The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography

I’m not going to offer a full review of Alan Jacobs’ fine little book on the BCP. It’s well-written, engaging, and informative. He directed my attention to people and research of which I was unaware, or barely aware. Most importantly, he doesn’t get bogged down in detail which to me is the great bane of every liturgical scholar. It’s a book I’ll recommend to a certain kind of inquirer, someone interested in liturgy, history, and spirituality, and curious about how we got where we are.

Instead, I’d like to point to several points Jacobs makes that I find especially interesting. For one thing, he stresses the importance of scripture to the Book of Common Prayer:

Indeed, one could argue that Cranmer’s chief reason for implementing standard liturgies was to provide a venue in which the Bible could be more widely and more thoroughly known (p. 27)

The important role of scripture in Anglican liturgy should be obvious to anyone who has attended a service conducted according to the BCP rubrics. Whether hearing so much scripture actually contributes to wider and more thorough knowledge of the Bible is another question, especially when the primary opportunity to explain what people have heard, the sermon, is often an exercise in avoidance of scripture.

In his “biography,” Jacobs reminds us of the early battles over the prayer book, its relative insignificance for much of England’s population during the 18th century (and before). It may have been popular among the elite, and Jacob cites Jane Austen in support of that notion, but given what we know about literacy and church attendance in the 18th century, it couldn’t have been widely familiar to everyone. It reached the height of its influence in the nineteenth century, the Victorian Age, even as cultural change was promising to bring that influence to an end. But what was its influence in that age? At the end of his discussion of Anglo-Catholicism, Jacobs writes:

[the Ritualists]… transformed Cranmer’s words into a kind of ambient music, often heard without acknowledgment, received aesthetically but not necessarily with the ear of understanding (p. 147)

Jacobs concludes with an idea he takes from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. In that books can be adapted to very different cultural contexts and to readers unimagined by the authors, books, Jacobs says, can learn too. He continues:

But a religious book is limited in its ability to learn because it is concerned to teach; and a prayer book especially wants its teaching to be enacted, not just to be absorbed. It cannot live unles we say its words in our voices. It can learn with us, but only if we consent to learn from it. There are relatively few, now, who give that consent to the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal–now as in 1549–is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith (p. 194)

As I was reading, I was reminded again of the role the Book of Common Prayer has played in my own spiritual journey. It was the means of my conversion to Anglicanism and it continues to shape my spirituality and my religious experience. Its language and prayers have become my own. In other words, if Cranmer’s goal in 1549 was to make the Book of Common Prayer “living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith,” it still holds that power. I see that same power in those among who I minister as well. I sometimes think that liturgical reformers and those who would do away with the BCP altogether lack faith in its transformational power and lack faith too, in the power of people to re-appropriate its language and imagery to meet their particular needs and contexts.

Some musings on the Reza Aslan controversy

No, I haven’t read the book, nor even watched the infamous interview. It’s much more fun simply to watch the outrage (on all sides). There are a few voices of reason, however, though mine is unlikely to be one of them.

First off, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask an author why he wrote a book, and why as a Muslim, he was interested in writing about Jesus. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry makes the case for the question’s appropriateness:

“Why did you write this book?” is literally the most common interview question asked of authors! It is so common, it is such a cliché, that it is a joke in literary and media circles! This is also true of the variation “[Tidbit of author’s personal history], so why did you write this book?”

Aslan’s personal history is relevant to how he tells the story, a convert to Christianity who becomes disillusioned and eventually converts to Islam. His background is relevant just as Bart Ehrman’s personal history helps to explain his scholarly prejudices.

Did Aslan respond in the way he did because he suspected it might contribute to book sales? It’s curious that he was willing to talk about his religious background with Terry Gross of NPR, and not with Fox.

Second, the book is largely a rehash of recent New Testament scholarship. Alan Jacobs points out Aslan’s dependence on Crossan, and also several places where Aslan makes much bolder claims than most (trained) biblical scholars would, and much bolder than the slim evidence warrants. Huffington Post has the book’s introduction, which shows his debt to contemporary Jesus scholarship.

Adam Kirsch offers a sober, even-handed review of Aslan’s book.

Why would largely second-hand scholarship arouse such interest and passion? Precisely because Aslan is Muslim and probably at least in part because of his desire to create publicity. In fact, I wonder whether he would have found a publisher for this work if he were not a Muslim.

I’m curious about the way progressive Christians have responded. I was surprised to see that he was booked for All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena (one of the flagship progressive parishes in the Episcopal Church) for a Sunday adult forum within days of his book’s publication. And his schedule also includes appearances at Protestant churches across the country.

Now, I’ll grant that the interview on Fox News was appalling. It was also great theater, giving people on both sides (conservative and progressive) just what they want–controversy to stoke the flames of anger and outrage. And Aslan will take it all to the bank.


Another Pew Survey: The numbers of religiously-unaffiliated spike again

Here is the story from Rachel Zoll of the AP. Full results of the survey are available here.

About the “nones,” now approximately 20%: They may believe in God; they may pray; they may be “spiritual but not religious.” But they do not affiliate with any religious organization nor do they want to:

Pew found overall that most of the unaffiliated aren’t actively seeking another religious home, indicating that their ties with organized religion are permanently broken.

Alan Jacobs ponders the significance of this:

The question I would ask is this: Has there been an actual increase in religiously unaffiliated people, or do people who are in fact unaffiliated simply feel more free than they once did to acknowledge that fact? My suspicion is that until quite recently a person born and baptized into the Catholic church who hadn’t attended Mass in fifteen years would still identify as a Catholic; but recently is more likely to accept his or her unaffiliated status. There is less social (and perhaps also psychological) cost in saying “I have no particular religion that I’m connected to” than there once was.

That is, the poll may reflect not a change in behavior but a change in how people think of their behavior — a change that brings their self-descriptions more closely into line with reality. And that wouldn’t at all be a bad thing: there’s always something to be said for the removal of illusions, for “reveal[ing] the situation which had long existed.”

Most striking about all this are the generational shifts. Among “millennials” the numbers are shocking. Of younger millennials (those born between 1990 and 1994), 34% claim no religious affiliation. Older millennials are only slightly more likely to be involved in organized religion (30% now compared to 26% in 2007). The number of unaffiliated Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers has also increased; the latter in spite of recent articles trumpeting the return of Boomers to church.

What are we to make of this? I think it’s right to say that part of it is that there is less stigma attached in saying one does not attend church. On the other hand, I suspect that a willingness to self-identify as non-religious reflects behavioral and attitudinal change.
Growing numbers of Americans simply don’t seem to care about institutional religion. It is irrelevant to their lives.

This certainly has enormous implications for denominations and local congregations. If large numbers of young people have no inclination to get involved in church, no interest in attending services even on Christmas or Easter, or being married in a church, that means they are seeking meaning in other places and in other ways than through traditional religious language and categories. It may be that they are not even asking questions about themselves, their lives and the world that can be engaged in religious terms.

This is what “post-Christian” culture looks like. It’s not simply a matter of a decline in prestige, power, and influence for the churches. If the trend continues, how many young adults will claim no religious affiliation 10 years from now? 50%? More?

How do we proclaim the gospel in this context? What does it mean to be church? For Anglicans, it won’t be enough to say that we offer a “via media” or that “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” People won’t understand what the former means and won’t even see the latter sign.

Random links on the Bible–the past and future of the text

We just ended 2011, the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (officially the Authorized Version) and there continues to be reflection on the translation and on its significance for the English language and on English-speaking Christianity.

An article from The Chronicle offers insight into the translation process and on the translation itself. The great Robert Alter is quoted:

Alter describes the King James Bible as a masterpiece, but a flawed one. “It is not as seamlessly eloquent as everybody remembers it is,” he says. “There are beautiful lines of poetry, and then lines which are clunky, lines which run on to a multiplicity of words and syllables, which is not only unlike the original but pretty much lacking in poetic rhythm. I don’t think they paid much attention to the sound.”

A review in the Washington Post of books by Harold Bloom and David Jeffrey on the text and its significance.

Alan Jacobs writes a provocative essay on the relationship of technology and scripture, from scroll, codex, and printing press, to the use of electronic media. Of the latter he has to say:

Thus the primary way many millions of Christians today encounter Scripture: seated a hundred feet or more from a screen on which they see displayed fifty or so foot-high letters. (Yes, these Christians know that they’re supposed to have their own personal Bibles and study them diligently when at home alone, during their “quiet time.” But how many do so?) When you consider how thoroughly such a presentation decontextualizes whatever part of the Bible it is interested in — how completely it severs its chosen verse or two from its textual surroundings — how radically it occludes any sense of sequence within the whole of the Bible — it becomes, I think, difficult to worry about the pernicious effects of iPads and Kindles. And impossible to see all screens as having the same effects.


And he concludes:

It is the book, largely as it emerged from the early Christian Church’s understanding of its own Scriptures, that has enabled much of the best that has been thought and said in the past fifteen hundred years. And its key virtues can be preserved, and perhaps even extended, in forms other than the paper codex. By contrast, screens that allow only minuscule chunks of text to be displayed at any one time — and that effectively remove from perceptual awareness context, sequence, and narrative — do violence to the book qua book. If Christians forget, or forget more completely than they already have, the integrity and necessary sequentiality of their holy Book, and of the story it tells, that would be a catastrophe for Christianity.

As much as I want to agree with him, my own experience is that I rarely access the text of scripture except in electronic form. He’s right that doing so decontextualizes it, but the ease of access, and of reading is so much better. And that’s not the case only for study or sermon-prep. I also do the daily office primarily on line.

For an example of violence done to the text, see John Shelby Spong’s recent piece.