Understanding Your Rites

Excerpted From
Human Rites
By Dru Johnson

For anthropologists, rituals are ordinary human practices strategically changed and improvised for another purpose. This definition seems to answer the question “What is a ritual?” But it really doesn’t. It shifts the question from a “what” to a “who”: Who is strategically changing what, and for what purpose?

Baptism changes the normal practice of water cleansing to a form of initiation. Christians have improvised the ritual of baptism by dunking, pouring or sprinkling with water because the New Testament gives few details about how to baptize.

The Lord’s Supper takes an ordinary human meal and strategically changes it into a meal specifically for understanding Jesus’s death and resurrection. Technically, the meal was already strategically changed into a ritual—the Israelite Passover meal—when Jesus re-ritualized it into Communion the night prior to his crucifixion. It’s that “strategically changed” bit that begs all sorts of questions. Who gets to change practices into rites? What’s their strategy? Who authorized them?

Christian Scripture speaks about rituals without saying how to perform them—rites such as fasting, meditating, praying, worshiping and getting married appear in Scripture without a real script, leaving us holding the bag full of improvisations.

Other Rites on Demand

Improvised rituals don’t emerge only from daily routines. Nor must an authority explicitly prescribe these rituals in detail. We improvise in response to demands for ritual in our lives: for days that we hold sacred, milestones, achievements, and more. The most obvious rituals in Scripture that require improvisation are the marriage ceremony and the practice of Sabbath rest. Both occur in the creation narratives without any specific instructions. And even when a ritual’s instructions are given, as with the Lord’s Supper, improvisation is still required to some extent.

Consider the performances involved in all the different rituals of our lives. Closing on a house mortgage basically involves sitting at a table and enduring the request to sign a mountain of documents. It’s like some bizarre form of celebrity. You repeatedly give your autograph in order to indenture yourself to your sole obsessive fan: the bank. The ordinary act of signing your name is elevated because it’s being done for a special purpose. And the bank requires many signatures in many places—and all of them require the signatures of witnesses!

We celebrate birthdays with the ordinary practice of eating food—but not just any food: It’s the favorite meal of the person being celebrated. Birthday cakes are just a dessert, but strategically re-made for the rite with lots of frosting and candles.

We create special rituals around significant events such as adopting a child, going away to school and grieving for the recently deceased. On the most momentous occasions of life, we find ourselves improvising rituals handed to us from our culture and our religious traditions. But those aren’t necessarily dictated from Scripture, and so we improvise faithfully.

Ritual pervades the performances of our everyday lives as well. Getting the kids ready for school becomes a “daily ritual.” Patterns emerge from our lives so naturally that we can be easily understood when we talk about “bathroom rituals,” or the ritual of preparing a parent’s daily medications or the rite of getting coffee with a friend.

In all of these rituals, we change, exaggerate or refocus ordinary human activities in order to do something that cannot be done otherwise. In the process, we shape and form the people who participate in the ritual. And now we can’t help but notice that all rituals originate from the world of everyday objects and practices.

Our initial question incorrectly assumed that rituals could be described as a “what” (What are rituals?). In the end, rituals have as much to do with who prescribes them as what they ask us to do. Because rites betray strategic thinking, we need to know whose ritual voice we “serve” as well as their ritual goals for us.

The Call to a Ritualed Life

Our world breathes with ritual. As we examine our ritualed world together, we can also think about how we might embody the rites of our daily lives in light of Christian mandates.

Jesus didn’t call people to take up their minds and follow him; he prescribed an embodied life of rituals as a sort of classroom for early followers. Communion and baptism form just one aspect of the embodied rituals that shape Jesus’s instruction to his disciples. In ritualizing a life for them, he carries forward the same impulse of the Torah. The sacraments of the disciples’ Scripture also taught Israel, from the time of Egyptian slavery up to first-century Galilee, shaping them to see the world differently.

Notice that the Torah’s central rituals—Sabbath, Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths—all focus Israel’s attention on understanding their own history through those rituals in order to understand God’s current instruction to them. It’s important to note that they couldn’t understand their own history properly without embodying those rites of the Torah.

The Torah remakes all kinds of ordinary activities into rituals for the sake of knowing, for helping God’s people see something that God was showing them. Yes, those rituals certainly contained symbols and express something about their views of God and self. But Israel is instructed by God to perform rites in order to know.

The ultimate goal is not to perform the ritual, but to see what is being shown. Consider a medical student who ritually studies x-rays under the guidance of a radiology professor. Without the ritual of learning to read x-rays, she will never see the things the professor is trying to show her. An x-ray might fascinate the eyes, but the uninterpreted x- ray is impenetrable and useless as a medical tool.

As I see it, the Scriptures portray Israel and the church as the students of God, embodying the directions in order to see what God is showing us. If that’s correct, then it’s possible that without practicing those New Testament rituals, we won’t know what God intends to show us.

Whether we like it or not, someone or something always scripts our ritualed lives, and Scripture wants to play a formative role in our practices. This requires us to know what kind of ritualed world the biblical authors present to us. If we can hear their voices, we can also critically engage the rites handed to us from our traditions and our culture.

The Voices

Whether or not we are conscious of them, we live out rituals scripted by our societal orbits. “It may be the Devil … or the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” as Bob Dylan says. Often we find ourselves uncritically following the cultural voices that commend our practices by fiat. All of our lives, they’ve whispered to us suggestively, Do this to be that. Many of us have listened and behaved according to that script.

Think with me about some examples. To be more attractive, we trustingly embody fitness and clothing regimens prescribed by health and beauty magazines. You may imagine different clothing and exercise rites than I do, but you certainly think of something, and that image comes from somewhere in our culture.

Out of a desire for the trappings of Western education, we commit ourselves to the rites of university performance (with the best of intentions)—listening to lectures, reading books, writing essays and receiving critique—in order for those ineffable processes to yield insight and discernment.

In order to project stories about ourselves to others, we pay good money for clothes, makeup and scarification rituals. We dress and groom ourselves carefully. And we scar tattoos into our appendages in an effort to capture our culture’s respect—as cool, hip, what have you—in all its evanescence. We’ve been ritualized to use media tools to propagate our curated images of the life we’ve always longed for. But who is scripting these rites, and to what end?

Against the grain of cultural rites that promise the ability to shape our world according to our curated tastes, the biblical prophets insist that it is we who must be shaped by Scripture’s guidance first. That process of being shaped by Scripture’s voice and improvising Scripture’s rituals produces wisdom. And wisdom remains the gold standard of humanity as far as Scripture is concerned.

The biblical authors seem convinced that our understanding of the cosmos is shaped by our ritual practices. We can listlessly float along in a sea of inherited rituals, or we can become discerning practitioners of the rites that shape our vision of reality, of God and of self.

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Excerpted from Human Rites by Dru Johnson. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Copyright 2019. Used by permission.

Dru Johnson
Dru Johnson

Dru Johnson is an associate professor of biblical and theological studies at The King’s College in New York City.