Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Survivor, Chess Strategy, and Ritual in Today's World

There has been a trend in the last generation or so to move away from traditional worship. There is a sense that the traditions and rituals of the church are a thing of the past, remnants of a by-gone era, and barriers to new seekers finding Christ. There is almost an anti-traditionalism in many churches. One church I was a part of, the Contemporary Service had no order in the bulletin...only a note that we followed the Spirit's lead for that service. It just so happened the Spirit led about the same every single week.

But as I look at the culture around us, I see some signs that the ritual may be making a comeback. There is a particular group, that meets together every Thursday night, that follows a particular liturgy every week, led by it's pastor. In fact, this group of faithful numbers around 20 million every week. See if their rituals look familiar to you...

"Want to know what you're playing for?"
"In addition, the winning tribe will send one member of the losing tribe to Exile Island. Worth playing for?"
"Survivors ready. Go!"
"______ wins reward!"
"[Losing tribe name]: I've got nothing for you."
"We now bring in _____, returning from Exile Island. We're now ready to get to today's challenge. First things first..."
"On my go."
"_____ wins immunity!"
"I'll go tally the votes."
"______th person voted out of Survivor: Gabon is.... The tribe has spoken. ...Grab your torches, head back to camp."

Every week on Survivor, Jeff Probst (ironically enough an ordained pastor) leads a small group through this rite, and is followed faithfully by an extensive home viewing audience. Probst does not deviate from this formula in the slightest, except to insert personal/tribal/locational names as appropriate. Watch for a couple of weeks, and see what I mean. People eat this stuff up, even though he's been doing this for 9 years (with only a few changes, such as the addition of Exile Island). And if your a fan of ritual, like me, you even get a little chill at certain phrases, especially "the tribe has spoken" (usually followed by the sound of a digeridoo). So why, when 20 million people participate in this liturgy every single week, do we believe that ritual is a thing of the past?

I've got a theory. Because, you see, there are two types of ritual, and a particular rite can move back and forth between these two categories on any given day. There are those that have meaning, and those that exist for their own sake. Ritual is meant to serve a purpose. In our case, to point believers and seekers alike to Christ, to guide them through the worship of God in meaningful and practical ways, and to facilitate the communal life of the congregation. It's a container, as it were, for things of God.

But there are times that ritual becomes an end unto itself. Whenever it begins to be done a certain way "because it has always been that way," then the signs are apparent that it's sliding (or has lept) into the self-serving category. Rather than creating meaning and guiding worship, they take up space, time, money, personnel, and give nothing back in return. They cause us to serve them, rather than benefiting us through their practice.

In Survivor, the rituals make sense. There is a flow to every episode. You can set your watch by it. It allows the story to progress, and provides the challenge and drama for the players and viewers alike. It means something. If Jeff decided one week to just say "The Tribe has spoken," and snuff out a torch, but never actually asked anybody to leave ("we voted because we always do"), the game would devolve rapidly. But every week, Probst provides a sense of order, and acts as a guide through what would otherwise be a complicated clash of diverse personalities in a stressful situation with limited resources. Kinda like some weeks at church...

So what can we do with our rituals? In chess strategy, there is such a thing as a "bad bishop". A bad bishop is stuck behind a bunch of other pieces, with no room to move, no open lines for attack, and serving no actual purpose. It is taking up space, and providing no benefit. It may even be hindering you by being a target for your opponent to attack, which you have to commit resources to defend. So two courses of action are recommended if you have a "bad bishop." (1) Sacrifice him to gain some other advantage, perhaps in trade for an opposing piece or to clear some space, or (2) get him out from behind the other pieces somehow, into the open, and give him purpose again.

What does that have to do with traditions? Well, if they're serving no valuable purpose, we either need to (1) get rid of them, in order to free up space/time/money/personnel for other more beneficial ventures, or (2) rediscover their purpose, their meaning, and put them out in front where they can do some good in pointing us to Christ.

This involves asking some questions...How did this ritual start? What was it's original purpose? Is that benefit still needed? Is there something that would better accomplish that goal? Have we added or changed it's meaning in order to justify it's presence? Does everyone understand why we do it this way, or only key people? How can we share that meaning with others?

To paraphrase what many say about technology...Tradition is great...when it works. And it's goal is to take the collective wisdom of previous generations, what's worked, what hasn't, what's provided benefit, what's created meaning and guided purpose, and use that to inform our daily lives with Christ. Whether it's candles on the altar, or the practice of Lent, we should be habitually (haha) reexamining our rituals, our traditions, and making sure they serve the purpose of pointing us to Christ. Because if they exist for their own sake alone, we either need to light a new fire within them, or remove their torch entirely.

The pastor has spoken. May God bless you on your journey with Him this day.

1 comment:

Questing Parson said...

What a terrific post!! Well said! About half way through I remembered the old story of the new rabbi who, when he was leading the first service noticed at the time of prayer all the people on the left stood and all the people on the right stood and both sides yelled at the other in protest. The new rabbi went to the old rabbi who'd served the synagogue for decades and asked, "Was the tradition when you were here to stand up during prayer?" "No," said the rabbi, "that wasn't the tradition." "Then was the tradition to sit during prayer?" "No," said the rabbi, "that was not the tradition." The new rabbi said, "But every time I start to pray half stand up and half sit down and both groups scream and shout at the other." "Ah,"said the old rabbi, "that was the tradition."

Loved this post!