Worship, the body and symbolic action by ‘Adam’s Navel’


This is a really fabulous post from Sally over at adam’s navel.  Enjoy.

Worship, the body and symbolic action

As part of the 5pm service I’m involved in, we regularly feature some form of experiential worship activity. For example, in a service on the Holy Spirit, we took four large electric fans, set them up facing each other, and laid out a circle of red tea-light candles to connect them (red apparently being the HS’s favourite colour). At the appropriate time, we turned on the fans and invited participants to step one by one into the circle to experience the Spirit /wind / breath of God (the word for Spirit, wind and breath being the same in Hebrew and in Greek). You can see some more examples of these activities here.

So far, no one has asked for a theological justification for experiential worship. But in the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15, here are two reasons why I believe this style of church is thoroughly biblical.

The significance of the body

Experiential worship activity is a vindication of the theological significance of the body. We are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Strength in this context means force of will rather than physical force, but the repetition of four terms “heart”, “soul”, “mind” and “strength” is designed to communicate “the whole person”, of which the body is an essential element. And unlike the ancient Greeks, whose thinking is still so influential in the Western tradition, the Hebrews had no conception of the human person as divided into body and soul – to be human is to be a unified, embodied, physical-and-spiritual whole.

This understanding can be seen as receiving God’s theological endorsement in the incarnation. God becomes human, fully human. Contrary to the claims of the Docetists, Jesus’ physicality wasn’t an illusion, but the real thing. He got hungry and thirsty, tired and sad, and he suffered and died. He also tended to the bodily needs of others – indeed, he drew little if any distinction between physical and spiritual when it came to his work of healing and restoration (see Mark 2:1-11 where healing a paralysed man and forgiving his sins are presented as two aspects of the one act).

Throughout the New Testament, the body continues to be a powerful metaphor for the church (eg 1 Cor 12:12-27), a complex of meanings incorporating mutual interdependence and respect, diversity of gifts, service of Christ and even a sense of incorporation into the Godhead.

The rediscovery of symbolic acton

As well as a vindication of the body, interactive worship is also heir to the tradition of symbolic action seen in the prophets of the Old Testament and in the ministry of Jesus.

Jeremiah smashes a pottery jug  (Jer 19 ff.) as a prediction of the ruin that will come to Judah and Jerusalem because of national apostasy (the Hebrew words for “ruin” and “jug” sound similar – God seems to go in for this kind of wordplay).

Thousands of years before Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Ezekiel fills his living room with a scale model, not of Devils Tower National Monument, but the walls of Jerusalem under siege (Ezekiel 4 ff.).

Prophetic action can be messy. It may also make people think you are crazy.

The prophet then acts out the tragic coming fate of the people, sympathetically bearing their sins and living on the culturally unclean and rationed food that would be theirs in exile.

Theologian N. T. Wright finds strong similarities between these actions and Jesus’ inauguration of the meal of the church at the Last Supper. Such combinations of violent action and commentary, he says, “carry prophetic power, effecting the events (mostly acts of judgment) which are then to occur.” (Quoted in Melvin Tinker, “Last Supper / Lord’s Supper: More Than a Parable in Action?” Themelios 26:2.).

While I wouldn’t place being blasted by electic fans on the level of Holy Communion, such worship acts certainly share a common thread with Jesus and his OT antecendents. Experiential worship may not be prophetic in the sense of foretelling the future, but they can be extremely prophetic in the more biblical sense of fourth-telling what is going on in the present. In this way, they have more in common with the creative actions and symbols encountered in contemporary political protest than those at a typical church – which seems a darn shame.

A tank has become the victim of guerilla knitters.A tank has become the victim of guerilla knitters. Can we imagine a worship equivalent?

Symbolic worship can also give powerful voice to what is going on in the heart of the worshipper – often moving participants to tears. These acts gain much of their power by speaking though the silent language of the body, or through other pre-linguistic, intuitive means such as art.

Tomorrow evening we’re exploring Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

We’re got paper bags to hold our “burdens” and balloons to float them off to Jesus in “Heaven”. Can’t wait.

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