Liturgies in a Time When Cities Burn

Fifty years ago, in August 1967, my family and I moved temporarily to Seattle. Although the political temperature was heating up all around the country, we could not have imagined the terror that would descend upon the nation during the next few months,  a period that was climaxed by the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, riots and burnings in more than a hundred American cities, and the anti-Vietnam War rage in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

By design, I spent part of my time that year working as a member of the staff of University Christian Church, presiding at worship, teaching classes, and serving as consultant to church committees. I talked with people and listened to their conversations, trying to sense the mood of congregants in one large metropolitan congregation.

Most of my time, however, was devoted to research and writing. My intention was to read in the fields of anthropology and sociology in order to broaden my understanding of the cultural function of worship and other modes of public ritual. Quickly my attention came into focus on a short list of philosophical writings.

I wanted to understand Ernst Cassirer’s writings on the philosophy of knowledge and Susanne K. Langer’s exposition of the relation of cultural forms to human feeling. These two philosophers drew upon a wide range of scientific data in order to develop their overlapping philosophies of feeling and form. Although neither of them affirmed the Christian gospel, they helped me understand religious faith and liturgical action in ways that have sustained me ever since.

I also took advantage of the year to read more broadly in a wide range of theological and cultural studies, guided in part by articles in Saturday Review which I read faithfully. I jotted down notes and reflections and incorporated some of these ideas into longer essays or presentations that I made in my work at the church and in travels around the country during the year.

During the final weeks of my research leave, I gathered these occasional writings together and edited them into a book that was published in 1969. Its title, Liturgies in a Time When Cities Burn, identifies its central idea. The final paragraph gives a succinct summary of what the book contains.

In this time of violent passage various forms of the racial myth, with their intimations of the miraculous and the mysterious, have arisen to give us hope. The results—injustice, inhumanity, genocide, assassination—reveal the inadequacy of this way out of our deep anxiety.

Impotent, too, is the traditional wisdom enshrined in the liturgies of the church, for Christian worship has been demonized, transmuted from a witness against us to a means of our self-justification.

In order to lead us in creating a new society, in some time yet to come, the Christian liturgy of Word and Sacrament must be revivified, purged of its demonic traits, filled again with the qualities which it is supposed to have.

The table of contents indicates the scope of this relatively short book: Violent Passage; Ritual Becoming High Art; Feeling and Form; Liturgical Style; Guidelines for the Free Tradition; Weekend and Holy Day; How Do We Get There from Here? An Interesting Thought, but Can It Cool the Summer? The book concludes with an appendix of prayers for worship, bibliographic notes, and index.

Despite the fact that this book is grounded in events and research that took place half a century ago, it still seems relevant to church people today. It would be difficult to rewrite the book because it is so intertwined with what I was reading and experiencing in the 1960s. There are places, however, where relatively simple editing could be done that would increase its usefulness for today, and that I may decide to work at this kind of uipdating.

The book is available in a few libraries here and there. Used copies are listed by some book sellers. Let me know what you think about it.

As frontispiece, I used a statement from Philosophical Sketches by Susanne K. Langer. We are living, she wrote in 1964, in a new Middle Ages, “a time of transition from one social order to another. . .We feel ourselves swept along in a violent passage, from a world we cannot salvage to one we cannot see; and most people are afraid.” Half a century later, we seem to be living in that same world.

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One Response to Liturgies in a Time When Cities Burn

  1. Millie Magner says:

    Amazing how we cycle through tumultuous times again and again feeling as though no one has ever been here before. Thanks again for your writing and reflection.

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