As we close our Book Symposium on Bruce Ellis Benson’s Liturgy as a Way of Life, Bruce offers another provocative and excellent response to one of our reviewers, Nathaniel Marx. Commenting on highbrow culture, worldview seminars, tradition, and what might be called “petrified rituals” (my words, not his) in liturgy, Bruce reminds us of the value of engaging postmodern and continental thinkers for doing theology and practicing ministry.

If you haven’t already picked up Bruce’s book, I really encourage you to do so! Furthermore, please engage these fine reviewers and Bruce himself in the comments section on any of these posts. They’re more than willing to interact with you.


First, my hearty thanks to Nathaniel Marx! I’ve really enjoyed responding to his provocative comments.

I don’t have any problem relating all that I’ve written in Liturgy as a Way of Life to haute couture; I long ago gave up the idea that there is any real distinction between highbrow and lowbrow art. Indeed, the review of the Ferré show is a stunning example of just how misunderstood improvisation really is! But this is understandable, for most people (still) think of creativity in modern/romantic terms. It might be helpful to issue a moratorium on the very word “creativity” for the next decade.

Marx says that “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.” Quite so. We must not forget that improvisation assumes formation within a tradition by way of repetition. It is like the saying that one must first learn to play by the rules before one is able to break them. A substanceless “reference” to tradition falls more in line with the modern sentiment of autonomy, rather than a legitimate postmodern acknowledgement of tradition. Genuine “reverence” towards tradition is postmodern insofar as it is really premodern. For modernity is—to put it as Harold Bloom does—“the anxiety of influence,” the worry that one isn’t being truly original. Not surprisingly, Hans-Georg Gadamer sees his “postmodern” task as restoring the authority of tradition (probably not what most Christians attending “worldview seminars” are taught about postmodernism). In contrast to Bloom, recognizing the centrality of tradition humanizes a community, enabling it to rediscover its own worth and identity. “Referencing” tradition attempts to assume a guise of humility while still preserving a modern autonomy. Reverence, on the other hand, is not a romantic idealism for a past tradition or way of life, but rather the continuity and living-out of a tradition through what Gadamer terms a “historically-effected consciousness” [wirkungsgeschichtlisches Bewußtsein], which assumes responsibility for the tradition. Taking responsibility for a tradition necessarily implies that one endeavor to develop that tradition improvisationally, for that is how it is lived out in time and culture. That is why the challenge of intensive liturgy is to “keep the repetition fresh.” Picasso had a saying: “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.” Sterility, ultimately, is the danger of traditionalism. Ironically, a sterile application of tradition through repetition (copying oneself) is self-defeating, for it corrodes the life of the tradition within society. It must be lived out anew every day. Thus, true faithfulness to tradition is constituted by “fresh” improvisation. Marx quite rightly describes tradition well as a “wellspring,” since it is not a chain that weighs us down, but rather the ground which constitutes us and on which we find ourselves.

We are both shaped by tradition and shaping that tradition at every moment. We shouldn’t believe people either when they claim they are going off into the unknown or when they claim they are simply “repeating” what is already there.