Against Modernity: Liturgy as Quiet Resistance

From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, things follow patterns. This is as inescapable as it is undeniable. Night follows day, the moon waxes and wanes, the tide ebbs and flows, man rises up and lies down again. This is life under the sun. But that which seems monotonous really testifies to the marvelous—there is something beyond the sun. Learning to read between the lines of sunrises and sunsets helps us to see the transcendent realities beyond the metaphor in which we live. And yes, we do live in a metaphor—this is a spoken world created by the Spoken Word.

Every sunset says, “The wages of sin is death” as darkness covers the face of the deep. Every sunrise says, “O grave where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?” as the sun rises yet again to give its life-giving light. This is also true of daisies and daffodils, of milk cows and molecules; everything testifies to a greater reality than meets the eye. So what are all of these prolific patterns? In a word—liturgy. Creation is liturgical. Creation is liturgical because it is sacramental. Purely sacramental. It isn’t merely a means of grace, creation is itself a gift—that is, a grace.

This philosophy is precisely what Westerners, benighted by the Enlightenment, have functionally (if not formally) denied. With “enlightened” politics men lost their heads, with “enlightened” philosophies men lost their souls. We have become what C.S. Lewis called, “men without chests.” No head. No heart. No soul. Such is the lumbering beast that is Modern Man.

Modernity has often been characterized as a revolt against the old institutional orders. This is but another way of saying that Modernity is a revolt against ritual. If the French taught us anything it is that they were always happy to stand on ceremony as long as it aided in breaking its back.

Ignorance may have killed his thousands but Reason has slain her tens of thousands. Modernity, ever the deceptive dame, has left the western world polarized, disfigured, divided, halt, and maimed through her crafty machinations. This is readily observable in the realm of political theory. On one side is Dame Progressa, more upholstered than adorned, in her grey business suit and sensible shoes, walking backwards into the future. She has no idea where she is going but at least she is making good time getting there. On the other side stands Lady Conserva, bedecked with heirloom jewels and fancy evening attire, she has both of her high-heels dug into the shag carpet. It doesn’t matter to her that it isn’t worth conserving, she’s standing knee-deep in principle.

We are so familiar with the players that we scarcely even noticed that we are the ones being played. Modernity’s deception was to make us believe that there were two ladies. In fact, there was only ever one mistress. Same whore, different dress. Modernity masquerades as Progressa and Conserva for the very same reason that she invented the guillotine—to tear asunder what God joined together. Slicing the world into progressive bits and conservative bits, into right and left, dividing people between north and south and east and west, erecting walls between “us” and “them,” carving creation into secular chunks and sacred chunks, into material and spiritual, is but the heritage of Mother Modernity. And like nursing children, we have lapped it up from the enlightenment teat. (Incidentally, this may finally shed light on such perplexing passages as Exodus 23:19.)

Obfuscation of order, revolt against ritual, and the dynamics of division are the hallmarks of Modernity. Perhaps nowhere are these characteristics more pronounced than in the ecclesiological, liturgical, and sacramental manifestations of Western Christianity. Modern theology is largely Marcionism Redux; a view that either completely repudiates or so marginalizes the Old Testament that its symbols, ceremonies, ethics, and ethos are deemed irrelevant for contemporary Christianity. Unfortunately, the liberals do not corner the market on such thinking.

Perhaps the most infectious modern ideal that has invaded the Church is the separation of worship from the world. Worship, religious piety, prayer, and ceremony is over here on this side of some fictitious divide, while “the real world” of economics, industry, science, politics, and art is on that side. Given this dichotomy, religious rituals might make the pious feel more pious, but they don’t really affect anything that approaches real life in the world. The grand assumption here is that the world is somehow left outside.

A Cathedral for the World

Any assumed bifurcation of worship and world, of liturgy and life, is false on the very face of it. The world is present in worship in any number of ways. Consider the elements of a normal liturgical service: What is brought into worship? Everything. Worship is a microcosm of our world, and a microchron of the future history of our world.

Sin. Worship is not based on the false pretense that the world is all roses and no thorns. Christian worship acknowledges the fallenness and fragility of the world and its inhabitants. Somewhere near the beginning of most traditional liturgies, there is an acknowledgement that we, together with the world, are desperately twisted and enslaved by sin and death. Our sinfulness is assumed. It is then confessed that it may be absolved rather than excused. This absolution is to bring us into wholeness and peace, as much as into holiness and pardon. This is as it should be in a world of sinful saints, warring and divided, yet striving for peace.

Art. Art actually makes its way into the worship service before the people do. Art is present in the architecture, or in the arrangement of the various pieces of furniture and folding chairs in a rented space. Art has imprinted the ceiling, the walls, and the floor, before the first invocation has been uttered. It may ride high in procession on the bishop’s ornate mitre, or it may be smuggled in on Aunt Lewellyn’s hand-knitted shawl. Even the lowliest of low churches include singing in their worship. Most Protestants sound the notes of their praise through the harmonies of various instruments. Then there is stained glass, woodwork, masonry, sculpture, and all the rest of it. Art is coming into worship, bidden or not. It is certainly not alien to the worship of God.

History. To say that Scripture is present in worship seems superfluous, but one should remember that Scripture is an account of the “once and future” history of this world. The events recorded therein are not some religious tributaries that are detached from the main flow of the rest of human history. It is, quite literally, world history. The Bible speaks of man’s creation and calling, and of “all creatures great and small” created alongside man; the source of man’s ruin; fratricide, the origins of civic life, and the development of arts and sciences; the diversity of languages; empires rising and falling, kings with their glories and failures, battles and political intrigues and wars. It is the story of us—formed, deformed, reformed, and transformed.

Water, Bread, and Wine. Water is necessary to the existence of life. This is simply true. To try and cut slices of water into physically beneficial and spiritually beneficial pieces is as foolish as trying to slice water in the first place. We are made largely of water, born from water, sustained by water, and cleansed by water. This is true even before water is pumped into the Church, and it is no less true afterwards. Bread is a basic staple of human life. The production of bread assumes some degree of developed (or developing) agriculture, the technology of milling flour and baking, and an exchange system that enables the bread to arrive at the table. In a single morsel of bread, farmers, millers, bakers, merchants, and deliverymen are all ushered into the Divine Service. One could make similar points about the presence of wine, but wine bears not only agricultural, economic, and technological baggage, but also includes numerous festal associations. The entrance of water, bread, and wine into the liturgy, hauls the entire complex world before the Throne.

Money. Though there are some Christians who believe it is impious to collect money during a worship service, and that the practice makes the minister look mercenary by defiling holy things with profane mammon, Biblical worship was ever an exchange of goods. God has given and continues to give, and his people give in return. Under the Old Covenant, worship was fundamentally about bringing wealth into God’s house as an offering. Every animal given upon the altar represented wealth. Under the New Covenant, it is the affluence of grace which constrains kingdom giving. For we know that Christ, though He was rich, became poor so that our poverty might be absorbed in the blessed transaction. Thus, our relationship with money is not to be viewed so much in commercial terms as in soteriological categories. For indeed, we are stewards of the mysteries of the kingdom.

Language. Created things are creatures of the Word. Language is one of the greatest gifts given to mankind. Words form, conform, and transform. Worship is largely the appropriation of words. We sing, pray, read, hear, speak, and are spoken to. Modernity says that we must choose between speech and action, God says that speech is action. Though there is a place for silence in Christian worship, those silences, like the silences in music, should be the pregnant and expectant pauses between two sounds. Those sounds are the effectual echoes of creation and re-creation.

Worship is not a retreat from reality, it is not an escape from the world, from its brokenness and evils, from its follies and foibles, from the world of work and production and commerce. The whole world clings to us and follows hard on our heels right into Church, and is placed front and center. Christianity does not offer respite from the challenges of life in the world, it offers purpose for every part of it. Every church, no matter its size, is a cathedral for the world. The whole expanse of the created order can fit between the font and the table.

The Transfiguration of the Cosmos

When the world is brought near to the Throne, it is not left alone—it is transfigured. Alexander Schmemann was right to say that this world is the “matter of the kingdom.” The kingdom of God is not made from some “pure stuff,” but is the stuff of this very world consecrated and translated from glory to glory. That transformation is anticipated and enacted in the liturgy. Our words are brought into worship, but by shaping our language to tell the story of Scripture, our language is conformed to the image of the heavenly. Bread and wine are brought into the liturgy, and they remain, physically speaking, elementally bread and wine; but these ordinary staples become extraordinary means for conveying Christ to us through the Spirit. Money is offered in worship, but it is now devoted to the expansion of God’s kingdom. The world is brought into the kingdom, but it is brought into the kingdom to be judged and made over again. The liturgy is a liturgy of life, a sign of the future of the world; a world caught up in the throes of regeneration.

Modernity rejects all of this and so we must reject Modernity. We must listen to Solomon’s wisdom and resist the temptation of her eyelids. The kisses of her mouth are poison. She seeks to seduce us with the promise of gifts that are already ours: “Stolen water is sweet. Bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” But we must remember that “the dead are there, and her guests are in the depths of hell.”

J. Brandon Meeks

J. Brandon Meeks is a writer, studio musician, and Christian scholar. He serves his local parish as Theologian-in-Residence. He received his PhD. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is also a fan of Alabama football, the blues, and cheese. He blogs regularly at

'Against Modernity: Liturgy as Quiet Resistance' have 2 comments

  1. August 8, 2019 @ 1:20 pm Tom Carpenter

    This essay (aka. lament) makes several valid points regarding our collective loss of the importance and beauty of ritual but unfortunately lacks a sorely needed balance or perspective regarding any of the benefits of modernity, e.g. science, democracy, medicine, technology, and most ironically, emancipation from the hegemony of dogmatic and oppressive forms of authoritarian Christianity. His reference to modernity as a whore is deeply troubling. Surely he could have found something less offensively patriarchal.

    Liturgy, after all, is the work of the people. In many ways, the social, cultural, and religious changes shaped by Modernity returned liturgy back to us. It is no longer the exclusive domain of religious clerics to perform on our behalf. It is ours now. We must decide for ourselves what to do with it.


  2. August 10, 2019 @ 12:03 pm Jonathan Kanary

    I have only just started reading it, but I will go out on the limb (which I suspect is quite solid enough to bear my weight) and recommend David Fagerberg’s recent book, Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology. It is a follow-up to his outstanding On Liturgical Asceticism, which I also highly recommend.


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