14 April 2008

Vernacular Language and Liturgical Culture

One of the most disconcerting and intimidating things, in my experience, is to be surrounded by people who speak a different language than I do. Even in a secure situation, in the company of friends, the inability to converse and communicate normally is frustrating and unsettling. Not knowing the language is all the more challenging and stressful in new surroundings or in a crowd of strangers. It can be aggravating, sometimes frightening.

Thankfully, though, people everywhere share many of the same needs and similar routines, and such things can often surmount linguistic barriers. To state the most obvious case in point, everyone eats and drinks, and, consequently, everyone has to go potty at fairly regular intervals. Which means that, no matter where in the world you may be, and no matter what the language of the place, it is relatively simple to communicate that you are looking for food or looking for a restroom. Universal human needs generate universal signs, symbols and gestures, which are naturally expressed and easily (eagerly) recognized.

Flying around the world is not a universal human need, but lots of folks are doing it every day. International flights are constantly transporting large numbers of people from one linguistic milieu to another. Airports are a modern melting pot of every tribe and tongue on earth, with travelers coming and going at an astonishing rate. In order for that to work, which it generally does (surprisingly well most of the time), there are certain things that have to be handled in a clear and consistent fashion.

There is, therefore, a standard "airport culture" which characterizes any airport, irrespective of the local flavor it may have; no matter what the language gracing its signs and billboards may be; and no matter what sort of native dress it may wear. If it's an airport, there are certain characteristics that it has to have, which comprise its definitive culture, and apart from which it would be no airport at all (leastwise not a commercial airport of any significance). It's going to have security procedures in place (more or less sophisticated), luggage checks and baggage claims, flight information, boarding and departure protocols.

Consequently, even without a translator or any knowledge of the local lingo, a traveler who knows how to make his way around an airport, will know how to make his way around any airport, wherever he may roam. Notwithstanding that some airports are easier to navigate than others, because some are better organized and more efficient than others. The same sorts of airport things have to be included, be they featured poorly or well, if a place is to function as an airport and not become some other sort of place altogether. Thus, airports all over the globe, especially international airports, are more alike than different.

The Church has her own culture, too, which constitutes, defines, and governs her identity and her life as the Church. Her culture is shaped by her cultus, whereby she is distinct from the world in which she lives, while she is yet the same all over the world. Her culture is not a matter of this or that particular music, nor of any specific aesthetic style, far less any one tribal tongue. It is but the common cultus of the Gospel, that is, the Liturgy of preaching and the Sacraments.

Even in Siberia, in the midst of fellow Christians who do not speak my language, I'm able to comprehend and participate in the Divine Service, because the Church's liturgical culture is more or less the same from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. It is served and supported, carried along and accompanied by established ritual structures and significant ceremonial gestures which communicate with clarity even in a foreign land.

There are barely a handful of Russian words that I've learned, but I am able to recognize the Psalmody, the Invocation, the Kyrie, the Salutation and Collects, the responses to the Readings, the Creed, the Prayer of the Church, and almost the entire eucharistic rite, including the Sanctus, the Verba Domini, the Our Father, the Pax Domini, the Agnus Dei, and the Aaronic Benediction. I can discern these various rites of the Divine Service, give attention to them in faith, and, where appropriate, pray or confess them simultaneously in English, because each of them has its own place in the order of service, and each of them has its own distinctive structure and cadence.

Participating in this way, on the basis of familiar ritual structures, gives me a different perspective than usual. It makes my experience of the Liturgy in Siberia more like that of a young child. In particular, I am more aware of how powerful and significant ceremonial gestures are, expressive of a piety too deep for words. I perceive and understand what's "going on," when I observe the sign of the cross being made, and I see people folding their hands and lowering their heads to pray, and I watch them as they stand or sit, kneel or bow.

The preaching, praying and confessing are all in the vernacular Russian, but the rites and ceremonies belong to the liturgical culture of the whole Church. That makes the Divine Service a home away from home for me, as it is for Christians all over the world: a place of genuine peace and Sabbath rest in Christ, in the midst of our pilgrimage.

If, instead, the Church's life were to be defined and characterized by the local culture of each place in which she is established, then the Christian could only find himself at home in that one place where he happens to live on earth; he'd never be able to find another place like home in heaven or on earth. Yet, the Christian lives only in the world, not of it. The world's culture is not his permanent home, but a temporary outer garment that he shall easily remove when he enters at last the mansions of his Father's house. Even now, he dwells within the Father's house on earth, by finding his place in the life of the Church with her own liturgical culture.

In fact, the Church's liturgical culture has been remarkably consistent all over the world, from the New Testament to the present day. St. Justin Martyr's description of the Divine Service in the second century would serve as a fair description of the Divine Service in our own 21st century. There is catechesis leading to and from Holy Baptism. There is the reading and proclamation of the Holy Scriptures, and the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. There is the prayer of the Church, the gathering of alms for those in need, and the offering of praise and thanksgiving. There is the consecration of bread and wine with the Word of Jesus, by which these are His Body and Blood, given and poured out for His Christian disciples to eat and to drink. This remains the Church's proper liturgical culture, irrespective of historical epoch, geographical location, political boundaries, or even language.

To be sure, the Church catholic speaks in many tongues around the world, but her common speaking is the Word of Christ, by which disciples of all nations are gathered into His one body. This is the way of the Christian Pentecost (the culmination of the Christian Pascha), by which the confusion of tongues and the dispersal of the nations from Babel is reversed. One and the same Gospel is preached and confessed in a multiplicity of languages, so that all those who hear and receive this Gospel, who believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, are granted a common participation in that one Lord, through one faith, by one Baptism, unto one God and Father of all, in the unity of the one Holy Spirit and the bond of peace.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (second century) describes this very nicely in his monumental work, Against Heresies (Book 1, chapter 10, para. 2): "The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, though dispersed in the whole world, diligently guards them as living in one house, believes them as having one soul and one heart, and consistently preaches, teaches, and hands them down as having one mouth. For if the languages in the world are dissimilar, the power of the tradition is one and the same. The churches founded in Germany believe and hand down no differently, nor do those among the Iberians, among the Celts, in the Orient, in Egypt, or in Libya, or those established in the middle of the world. As the sun, God's creature, is one and the same in the whole world, so the light, the preaching of truth, shines everywhere and illuminates all men who wish to come to the knowledge of truth. And none of the rulers of the churches, however gifted he may be in eloquence, will say anything different — for no one is above the Master — nor will one weak in speech damage the tradition. Since the faith is one and the same, he who can say much about it does not add to it nor does he who says little diminish it" (translated by Robert M. Grant, 1997).

Therefore, the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church has all things in common with Christ her Head, and she freely shares those good things of Christ with all her members, wherever they may sojourn as strangers and pilgrims in this temporal world. They are defined as Christians, as fellow members of the one Body of Christ, as brothers and sisters in Him, as children of the same heavenly Father, by their sincere devotion to the Apostolic teaching and fellowship, to the Breaking of the Bread and the prayers of the Church.

This is the Church's Divine Service, which constitutes her life in Christ. This is her cultus, which is the gracious work of Christ on her behalf and for her benefit. Within the stability of this fixed liturgical culture, His Word is articulated to and for His Church in every language under heaven, although it is always and everywhere the same Word of Christ, who is Himself the Word-made-Flesh. It is chiefly the Word of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, which translates beautifully into any language!

Make no mistake, therefore, I'm heartily in favor of using the vernacular, both in preaching and in the conduct of the Liturgy. Preaching ought to be simple and straightforward, though not crass or simplistic. It ought to be clear and concrete, yet thoughtful and thought-provoking. It ought to be engaging, though not in the way of entertainment but as a call to repentance. It ought to be down to earth, but still respectful and polite, not vulgar. It ought to be direct and to the point, spoken with care and precision. It ought to be unpretentious, delivered in the ordinary, colloquial and idiomatic speech of the people. All of this belongs to the vernacular of preaching, which is more localized and timely than the rites of the Liturgy.

The ritual should also be in the language of the people, but with less personality and without any local flavor. It should rather convey the dignity and catholicity of that which is shared by the entire Church in every time and place. It should possess a solemn clarity, and have a stateliness about it, which enables it to serve from one generation to the next and across the widest range of dialects.

In each case, the point is that the Word of God and the prayers of the Church ought to be rendered in the language of the people. Yea and amen! But I do not agree that this need for vernacular language requires the adoption of the vernacular culture. That does not follow.

Language and culture are closely related to each other, that is true. Yet, they are not one and the same, and the differences between them are significant. Language is more fundamental, more comprehensive, and more neutral. Culture is more specific and particular, more localized, and freighted with its own connotations in a way that language is not. For language, in itself, is simply an agreed-upon convention of letters and sounds, grammar and syntax, which can readily be used to carry and convey the Word of the Lord.

Language is a kind of empty luggage that we may fill with the Lord's Word. Culture, though, is baggage with someone else's belongings already packed inside. We best be careful, then, before attempting to claim such cultural baggage. For in this case we are laying hold of some particular content, which is prior to and apart from the Word of God we desire to convey. In other words, culture is a larger sort of language that is already speaking, already saying something else, before the Church has had a chance to catechize it and confess with it correctly.

"Culture," in this context, refers especially to musical idioms, but also to artistic styles and architectural forms. All of these things may be fair game, perhaps, but each and all of them are necessarily bent toward the confession of Christ, to bow before the preaching of His Gospel and the administration of His holy Sacraments. Whatever differing modes of expression may be used, these arts and sciences do not comprise the Church's culture, but simply adorn it (ideally with beauty and loveliness). They serve and support it. They help to honor and confess what is the heart of the matter. But they cannot, of themselves, add anything to the Liturgy of the Gospel. And they dare not be permitted to subtract from that blessed evangelical Liturgy, nor to contradict or compete with it, nor to distract from it or take its place.

By all means, let us receive the plunder of the Egyptians from the gracious hand of God, along with sunshine and rain and all His other gifts of daily bread. Let us rightly use the treasures of the nations to adorn the tabernacle and the priesthood of the Church and Ministry: in submission to and in accordance with the Word of God. Thereby do we magnify His holy Name in our midst. But let us never make such plunder into a golden calf, nor give to it the glory that belongs only to the Lord our God. Christ alone is enthroned in mercy between the Cherubim and Seraphim, and all the kings of the earth must remove their crowns before Him, prostrate themselves at His feet, and present Him with their gifts.

It would surely be a shame and a sad impoverishment if only one artistic style were permitted in the Church, or only one architectural design, or only one mood or manner of music. The criteria, however, for the use of this or that musical idiom, artistic approach, or architectural form, ought to be its harmonious compatibility with the Church's liturgical culture (that is, the Gospel preached and the Sacraments administered). For music and the arts communicate, each in its own manner, and thereby ought to assist in the catechesis and confession of the Word of God. They ought also to convey a reverence for God and respect for His Church, and so be used in faith and love. They should be things of beauty and loveliness and elegance, rather than harsh or jarring or chaotic (Phil. 4:8). For all of that, even at their best, they are but a complement, an adornment of the Church's proper liturgical culture, and not a definitive part of it.

To be sure, the Church has — here and there in the course of her history — taken up aspects of the cultural context in which she is living and incorporated those elements into her own liturgical culture. Not for apologetic and evangelistic purposes, but as a natural consequence of her life in this world, as a kind of decoration attaching to her ongoing confession of the Word of Christ and accompanying her daily prayers. Those adornments have typically come and gone without any self-consciousness, being largely transparent to the real business at hand; for they are not the Church's culture, properly speaking, but merely attendant circumstances. Sometimes, though, the adornments of a particular time and place have, by their use, been lifted out of their original context to persist in their connection to the Church's own unique culture. Where that has happened, they have been redefined by their association with the Liturgy, so as to become something new and different within the life of the Church than they were in the world. Clerical vestments are a case in point, as these developed from the ordinary clothing of antiquity.

Where the Church's liturgical culture is left intact and allowed to function as the heart and soul of the Church's life, then the trappings of the world in which she lives may come and go, whether by choice or by chance, without disrupting or disturbing the participation of the faithful. In fact, where the Church's liturgical culture is alive and well, its ritual structures and ceremonial gestures enable even foreign visitors to participate with relative ease. As important and beneficial as the vernacular is, it's not the only way or means of catchesis and confession. It simply isn't necessary for everything to be verbally transparent, instantly clear, or explained ad nauseam. Often the best way to learn a foreign language is to be immersed in it, "sink or swim," and to figure it out by trial and error. One finds out fast enough where the food and the potties are!

Rather than inculturating herself in the ways of the world, the Church should inculturate her members, her catechumens and her guests, in her own liturgical culture, which is rooted in the Gospel and adorned by a common confession of Christ.

1 comment:

sarahlaughed said...

mmhm! It is striking to me that we here in America often want to make "worship" mirror the pervading culture so as to be more attractive to "seekers".

But if Christian culture is no different than pop culture, then what value is there in the Christian culture? People abandon one culture for another because they are looking for something better. No one trades something they have and are comfortable possessing for an unfamiliar something of equal value.

If Christians are to be different than the world, then it is only logical that they have a distinct different culture.
To mold "worship" into a mere copy of popular culture is to strip it of its distinctness and its meaning.

And I forgot what else I was going to comment. :|