Cláudio Carvalhaes, What’s Worship Got to Do with It? Interpreting Life Liturgically, Cascade, Eugene, Oregon, 2018. 278 pp. $33.00. ISBN: 9781620329719 (paper/e-book).
Moving into pandemic protocols—remote schooling and work, wearing a mask, keeping at least two meters away from the rest of the world—has felt isolating. In my suburb, the parks and library closed, churches were shuttered; even Tim Hortons was reduced to a drive-thru lineup.
Beneath this isolation, however, a thicker imbrication in global flows of goods, services, and human persons continues to course on. My grocery order for curbside pickup finds me bound in a surge of consumer demand for toilet paper. The ground beef may be missing because meatpacking plants are hotspots for infection. A podcast reminds me most of the workers in these plants are immigrants threatened with loss of employment if they opt for health over the company’s bottom line.1 My vegetables tell of similar enforced working conditions among migrant, essential workers who pick Quebec asparagus and Ontario tomatoes.2 Even as I try to isolate my own vulnerability by keeping six feet apart, the vulnerabilities of the whole world still rush through my most mundane activities.
It’s precisely here that Cláudio Carvalhaes situates liturgical life—where the liturgies of the world and of the neighbor course through the liturgy of the church. In What’s Worship Got to Do with It?, Carvalhaes finds the “world, the church, and our existential life . . . all implicated and intertwined in our prayers, songs, and celebrations of the sacraments” (10). “Capitalism and free-trade agreements, militarism, drugs, agribusiness” (10) intersect the church’s praising and praying, present in the bodies and concerns of our neighbors. The church has no sacred bubble, no quarantined space; it has its being, like Jesus, in the vulnerabilities of the world.
The essays collected in What’s Worship tell stories from these intersections. The book opens with an account of the Presbyterian church that Carvalhaes pastored in the outskirts of São Paulo, where “everything in the congregation, including the budget, was geared towards the needs of the people and the community around them” (6). Carvalhaes insists that churches’ liturgical lives, too, must be at the service of “sustain[ing] the lives of those who suffer” (7). After telling many more stories—of his mother’s prayers, of a baptism in Mexico, of an Easter service in Guatemala, of an undocumented woman pleading to Jesus and anyone who will listen for medicine for her sick daughter—Carvalhaes returns to this criterion: “If we start caring about those who hurt in our neighborhoods, it actually doesn’t matter what liturgical frame we use. Once our theology of praise is fully . . . serving those in need, we will begin where Jesus began” (219).
Which is not to say that liturgy doesn’t matter. No, Carvalhaes insists, liturgy functions powerfully, for better and for worse. In a chapter titled “Praying with Black People for Darker Times,” Carvalhaes narrates the infernal power manifest in years of a “Christianity [that] has also been a part of the creation of racial ideas,” where “worship has been a white project over the bodies of people” (107). In “‘Gimme de Kneebone Bent,’” he observes how liturgy works as an ordo that transforms others into reflections of the colonizing subject. Later he warns preachers of this power: We are “cultural agents [who] must continuously check what ideological lenses we use” (182). Just as the world runs through the heart of worship, worship is also loose and powerful, for better and for worse, in the world.
Yes, also sometimes for better! Liturgies may function as “a transition space” to a more equitable society, one which sustains life in common care (31). Worship services call folks with “allegiance to the middle and upper classes [to] go work with people on the margins of our brutal society” (9). The promise and presence of God take on temporary flesh “through the materialities of our liturgies, gestures of mercy and compassion, dreams and hopes that spill over into communal forms of organized society” (187). In our prayers and in our feasting, greeting, holy kisses, confessing, preaching, dancing, the world that runs through worship and flows on around our worship is remade, reordered, set free.
How does liturgy do this? In “Praising God between the World and the Altar,” Carvalhaes profiles various ecclesial-liturgical traditions. He asks, within the press and flow of neoliberal capitalism and expressive individualistic consumerism, “What kind of society do we propose with our liturgies?” (204). He warns against an Emergent Church “eternal recurrence of the new,” where the gospel might “lose the critical edge of its old challenging demands” (207). He speaks just as strongly against a Mainline liturgics that thinks by enunciating the proper liturgical order, society, ex opera operato, is redeemed. Instead, he says, we might learn from Black churches that have “kept their prophetic tradition alive, where . . . to miss church is losing the ability that we can keep going for another week” (211).
This is where Carvalhaes closes What’s Worship, with a chapter titled “Towards a Liberation Theology of God’s Glory.” Remembering Black protesters crossing the bridge out of Selma, Carvalhaes writes, “Their shout ‘Glory’ was a proposal for a different society! . . . In the midst of bullets, water hoses, and dogs, they walked! . . . Singing their glory to God was the way to keep themselves alive!” (237–38). Worship begins in meeting the love of God—this is what calls glorias from our throats—but it propels us out to meet God-in-person “amidst the poor,” for among the poor “the glory of God is in full swing!” (238). This is “God’s glory shaped by the work of solidarity” (246). More than the transcendent imposed ex opere operato, more than a punctiliar service that will “fill us up and send us out,” worship leads us to meet God with those forced to the margins, where glory is taking shape.
I read What’s Worship during a pandemic, minding protocols of public health and personal vulnerability, meeting for worship only ever from behind a computer screen. But Carvalhaes tells me that even here I’m not cut off—in fact, I couldn’t be. In perichoretic movement, the world encompasses me and runs right through my heart. Carvalhaes presses further on my pandemic assumptions:
Our end is not alone behind a screen but together with one another. . . . Wiping each other’s tears can be done over the Internet but it must also continue to be done person to person, the virtual empowering the real, the real being a sign of our need for each other. (232)
This movement—from world, from God, to world, to God, again and again—keeps worship always at the intersections of the world.
Josh Wallace is a pastor and educator in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in Treaty 6 Territory. He is a doctoral candidate in contextual theology at Northern Seminary (Lisle, Illinois) and serves as Church Engagement Minister for Mennonite Church Saskatchewan.
See “Covering Covid: Essential,” May 8, 2020, the fourth episode of the tenth season of the podcast Embedded, 22:00, produced by NPR, https://www.npr.org/2020/05/08/852861231/covering-covid-essential.
See Mark Kelley, Karen Wirsig, and Virginia Smart, “Bitter Harvest,” The Fifth Estate, CBC News, November 29, 2020, https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/bitter-harvest-migrant-workers-pandemic.