From the Pulpit and the Pavement

Feet Standing on Pavement

The two issues on Worship, Ritual and Theory represent the first pass by this journal on ritual practices (particularly those labeled “worship”) as refracted through the methodological and theoretical lenses of multiple fields. Our first two articles, “What in God’s Name is the Point?” and “I have a Brick from that Building,” offer timely reflections upon contemporary religious practice: public rituals in the streets of Ferguson, MO and the contrasting theologies attending church closures. The remaining article focus upon a particular component of Christian worship, the proclamation of the Word. Building upon the work begun in Issue 7, these articles display the breadth of methodological and theoretical lenses which can be brought to bear upon a single component of ritual practice. This issue includes reflections upon the relationship of preacher to text and topic, the pedagogical role of improvisation, the ways in which seemingly profane acts might betoken the sacred, and the body as part of the ensemble of what constitutes “proper [homiletical] practice.”

Focused upon recent events in Ferguson, MO, “What in God’s Name is the Point?” questions the dichotomizing of Black church worship and activism. The writings, activism, and ritual leadership of The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou offers a timely and salient example of ritual practice which overcomes this apparent dichotomy. Moreover, McCormack sheds light upon the dilemma facing many African-American youth who are “culturally represented as morally deviant, criminal, beyond redemption and even deserving of death.”

“’I Have a Brick from that Building’: The Deconsecration of Highgate United Church” uses church closure as a lens upon contemporary religious sentiments. Rather than focusing upon closed churches as harbingers of the decline of organized religion, Stephenson employs his participation in a church deconsecration as a lens upon the disjuncture between the official church closure rites (which denied the importance of “place”) with the experience of the laity for whom the building had deep emotional resonances. In addition to enriching the current discussions on religion and place, “I Have a Brick…” offers pastoral insight into the ways in which rituals of deconsecration might run afoul of the experience and needs of those who “failed” to keep the church open.

“Fail Better” brings recent thought upon improvisation to bear upon teaching homiletics. Rather than employing a results-based pedagogy, Alcántara proffers three possible ways to move the homiletical classroom toward a space which emphasizes collaboration between teacher and students, allows failure to become part of the learning process, and commits to rehearsal as a prerequisite to excellence. The creative process of Pixar Animation Studios provides a concrete example of improvisation as regular part of a collaborative process of creation.

Trespasses of decorum are the subject of “Sweating, Spitting, and Cursing.” Reflecting upon these “profane” (or at least not typically “sacred”) actions, McCray ponders those moments when breaches in expected behavior can reveal the intensity of the encounter between the preacher, the gathered community, and the divine. Each of these actions may also point to the sacred beyond the often “domesticated” practices of Sunday services.

Lance Pape returns to his article “Talking about Money in the Presence of Jesus” in “Preaching about Stewardship.” The former article, included in the previous issue of Practical Matters, responded to a request by the Center for Faith and Giving (Disciples of Christ) to lecture on “Preaching on Stewardship throughout the Christian Year.” The current article, “Preaching about Stewardship,” revisits the topic, elaborating the theoretical underpinnings for that initial response. Drawing upon Paul Ricoeur and Hans Frei, Pape argues that approaching the Synoptic Gospels intent on determining what Jesus said about “stewardship” is a hermeneutical misfire. Rather, he argues, one should think instead about what it would mean to contemplate “stewardship” in the presence of Jesus.

The human body comes into sharp focus in “Now that’s Preaching!” Beginning with an examination of this phrase, Thompson argues that congregants have explicit and implicit understandings of what constitutes appropriate preaching. Such expectations often regard the male body and its associated forms of comportment as more fitting for the pulpit and proclamation than female bodies and their array of postures and movements. Using an analysis which combining Bourdieu, de Certeau, and Marla Frederick, Thompson reflects upon how one female pastor expanded the boundaries of what constitutes “valid [preaching] practice” by her selective use of traditional expectations.

Beyond their intrinsic contributions, each of our contributors opens important questions for further research.

Barry Stephenson calls attention to a rarely discussed but increasingly important (if only because more frequent) ritual: church deconsecration. His case study of Highgate United Church reveals a disconnect between the utopian (“placeless”) theology of the official rites of deconsecration and the locative theology of congregants revealed by the deconsecration of the building. What other facets of the programmatic life of Highgate church would qualify as evidence for their theology and experience of place? Might a congregation evince a mixture of both locative and utopian practices and perspectives?

McCormack uses the writings and rituals of the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou to challenge the dichotomizing of ritual within the black Church as either affirming of the status quo or as promoting social change. The particular rituals discussed in “What in God’s Name is the Point?” take place in the streets and, therefore, in geographically and temporally different locations than much of black Church worship. Might this dislocation exempt these rituals from the “worship versus cultural resistance” dichotomy? How might these rituals enacted in the streets serve as a resource for and a critique of church worship on Sunday mornings?

“Fail Better” suggests employing studied improvisation as a pedagogical tool in homiletics. Proposing the creative process of Pixar Studies as a potential analog to pedagogy invites further comparison. The creative process of Pixar Studios evinces a highly collaborative process that draws upon a range of well-honed skills throughout the process. What are the comparable “well-honed skills” within preaching that need to be developed alongside the skills of improvisation? Beyond seminary, how might pastors work with other clergy as well as lay people to develop a comparable homiletical “workshop?” What kind of timelines (and time disciplines) would this call for?

The reflection on “bodies of difference” in “Now that’s Preaching!” draws upon the Certeauvian distinction between strategies and tactics. While both forms of practice, tactics are enacted by those without a proper place, that is, without a base or position of authority upon which they can rely and which would allow them to accumulate more authority. Thompson here has read the preaching of a female pastor as a tactic, positioning her against the authority of the congregation (whose de facto authority allows them to decide “Now that’s preaching!” How might the preaching of a female pastor be fruitfully read as both strategic and tactical, as simultaneously the work of someone with authority and without?

“Sweating, Spitting, and Cursing” calls attention to the ways in which unexpected breaches in decorum or personal distance may offer a “sounding of a deep holiness.” The article opens an array of possibilities for ethnographic and other “ground level” research. How do congregants experience these breaches in decorum? How does socio-economic status relate to the experiences of such moments? Paired with Pape’s account of the preacher as “surrogate reader adventuring in the world in front of the biblical text on behalf of the community of faith,” the sweating, spitting, and even cursing might be seen as re-presenting that “adventure in the world in front of the text” as part of the homily.

Ranging from Stuart Hall’s cultural studies to the biblical hermeneutics of Hans Frei and beyond , the collection of excellent articles presented here bring together an array of theoretical perspectives to re-imagine perennial practices and address timely concerns about justice and transformations in the American religious landscape. Many thanks to our authors for furthering the work of Practical Matters: the study the study of religious practice and practical theology beyond and between disciplinary boundaries.

Many thanks to the lean fleet of editors who have worked so diligently to publish this second installment of “Worship, Ritual, and Theory.” Thanks as well to L. Edward Phillips, Coordinator of the Initiative in Religious Practices and Practical Theology, who has worked so diligently to keep the fleet running.

By Matthew Lawrence Pierce, Issue Editor
Matthew Lawrence Pierce is a doctoral candidate in the area of Person, Community, and Religious Life in Emory University's Graduate Division of Religion.