Book review.

I actually reviewed a book a couple years ago : Senn’s monumental “History of the Liturgy.”

For those who would like to read my review, it is available after the jump.  I am told that the publisher really liked it.  The review was published in “Liturgy Hymnody and Pulpit Quarterly Book Review”, published by the Worship Committee of the Wyoming District.

Frank Senn’s “Christian Liturgy : Catholic and Evangelical” is a companion volume to “Lutheran Book of Worship.” It might be compared to, “Lutheran Worship, History and Practice” (Fred Precht, Editor; Concordia Publishing House, $34.99)  our own synod’s one volume treatment of the history and practice of liturgy.  But the scope of this book is so  much larger that it would be like comparing a rowboat to a US Navy battleship.

When Christian Liturgy was first published a decade ago, I was in the seminary.  At the time, owning this book separated those who were seriously devoted to liturgy from the “liturgical pretenders”.  Asking a seminarian “Do you have Senn?” was more than just a casual question.  It was a way to quickly check the liturgical credentials of any so-called liturgical experts.  In the decade since the book’s release, little has changed.

The book itself is both large and ambitious.  The goal is to tell the story of the church’s liturgy from its earliest days, including not only liturgical developments, but the theological (and often political) rationale behind them, and how those changes effected the theology of the church.  In this he succeeds.  Unfortunately, the telling of the story is predictably post modern, which is ironic because the epilogue lays out the ways in which the church must respond to post-modernism without capitulating.

The book begins with a lengthy explanation of the theological method used.  Even for a book of such length, is fifty pages required to explain that the perspective will be primarily anthropological?  Apparently it is, because Senn explains how this anthropological view permeates every facet of  his liturgical study.  This perspective limits the value of the book in more traditional Christian groups.  According to churchly tradition the liturgy focuses on the objective word and promise of God, rather than on a subjective anthropological need for religion.

As an example, Senn suggests that “the Canticle of Moses in Exodus 15:1-21, which celebrates the escape of Israelite slaves from Egypt through the Red Sea, expresses this event as if it were about the conquest of the primordial chaos and the birth of the new creation.”  But the Red Sea crossing is precisely about the new creation. “I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…” (1 Corinthians 10:1 ESV)

Senn’s inability to see the liturgy as an enactment of the church’s confession is typical in liturgical studies today.  To that end, he employs Aiden Cavanuagh’s division of theology into two categories, primary theology (the worship life of the church) and secondary theology (the systematic reflection on that primary theology).   It would have been better to recognize that the worship of the church is not only driven by the confession of the church, but also reflects back on and helps the church in making that confession.

When he finally begins his study of the liturgy itself, the discussion is surprisingly devoid of theological, or even the promised anthropolical reflection.  His treatment of liturgical development in the early church lacks any passion or excitement.  It is little more than a recitation of the facts, and lists of liturgical formulae. Occasionally, you will find a thoroughly traditional idea.  Senn encourages the belief that the Old and New Testaments are simply one document, telling different sides of the same story.  This is hardly earthshaking news in the LCMS.  But in liberal orthodoxy, which denies inspired prophecy, the Old Testament must be evaluated solely on its own terms, lest Judaism feel as if Christians are marginalizing their religion.

When Senn begins discussing the decline of liturgical theology in the middle ages, the book finally comes to life.  The worship of the early church is, to him, the ideal form of worship.  Many of the medieval losses he laments are still felt acutely today : A loss of the corporate character of worship, the loss of the musical tradition of the early church, the loss of Eucharistic participation.  He also laments the loss of the communal nature of the church.  The individualistic devotion that replaced a communal sense of church in the late middle ages still afflicts us today.

Senn devotes an entire chapter to Medieval views on the Sacrament of the Altar.  As Lutherans, we sometimes assume that there were no controversies regarding the nature of the real presence until the reformation.  The background given in this chapter should be required reading for pastors.  He revisits the topic after his discussion of the reformation, including the more familiar reformation controversies.  These two sections would make an excellent book in their own right.  They provide important details for anyone wanting to understand the background of the Lutheran versus the Reformed teaching on the Sacrament.

Beyond the discussion of the Sacrament, the Section on the Reformation is in many ways like his discussion of the early church – a bare recitation of the various regional liturgical orders, with almost no comment on the underlying theology.

After the Reformation, the church was once again subjected to a period of liturgical disintegration.  Much of the richness of the liturgy in the Lutheran Church was lost in succeeding generations, through war or through heretical movements.  In any liturgical history, this is the hardest part to read.  While the loss of the early church liturgies is unfortunate, we do not generally know the exact form those liturgies took.  We have detailed descriptions of Luther’s liturgical reforms, musical style, and much of the hymnody from the period.  To hear of its loss is not only to hear of a tragedy, but to see in minute detail the rich liturgical life that could be ours. Seeing  in such detail what could have been can be a painful experience.

As a liturgical scholar, Senn has no love for either Pietism or Romanticism.  His examples of the banality of sermons, liturgical formulae and hymnody from this period make even the most banal liturgies from our own time seem positively charming by comparison.  You have to read them to believe them.

His history of the restoration of the liturgical life of the church mostly skips the work of the German immigrants of the 1800’s, instead focusing on the efforts of the “liturgical renewal movement” that began in the Roman church in the early twentieth century.  Much of the renewal that was undertaken by men such as Walther and Loehe was lost as progressive waves of German immigrant came to America, not for freedom of religion, but for economic opportunity.

His analysis of the current state of worship is of mixed value.  Feminism is discussed briefly, with almost no objection to removing masculine references in scripture, and only slight words of caution about removing masculine references to God.  The discussion of church growth gets more space, and he does not view the movement favorably.

Ultimately, he ends where he begins, by evaluating the church as an anthropological entity, not a theological one.  His answer to post-modernism is in making the church a community of faith.  Which faith you choose seems unimportant to him, as long as you understand the faith communally.  He appeals to the liturgy as the solution to our problems in the church, but only because he sees the church as a community, and the liturgy is the point at which the community gathers.  The entire study of liturgy would be better if it understood the liturgy of the church as the unchanging word of God.


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