Book Review - Liturgy of the Ordinary
By Scott Hughes
Mundane, routine, and unspiritual. For many, I know, those words describe how their everyday life feels. They hope for more, but due to the pace of life and the quality of life they are seeking to maintain or achieve, a life of meaning and a closer connection with God seems reserved for pastors and monks. But it is those moments that seem ordinary, routine, and unsacred that are ripe with opportunity. That’s the takeaway from Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.
Warren, an Anglican priest, examines the mundane struggles that we inevitably encounter on a daily basis and connects daily liturgy with Sunday liturgy. While such an inspection could lead a book to come across as preachy, Warren’s book, instead, is a candid, yet principled look at a normal day with its moments that reveal our brokenness and daily circumstances that invite us toward abundance.
Warren chronicles her daily routines to uncover how those serve as formational liturgy. She connects our weekly worship liturgy, “a ritualized way of worship” (no matter how high or informal a church you attend, there is a rhythm that constitutes a liturgy) with our daily routines and activities that are more formative than our Sunday liturgy. She rightly notes the purpose of the Sunday liturgy, “[to] teach us a particular idea of the good life, and we are sent out into our week as people who bear out that vision in our workaday world” (31). However, our everyday habits often form us with a different aim or vision of the good life. Warren builds on a question from the work of James K. A. Smith, “What kind of people is our liturgy forming us to be?” (31). Thus, Warren seeks to uncover how her daily activities shape her for a life lived in God’s presence.
Warren is brutally honest with the readers. She writes, “I’m a pacifist who yells at her husband” (76). Such candor makes the book relatable, and her critiques and insights more palpable. She observes that “in contemporary America…daily formation is often at odds with our formation in Word and sacrament” (73). It is no wonder then that too often and for too many of us, the sacraments in worship come off as irrelevant and the sermon as dry. Perhaps it is not the fault of worship or the sermon, but our lack of formation. Warren’s exploration is revealing of her faults, which gives us the safety to examine our own routines. While mostly descriptive, Liturgy of the Ordinary is prescriptive at times, giving us a way of recovering practices that might help us live into what our worship and sacraments teach.
Im a pacifist who yells at her husband
While I share a life stage (parent) and career (pastor) with the author, the daily habits she discusses will resonate with most readers. Like the author, many of our morning routines begin with the “digital caffeine” of checking our smartphones. What makes Warren’s book so beneficial is taking these observations and then connecting them with how these habits form us in ways we might be unaware. “How I spend this ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life” (24).
An example comes from chapter five, “Eating Leftovers,” which she uses to contemplate justice issues. “Despite what a culture of consumerism may lead me to believe, my leftovers are not theologically neutral” (70). By contrast, “the economy of the Eucharist calls me to a life of self-emptying worship” (72).
Though some connections might be novel for some, many times Warren voices moments of reflection that we’ve all probably pondered. While attempting to enjoy a cup of tea, she’s trying not to be distracted by the many chores clamoring for her attention. She considers, “Tea and an empty hour can feel frivolous or frittering. I feel guilty about not doing something more important with my time, like laundry or balancing the checkbook or meeting my neighbors or working or volunteering or serving the poor” (136).
The real benefit to Warren’s work is in exposing how we can and should be theologically reflective about the life we are called to live without romanticizing that call. I knew this book was for me when I read the title of chapter 4, “Losing Keys,” and chapter 8, “Sitting in Traffic.” For me, such moments are when I am tempted to seek an escapist attitude and believe that I could be more holy if I didn’t have to bother with these sorts of activities. But Warren’s observation is biting, “We tend to want a Christian life with the dull bits cut out” (22). She reinforces what I believe, but not what I want. I want sanctification that happens instantly. But what we believe as Wesleyans is that sanctification occurs through the daily stuff of life, when connected to who we are called be through our baptism and Communion liturgy.
We tend to want a Christian life with the dull bits cut out
Warren is even able to note what our sleep rituals reveal: “Our sleep habits both reveal and shape our lives. A decent indicator of what we love is that for which we willingly give up sleep” (142). Thus, she confesses, “My disordered sleep reveals a disordered love, idols of entertainment or productivity” (142).
The critiques the author offers are not cynical, but reveal how our habits –as a church and as individuals – misform us for kingdom living. She writes,” I worry that when our gathered worship looks like a rock show or an entertainment special, we are being formed as consumers - people after a thrill and a rush - when what we need is to learn a way of being-in-the-world that transforms us, day by day, by the rhythms of repentance and faith” (34-35). Reflecting on how our dietary habits relate to our desires and the church’s consumer-based program model, she says, “The contemporary church can, at times, market a kind of ‘ramen noodle’ spirituality. Faith becomes a consumer product - it asks little of us, affirms our values, and promises to meet our needs, but in the end it’s just a quick fix that leaves us gluten and malnourished” (69). And again, “I am either formed by the practices of the church into a worshiper who can receive all of life as a gift, or I am formed, inevitably, as a mere consumer, even a consumer of spirituality” (69).
As biting as her critiques might be, she articulates a reality that is desperately needed: “Biblically, there is no divide between ‘radical’ and ‘ordinary’ believers” (84). While a consumerist society that dulls our senses might shape us into desiring an “edgy faith,” Warren proclaims, “the kind of spiritual life and disciplines needed to sustain the Christian life are quiet, repetitive, and ordinary” (35).
Biblically, there is no divide between radical and ordinary believers
I highly recommend this book to church leaders and laity alike. This book includes discussion questions and suggested practices for each chapter, making it great for groups. If you have a class or are in a class looking for book to connect spirituality and the everyday, I think this book is a great starting point.
Though not explicitly Wesleyan, this book fits seamlessly with Wesley’s ideas of building holy tempers. Warren has done the church a great service by reflecting on her implicit liturgy for all to learn from and become more aware of how to live a sanctified life.