Apr 11, 2012

To teach about the part of faith that's act & practice

In liturgical churches in America, it's not uncommon to hear people say the act of corporate worship is in some way more important than beliefs and doctrines. The Eastern Orthodox in America are partial to the phrase, "There is no Orthodoxy without Orthopraxy," meaning the traditional practices are logically prior, in a sense, to traditional beliefs. In the Anglican tradition, the Book of Common Prayer has served to bind the church together in ways that creeds and confessions never did. It's no accident that, in America, the Anglican tradition fragmented first in disputes about revisions to the prayer book, second over doctrinal matters such as whether women could be priests.

Nor is it just the liturgical churches.

As denominations have grown fainter in evangelicalism, and non-denominationalism has become the order of the day, so that even denominations now adopt the forms of non-denominationalism, styles of worship have been more prominent. Church member may not even know their church is, officially, Baptist, or any of the intricacies of what that means, but will know quite well the ins-and-outs of the church's corporate worship.

As important as that aspect of belief is, though, as much as it's the foreground of faith, I'm struggling to figure out how one would teach it.


For one thing, there's just very little information about Christian rituals and worship practices. When compared with the libraries on doctrine, there seems to be nothing like an established cannon for the cultural study of American religious practice.

I can't find a single book on Pentecostal music, for example. Maybe they exist, but I can't find them. Books on Pentecostal prayer are more easily available, but mostly, still, are focused on the theology of that prayer, not the act of prayer itself. Nothing with an eye to it's cultural reality, which is what I'm interested in. Just getting thorough, close-to-complete descriptions of praying in tongues, or of what a service is like, is kind of difficult.

I suppose what I want is phenomenological accounts of religious practices, but I'd settle for some decent ethnographic descriptions, and some interpretive work, to aid the understanding of these practices as cultural practices.

If I could find a collection of recordings of people praying -- that would be amazing.

Even if I had those things, though, I'm still not sure how to teach them. I know how to explain ideas, and contexts of ideas, implications and consequences, etc. How to teach, on the other hand, what a Dutch Calvinist worship service is like, and why, and how it's experienced, and what place it has in people's lives, or how a Methodists pray, and when, and why, and what that's like and how it relates to their world, seems trickier.

A lot trickier.

I have started collecting documentary recordings of worship, though, in the hopes I'll eventually figure out how to teach what actually is out there. 

A couple recent examples of what I've found:

  • This American Life's recording of six worship services in six different cities:


There's more like this, obviously, especially more contemporary stuff, though I still don't know what to do with it or where this is going. Maybe I just haven't found the scholarly work that already does what I'm trying to articulate the need for.

There's part of me, though, that's just trying not to think about all hymnals thrown away in the last 50 years, and all the boxes and boxes of cassette tapes of services in the '80s and '90s that are even now disintegrating to nothing.