A review of Mark Galli’s book BEYOND SMELLS AND BELLS

(Mark Galli is the senior editor at Christianity Today and will be leading our discipleship weekend at All Saints on November 11-12. The following is a review of Galli’s book Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy). 

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and I’m missing my Anglican church (St. James in Newport Beach, CA). Had I been there this morning, I might have played a role in lighting the Candle of Hope. I’ve been worshiping with the Baptists since I returned home. It’s an incredibly loving congregation right now, which is how it began 30+ years ago. Then there was a church split and then another and another. Anyway, these Baptists love my family and our roots with them are as deep as human roots go. And yet. And yet, I deeply miss the Anglican liturgy.

My “low” church friends sometimes ask me what it is about the “high” church liturgy that I love and miss. I find it difficult to explain, which is where Mark Galli’s latest book, Beyond Smells & Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy comes in. Galli, whose writing I’ve always appreciated for its provocative honesty, gives shape to my thoughts. In describing the mystery that I long for, he writes:

“Worship that doesn’t in some way leave a large space for transcendence and mystery is not fully worship of the God of the Bible, who when asked to name himself—to explain his essence—said rather truculently, ‘I am who I am.’ The liturgy shines in the shadowy place called mystery. But to leave matters here, at the threshold of incomprehensibility, would also be leaving out something. For mystery is both more complicated and understandable than we imagine.”

He then compares the Eucharist to the handshake of a couple major league baseball players that occurred after a game stopping brawl. He says the handshake “conveyed a story—with characters, conflict and resolution.” Every time those two players shake hands, it will always be more than a ritual; it will be a remembrance. Likewise, “The liturgy contains a similar ‘handshake’ at its climax, an outward action that conveys a deeper drama. To some this moment looks like routine ritual, like that handshake might have looked to those who had not heard what had happened a few days earlier. But those with eyes of faith see a mystery opening before them in the liturgy. We call this moment in the liturgy a sacrament, an outward sign of an invisible reality. But it has also been traditionally called a mystery, though not because it is something that baffles us or eludes our understanding. Benedictine writer Jerry Driscoll puts it this way: ‘’The word mystery preserves the tension between the concrete and the divine. Something is definitely present, but what is present exceeds and overflows the limits of the concrete, even if it is present only by means of it. This is mysterious in a way unique to Christian understanding.’ ”

Galli concludes:

“The liturgical handshake—that is, the sharing of bread and wine at the climax of the service—not only recalls something that happened, but re-presents it in a way that makes it a present reality. A minister says words and performs actions, but at a deeper level, it is Christ who is presiding. We share in bread and wine, but the reality is that we are taking Christ into us. It looks like this is all occurring in time and space, when in fact the boundaries of time and space are being shattered, when for a few moments ‘heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.’ When all is said and done, though it may look like we’ve done nothing more than re-enact a routine religious meal, in fact, as the concluding prayer notes, something terribly significant has occurred: ‘You have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the sacrament of his body and blood.’ ”

Beyond Smells & Bells is a short book that breezes along combining Galli’s meditations and metaphors with pieces of the liturgy itself and with the work of theologians. It is not a book for experts, but instead is one for people like me who have returned to the liturgy of their youth and can’t quite explain why. Or, perhaps, for those seeking to understand a family member’s decision to do the same. It could also benefit the spiritually dry, confused or curious.

The Anglican liturgy healed me after years of broken church life, even though my Anglican church and the larger Anglican body was itself broken. For this reason, I especially appreciate and miss the corporate confession of sin that precedes the Eucharist. Even when one has always done their best to act rightly, there is guilt in living through so much failure and more guilt from failure’s inevitable consequences.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Chris Hedges talks about this type of moral ambiguity in a recent interview with The Sun. Discussing topics as diverse (or connected) as war, Fundamentalism and the New Atheists, this son of a Presbyterian minister says, “The world rarely offers us a choice between the moral and the immoral. It’s usually a choice between the immoral and the more immoral. That’s why moral decision making is so tough. Who was more moral in the Warsaw ghetto uprising during World War ii: those people who didn’t join the uprising, because they had children and feared for their safety, or those who led the suicidal fight against the Nazis? You can’t say one was more moral than the other. It depended on who you were. … Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, ‘You make a moral choice, you act, and then you ask for forgiveness.’ That’s a wise statement. You make the choice, because you can’t sit around hemming and hawing forever. You ask forgiveness, because, to quote Paul, ‘We look through a glass darkly.’ What appears moral and good in our eyes may not appear good and moral in the eyes of others, even our friends. No act is absolutely moral or good, because we don’t live in a utopia where we have those absolutes.”

Hedges found healing from his battlefield memories in being a dad. I found it in the liturgy. Affirming the Creed, praying with the Saints and the saints, confessing both sins and ambiguities, passing the peace and being cleansed by the blood of the lamb each week was a powerful, worshipful remedy for me.

Another aspect of the liturgy that I am drawn to and that Galli touches on is its timelessness. He writes, “We have to pay attention to cultural context, no question. The history of the liturgy has been in part about finding words and ritual that help people in a given culture to express their thoughts and feelings to God in ways that makes sense. The liturgy has always had freedom and variety within its basic structure. But it has steadfastly refused to let the culture determine its shape or meaning. Liturgical churches know that as profound a reality as is the surrounding culture, there is an even more profound reality waiting to be discovered. Like Mrs. Haller [an elementary school teacher] did for me, the liturgy gently and calmly gets us to open our eyes to the new reality, showing us the value of the ‘necessary separation’ from the old. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we find our gaze directed away from ourselves and toward God and his kingdom. When we return to our homes, we are never the same.”

When there is little difference between going to church and going to the mall or the movies, God’s holiness and majesty can be diminished in our minds. Familiarity can lull us into complacency. Galli writes that this can happen too with the liturgy, if we’re not careful.

In regard to church buildings, both ordinary and extraordinary, he reminds us: “To be sure, we can worship God anywhere, and the church is not the building but the people. Yet this does not take into account how God normally works in our lives—that is, by revealing himself to us in places, places that become sacred and holy. This is precisely why parishioners become feisty when someone wants to remodel the sanctuary in the least little way. … And why they will fight to the death (or, more precisely, to the debt) to keep their property out of the hands of their wayward denomination. This behavior, which is sometimes described as ‘worldly,’ is ultimately grounded in a biblical understanding of the world—that this planet contains spaces where God meets people. Liturgical churches understand this reality. Thus their healthy addiction to magnificent worship spaces, whose very architecture evokes the reality of God’s presence.”

This very reality is why we eschewed funeral parlors when planning services for our son. They are devoid of meaning, divorced as they are from ordinary life. Our last Christmas worshiping together as a family was at St. James Church. The first service took place there. Trinity Bible Church holds more memories and meaning for our family than most other places on this earth. A service was held there as well. The fact that people have fought over and in these spaces speaks less to me about our corporate failures than it does about the love that transcends failure.

Which brings me to my final point about the liturgy. I’ve met God in churches both “high” and “low.” I’ve met him in nature and elsewhere. The services in “low” churches that I’ve attended generally build up to the preaching of the Word. A man stands at the center of the hour. I’ve benefited from this style … and witnessed the attendant destruction when the man falters or begins “inhaling his own fragrance,” as a friend so aptly put it. Preaching is an integral part of the “high” church liturgy. It is not the climax. When the man fails, the liturgy goes on. There’s humility to this style. So much of preaching is designed to perfect us. It will never be, in this life. Traditional liturgy engages our frail humanity. That’s probably what I love about it most. It is not a spectator sport; it’s a contact sport for sinners.

Galli examines all these issues and more. I commend his book to you as a primer. In the acknowledgements, he thanks those contributors to his blog who helped shape his thought. He’s a sporadic blogger. Just when I think he’s going to begin posting regularly, he goes silent for months on end. Demanding day job, I guess, what with being senior managing editor of Christianity Today and all. Check out this recent post on The Blessings of Everyday Hate. Nobody dared respond. I liked it for the reasons I like this book. It’s provocative, thoughtful and down to earth.

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