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Culture and Liturgy

October 9th, 2008 by isaac · No Comments

Herbert McCabe is a theologian that I come back on a monthly (sometimes weekly) basis. In my attempt to learn more about his context, I’ve started reading the writers who formed the radical Catholic journal called “Slant.” Their ranks include names like Terry Eagleton, Brian Wicker, Adrian Cunningham, Martin Redfern, Laurence Bright and Neil Middleton—a bunch of Catholic Marxists with Dominican sensibilities. Apparently Herbert McCabe was an influential member of the Slant group.

This interest led me to Brian Wicker’s book, Culture and Liturgy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963). It’s a blur of a read. He covers a lot of distance at high speeds—from Thomas Aquinas to D.H. Lawrence in a matter of sentences. The work of Raymond Williams seems to connect the dots.

I can’t say that I would recommend to book. I didn’t find it too interesting, other than giving me a window into the world of Slant. But I thought I should remember a few passages, and so I’ll share them below.

He’s refreshingly honest about the interconnections between church and society:

Any view of the Church as a lonely island of fidelity, morality or spirituality in a surrounding sea of corruption, faithlessness and materialism is liable to degenerate into the vision of a similar split between the Church and the world which, in a real sense, nourishes her. (32)

Wicker builds bridges between Marxists and Christians:
The fact is that, outside Marxism, it is only a profound Christian theology rooted in the idea of ‘salvation history’ as the key to history itself, which can restore the idea of social progress to its legitimate position in our culture. (35)

This next passage bears striking similarities to John Yoder’s descriptions of the church as the space where God is working out the shape of the world to come. But it probably bears a closer relation to Vatican II’s discussion of “church as sacrement of society.” Wicker significantly links the liturgical assembly (i.e., church) to politics and culture. Liturgy is culture and politics.
Since the liturgical assembly is the ever-present manifestation of God’s creative act in calling the people of God into existence, it is his own society. Thus, which all human society is the work of his creation, the liturgical assembly is especially so, as being the human vehicle of salvation history. It must therefore be seen by Christians as the paradigm of all human society and its constitution as the norm of all other, more ephemeral forms of human association. It is this fact which makes the history of salvation relevant to the immediate problem of society, by offering us, in the liturgical assembly, a model or prototype for us to use in trying to make the results in society as a whole. (44)

Christian advocates of social justice tend to forget about the important traditional practices that constitute church. Not so for Wicker. His vision of church won’t let go of baptism and catechesis:
The social action of the Church is not limited to the remedy of injustices, but is deeply embedded in her mission to teach and baptize. (59)

Wicker makes this next move throughout his book: church mediates the transcendent future to the ordinary present. I’m a little worried about it.
The Liturgy, as I have said, is, theologically speaking, a world which stands midway between the experience of ordinary life and the complete future consummation of life in the supernatural society of the eternal Kingdom. (182)

This last quote might be the best one in the book (in my humble opinion). Wicker won’t let silly Catholic-bashers say that the Roman Catholic Church forgets about Scripture. That’s just not true. For Wicker the liturgy dramatizes the biblical narrative. I am reminded of Nicholas Lash’s important essay in Theology on the Way to Emmaus (1986), “Performing the Scriptures.” Here’s Wicker:
The Liturgy is the acting out of the biblical drama; but this acting out is nothing other than the reading of the Bible and the pursuit in action of what has been understood dramatically. The stage swallows up the auditorium so that we are all gathered up into the world created by the dramatist, who is God. (192)

Next on my list is a book of collected essays called, ‘Slant Manifesto’: Catholics and the Left (1966) and Brian Wicker’s more substantial book called, Toward a Contemporary Christianity (1967).

Tags: reading corner · theology