When I tell my kids to do something and they ask me “why?” my response is so often: “Because I said so!” I know intuitively that what I’m asking my kids to do is good for them, even if I don’t have a systematic explanation ready to give.
The same is true of the church. Ministers encourage and exhort their congregation to attend worship gatherings and develop a strong sense of community because we know it is good and important, but we often struggle to find adequate explanations other than “because God said so!”
Richard Valantasis’ new book, Dazzling Bodies: Rethinking Spirituality and Community Formation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), offers a way of looking at Christian communities and their worship in particular as a theological culture that helps to make sense of why we do the things we do. The framework Valantasis provides culminates in an insightful understanding of spirituality that is grounded in communal identity and practice.
The first chapter draws from anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture as “the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action,” and, “an ordered system of meaning and of symbols in terms of which social interaction takes places” (Dazzling Bodies, 4). Valantasis suggests that the church embodies a theological culture that attempts to integrate and dialogue with the various cultural systems people inhabit.
The next three chapters draw on the field of semiotics to introduce the idea of communication as the engine of culture. Valantasis explores the dynamics of the “bodies” people inhabit—personal, social, and corporate—along with concepts like communal narratives, power, and solidarity to show how culture is made through a process of determining not only ‘what’ is said, but how it is said, who is allowed to say it, and how the community responds to and engages what is said. Valantasis identifies a church’s worship (its liturgy) as the definitive and comprehensive place where its communal identity is communicated and formed.
The fifth chapter pulls together these “diagnostic tools,” as Valantasis calls them, under a theory of asceticism. Valantasis understands asceticism as a process of personal and communal resistance to a dominant culture and identity, and the development of an alternative culture and identity. The final chapter provides a set of vignettes drawn from Valantasis’ own ministerial experience as examples illustrating his theoretical framework in practice.
The major theme that runs throughout these chapters is that the rituals, habits, and practices of Christians are the communication of a church’s culture; they are ways of listening, interpreting and responding to the “fabric of meaning” embodied in a church’s own communications: it’s teachings, music, history, and symbols. The theological culture of a church establishes a communal identity framed by common practices and beliefs. Thus, spirituality can never be an isolated experience because it is the product of a community. Any spirituality practiced in isolation is both naïve and anemic because it divorces a set of practices and beliefs from the communal roots that sustain these practices and beliefs.
Valantasis provides his reader with a compelling and practical vision for ministerial practice. The book, however, has two weaknesses (besides having a title somewhat risky to search for on the Internet). First, in his effort to emphasize the church as a cohesive theological culture, Valantasis fails to devote enough attention to the means by which a theological culture can and should grow and perhaps be transformed.. Valantasis’ anthropological focus on the church as a stable cultural system does not attend to the need for any given church to resist theological complacency and stasis.
Second, a quick look at Valantasis’ bibliography reveals that he is not interested in engaging the abundant literature on ministerial practice and spiritual formation. Although Valantasis brings fresh resources to bear, particularly anthropology and sociology, it would be helpful to dialogue with existing theories of ministry. Instead, Valantasis tends towards shadowboxing a set of assumptions that exist in some form or fashion among Christians as a whole, but not common among those who have given these subjects critical thought.
These weaknesses, however, are omissions noted by a reader intrigued by Valantasis’ fresh perspective, who wants to explore these ideas further. When I come back to the question of the purpose and meaning of church activities, especially worship, this book provides compelling answers. Worship is where our theological culture is defined and communicated. Valantasis writes
[M]ost dynamics of a [church] find their expression in one form or another in the community’s worship. . . . In worship one not only sees the individuals but glimpses the corporate identity; the community’s life as a whole. . . . I cannot imagine a situation in a [church’s] life that does not break into and affect the liturgy as a sign of its life (xii-xiii).
The church as a whole, and it’s worship in particular, is the space where all of our individual narratives become enveloped together into the story of God, and out of which the habits and practices of our life draw their meaning and vitality. Our spirituality is a product of a our common identity established and sustained by the culture of the community that we call ‘church.’