The Devil and the Liturgy

It was Henry David Thoreau who said that “life is frittered away by detail.”

I can’t exactly say why this comes to mind this morning. But since it’s out there, now, I suppose what he meant was that it’s very possible for us to travel the vast and winding lanes of our lives spending far too much time concerned over the throwaway minutiae rather than enjoying the actual journey. Perhaps this applies to people, as well. Perhaps the lens of our examination is often focused too finely that we miss the human being for the over-magnified imperfections of the individual.

Perhaps.

In a sense, I think this maxim can be applied to the Church.

As a side to the Gospel of Matthew, I’ve been working through The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis with the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in my theology class on Wednesdays. We’re taking careful steps through the volume. Last week we happened upon a portion of advisory text from the well-experienced demon, Screwtape, to his nephew-demon, Wormwood, which offered, “There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.”

By “the Enemy’s camp,” Screwtape means the Church. He goes on to say, “One of our greatest allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.”

I’ve read the book no less than fifteen times, and so I know where he intends to go with this. Nevertheless, notice the elementary nature of Screwtape’s vantage point. He knows and understands the Church to be a singular entity spanning the entirety of human history and finding itself born from something eternal. His words assume a culture, a language, and way of life that belongs to all believers and not just a few. It isn’t born from any of us in particular, but rather is rooted in Christ and His Word.

In other words, the Church’s identity isn’t the sole property of any one generation, thereby giving it that generation license to change what it looks and sounds like just because it no longer appreciates the details.

Screwtape continues, “But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is…”

It’s from this point forward that Screwtape turns the lesson to the things a Christian might see as flaws in the people sitting in the pews around him, and Screwtape suggests that Wormwood might begin cultivating in his patient the feeling that the Church—the true Church—is nothing more than one giant mechanized establishment of hypocrisy going through the motions.

“I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites!”

Have you ever heard this? It’s certainly not new to me—or most pastors, for that matter. It’s a tired go-to excuse that I hear quite often when chatting with inactive members, and every time I do, I hear the words of Jesus from Mark 2:17 ricocheting in the empty spaces of my feeble mind: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And which of us pastors in such a moment could forget the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14, which begins with the words, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable…”

“I don’t go to church because it’s boring. They do the same thing over and over again.”

Have you heard this one, too? Again, I have. Although, there’s something else worth considering here. Screwtape already hinted to it. There’s a very real difference between Tradition and Traditionalism. I like to think of Tradition as “the living faith of the dead.” It’s the life and culture of the Church unbound by time—just as Screwtape described fearfully. The going-through-the-motions of Traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living.” I suspect that while Screwtape would prefer a Christian not locate himself in a liturgical church because of the possibility of what a liturgy properly understood might ultimately reveal and teach, but if his “patient” must end up there, Traditionalism would be the best he could hope for. He would prefer that the Christian interpret all of the gloriously Gospel-centered words and actions as Traditionalistic, as little more than the mechanically necessary, but soullessly hollow, placating of a deity—just in case that deity is actually real.

That’s dead faith. The demons are just fine with folks going through the motions.

By the way, Traditionalism isn’t owned by the liturgical churches alone. This more than happens in the ones with coffee bars in their narthexes, too. It happens in every church building in every nation across the world.

But steering away from all of this, my interest remains back at Screwtape’s point of origin. It’s quite the calibrating assessment that a demon would surmise that a gathering of worshippers that looks and sounds nothing like the Church of history—a church that shuns the liturgy—is fertile ground for the greatest success among the ranks of the underworld. And why? Well, in the end, the details of personal preference—what I like and dislike—reign supreme in such worship spaces. What makes me happy becomes the standard determiner, and when that happens, Sin is not so easily defined, and if that’s true, then neither is the Gospel remedy. From this, the only result would be that objective truth is obscured and Christian hearts are more easily led into uncertainty.

Don’t lie to yourself. It’s true. People are naturally desperate to chase after what they like. In this case, I’d say it’s how so many in mainstream evangelicalism find room for slandering the Church’s historic liturgy—and guys like me who appreciate it. The liturgy takes Man out of the driver’s seat, while Man wants God as his co-pilot. The liturgy doesn’t steer us where we want to go, but rather where we need to go. From its organic origins in the early house churches, all the way through the centuries, the liturgy has been a means for seeing that the shifting uncertainties of anthropocentric tendency aimed at doom are exchanged for Christocentric truths that establish certainty and save. They’re not just words and motions—rites and ceremonies—but rather they’re Godly contexts born from eternity that keep your eyes on Jesus. Every turn of the liturgy is in place to take the spotlight from you and put it on Christ.

The liturgy isn’t oppressing you. It’s serving you. It’s keeping you from frittering away at the wrong things and missing the point of the reason you’ve come into the presence of Christ at all.

This is why the historic liturgy remains so important, especially today. It’s why words like the following from Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel come to mind as so penetrating:

Thus, the liturgy can be a great gift, haven, and joy to people who live in a society and a world where they can’t be quite sure what things are going to be like five years from now, or whether tomorrow everything will be changed. In a world where everything has gotten to be so transitory and “throw it away tomorrow,” is there anything that they can count on as lasting, that they can be sure will still be there tomorrow, next Sunday, next year, and when they die? The liturgy delivers the answer, “Yes!” Same old liturgy every Sunday. You can count on it like it’s been there for a thousand years and more. When people bump into that in a world where there isn’t anything else they can be sure of like that, there is something real! And so we decline the demands of a consumer society which has to have a new model every year or every week if you’re going to sell. For then you’re talking marketing, and you’re not talking the Church of Christ and the holy liturgy. (“Whose Liturgy Is It?” Logia II 2, [April 1993]: 7.)

Liturgy. Leitourgia. Λειτουργία. This is the word the Bible uses. Jesus participated in liturgy. The Church lived it out in the Book of Acts. Paul encouraged it in his Epistles. He even instructed on how to do it. I guess if the Bible and its central figures are keen to the importance of liturgy, then perhaps we ought to be as well.

I suppose lastly, from the profoundly faithful and deep-thinking mind of C.S. Lewis, it would appear that the demons know the importance of the liturgy, too, and they have a justifiably deep-rooted fear that if we were to somehow come to the realization of its truest benefits, we might actually embrace it and be far harder to catch. We may even demand it of our pastors and defend it in our churches. I mean, which demon losing a patient in this way would want to hear as Wormwood heard from Screwtape: “Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties…”