WWJW: Retro Liturgy

I like to think I’m as much a rebel against the digital age as I am a product of it. I’ve started carrying around a fountain pen and notebook as a token of my quiet crusade against the culture that dictates kids my age should have their noses buried in the light of retina screens.

Perhaps it’s the protesting Protestant in me that wants to believe that the digital glow is somehow opposed—fixed in mortal combat—with that real Light outside of space and time that entered our space and time to redeem it. But the theological moorings of Messianic Judaism have a way of reconciling contradictions. I think Messianic Judaism offers a more careful, nuanced, and liturgical perspective on even the most mundane things as technology.

I’m a second-year undergraduate student at Wheaton College, the epicenter of intellectual evangelicalism in the Midwest. When folks ask about my religious background, I tell them my favorite author was Roman Catholic, that I go to a Protestant evangelical school, an Anglican church, and that I have Messianic Jewish theology. Most people change the subject. The truth is, for most of my life, I’ve been trekking along in the footsteps of my parents who, like many other mixed multitude Messianics of the past couple decades, have been doing their fair share of wilderness wandering. My reentry into evangelicalism has been healthy. For all its negative press recently and despite Dr. Gary Burge’s vocally antagonistic position against Israel, Wheaton is a genuinely good place that has given me the chance to shape and test my praxis as an observant Messianic Gentile. So long as I can avoid being labeled a heretic—or worse, a legalist—it’s been pretty easy.

Part of this ease has stemmed from a tangible shift in my peers’ attitude toward structured religion. It’s subtle, and I doubt it shows up in statistics, but I think there’s a change happening in the zeitgeist of the Christian young adults of my generation. Dogmatism is falling out of fashion at the same time that religious structure is making a resurgence. Kids who have grown up in the seeker-sensitive church—in the church that places such an intense emphasis on one’s personal belief in Jesus—are craving something more scripturally sound and communally shared. My peers are seeking a structure and framework that is bigger than themselves. They want a system for their belief system, and they’re finding it in liturgy.

Fulfilling the Sacramental Yearning

The Anglican Church I attend increasingly attracts college students from Wheaton, mostly because it beautifully blends the structure and liturgy of high-church Anglicanism with the accessibility and charisma of the evangelical church. The language of tradition, repetition, meditation, and sacrament seems to be pushing to the forefront of the public consciousness within evangelical circles. In a recent article on why millennials “long for liturgy,” Anglican thinker Yet Lee Nelson writes that, in the midst of our consumer culture, young people “ache for sacramentality.”[1] The information age hasn’t helped. If value and meaning are functions of scarcity, the infinite accessibility to infinite information has stripped knowledge of its meaning. An emphasis on empathy and evaluation has, in a very real sense, been replaced by an emphasis on speed and obtainability. Protestant churches aren’t blind to this fact, and many services are being infused with liturgical elements drawn from historical Christian traditions in an effort to retain millennial attendees.


An orthodox man praying from a siddur (Image: © Bigstock/Mikhail Levit)

But there’s a problem. The odds are, if you’re not finding your “sacramental yearning” fulfilled by religious liturgy, you’re fulfilling it elsewhere. Enter technology. After all, the ability to pattern and mediate our experience through words and liturgies is what sets humans apart in the animal kingdom. So, for most individuals of equal or less spiritual inclination, their subconscious craving for liturgy is manifesting itself in a religion of another sort, one with deeper rumblings: the patterned religion of technological consumption. And there’s something strangely familiar about the liturgy of technological consumption. It mirrors, almost perfectly, the liturgy of Judaism. We’ll explore the connections further in the next post.

Secondary Orality

Marshall McLuhan, the devout Catholic and famous scholar of communication theory wrote that “we must, to use [technology] at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions.”[2] These little gods we serve inhabit the pantheon of technological consumerism, the belief system that is quickly becoming the one-world religion. But it’s nothing new. What we’re seeing now is the shady alter ego of a religion that has been around for millennia. And it’s not just a random coincidence. Ancient Judaism was the father religion of “primary” or “tribal orality.” This is the academic jargon that historians use to classify the first era of communication history. Oral cultures communicated primarily person-to-person and had a strong collective group sense. And their religions were acoustic. Typified by the Shema, ancient Judaism was the poster child of acoustic, oral religion. But Protestantism, unlike Judaism, was a product of the print era of communication, à la Gutenberg. McLuhan insisted that print was solely responsible for the privatization and individualization of the Christian faith. “A sense of private substantial identity—a self—is to this day utterly unknown to tribal societies,” he wrote.[3] And it’s that same over-individualized faith that I’m seeing backfire among my peers. We’re entering a secondary orality, and it’s pregnant with possibility and risk.

I think Messianic Judaism has the chance to step into the void, offering the same clarification to this emerging technological religion that it offers to Jewish praxis. It has a chance to become the liturgical standard as we navigate these dangerous waters of secondary orality.

More in part two, Synthetic Judaism.

  1. Gracy Olmstead, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: Is the High Church the Christianity of the Future?,” The American Conservative, January 14, 2014, www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/why-millennials-long-for-liturgy/
  2. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Berkley, CA: Ginko Press, 2003), 68.
  3. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, ed. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek (Toronto, Canada: Stoddart, 1996), 81.

Source: First Fruits of Zion