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No. 30: Cult and Communication

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 30
Copyright (c) 1993 Biblical Horizons
December, 1993

“What art thou, thou idol ceremony?” asked Henry V during his midnight rounds of the English camp near Agincourt. His answer was that ceremony was both nothing and everything. It was nothing in the sense that it offered no guarantee that the king would be fit for office. Contrary to the French mythology of the royal touch (and everything Henry did was contrary to the French), Henry knew that his coronation ceremony had not given him power to heal the knee that bows to the king. At the same time, ceremony was everything. As Ernst Kantorowicz pointed out in his classic study of The King’s Two Bodies, it was the anointing ceremony that identified the king with the King. Ceremony ensured that the burden of England’s people, their children, and their sins would come upon the king. Ceremony guaranteed that Henry would have more than his share of sleepless nights.

Shakespeare was neither the first nor last to contemplate the strange “all and nothing” character of ritual. Debates during the Reformation often circled around this very issue. More recently, anthropological studies, including Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process, Edmund Leach’s Culture and Communication, and the various works of Mary Douglas have contributed to our understanding of ritual in general, and biblical scholars have begun to employ anthropological concepts in their explication of the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. While anthropological studies often shed valuable light on rites recorded in Scripture, one must remember that the social sciences do not operate with the value-neutral objectivity they sometimes claim. Lacking this awareness, one runs the risk of imposing alien categories on the Bible, in the end obscuring more than clarifying.

Indeed, I would argue that the Bible itself implies a notion of ritual that challenges some of the core assumptions of modern anthropological literature. Ritual, for example, is commonly subsumed under the category of “communication.” One should maintain a robust skepticism about the imperialistic claims of such meta-concepts of postmodern theory as “discourse,” “text,” and “communication.” Still, even while we deny that such concepts exhaust the complexities of reality, we can agree that these concepts capture a part, perhaps an important part, of the truth.

In Scripture, ritual certainly seems to be at least a matter of communication. Worship is performed “before the face of God”; heaps of fat and entrails are lifted heavenward, pointing to the ultimate origin of all good and perfect gifts; blood is sprinkled toward God’s throne in the Most Holy Place; smoke ascends, and God finds its aroma pleasant. All of this indicates that ritual is a way of “saying,” or perhaps better, of “showing” something to God. We could say that ritual is an enacted prayer.

Anthropological literature, however, would distort the notion of ritual as prayer in a number of ways. Most anthropologists would view ritual as communication in a void. Those who perform the rites believe (poor, deluded souls) they are communicating with a deity, but the anthropologist (who, after all, once switched on an electric light!) knows there is no such being. At best, ritual is solipsistic, a monologue by which persons speak to themselves and one another to reinforce existing cultural and social systems. Related to this is, secondly, the assumption that all rituals are equal, since there is no God who speaks and who tells His people what to enact before His face. “Equal” here means both equally quaint and equally ineffective.

A Biblical view of ritual, by contrast, would begin with the assumption that the Triune God is, and that He has revealed Himself in Scripture. There is a God and He has told His people what pleases Him. One would be led, therefore, to distinguish between true and false ritual, between God-ordained rites and what the Puritans called “will worship.” Leviticus 7:1 shows that this distinction is inherent in the Biblical notion of ritual. The chapter on the ritual of the “guilt offering" begins: “This is the torah of the guilt offering." That is, the rite is a prescribed rite; enacting the rite is obedience to torah and obedience to torah pleases God. On the other hand, the Bible clearly forbids other rites (divination, child sacrifice, etc). All rites are not equal; some cause the Lord to vomit people out of the land, while others are delightful “food” for God, a pleasing aroma in His nostrils.

The Biblical view also takes at face value, so to speak, the notion that rites are enacted before the face of God. We are not speaking in a void, nor speaking to ourselves or each other primarily. We are genuinely showing God something, really communicating with Him. Even those rites that the Lord finds abominable are performed in His presence. A gay marriage ceremony communicates to the ever-present God. What it communicates, however, is scorn and defiance.

In addition to prescribed and forbidden rites, there is a third category: rites that are neither prescribed nor forbidden. Thus, for example, I would not argue that anointing was a prescribed rite for the coronation of a medieval Christian king. But it was a fitting symbol of the Spirit of wisdom and power that all hoped would fill and guide the ruler. And I think it is likely that God took note of these rites (especially since they were accompanied by oaths of faithfulness to the Triune God), and held the “anointed” one accountable to conduct himself as a “christ” should. To bring this up-to-date, the Presidential inaugural is not a divinely prescribed ceremony, nor is it significant in the same way baptism and the Eucharist are; but we may be confident that it is not irrelevant in the heavenly places.

The biblical notion of “memorial” is significant in this regard. James Jordan has argued that throughout the Bible, a memorial is something that recalls the covenant to God’s mind (Noah’s rainbow, for example). Jordan concludes that the Old Testament sacrifices were “memorials” of the coming Messiah, effective because they reminded the Father of the Son’s future redemption. He suggests that the Eucharist is Christ’s memorial in the same sense: The Church presents the tokens of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice before the Father, and He remembers His covenant promise to be a God to us and to our children forever.

It is perhaps permissible to extend the biblical notion of memorial to cover ritual in general. Thus, to return to Henry and his midnight ruminations, the anointing of a king could be characterized as a perpetual “reminder” to God of who the king was, and what was expected of him. The crown was a burden to Henry precisely because he knew that the Lord knew who wore it. Thus it was that King Henry, though he felt no magical power surge from the oil of his anointing, still recognized that, once anointed, he was, and would always be, a new man.