Dru Johnson: Human Rites

Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments
(Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019)

WHO: Dru Johnson, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at The King’s College in New York.

HE SAYS: “With improvisation on the rise, we need to separate in our minds the rituals required across Scripture from the church rituals springing up and cobbled together by local Christians, and then examine these two kinds of rituals closely.”

THE BIG IDEA: The goal of this book is to equip readers to answer such questions as “Which rituals do we already embody?” “Why do we practice those rites and not others?” “Who or what prescribes these rituals to us?” and “Should we change them (and if so, how)?”

Part 1, “Our Ritualed World,” defines ritual, looks at religious rituals and explains how these habits can shape our lives. Part 2, “Our Ritual Guides,” looks at how scripts dictate our lives.
In Part 3, “When Rites Go Wrong,” the author explores what happens when we develop bad habits, such as addictions, and when Christian rituals diverge from their biblical meaning. Part 4, “Rituals in Christian Religion,” takes on the sacraments we practice—or don’t practice—where their meaning comes from and what that says about our faith.

“It’s not quite right to say rituals surround us. Instead we are ritualed creatures, designed to understand everything from microbiology to statistical models to the emotions of others through ritual performance.”

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In doing your research, were you surprised by rituals people still follow? If so, which ones surprised you?

On one hand, the most bizarre ritual Christians do is communion, and Jesus was aware of this too (John 6:53–60). I often remind people that if you invite friends to church and don’t warn them about the cannibalistic-sounding ritual ahead of time, you’re not a very good friend. But it’s also the most beautiful of rituals we do as Christians, uniting us in our trust of God, our loves, our bodies and with the whole church throughout the world and history. On the other hand, I am most often surprised that people cannot connect communion with any of their other eating rites, such as fad diets. We embody many eating rituals every day, often prescribed by advertising agencies and food distributors, yet we never think of them as scripted rituals and so we unquestioningly embody them without a thought as to how this is shaping our understanding of the gospel, God, ourselves and reality itself.

What are some overlooked practices that you wish Christians would still observe?

The church throughout history has ritually practiced service to the vulnerable in our cities and towns. I cannot help but think that it negatively impacts our reading of the gospel to neglect these improvised rites of service. The habitual and generous giving of our energies (and sometimes money) to those who are struggling might be the single biggest game-changer in understanding the kingdom of God that has come through us. It’s prescribed throughout the Torah, reinforced by the prophets of Israel and defined as the characteristic of those who will enter the age of resurrection in the Gospels.

But I would also want to mention other practices that I see waning, formerly considered necessary: meeting with our brothers and sisters weekly, confession of sin, the public reading of Scripture and more of similar kinds. These rites all offer such small and under-appreciated guidance in our lives, most of which can only be appreciated in the rearview mirror. In the book, I quote Martin Buber’s difficult saying, “All journeys have a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.” If that’s true, it’s only at points of arrival that we appreciate all the digressions, stops and hill climbs advocated to us by those in-the-know.

What are some examples of some rites that are unhealthy?

Every good gift of God can be ritualized for ill. We see lazy rituals all around, such as falling back into ever-more-meaningless Christianese in our prayers. Addictive rituals consume young and old alike today: smartphones, video games (which are just as socially addictive as Instagram or Twitter with their chat capabilities), and the usual suspects like cigarettes and other chemicals we slavishly inject. I would also to single out flimsy rituals that parrot good rites, turning them into more palatable versions for the masses: think of preachers who speak with no real biblical shape to their sermons.

Dru Johnson
Dru Johnson

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