Learning Liturgies

June 8, 2016


People sitting in many rows of seats stand and raise their hands in the air, expressing enthusiasm in gesture and song. This is liturgical action; but it isn't limited to a congregation during Sunday worship.  


It can also describe an eager kindy class chanting their alphabet or an excited sports crowd cheering on their team.  Each group nevertheless engages in a liturgy.

A liturgy is simply a regular pattern of practice, and we engage in them all the time.


If you go to a baseball game in the United States, you’ll participate in a very distinctive liturgy.  The crowd cheers together, claps in rhythm, and coordinates standing at just the right time to complete a “wave” around the stadium. 


This liturgical fanfare reaches a high point, though, during the “7th Inning Stretch.”  At this moment, everyone rises to their feet, stretches, and sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” (See here to get a taste of this.) This liturgy even has a particular dress (ball cap and large foam #1 finger) and type of food (hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks) associated with it.

Food is often a particularly powerful part of liturgies.  Not only is it enjoyable, but because it’s a basic human need, the act of sharing food is often imbued with meaning.  Sharing food communicates not only that people are at peace with one another, but also that they perhaps belong to the same community.  That helps to explain why politicians often try to convey a sense of identifying with and representing a potential voting block by being photographed eating their cuisine. (Think about
President Obama's various visits to burger joints or Tony Abbott's chomping on a raw onion.) 


In fact, serving someone food can be a tangible way of showing care.  The word “companion,” meaning friend, comes from the Latin words com- (with) and panis (bread); a companion is literally one who breaks bread with another.  We see the importance of this throughout Scripture in episodes where the Lord provides bread to establish communion with his people.  It isn’t surprising, then, that at the heart of many Christian liturgies is the breaking and sharing of bread.   
Educational institutions also have liturgies, and these liturgies can serve as subtle yet powerful teachers.  The rules and rhythms and rituals that occur regularly in a classroom are far from neutral; they shape students’ desires at a subconscious level.  According to James K. A. Smith, Christian education as well as Christian discipleship are about “not only the acquisition of a worldview but also the inhabitation of a sensibility.”  And our sensibilities are formed through “rhythms and habit-forming routines”—routines that subtlety shape our imaginations because they carry within them a notion of the good life.  In other words, teachers should not just ask, “how can I transmit knowledge of my subject” but “how do the liturgies of my classroom shape the habits and desires of my students?” 



At the Millis Institute, one liturgy that our students engage in is formal hall.  During these Oxford-style dinners (at which academic gowns are worn), our students not only enjoy good food, but they practice serving it to each other. 


The conversation is also designed intentionally to form good habits.  At our most recent formal hall, the two sides of the table had to argue the affirmative and negative of The Beatles’ claim that all you need is love.  And they had to do so in character as one of the authors they’ve studied this semester (e.g. Socrates and C. S. Lewis … even Bono and Donald Trump made surprise appearances in the debate!). 

Good thinking and learning are habits, and like most habits, they can be strengthened through the right liturgies.  (To hear James K. A. Smith talk more about this idea in person, see the notice below about his visit to CHC in July.)

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