Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments
by Dru Johnson
Anyone who regularly or occasionally leads a ritual event or teaches worship leadership would benefit from this refresher course in ritual significance. Anyone who thinks ritual is dispensable must read this book to overcome that idea.
What’s the main point?
Rituals permeate our lives and change who we are and what we believe even if we don’t think that what we are doing is ritual (f.ex., morning routines and birthday parties). This agrees with what Prosper of Aquitaine said in the fifth century: How we pray determines what we believe.
Why does it matter?
Everyday rituals, special events, festivals, and worship are not only determined by our beliefs; they create our beliefs, our views of ourselves, of others, and of God. This author argues that we need to notice our acquired rituals, assess their origins and purposes, their potential to sidetrack our priorities, and amend when necessary.
Why is this book significant / important?
The author makes the point that ritual works on and in us despite ourselves. Even when we think something we do by rote is meaningless, “knowing prayers by rote can free us… to focus on God.” (p. 6) This is a succinct expression of what I once heard a liturgy professor say: Worship is supposed to be boring so that we don’t pay attention to what we are doing but to who we are worshipping.
What intrigued me (the reviewer) the most?
In “When Rites Go Dark,” Johnson refers to the rituals of violence ––corrupting rituals –– found in many of our communities and in families. Helping those who have become conditioned to react to their circumstances in negative ways calls for counter-rituals that include action (food and physical affection) added to talk therapy.
Where I would push back
Sometimes precision of ritual analysis is lost owing to the author’s apparent intent to make ritual approachable. He may have thought to abbreviate historical and theological discussions in order to attract a wider audience. Another possible explanation for the dearth of scholarly bases for some of his assertions is that the author’s worship tradition is charismatic/ Pentecostal. His approach to baptism is, therefore, not the same as a mainline Protestant (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.). He asserts, for example, a seamless link between the Jewish ritual bath for purification, the mikveh, and Christian baptism (p. 92ff) whereas the mikveh is a repeated event and baptism is done only once. These two ways of washing cannot be equated theologically.
Another small example is his statement that giving a tithe is not biblically commanded. This begs for further nuance. Certainly the Ten Commandments do not contain such an order, but Numbers 18:28 is explicit about offering an annual tithe. A longer explanation is required if Johnson means this command only pertains to the Israelites.
But these are small instances in the midst of a much more important focus on helping the reader notice and attend to the rituals of daily life.
In the chapter “When Rites Go Flimsy,” the critique of TED talks raises questions about the value of those formulaic, powerful, and popular speeches because their brevity and structure has over-shadowed the wisdom of what he calls “humane education.” (pp. 77-87) Schools and universities that have embraced shortened courses of study in the name of cost-effectiveness might take to heart his assertion that “Eloquence packaged in bite-sized talks is nice, but it lacks the key ingredient for transforming our view of reality: time.” (p. 80) When Jesus taught the disciples, he sent them out not just to preach but to ritualize: baptize, heal, feed, and look for signs of the kingdom of God. Growing the body of Christ, therefore, is an embodied enterprise. Ritualized learning is apprenticeship. When the church ignores that way of teaching and hastens the process of becoming a leader of a congregation to shorten the learning time, something is lost. This book is a means for reassessing those choices and many more.
Johnson, Dru. Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019. 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7600-3.
REVIEWER: The Rev. Melinda A. Quivik, PhD
Dr. Melinda Quivik, is a pastor in the ELCA and former seminary professor specializing in worship and preaching. She serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Liturgy, a print and online journal of The Liturgical Conference for pastors and scholars on topics related to worship.