and murdering your best friend. But bad liturgy puts us on a trajectory towards vice just as good liturgy puts us on a trajectory towards virtue. Of course it is more complicated, and because the liturgy is hardly the only place in which we learn what it is to participate (or not) in God, good liturgy does not guarantee virtue and bad liturgy does not guarantee vice. But eventually?

A example is the Elevation of the Holy Cross (Sep. 14th), a major feast of the Orthodox Church. Virtually every special hymn of the day refers triumph of the Orthodox over their adversaries. The emphasis of the day is on Helen's finding of the cross. But part of the context of this historical triumph was the defeat of the Persians by the emperor Heraclius. Interestingly enough, the GOA description of the feast downplays the Persian defeat; the OCA website does not. Precisely what are we asking for when we sing the Troparion:

O Lord, save Thy people,
And bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victory to the Emperor [or "Thy people" or "the Orthodox Christians"]
Over the barbarians, [or "their enemies"]
And by the power of Thy Cross
Preserve Thy commonwealth. [or "estate" or "habitation"]

Who are the barbarians, our enemies? By what means do we achieve victory? Precisely how does this match up with Jesus' command to turn the other cheek? Violence is a part of our history. We were attacked by Saracens. And we invited in the crusaders, and in turn, were pillaged by Christian soldiers returning from battle. Maybe not our best friends, but at least friends, yes?

And that is Hauerwas' point, to juxtapose the most unlikely of events, sappy songs and murdering your best friend, in order to jolt us into awareness of how seriously we should take the content of our liturgy.


Sun, 25 May, 2008 - 22:09

Ah, yes, thank you, this makes much more sense to me. I don't think of this hymn as "sappy" though. But I can see how what we sing affects our actions. Which is one more reason for me to bow out of singing that hymn whenever possible (like, when I'm not singing it with the choir....perhaps I should refuse even then?).

And interestingly, this segues with the idea of tradition being sacred. Just because someone somewhere connected dots that shouldn't necessarily have been connected doesn't mean we form sacred tradition out of it and set it in stone and create doctrine out of it. We also have to use the brains God gave us to figure out what is right.


Mon, 26 May, 2008 - 18:28

To be honest, I had trouble thinking of an Orthodox hymn I consider "sappy." It is not our forte, or perhaps, it is our forte. Hauerwas comes from a more 'free-church' worship tradition, where songs really can be sappy. They can also be beautiful (in case any evangelicals are reading this blog and get offended!).

I like your last comment, just because someone somewhere connected the dots.... Unfortunately, it is a bit like folks thinking that if it is in print, it must be true, even though all sorts of things make it to the page without any basis in reality. For Orthodox, if it makes it into our liturgy, it must be from God, no brains necessary. Sigh.


Tue, 04 May, 2010 - 23:16

just discovered your blog. I know the discussion is now long passed, but a few thoughts came to mind as I read the troparion. It's the problem of history. We believe that God has, is now, and will intervene in history. So is there a statute of limitations on the interpretation of such actions? No doubt, the Christians of that time believed that God had intervened, bringing victory over "the barbarians." We may not like it, we may be offended by it, or we may disagree with the interpretation of the event given by the composer of the hymn--but there it is.

My experience of the tropar in the Liturgy has been of the scrubbed variety, which I think is the way to go. The meaning was taken out of the original situation and given more universal import. This move, however, is really quite extraordinary, by the way. Also, the hymn is easily allegorize-able. (Enemies as the passions, for example.) As far as the non-scrubbed variety goes, I think I would just roll my eyes. Without the changes, the hymn is simply a fossil.

But as long as there is Incarnation, there is no way out of the "problem" of history and the continuing scandal of particularity. 

In the meantime, as Orth Xians, we should not be so credulous about our Liturgy and the fact that it is a product of the ages.


Mon, 17 May, 2010 - 09:41

Nice to see you here Kerry.  The scandal of particularity is always a problem, though it is, I think, a good one.  I too prefer the "scrubbed" version.  In a relatively recent choir rehearsal though, someone complained about making it "PC."  I mentioned some of the concerns with using a hymn that celebrates violence over enemies, which is its context, to which the response was, "well, what would be celebrate if not that?"  How ironic that a celebration of the cross, the victory over death through death is now a celebration of victory by death of the 'other.'  The cross, its victory and all that means for us as Orthodox Christians, the trampling of death by death, was lost for this person.  There wasn't even a connection.  Certainly there may be many reasons for this disturbing lack of theological awareness, but it strikes me that hymns without good interpretation (what Chrysostom considers essential "preaching") allows for the gaps to be filled in by all sorts of disturbing theologies.