The Holy Eucharist is supposed to be boring. So claims the Catholic theologian James Alison. He says, “When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long term education in becoming un-excited.”

He’s right, I think. Let me explain.

Alison’s claim about the Mass being boring or unexciting comes in the course of his contrasting false worship with True Worship. Alison has a broad understanding about what counts as worship. In a manner similar to James K.A. Smith’s arguments about liturgy, Alison finds instances of worship in many cultural practices: “football matches, celebrity cults, raves, initiation hazings, newspaper sales techniques and so on,” pretty much any cultural practice that involves the formation of a group of people. For Alison, all these forms of worship are part of the warp and woof of the violence of this devastated world. So, while Christian worship is analogically related to these forms of false worship, it is more dissimilar than similar. To drive home the distinction, Alison uses the Nuremberg Rallies as the example par excellence of (false) worship: worship unqualified is death-dealing and dehumanizing. In stark contrast, Christian worship is “the un-Nuremberg.” The thrust of Alison’s talk is to delineate the difference.


One important dissimilarity is that while Nuremberg-like worship produces a homogenizing unanimity, the un-Nuremberg worship of Christians is one of “respectful unity.” In “the Nuremberg,” as Alison puts it, differences between individuals are drowned in the collective persona of the mob. But True Worship is not totalizing. Christians gathered for worship retain their individual stories in all their historical particularities, “and yet, each story comes, over time, to bear a remarkable resemblance to the story of one who ‘for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame’ (Heb 12:2).” One thinks of St. Paul’s disquisition on the distinctiveness of the manifold members united in the Body of Christ.

It’s at this point in the argument that Alison says that Mass is about “becoming un-excited.” The power of the Nuremberg lies in the mastery of its liturgical organizers to stimulate in the crowd a unanimity of feeling, to whip up the Volk into an ecstasy of love for their Führer, into a frenzy of expectation for sacrifice, and with deadly effect: Ms. Mustermann leaves the rally that much closer to looking the other way when her neighbor Mr. Levy disappears. In short, the Nuremberg is dangerous to the degree it is able to excite.

In contrast, Christian worship is “a long term education in becoming un-excited.” The un-Nuremberg is a detoxification from the lies and violence of the Nuremberg. The paradigmatic act of Christian worship, the Holy Eucharist, does not turn on the exciting anticipation of a sacrifice. Rather, says Alison, the Eucharist is “the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we’ve been forgiven for and through it.” In the Eucharist, the Lord Jesus (Alison titles him “the forgiving victim”) draws to himself all those gathered from diverse starting positions, giving himself to us, so that, as the Prayer Book has it, “we may dwell in him, and he in us.” Receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus and being “made one body with him” likely does not feel like much at all, and we will be disappointed if we come to the Lord’s Table in expectation of the sort of frisson produced by the Nuremberg. But then Christian worship is not about the subjectivity of those gathered; it is about the One who gives himself for the life of the world.

Another way to say all this is to say that Christian worship is concerned with contemplation. Christian worship is about gazing on the light of God in Christ Jesus, about being transformed to reflect the glory of God (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). Contemplation is not exciting, but it is certainly transformative. I’ll give the last word to Rowan Williams who powerfully describes contemplation as:

the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom — freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.

About The Author

The Rev. Christopher Yoder serves as rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.

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16 Responses

  1. Charlie Clauss

    If I understand you right, you mean to say that the Eucharist is not to create an emotional response for the sake of manipulating the worshipper. Rather the Eucharist should cause the worshipper to be more attuned to values of the Kingdom of which the Eucharist is the principal feast.

    And while you don’t say it, I’d say that excitement for excitement’s sake should also be avoided.

    Boring is an interesting choice (this is a use of the word “interesting” in the Minnesota sense – really meaning I don’t like it).

    I have a 13 year old daughter for whom if something is “boring,” it is intolerable. Then you find out almost *everything* is boring! But she helps me understand that boring is a particular emotional state, one that is generally a self-centered sadness or dissatisfaction. I’m pretty sure you don’t want the self-centered part!

    So I think you point the way towards an important area: what is the place of emotion in Christian worship. And I hope you are not saying that emotion should be eliminated from consideration! There are proper emotions for each element or context in worship – joy in thanksgiving and praise, sorrow in confession. And if the Eucharist doesn’t produce (maybe over the long haul) a wide variety of emotion, you’re not paying attention.

    “Therefore, we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name.”

    For me, this is the very definition of “not boring!”

    • Christopher Yoder

      Yes, the gist is basically that the point of Christian worship is not the manipulation of emotions. “Boring”, by the way, is mainly meant to be provocative; the point is to draw a contrast with the “exciting,” in the sense of intoxicating, arousing, titillating–the sorts of responses aimed at by Nuremberg rallies and advertising culture.

      I’m not (and I doubt Alison is) saying that emotion should not be considered at all. As Alison puts it, the Eucharist is a “dwelling in gratitude.” I would also want to say that Christian worship involves a long-term training in affection, about learning to properly order our desires. But this is a slow, sometimes barely perceptible change. Our subjectivity is only of secondary importance to the point of worship, namely, praising the Lord God. And it is meet and right, always and everywhere, to give thanks to the Lord–regardless of the emotions involved. We are asked to “lift up our hearts”, whatever their state.

  2. Zachary Guiliano

    Tried to leave this comment earlier, but I’m hampered by bad wifi. My provocative suggestion: maybe Roman Catholic worship is boring?

    I’m thinking of the comment I’ve heard attributed to Denys Turner that RC worship post-Vatican II is boring and ought to be. For him, the chief danger of Anglican worship is that it is beautiful, thereby lulling one into thinking something has been accomplished.

  3. John A. Thorpe

    I can’t disagree with this strenuously enough. But right now I am typing with my thumbs. Longer reasons will have to wait.

  4. Charlie Clauss

    I don’t think we are in disagreement, but I hear echoes of other conversations.

    Yes, I recognized that the use of the word boring was meant to be provocative. Certainly our worship should not be “intoxicating, arousing, titillating.” This them leads me to ask what “should” our worship be?

    “We are asked to “lift up our hearts”, whatever their state.”

    This is a critical point; one that I would heartily endorse. Worship is a discipline that we are called to whether we feel like it or not (I’d really like to know what is going on in 2 Sam 12 where David goes to worship after his first child with Bathsheba dies).

    “Our subjectivity is only of secondary importance to the point of worship, namely, praising the Lord God.”

    This is certainly true – worship is to be theocentric. But recent criticism of contemporary worship has sought to eliminate any consideration of “human factors” in worship. But a passage like:

    “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Cor 14:26b)

    points to the proper place in our thinking of where “human effects” belong in our worship thinking. A criterion for worship is exactly “is the Church built up?” (Eph 5:19 in some versions uses the language of “speaking to yourselves” in the context of worship – a very evocative notion).

    What I think is a very valid criticism of contemporary worship is its flat emotional content – almost always “happy.” I think we must take into account the whole range of possible human emotions and intentionally give them a place in our worship.

    And on any given Easter Sunday morning, there is bound to be a grieving person in the congregation, but they will be “confronted” with nearly non-stop joyous celebration. That is hard for that person, but the congregations worship planners know that the emotions of the day are primarily elation.

    • Christopher Yoder

      The example of David worshipping after his child’s death is very apt. From the opposite direction, a friend pointed out that the golden calf incident in Exodus involves the people “indulging in revelry.”

      I think like the idea of “building up the church” as a criterion for the propriety of worship, but I’d want to say that what builds up the church might not be immediately evident in the subjectivity of those involved. To use the example of contemplation again, contemplating the crucified and risen Christ is not always going to feel like it’s doing anything at all, but contemplation is certainly something that builds up the Body of Christ. And I’d also want to still insist that the fundamental point of Christian worship is not to achieve anything, but to celebrate the finished work of the Lamb who has won the victory in “his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”

      • Charlie Clauss

        “… to celebrate the finished work of the Lamb who has won the victory…”

        And now we circle back because in the end, that celebration involves *our* receiving into ourselves, in the Bread and Wine, the very One whose victory we celebrate! Subjectivity and Objectivity “kiss.”

  5. Todd Welty

    “Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, for the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”–for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:7-9). For me, we are all the Samaritan women at the well — alone, alienated, too many husbands, and to many idols — and yet Christ meets us where we are and marries me/us/the Church in the Eucharist. His kiss always makes me emotional.

    • Christopher Yoder

      Yes, I agree about the joy of the gift of being “married” to Christ in the Eucharist. And it is surely a good thing that his kiss makes you/us emotional. — But surely the emotion that comes from the kisses of our Lord are not the chief thing; the chief thing is that he has embraced us and does kiss us. Like marriage, Christian worship may be full of joy and gladness–and it may seem unexciting at times, but at all times it is “meet, right, and our bounden duty” to give thanks for the gift of God in Christ.

  6. Benjamin Guyer

    Fwiw, I think that Alison’s comparison is ridiculously over the top. It takes Nazi extremism out of the realm of incomprehensibility where it can and ought to remain.

    I also have to take exception with the idea that worship is boring – not because it is the opposite of boring, but because the description in question confuses two different human activities. Boredom is the product of passivity. Few things indicate an undisciplined mind more than the declaration of its own boredom. But liturgy isn’t passive. Rather, it is active – or, more truly, interactive. Interactivity is not at all opposed to the choreographed nature of liturgy, because we all participate in the choreography. If one is ‘bored’ by liturgy, then the mind – which Christians generally neglect as a site of discipleship – is either unengaged or disengaged. This is not the fault of the liturgy or the other participants in the liturgy. Rather, it is the fault of those who have allowed themselves to be bored (and the passive voice is intentional here).

    Furthermore, liturgy is objective reality, and thus the response of ‘boredom’ has no claim on it. Liturgy sets aside space and time for the significations of eternal truth. Hence the human priesthood is an icon of the divine priesthood (even when the signs in question are confused by the inadequacy of the priest in question). Even when we step outside of the liturgical space, the liturgy continues. Hence liturgy is not boring and it cannot be boring because ‘boring’ is a human valuation upon human activity – or, really, human inactivity. (NB: All of this would hold true for other descriptors – worship as exciting or entertaining, etc.) To describe liturgy as ‘boring’ (or not) is like describing sports as ‘divine’ (or not). Such descriptions are confusions of kind, not degree.

  7. John A. Thorpe

    The problem here starts with sloppy scholarship: an over-broad definition of your field might give you plenty of books to write and classes to teach, but it’s not necessarily helpful. This same over-broad definition of worship led my liturgics prof to say her coffee cup was sacrament, and a priest I know to claim the same status for his cat!

    Second, liturgical thinking for Christians must be rooted in the Scripture. Christian worship is nothing but Old Testament Worship with a few bits upgraded because of the revelation, person, and work of Jesus.

    The problem with false worship is not that it is worship, but that it is false. The problem with the golden calf scenario was not the wild liturgy going on there, but the idol at the center. The problem with the Nuremberg rally was not the fact that it was exciting, subsumed the individual into the whole, and lifted people’s thoughts to higher ideals: its problem was that the target of its worship was the blasphemous idol of the human state at the center of it all. The Mass should be a Nuremberg rally centered around that very mystery of the Lamb slain for us. It should precisely lift us out of our individual selves and subsume us in the nature and victory of our God.

    The perfect example of this is the Psalms. The Psalms’ own word for themselves comes from a root meaning “to touch.” Think on it: a ‘psalm’ isn’t a short, wordy poem hidden in a dusty book and occasionally recited in a monotone, as conducive as that may be to contemplation and all. The Hebrew idea of worship starts with inanimate objects: the hills clapping their hands, the heavens declaring His glory, etc. – all of creation joins in this dance and song. The word for ‘praise’ means “to rave, go crazy” – the concept is that the grass is waving and the trees are swaying and the hills are echoing and the stars and planets are joining in, all creation raving about God, to His glory. Only then does worship become humans interacting with the created world by means of industry and creativity: psalm = to touch: to touch the top of a drum, to pluck the strings of a harp, to bang two cymbals together, etc. Humans get to join the created universe in raving, going crazy, about the goodness of God. Then, at the very end, words get involved through singing; then they get written down, then they get kept in a book, then over centuries we lose the sense of joining the great crazy-dance of worship and think the best way to connect with God is through monotone recitation of magic words.

    Silence is vital, don’t get me wrong. Contemplation is crucial to a Christian’s life. And a monotone psalm is better than none. But that’s not what corporate worship of Yahweh was ever meant to be. Jesus talked of prayer closets for that purpose: but the Temple was never meant to be a prayer closet.

    The Lamb of God slain for our sins is not a boring concept and our worship should not proclaim that it is. Every recitation of the creed SHOULD drive us to dance like crazy and fall prostrate, weeping with joy and sorrow. The greatest contemplatives did just that, when they were at the height of contemplations. And the response of Angels, Archangels, and Elders around the throne of God is not a non-committal “meh…” The man after God’s own heart danced naked before the Lord and promised he would become yet more undignified if he could, for the praise of the goodness of God could handle it.

    Yes, there are pitfalls to be avoided with human emotion in worship, just as there are with worship too boring and with misplaced contemplation. (group contemplation? really? Is this the mystic way? There’s more of the human cult about that concept than about exciting worship.) But Christian worship is supposed to be exciting. We have all five senses engaged, plus the spiritual sense. Jesus did not give us His body that we might contemplate it, but that we might eat it, press His flesh between our teeth, and know the horror of death and the power of the redemption He bought for us.

    Think about it: why do we NOT weep and wail at the beauty of the Apostles’ creed? Is it not the hardness of our hearts? Why should the bare, bald fact of the Gospel not send us into dervish-like ecstasy, even in the Episcopal Church?

    Finally, all of this article is locked in the prison of English culture. Ever seen African Anglicans worship? Caribbean Anglicans? Whole. Different. World. Let’s not confuse our Victorian English “good form” with that response of literal craziness which the Living God actually inspires in His Creation, if given half the chance.

  8. Charlie Clauss

    John Thorpe: I wish I has said that!

    One last thought – we are commanded to “rejoice.” It is the oddest of commands, for it seems to enjoin an emotion, and we usually think of emotions as being un-command-able.

    If worship is truly about *God* – it will require we offer our whole selves – mind and emotions, heart, soul, and body; everything – to the Lord. Liturgy is, after all, a great way to do that.

  9. Christopher Yoder

    Ben and John, thanks for your vigorous responses! Such discussion is what I hoped to engender with this piece, which I intended as a provocation.

    For the record, I don’t agree with everything Alison says in his essay. Among other things, he is a thorough-going Girardian (I’m not). I strongly disagree with other aspects of his thought (not least, his understanding of human sexuality).

    Of course, the example of Nazi extremism is “over the top”, but it serves to underscore the high stakes of worship (false worship leads to death). And extreme though it may be, part of the point of using Nuremberg as an example is that it contributed to the (mal)formation of a people who would condone (passively or actively) horrific acts of violence.

    Ben, your points about boredom as a human valuation and the liturgy as objective reality are well-taken. I am in Holy Orders, and I would not be so if I found Holy Communion to be boring and dull, quite the contrary. So when I say “the Holy Eucharist is boring” I’m trying (perhaps misleadingly) to articulate something that sets Christian worship apart from other forms of “worship,” and that difference has something to do with Christians gathering not to conjure, manufacture, produce particular sorts of emotional responses, but to receive a Gift. The Eucharist is “boring” in the way that my family singing hymns around a campfire is “boring” in comparison to the thrill of a rock concert. I love singing hymns around a campfire, but if I had grown up going to rock concerts I would have to learn to find the goodness in the simplicity of singing hymns around the campfire. Likewise, finding the Eucharist to be “a good and joyful thing” requires formation, because we live in a world obsessed with spectacle and hedonism. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Christians shouldn’t think that they need to make the Eucharist more like a rock concert.

    John, I hear your worries about an over-broad definition of worship. This is a point where Alison is, I think, particularly influenced by Ghirard and I have mixed feelings about that. And yes, the misplaced object of worship is surely the more fundamental problem of the Nuremberg–I was only concerned with one, more peripheral issue.

    Regarding your lovely description of praise (“Humans get to join the created universe in raving, going crazy, about the goodness of God.”), I don’t disagree. It’s quite a nice way of capturing what is going on in something like Psalm 150. Yes, David dances in ecstasy before the Ark, but he is said to “worship” upon hearing that his son born to Bathsheeba has died (2 Sam 12:20). Certainly he was not raving, going crazy, on that instant. Here’s the question: What do we seek in worship? To get excited, to rave, to go crazy? Or do we seek the face of the Lord? Fundamentally, I think, worship is about the Lord, about seeking his face, about beholding the beauty of the Lord (cf. Ps 27). Our response to the sight of his beauty is secondary.

    And, yes, the fitting response to the beauty and goodness and truth of the Lord is to dance and sing with joy–and it is largely a matter of the hardness of our hearts (and cultural conditioning) that we do not. But we live now in a devastated world only glimpsing the face of the Lord “through a glass darkly,” so until the Eschaton (regardless of culture) the dance will be intermingled with tears, our hearts and flesh crying out for the living God (Ps. 84:2).

  10. Neil Dhingra

    I’ve also cited the James Alison piece in a post; I wonder if I can try to clarify a few of his points. Furthermore, let me be honest. I am worried about the claim that “The Mass should be a Nuremberg rally centered around that very mystery of the Lamb slain for us”–if I understand it correctly.

    As has been pointed out, Alison seems to criticize false worship as a form of manipulation. “The liturgical organizers of the Nuremberg rallies knew exactly what they were doing, and did it remarkably well.” Note the following sentences: “You provide …,” “You enable …,” “You give them …,” and so on. This need not be as obviously sinister as a Nuremberg Rally; Alison suggests that we can see similar techniques at a football match or in celebrity cults.

    So far, it strikes me that Alison is saying something very similar to Herbert McCabe’s line that praying “is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead.” (Alison here speaks of “time wasted doing nothing in particular” as being characteristic of both “true friendship” and true worship.)

    The difficulty in prayer, then, is “our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely non-productive, non-money making, but is even non-creative” (McCabe). In other words, it is our fear of death. Alison will contrast “true worship,” which happens as we begin to live “as if death were not,” to those manipulative rallies “organized in order to enthuse us for some new feat,” some sort of “heroic victory” over all loss.

    Alison would presumably suggest that we must gradually grow away from our neuroses into true worship, just like McCabe suggests that we must grow in the life of prayer away from our “infantile imperfect grasping state.” After all, you can still pray and worship badly–we are who we are–to the right “target” (if we must use that word).

    I think that the brilliance of Alison’s piece is that he recognizes that manipulative worship is not merely imperfect, prosaically human. Instead, following Girard, he recognizes its destructive roots in “fate,” “myth,” and “ineluctable forces.” Manipulative worship evokes a new order that is specifically generated by the ritual expulsion of enemies. This is how the sacred is brought about. As such, manipulative worship, even if it addresses God with the right words and gestures, challenges the very catholicity of the Mass: the Eucharist must be offered for all, inclusive of scapegoats. “Thine own of Thine own we offer on behalf of all and for all.”

    (I wonder if there is real ecumenical potential here; would a [Catholic] Girardian critique of “Worship” be comparable to a Barthian critique of “religion?”)

    If I remember correctly, Alison does not criticize any denomination or liturgical tradition. I really don’t see where he commends “Victorian English ‘good form.'” Alison instead commends true worship by a set of exploratory and halting adjectives: “uncomforting,” “contingent,” “vulnerable and risky …” I will admit to not fully knowing what Alison has in mind here. But many Christian liturgies seem to imply that worship is “open-ended” and beyond any attempts to control it with words. Of course, one obvious example is silence. But another can be speaking in tongues, which, as the Pentecostal theologian Frank Macchia has written, is sacramental insofar as glossolalia shows the presence of God beyond all capacities of ordinary language. (These examples also suggest that the place of “mind” in worship eventually must yield to a sort of “unknowing.”)

    There’s more to say, of course. (The use of the Nazis might seem over the top [and unfortunate in an essay that throws out the phrase “backsliding into Temple worship”], but I suspect that some of us have already thought about the Nazis and liturgy while watching Triumph des Willens in a film class somewhere.)

    I hope that I haven’t mischaracterized anyone’s views while typing at 1AM. Sorry if I have.


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