In previous posts I’ve thought about the ways in which Farah Mendlsohn’s work on fantasy fiction might be useful for discussing first the theology of C.S. Lewis’ and J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction, and then the Biblical texts and their narrative shapes. Her description of some fantasy as “portal” in nature and others as “immersive”, whilst others were “liminal” or “intrusive”, seemed to me to offer an incisive language for theological and literary discussion, and for seeing where our reading of the Bible might intersect with our reading of other texts. This was prompted by a regular reader of the blog, who asked shrewdly:
As we encounter Scripture in the liturgy, and in preaching, do we do so as if it were a portal, or an immersive encounter? And how might your answer to that shape how you approach preparing a sermon?
In framing a response – if not a satisfactory answer! – to this, I considered which of the New Testament texts might show a tendency towards “portal” fantasy (Revelation and John’s Gospel) and which fitted an “immersive” model better (Mark’s Gospel in particular.) Going on to think about how we encounter them in liturgy and preaching will involve extending these categories a little, and bearing in mind that the texts themselves might display a variety of orientations.
Mendleson’s concept of a series of “shells” as a way of distinguishing where a reader is situated in relation to the fictional world seems helpful here: does the text progress as if we are sitting within the same shell as the characters (more immersive) or a shell outside them (portal). I think that, speaking generally, more liturgical worship tends towards the former. Obviously “more liturgical” is a fraught term, since any conscious arrangement of Christian worship may be considered liturgical. But the feeling that immersive fantasy provides, of being within the shell of the mystery, and of speaking and reacting as if on the same plane as the events within the text, seems to cohere with the characteristics which often mark out “liturgical” from “non-liturgical” worship.
So the exchange of statement and response between minister and congregation, when it adheres to a rubric, often feels immersive to me. Thus:
“The Lord be with you”
“And with thy spirit”
feels more “immersive” than:
“Good morning, everyone. How are you all? Ready to worship the Lord?”
This isn’t a matter simply of which tradition the service is happening within, or the age of church and congregation, incidentally. The relatively modern language of “Though we are many, we are one body/ Because we all share in one bread” is still more immersive than “Good evening and welcome to the cathedral, please find the first hymn in the red hymn book on page 237, and please refer to the Book of Common Prayer for the set elements of the service.” Trendy and electric worship can be liturgical and immersive, and old and archaic worship can have the rhetoric of the portal.
What seems to be at stake, in my reading of it, is the deixis involved: the quality of “pointing” or “pointing out” which some language partakes in. In linguistic terms this is associated with words like “here”, “me”, those”, and so on which require contextual information to make sense because they actually point to things in the situation in which they are spoken. To say “these” or “those” presupposes that the listener can see or know which collections of things we mean. This can also be phrased as indexicality, the quality of pointing to things, and extended beyond strictly linguistic categories. Non-immersive worship seems to me to lean very heavily on this deictic function, and to be often pointing to things. “Right, let’s pick up the blue booklets you’ll find on your chairs, and say together the words on page nine…”; “We’re now going to pray, and we’re going to ask God to…”; “This is the service where we like to…”
It’s easy to parody (and I hope I haven’t done so), but this is an essential part of the language of many services. On a practical level, it’s how we navigate the service and ensure that everyone knows what is going on and on a theological level, it’s how we reflect on what the things going on might mean. (A religion which believes it has good news to share surely has a strong interest in the indexical function, of pointing out and guiding.) And this doesn’t only happen when we’re talking about service booklets or using modern language and adding the occasional “well now” or “we just” in between the clauses. The Book of Common Prayer instructs the Minister at one point to say:
Dearly beloved, on Sunday next I purpose, through God’s assistance, to administer to such as shall be religiously and devoutly disposed the most comfortable Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ
And during the service the “comfortable words” are declared, with introductory lines which explicitly points to the quotations from Scripture to follow, and suggests how the congregation should interpret them:
Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him… Hear also what Saint Paul saith… Hear also what Saint John saith…
These have the same indexical quality as “We always have Communion on the fourth Sunday in the month, and you know, I think before we say the words in the pewsheet, we should take some time to really think about what they mean…” They may be phrased more ringingly, and archaically, but they carry out more or less the same function.
The counterpart to this indexical language is what I would roughly term performative language. Instead of creating separation by pointing, annotating or explaining, this language draws us closer to the mystery by participation, declaration and recitation. When a cantor sings verses of a Psalm, and the congregation replies with words from that same Psalm, this kind of engagement is taking place. It is also strongly present when the priest declares:
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, happy are those who are called to his supper.”
And the congregation and priest both say:
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
This mode of speech and action seems to me to line up with Mendlesohn’s “immersive” mode. We do not explain things to each other, we do not point at things and articulate them, instead we repeat (often ancient) words. They are often quotations, which adds to the performative quality: in the example above, the priest’s first line is adapted from the words of John the Baptist by the Jordan, and the second line draws on the words of the centurion pleading for his servant (with an implication of the Syrophoenecian woman’s complaint hanging between them.) We both recite the words of others and mean them ourselves drawing us further into the narratives and the mysteries which surround us in liturgical worship.
So these are the main ways I think we might use the categories of “portal” and “immersive” to think about the modes of engagement and the language we experience in church services. The indexical, explanatory language fits with the rhetoric of portal fantasy, and the performative, citational language fits with the rhetoric of immersive fantasy. Both with be needed at times, and both are productive and legitimate ways to engage with Biblical texts and Scriptural quotations within worship.
Indeed I think there are moments surrounding the Bible in church when one mode of engagement is deliberately parlayed into the other. When the reader declares “Hear the Gospel of our Lord according to…” before reading, and the congregation replies “Glory be to you, O Lord”, and then again after the reading when the reader declares “This is the Gospel of the Lord” and the reply comes “Praise be to you, O Christ”, I hear this pivot taking place. The reader speaks indexically, assuming that they occupy the same space as the listener, and marking out the text to be read as something separate from that space. “This is…”
But the congregation rely in a mode which denies that distance, ignoring the reader and replying instead to the Lord whose word is revealed in the Scriptures. In normal conversation it would be rather rude, but here it is a reverent and ritualized speaking past the person who opened the exchange, as the congregation speaks as people who have been drawn into the spiritual realities which the text opens up, and people who are in the presence of the Lord to whom the book refers.
When it comes to preaching, I’m not sure how these categories might affect the preacher’s preparations. Certainly it could inform their awareness of what mode the Gospel text speaks about God in, and how that affects its theology. They might also feel it appropriate to match their preaching rhetoric to the overall rhetoric of the service so far. It might seem over-intense and obscure to launch into an immersive and mystical tirade after a distanced and portal-style set of readings and hymns, and it might seem dry or patronising to emphasize an indexical and explicatory mode after a service which has drawn the worshippers further and further into the same mental world as the characters in the Gospel.
Alternatively, a preacher might use their mode to balance the tendency of the readings. A very allusive and dense set of Bible passages might be helped by a slightly distanced handling, which allowed the congregation to recognise the distance between the narrative and their own lives, in order to better see how they might connect, and what theological “message” might be offered by the narrative. A very expository Bible passage might be better understood after a sermon which used an immersive style to draw the congregation into the emotional and intellectual world of the writer, and to feel the spiritual and historical impulses which gave rise to an apparently straightforward set of religious statements. The preacher might throw their own rhetoric outwards to balance the tendency of the Biblical material, allowing both kinds of engagement to happen within the same service.
So I’m afraid my conclusions are a bit inconclusive – I may well have a better feel for the practical implications once I’ve started preaching. But this has allowed me to think through a lot of what the Biblical texts do in church services, and how we interact with them. Many thanks again to the reader for posing this question, and to you all for indulging me in thinking in through!