- Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual by Frank C. Senn
Frank Senn is one of the best-known scholars of liturgical studies. This book originated in a course which he taught in 2014 at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia, a school rooted in the Dutch Reformed tradition (xxi). Designed to present the basics of Christian liturgy and liturgical theology to college and seminary students, Senn’s Introduction advocates that liturgy should be seen through a unique perspective, human experience as embodied. For Senn, the reality of human embodiment can be established through the practice of yoga. Most chapters offer specific, guided yogic exercises designed to ground one’s body in the liturgical truths being examined.
As an example, here is a short yoga sequence Senn offers in honor of the Holy Trinity: [End Page 489]
Let us conclude with a bodily devotion to the Holy Trinity. This is the half-sun salutation . . . . Assume the standing (mountain) pose. Extend the arms overhead, “Glory”; backward bend, “to the Father”; forward fold to the earth, “and to the Son”; monkey pose, “and to the Holy Spirit”; stand, hands in prayer position over heart,“Amen.” 27–28.
This exercise is shorter than others.
For Senn, yoga serves as an auxiliary discipline to help remind us “of important aspects of our faith that we tend to forget” (327). So, for example, breathing exercises can remind us of the Holy Spirit’s work in our bodies. Postures can “influence a Christian’s self-understanding as a body created in the image of God and an object of unutterable dignity redeemed by the blood of Christ” (327). So, Senn secularizes yoga, divests it of any saving power that may have one time been attributed to it in Hinduism, and baptizes it, if you will, into a Christian context. His point is that with technology, a Cartesian mind/body split, and ambivalent feelings about the body, Westerners increasingly tend to take their bodies for granted, when in fact, the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, liturgy, rightly understood, is a deeply embodied event, akin to the incarnation.
Senn situates liturgy less in a theology of the word, as Protestant theology historically tended to do, and more in cultural practices. Thereby, he links Christian practices to practices in other faith traditions, showing analogies between them and indicating how liturgy itself is shared by all humans, regardless of confession or lack thereof. This book is ecumenical in spirit, though Senn does not hide his Lutheran roots. Sensitive to his readers, Senn repeatedly refers to experiences from his decades in the parish, such as his improvising Lenten offerings or his orchestrating chancel dramas. Anything related to Christian liturgy, including matters as unique as medieval and current flagellation (175ff), exorcism (218), Greek Orthodox youth “diving for the cross” on Epiphany Day, and numerous other examples, appear. But, the crux of liturgy, for Senn, is that it should “express a disinterested character as far as the world is concerned precisely so that it can see the world in a clearer light and be able to discern where prayer is needed and what should be done to fulfill the church’s mission in the world” (113). [End Page 490]
Overall Senn’s work demonstrates a wider move from an erstwhile “penitential piety” of a previous Western Christianity focused on human guilt and divine forgiveness to a “creation spirituality” centered in joyful reception of creation as a gift. While many aspects of this move should be affirmed, it is obvious that confession and forgiveness, practices which in today’s world recovering addicts would be the quickest to remind us of, is not as strong here as it was in traditional Lutheranism. Given the need of humans to receive new, clean hearts, a path honoring both penance and celebration needs to be respected. That said, this is a brilliant, creative, and daring book, worthy of study, particularly for those inclined towards reimaging the church’s praxis.