In our final review of the Symposium of Bruce Ellis Benson’s Liturgy as a Way of Life, Nathaniel Marx approaches Benson’s book from a different angle, engaging him and his argument with a unique cultural phenomenon that seems at first glance far away from Benson’s topic. But Marx’s cultural exegesis proves just as good as Benson’s and brings this phenomenon easily into conversation with his work, showing as Benson would argue just how much every way of life comes under the topic of liturgy.

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Reference Without Reverence?

In Liturgy as a Way of Life, Bruce Ellis Benson provides a deft critique of the modern discourse of art, showing that the solitary figure of the “creative genius” fashioning beautiful objects ex nihilo is the relatively recent invention of Romanticism and Kantian aesthetics. He distinguishes “improvisation” from “creation” in a way that offers a helpful vocabulary for acknowledging and celebrating the traditional and communal character of artistic creation, of liturgical prayer, and of the Christian life as a whole.

The world of haute couture is not a major focus of Benson’s deconstructive effort, but I would like to share an example of the contemporary discourse of art that I stumbled across in a runway review while I was preparing this book review. The Financial Times fashion editor panned a 2008 show by the fashion house of Gianfranco Ferré, its first since the death of its eponymous founder. The designers billed the collection as an “homage to the brand’s creator,” but the reviewer thinks they have committed the sin of rehashing the founder’s designs, “as though the team was going through the motions of re-imagining a garment” instead of recognizing that “in fashion, as in politics, every once in a while you need to turn the page.” Worse, this failure of imagination is “rendered rather painfully obvious” by two “terrific” collections from houses that have allowed their signature styles to be “transformed” by new creative directors. “This ability to nod to a brand’s heritage while creating it—to reference without reverence” is the virtue that Ferré’s design team sorely needed. The reviewer concludes, “It’s one thing to play with someone else’s history, after all; another thing entirely to inherit it.”[1]

I quote at length from this fashion review in order to introduce an additional layer of complexity into Benson’s already subtle analysis of the relationship between improvisation and tradition. As he illustrates with particular reference to jazz music, the two are by no means opposed. “To be able to improvise means one is steeped in a particular tradition (whether jazz or the blues or Baroque music) and knows how to respond to the call of other improvisers” (41). While it may be possible—sometimes even necessary—for an artist to “turn the page” of the tradition in which she has been steeped, it remains true that her contribution can never be absolutely original. Her response to other improvisers sharing the same tradition “is always both a repetition and an innovation” (43).

Perhaps some of the “culturati” that Benson mentions would refuse to credit the artist’s inescapable debt to tradition, but that doesn’t seem to be our fashion reviewer’s perspective, exactly. After all, she acknowledges a certain responsibility to the history that an artist inherits from the founders of a tradition.[2] Responsible heirs are both permitted and expected to “reference” the work of their forebears even as they “re-imagine” and “transform” it. They are commended for offering “homage” to the founder of the tradition through their own improvisations; it’s just that their offerings must avoid the sort of slavish imitation that the reviewer calls “reverence.” Genuine artists can re-use old ideas, designs, and techniques—it’s inevitable, really. But reverence—that’s for weak-minded sycophants and risk-averse drones. By contrast, it takes gumption and more than a little audacity to believe that one can update a classic without ruining it. Benson cites numerous examples of artists, real and fictional, whose virtue is that they will risk accusations of betrayal and irreverence precisely in order to extend and invigorate a tradition. The pattern that Igor Stravinsky, Vincent Van Gogh, and Asher Lev follow is not so much that of Kant’s isolated, godlike genius as it is that of Goethe’s Faust, who tells himself, “What you have as heritage, take now as task; for thus will you make it your own!”[3]

Jaroslav Pelikan often cited this quote both to vindicate tradition in the eyes of its modern detractors and to emphasize tradition’s living character. According to his well-known distinction, “tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”[4] Now I doubt that the late, great church historian would use the word “reverence” in the negative way that our fashion reviewer does, but they appear to be criticizing the same thing: a way of repeating the work of one’s ancestors that amounts to nothing more than being stuck in the past—a dead traditionalism that gives tradition a bad name. Both, in a sense, are trying to correct the misunderstanding of tradition as mere repetition of the past. Benson points us to several helpful resources for making the same point, including Jean-Louis Chrétien’s analysis of “call and response” (35-39), Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion of “play” (78), Jacques Derrida’s “iterability” (148), and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s description of “homage” (44-45). These giants of postmodern thought are summoned to help answer the crucial question, “How should we think of this mélange of sameness and difference, a repetition that is not merely a repetition but also a development?” (44).

This may be the most important question that Benson’s book raises, for it seems that the truly contentious issue is not whether our improvisations will be grounded in tradition, but how this continuity with tradition will be expressed and perceived. I suspect that most readers will readily agree that a certain jazz lick, fashion design, or liturgical rite “can constantly be transformed improvisationally and yet have enough ‘sameness’ to have a continued identity” (45). On the one hand, transformation is an unavoidable implication of performance, and it “should come as no surprise” that even the most tightly “scripted” liturgy “is constantly being reshaped and performed anew” (140). On the other hand, sameness and repetition are essential components of formation in a particular tradition of performance, so much so that the most “spontaneous” jazz musicians are actually the ones who put the most work into cultivating a habitus. Through repetitive study and practice, they become “part of the institution of jazz, which exists as a regulative institution that shapes and forms us” (40-41). As a theory of artistic and liturgical practice, none of this should be controversial. When it comes to determining the types and degrees of sameness and transformation involved in a particular tradition of practice, however, there will certainly be disagreement, misunderstanding, and conflict, including among the many heirs of the Christian tradition.

Undoubtedly, Benson understands this, and he is commendably even-handed in discussing the particular strengths and potential weaknesses of more or less “spontaneous” or “scripted” approaches to worship (137-41). For Christians who may have thought that their worship and their lives are “nonliturgical,” Benson’s book is a lucid and engaging invitation to assume the task of extending the liturgical tradition that is their rightful heritage. Toward Christians who take a more “high church” or “smells and bells” approach to liturgy, Benson ultimately sounds a more cautionary note, warning that their worship “can become simply ‘repetitive’ in the sense of being mechanical and done mindlessly” (141). Since he admits that his “own preference in worship is rather high church Anglican/Episcopalian” (14), this would seem to be an exemplary instance of critical reflection on his own community’s practice.

Still, I think another word could be said on behalf of repetition—even repetition of the sort that our fashion reviewer criticizes for exaggerated “reverence.” In the interest of understanding an approach to liturgy rather different from my own preference, I have been interviewing Roman Catholics attached to the “traditional” (i.e. pre-Vatican II) Latin Mass. For them, “reverence” is a watchword, and “innovation” is typically a naughty word. Not surprisingly, they are accused of the kind of “traditionalism” that Pelikan criticizes as “dead.” If they emphasize repetition more than innovation, however, it is not only because they find something “deeply connective,” as Benson says, “in praying a prayer that has been prayed by believers for many, even hundreds of years” (152). They also find praying the “same” prayer over and over again deeply formative. The liturgy becomes a way of life for them not in spite of its repetitive character, but because of it. Through repeated practice, they acquire a habitus that enables them to place their gifts at the service of divine worship. For instance, here is how one of my interviewees speaks about learning to sing Gregorian chant:

I got to the singing faster than the theory, but that’s just responding to talent, to the raw material that God puts together. He gives you talent, then you can respond towards that. But it was just forming a habit, and forming a habit takes a lot of practice and continual practice. So for four years I had two practices a week in chant and then Mass on Sunday, but then also—reinforcing—Vespers on Sunday, Compline on Tuesday, Thursday was Benediction, Saturday was Benediction. So I mean it was part of our life.

This seems remarkably similar to the way in which jazz musicians cultivate the ability to improvise well, to “join in something that is always already in progress,” and to pay a kind of “homage” to their predecessors (40-45).

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that repeated exposure to Gregorian chant is the only way for the liturgy to become a way of life. Nor would I wish to reduce “reverence” to “repetition.” On the contrary, one could argue that nothing is more “reverent” than assuming responsibility for a tradition and improvising an extension of it in a way that no previous artist has imagined. And when it comes to extending the church’s liturgical tradition, I will be the first to declare “reverent” the imaginative kinds of improvisation that take place in the congregations that frame Benson’s book.[5] Yet it would be unfortunate if, having been convinced that genuine creativity is always grounded in a tradition that precedes us, we nevertheless allowed a more subtle (postmodern?) discourse of art to persuade us that we can “reference” that tradition without the reverence that comes with long, repeated use of the “same” music, gestures, and poetry that generations of Christians have offered in humble prayer before their Creator. Since Benson’s book is finally about formation—“the way we become living pieces of art” (156)—I would not want to conclude my appreciation of it without amplifying this point about the “intensive liturgy” that we celebrate each Sunday. The “challenge of intensive liturgy” is “to keep the repetition fresh so that it almost seems to be the first performance” each time we come together (141). But freshness is no more our creature than tradition is. It too is a gift, one that we receive by returning—repeatedly—to the wellspring of tradition and above all to “Jesus himself who imbues these simple things with such significance” (154).

Nathaniel Marx is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame. His dissertation, “Ritual in the Age of Authenticity: An Ethnography of Latin Mass Catholics,” is based on three years of fieldwork in four Roman Catholic communities that celebrate Mass according to books issued before the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council.


[1] Vanessa Friedmann, “A Lesson in Reference Without Reverence,” Financial Times, February 20, 2008, 16.

[2] If you don’t ordinarily dignify clothing lines by describing them as “artistic traditions,” I suggest reading Benson’s critique of distinctions such as highbrow vs. lowbrow, fine art vs. popular art, and genius artist vs. craftsman laborer. Additionally, Benson’s thought-provoking discussion of copyright law, ownership of “cultural property,” and fair compensation for artistic work makes it difficult to pretend that traditions of musical, visual, or architectural creation are somehow unsullied by the economic calculations and transactions that influence fashion design. In fact, the current debate in the United States over whether or not fashion designs should enjoy copyright protection (currently, they do not, but bills proposing it have been introduced in Congress) provides an excellent illustration of Benson’s point that individual ownership of creative works may serve neither the individual artist’s interest in fair compensation nor society’s interest in creative innovation. For an economic analysis of these issues, see Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] Quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 82.

[4] Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, 65.

[5] I am familiar with both St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church in Chicago and St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. The latter community is the subject of a forthcoming dissertation by my colleague, Glenn Brown.