Category: ritual, festival

Liturgical Supinity, Liturgical Erectitude

On the Embodiment of Liturgical Authority

This article was published quite some time ago, in 1993. Buried in an important but obscure journal, Studia Liturgica,  it was rarely read. After the recent papal council on clergy sexual abuse, debates about gender, celibacy, and the priesthood are emerging in the media. It seemed the right time to make this essay available again.

A central theme in ritual studies, at least as practiced in the field of religious studies, is embodiment.[1] When embodiment is given a position of theoretical primacy, posture and gesture emerge as crucial considerations in the interpretation of a rite. Posture and gesture, though micro-units in a ritual enactment or ritual tradition, assume considerable importance, because they encode both intended and unintended meanings—meanings “transmitted” as well as meanings “given off.” We use the term “posture” in two ways. On the one hand, it refers to one’s physical posture (as in, “That child has poor posture”). On the other, when we speak of “political posturing,” the phrase refers to one’s ideological commitments and ways of displaying them. A posture is not only one’s manner of physical comportment (how one parks the body, so to speak) but also one’s attitude—one’s manner or style in the world. “Attitude” denotes the spiritual counterpart of posture, though even this term has both psychological and physiological connotations. We speak of “mental attitudes” but also of the attitude, or tilt, of a sail boat. A mental or spiritual attitude is indicated by our tilt or cant—that is, the way we sit, walk, or move. The terms “attitude” and “posture,” then, refer to the same thing except that “attitude” emphasizes the psychological and spiritual dimensions, while “posture” connotes the physiological and ideological dimensions.

In liturgies participants assume postures that both reflect and cultivate attitudes. When deeply embodied, these attitudes become determinative metaphors that permeate the intellectual, social, and spiritual lives of those who practice them. Here, I want to consider two liturgical postures and their corresponding implications for our understanding of ritual authority, the topic of this symposium. I am being both playful and polemical when I dub them “erectitude” and “supinity.”

Liturgical erectitude is a style typified by poise and verticality. When we embody it, we stand up straight; we process with a noble simplicity. We rise above our surroundings with a quiet and confident dignity—the fruit of age, tradition, and reflection.

Liturgical supinity, on the other hand, is characterized by its flexibility and its closeness to the ground. Supine, the spine hugs the earth. Supine, we are integrated with our surroundings. We are attuned to them, but our openness leaves us in danger of violation.

Described in this general and abstract manner neither posture is particular to a specific person, gender, or tradition. Buddhists may assume either or both attitudes. So may Jews or Christians, though a given tradition may cultivate one of the attitudes more deeply than the other. All of us can probably imagine persons who more obviously typify either erectitude or supinity, and we may suppose that one is more characteristic than the other of a specified gender, but in theory no person, gender, or tradition “owns” either posture.

However, my reflections on the two attitudes did not arise in the abstract, so, lest these characterizations seem disembodied in the very moment that I propose to discuss embodiment, I will situate them more concretely. Recently, two queries regarding ritual authority arrived at my desk. The first came in the proposal for this symposium, which bears the title, “Reclaiming Our Rites,” and which originally bore the subtitle “Reasserting Ritual’s Authority in a Pluralistic, Privatized Culture.” This proposal embodies the posture that I am calling liturgical erectitude, so I will spend most of my energies considering it.

The proposal asks specific questions and assigns me the task of addressing them from the point of view of ritual studies. I was given the tentative title (and implicit question): “What ‘ritualizing’ can teach ‘rites’ and ‘liturgies.’” My job description implicitly calls these terms into question by framing them with quotation marks, and yet it elevates “ritualizing” (which I suspect is associated with my own writing) to authoritative status by assuming that it has something to “teach” rites and liturgies (which, I assume, is associated largely with Christian, perhaps even Roman Catholic, liturgy).

The synopsis of the symposium contains these two paragraphs:

The liturgy is no longer seen as an established pattern of invariable words, music and gestures, but as a freely improvised service that varies enormously from parish to parish—or from Mass to Mass within the same parish. While such innovation may showcase the skills of some parish members (e.g., the presiding priest, the musicians), it also risks subverting the larger community’s participation in the ritual action. For a primary purpose of ritual is surely to enable to the participation of everyone by creating a pattern of familiar, repeated actions that can be “done by heart,” without artifice of self-conscious display.

This rather widespread disregard for the integrity and authority of ritual…is a principal reason why the Center for Pastoral Liturgy has chosen to host this symposium on the problem of ritual’s declining authority in both church and society. It is not so much that our churches—or our cultures—lack rituals, but that these rituals lack authority. Unlike those of archaic peoples, our rituals (whether those of the rock concert, the football stadium, or the church) seem quite improvisatory and provisional. We often “make them up” at will, without invoking ancestral precedent or tradition, and we just as often discard them in favor of “new and improved rites.”[2]

The second query, which I will use to illustrate the posture of liturgical supinity, arrived in the form of a phone call from a woman I had not met and whom I will call “Renata.” She is, let us say, from Tucson. Renata wanted some advice about an initiation rite that she was constructing for half a dozen girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen. She had roughly the month of August during which to construct the rite, prepare the girls and their mothers, and perform the ceremony. She had been reading books on women and ritual having to do with menstruation, female body imagery, “croning,” and other such matters of ceremonial importance to contemporary North American women, and she wanted my reactions to the scenario for the ceremony. Clearly an intelligent and articulate woman with considerable initiative, she had made phone calls to adults actively involved in creative forms of initiating adolescents into adulthood. Unfortunately, they were all men. Even though she knew many ritualizing women, she could find no groups of women who were designing rites for groups of girls.

In talking with me she was obviously not escaping her dilemma, so I put her in touch with the only local woman I knew who had any experience with initiating girls. For the duration of our first conversation I mostly asked questions, for example, What was the sequence of actions? Her plan, still in very provisional form, was to have several discussion meetings in town. After that she, the girls, and their mothers would go on a brief retreat to the mountains, where they would “die” by entering a darkened sweat lodge and then “rise” into womanhood by coming out into the light. This was to be the central ritual act. All the other gestures would be tributaries to this paradigmatic ritual act.

I asked more questions: What was her goal?

To initiate the girls into adulthood.

Who would effect this transition?

She would, assisted by the girls’ mothers.

What had been the role of the mothers so far—were they actively involved in the planning?

No, not really.

Was she a mother of one of the girls?


Was this initiation authorized by the church in which the discussions would occur?


These two queries were the sources of the two polarized voices I heard as I began to reflect on the question of ritual authority. When I was feeling playful and a bit perverse, I sometimes reduced each inquiry to a single question. The question for this symposium became: How can a massive, centuries-old, multi-national religious institution maintain its ritual authority among highly pluralistic, materialistic, individualistic, mobile parishioners living in a racist, militaristic, deeply psychologized society? And I rendered Renata’s inquiry this way: How can a young adult woman with few degrees, no children, no formal religious sanction, and no “grandmothers” successfully initiate half a dozen girls in the four weeks that compose the month of August?

Despite my hyperbolic reframing of the essential questions, I take both queries with equal seriousness. I probably do what the symposium organizers suspected I would do, since, in describing my task, they posed this question, “To what degree—and in what ways—does the field of ritual studies (with its habit of ‘phenomenological levelling,’ its penchant for taking the Tennessee snakehandler’s ritual as seriously as the bishop’s solemn ministrations) challenge the (Christian) liturgist’s affection for norms, paradigms and ‘privileged moments’ of history?”

The question of religious authority is a classical Western one, and it has traditionally been framed in ways that are not only culture-specific but androcentric. I am not referring only to the obvious historic exclusion of women from positions of liturgical authority, but to the inscription of masculine postures and attitudes in liturgical practice and theology. For instance, I cannot imagine Renata’s being the least interested in a liturgy whose symbols and gestures (as described by the symposium organizers) are “hearty” and “robust.” Not only would she question whether the liturgy is, in fact, hearty and robust, she would probably hear in both adjectives an old-boys’-club rhetoric that fails to grasp the tenor of her aspirations. Heartiness and robustness are among the virtues of liturgical erectitude. In the current North American cultural situation, they are expressions of an androcentric liturgy. Even more directly to the point, I cannot imagine Renata’s agreeing with the claim that when a “liturgical order” is enacted, those who engage in it indicate—to themselves and to others—that they accept whatever is encoded in the canons of the liturgy they are performing. In short, they acceded to the liturgical rite’s authority, an authority that yet remains independent of those participate in it.[3]

For what gives liturgical rites their authoritativeness is not, ultimately, the participants’ approval or fidelity. What makes the liturgy socially and morally binding is not the participants’ private, prayerful sentiments (however worthy these may be), but the visible, explicit, public act of acceptance itself.[4]

These two statements seem to me a fundamental premise and undergirding value of this conference. It is the tip of an iceberg, a flag signaling a view that is gaining momentum in the wake of post-Vatican II disenchantment and the waning authority of traditional Euroamerican masculinity. It is a very Catholic view (though, of course, there are other Catholic views), and it is set squarely against the individualistic “habits of the heart” (that Robert Bellah was probably invited to this conference to criticize). I am intrigued by the fact that the claim is buttressed not by arguments from scripture or Catholic theologians but by anthropological theory, especially that of Roy Rappaport. My objection is not to the use of anthropological theory as such but to the uncritical appropriation and reactionary use of it. Rappaport’s work seems to me fundamentally descriptive and analytical in intent; whereas, this use of it is undeniably normative. The logic seems to be: “Ritual is like this, therefore liturgy must be like that.” Rappaport says ritual insulates “public orders from private vagaries,” thus, the proposal for this symposium concludes that the liturgy is inherently superior to personal prayer, popular devotions, and made-up rites.[5]

I am sympathetic with the insistence that Christian liturgy ought to assume a critical, prophetic posture toward middle-class American popular culture. Certain aspects of American culture certainly deserve sustained spiritual critique, and liturgical enactments have on historic occasion provided an effective platform from which to launch such an attack: “…The Liturgy of the Christian assembly stubbornly resists the manipulations of both politics and civil religion.”[6] No doubt, it sometimes does. However, no doubt, it sometimes does not. My claim that it sometimes does not is central to a deep disagreement with the aim of this symposium: “reclaiming our rites” understood as a reassertion of liturgical authority. Who are numbered among the “our?” Christians, clearly. Catholics, clearly. But how can women, who have been systematically denied liturgical authority, be counted among those privileged with inclusion in the first person plural? Women can hardly be imagined as wanting to reclaim what they have not had. So I confess that, whatever the intentions of the title of this symposium, I cannot help hearing in such words a nostalgia for pre-Vatican II days when the liturgy was the liturgy and lay people knew their place. Neither can I help hearing it as a parallel to complaints by men that their authority in families and jobs has been eroded by women, particularly feminists. Perhaps it is the “re-“ in “reclaiming” and “reassertion” that conjures such connotations. In any case, I first coined the term “liturgical erectitude” after I read the symposium proposal, because in the current cultural and ecclesiastical climate liturgical authority is largely and obviously masculine.

Many who assume the posture of liturgical erectitude are busy appropriating a host of allied theological and anthropological notions, for instance, tradition. Liturgical erectitude maintains a proper relation to tradition:

Understood correctly, tradition is a word denoting those aspects of a group’s social compact which have managed to survive the traumas of history because they work in maintaining the social group as a whole. It is by this compact that the group coheres and is thus able to survive. Because of this, the social compact—however it is stated or left unstated—is the result of the entire group and its deliberative processes. Responsibility lies with the group itself and cannot be appealed to anyone’s private “revelation,” nor ought it to be taken from the group and handed over to anyone less than the total body politic.

Thus differing from mere custom and convention, tradition frees from the tyranny of the present: it also protects against aggression by the compulsively articulate, as well as against opportunism by unchecked authority.[7]

I hear such claims as aspirations rather than descriptions, so I would have to shift into the subjunctive in order to affirm them: “Oh, if liturgical tradition were consistent in delivering us from the tyranny of the present! Oh, if it were only true that liturgical tradition represented the total body politic? Don’t we all wish we could be sure that structures which have enabled us to survive would continue to do so!”

If we couple unquestioning trust of liturgical tradition with this symposium’s statements about ritual authority, Renata’s kind of ritualizing is reduced to caricature and made a symbol of the “tyranny of the present.” As a middle-class woman she becomes an example of embourgeoisement.[8] She is taken to be an instance of “private ritual vagaries.”[9] If one adds to this multi-layered critique a definition of ritual that takes it to be “…the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not encoded by the performers,” Renata’s ritualizing is not only caricatured and devalued but defined out of existence, a situation all too familiar to women and one that I find both morally and theoretically intolerable.[10]

Though it may hope to claim anthropological support, a liturgical theology which holds that a rite’s authority transcends its ambient culture and the social relationships on which it is based is not likely to receive much support from anthropologists themselves. Such a theology probably derives from buttressing theological images and ideas, such as that of a god who transcends the land. This god, of course, is metaphorically male. This “god of the gaps” (to appropriate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-worn term) will be increasingly relegated to the edges of the cosmos, not so much because he is male but because he is fundamentally removed and essentially unrelated. My prediction is that in North America a ritual authority that is not grounded in the social relationships on which it depends will suffer the same fate as the god of the gaps, and not at the hands of feminists alone. Renata, along with many other women and a growing number of men, would insist that the authority (if they would even use such a term) of ritual is dependent on—in fact, ought to grow organically out of—those who participate in it. This view is not without its difficulties, but it a cogent option.

Another feature of liturgical erectitude is what we might call “liturgiocentrism,” by which I mean theological ideologies that treat “the” liturgy as both the single center of the ritual tradition in which it is embedded and as the norm for judging its ambient culture. Several assumptions and axioms are regularly associated with liturgiocentric theologies and obviously present in the proposal for this symposium: (1) that “public orders,” such as the liturgy, are by their very nature superior to personal or private ones; (2) that Christian liturgy is somehow above its ambient culture (called in the proposal for this symposium, “the social contract”); (3) that Christian liturgy is “invariable”;[11] (4) that ritual invariance (if there were such a thing) guarantees the authority of the liturgy.

The fact that Christian liturgy has a history at all means that it is variable, changing, fluid. Even if it is a stream that flows more slowly than all others, it nevertheless changes, and its changes are often consonant with other cultural and historical changes. Though a liturgy may criticize and judge social structures, it also reflects them. In short, the liturgy is a cultural process, itself in need of constant reformation and revision. The liturgy, like persons, can err. It can and does embody oppressive structures. If in aspiration it has overcome racism and nationalism, it has not in fact. And it has not overcome sexism even in aspiration, except on rare occasion. The liturgy is not, at least in moral terms, superior to some of the private, invented rites celebrated in homes, convents, forests, and urban work places. Some of these kinds of ritualizing judge the liturgy. Renata’s attempt to initiate six girls into the mysteries of menstruation and womanhood, flawed though it may be, judges the baptismal rites of a church in which there are no huts, no nests to which women may have repose in order to bleed, write theology, weave, or draft resolutions. Nothing guarantees that “Liturgy is what underwrites [that is, is the standard for] the social contract.”[12] Sometimes the social contract functions as a standard for evaluating liturgy. One ought only to decide which underwrites which after observing actual instances of liturgy/culture interaction. One ought not assume, for theological or other reasons, the priority of public liturgy since it has at times in its history proved itself culture- and gender-bound. It has proved itself faithless for the same reason that any rite does: because it does not transcend the people who engage in its performance.

If my language seems too strong and too theological, then let us at least admit that the process of ritual revision, in which many, if not all, religious groups engage, implies the necessity of ritual criticism and the possibility of ritual infelicity. And let us recognize that, even though liturgy sometimes earns the right to be the “model for” a culture, it is also a “model of”[13] culture, and thus it participates in the foibles, injustices, and contradictions of culture.

In 1990 Helen Ebaugh delivered a presidential address called, “The Revitalization Movement in the Catholic Church: The Institutional Dilemma of Power.”[14] Her address is about the dilemma of hierarchical authority precipitated by Vatican II. Though the article says little about ritual, some of its conclusions are germane to our consideration of ritual authority. Ebaugh’s argument is that personalized religious individualism was one of the results of Vatican II, this “revitalization movement.”[15] Far from setting Catholic liturgy with its collective sensibility against or above American cultural individualism, she sees the church and its liturgy as one of the sources of that individualism. The relationship is not antithetical but circular; there is no pure or simple division between liturgy and culture, religion and society. In Ebaugh’s view “selective Catholicism” (picking and choosing which aspects of Catholicism one will participate in) is another result of Vatican II. I mention Ebaugh’s argument because we are so used to hearing accounts that blame these qualities on American culture rather than the church.[16] I do not intend simply to reverse the causal sequence by blaming the church rather than the culture but rather to argue against any dualistic understanding of liturgy and culture.

Vatican II left largely untouched the gender arrangements that underwrite Roman liturgy. Insofar as the church has begun to challenge such arrangements, it has, by and large, followed the lead of culturally informed critics. Joan Laird, for instance, has mounted a powerful critique of the gender arrangements presupposed by most traditional ritual systems, among which we must count Roman Catholic liturgy as well as much that remains of Protestant and Jewish liturgy. She argues that these arrangements “leave men free to design rituals of authority that define themselves as superior, as special, and as separate,” and “because men can be separate, they can be ‘sacred.’”[17] Thus, she concludes that, “since rites of passage are important facilitators in the definition of self in relation to society, there is clearly a need for women to reclaim, redesign, or create anew rituals that will facilitate life transitions and allow more meaningful and clear incorporation of both familial and public roles.”[18]

I believe Laird’s conclusion is essentially correct. I see no way to refute the core of feminist critique of ritual authority and no reason to obstruct women’s attempt to claim (or re-claim, if they ever had control of) their rites. In fact, liturgy, liturgical theology, and ritual theory, ought to be put in the service of this critique rather than having to be the repeated objects of it. There is a tacit but fundamental conflict between the project to “reclaim our rites,” the stated aim of this symposium, and the feminist attempt to reclaim ritual, so let us not pretend this is not a power struggle.

So far I have not engaged in critique of the assumptions about authority implicit in the ritualizing represented by Renata. If she were in attendance at this symposium, I would do so, but its presuppositions exclude her. If I were addressing, say, a New Age convention in Boulder, Colorado, at which she might be present, I would challenge at the least following problematic assumptions: (1) that personal insight and private passion, such as one finds in contemporary Anglo-American ritual groups, are by their very nature more authentic than public liturgical orders; (2) that women’s concerns, merely because they are rooted in women’s bodies, (or men’s concerns merely because they are rooted in men’s bodies) are universal and timeless—the same now as in ages past and in other cultures; and (3) that ritual creativity or authenticity displaces the need for ritual authority in the more public or conventional sense; (4) that all ancient or Native American symbols are available for mining by the White middle class for use in its ritualizing. I will not argue each of these points here. My aim is simply to illustrate that I am not uncritical of contemporary ritualizing and its assumptions about authority.

In Christian history the usual sources of authorization for anything, liturgy included, have been the Bible, tradition, and the hierarchy (pastoral as well as papal and gender-based ones as well as ecclesiastical ones). But I have not yet tackled directly the evasive theoretical question: What is ritual authority? There are multiple candidates for an answer to it. Ritual authority might be, for example, whatever

  • is endorsed (by the gods, elders, officiants, or other kinds of participants);
  • is traditional (usually done, done for generations);
  • is performed according to the rules (contained in sacred and/or liturgical texts);
  • functions (that is, fits the social context) or works (to achieve explicit goals);
  • is just (according to moral criteria).

Distinguishing kinds or levels of authority at least would enable us to notice that the symposium organizers emphasize #1 and #2 (what is endorsed and traditional), whereas Renata is more interested in #4 (what functions or works), and feminist critiques of mainline liturgy often question its moral authority (#5). Such emphases are, of course, not mutually exclusive, so there is no necessary or logical conflict between the three positions (that of established liturgiology, that of feminist liturgical theology, and that of private ritualizing outside the ecclesiastical context). The very complexity of ritual precludes any simple answer to the question, What is ritual authority? But we will do much talking past each other if we do not distinguish at least among these sorts of authority. Furthermore, there are different kinds of ritual, and these probably entail different sorts of ritual authority.

The notion of ritual authority conceals at least two, circularly related questions. The first is this: What authorizes ritual? by which is meant, Where does it come from, how does it arise, who warrants it? The stated intention of this symposium seems to emphasize this aspect of current liturgical difficulties in North America. The organizers appear interested in fostering a liturgy that has public, not merely private, validity and that arises out of time-tested, ecclesiastically grounded tradition. The second question is this: What does ritual authorize? by which is meant, What does it do, achieve, or enable? Renata is primarily interested in this question. She wants to construct a rite that will, in fact, enable girls to become women. A serious problem, as I see it, is the divorce between these questions that ought to be dialectically related. If we make the mistake of focusing entirely on the first one (what ritual authorizes), treating ritual solely as a pragmatic tool, we are tempted to ransack the world’s ritual traditions for symbolic goods, much as we once plundered the globe for spices and gold. If we over-emphasize the second one (what authorizes ritual), treating liturgy solely as a paradigm or norm (with authority over participants and culture), we attribute to it a false, heteronomous transcendence removed from criticism but also from relevance and cultural roots. So in my view those who practice liturgical supinity (a posture emphasizing attunement to cultural currents and ecological realities) as a way of fostering ritual creativity need to attend to ritual traditions, especially their own. Those who defend liturgical erectitude (a posture emphasizing public accountability and traditional integrity) as a way of consolidating ritual authority need to attend to ritual generation, especially that of women and other groups marginalized by mainline liturgical activity.

I am calling, then, for a reframing of the question of ritual authority. Since the notion of authority is so contaminated with androcentrism, I prefer to change the terms of reference altogether. We might, for instance, speak of “felicitous” and “infelicitous” rather than authorized (or authoritative) and unauthorized (or “unauthoritative”) ritual.[19] This strategy does not get rid of the authority question, but it does put it in a larger context. We need to know how and in what respects liturgies lapse into infelicity. Are, for example, non-feminist liturgies and baptisms guilty of “glossing,” that is, of using ritual procedures to cover up social problems? Do they commit ritual “violations,” actions that are effective but demeaning?

If my budding glossary of ritual infelicities seems cumbersome, there are others in the making. William Seth Adams, for instance, criticizes Episcopalian baptism on two accounts: its ritual incongruence and its ritual incoherence. Both of his judgments are made on the basis of observations and descriptions of that rite’s handling of ritual space and action.[20]

The temptation in trying to develop a vocabulary of ritual infelicity is that it could degenerate into mere academic name-calling. If so, it would, of course, be useless. But if it forced us to be more precise in identifying the level on which criticism of a liturgical rite is being levied, it might actually help the antagonists engage one another more fully and fairly. What worries me is the lack of sustained and direct public debate between male theologians who want to reassert liturgical authority and feminist ones who are marginalized by symposia such as this one because they might challenge or undermine it. What little debate there is, is far too circumlocutious and private.

Whether my terms are the best ones or not, the implication I want to press is this: liturgy’s felicitousness does not arise from ecclesiastical, biblical, conciliar, or traditional warrant alone but also on the basis of a rite’s ability to meet fundamental human need. Liturgy is as essentially cultural as it is religious. Consequently, it ought to be subjected not just to theological criticism but to ritual, ethical, and others sorts of criticism that proceed on anthropological, ecological, and psychological grounds.

If we were to be successful in reframing the question of ritual authority, our view of initiation, for example, might be different. The symposium organizers wrote in their letter to me, “…Rites without norms—or rites that are homogenized into a kind of ‘generic’ condition through over-identification with cross-cultural models (as may have happened when Christians rushed to identify ‘baptism’ with ‘an initiation rite‘)—have a hard time maintaining any authoritativeness.” Here the general question of ritual authority is focused specifically on baptism.

In my view the attempt to reimagine baptism as an initiation rite has been a largely felicitous step in baptismal history, and the church ought to go further with this experiment, not retrench on it. From the point of view of liturgical erectitude, however, the step is an infelicitous one, making baptism too generic, too cultural. A cross-cultural perspective, however, has helped provide a critical edge for assessing liturgy.

For example, Marjorie Procter-Smith in her critique of Christian baptism lays out several criteria for judging rites: the centrality of women’s bodies, naming the sources of oppression, baptism’s connectedness with the everyday, dependence on relationships among women, and ritual empowerment.[21] These are dependent in part on cross-cultural research mediated through feminist theological scholarship. Procter-Smith is, at least indirectly, indebted to the notion of initiation or some equivalent, culturally-grounded idea. Her sources are not only theological or narrowly Christian but broadly cultural, even cross-cultural. Initiation understood as a bodily, social, and political phenomenon is a product of cross-cultural research. Some of the grounds for liturgical critique, such as those launched by feminist and Marxist critics of so-called “gender ritual,” have their roots outside Christian theology.[22] They have been more attuned to ritual infelicities, especially the abuse of ritual authority, than most liturgical theologies have. Both feminist ritualizing (like that of Renata) and feminist liturgical rites (like those proposed by Procter-Smith) are more consistently open to, and dependent upon, cross-cultural research, because they do not construe the authority of ritual as derivative from either its distinctiveness or its exclusivity.

Whatever may be lost by considering baptism an initiation rite, the gain has been considerable. If Christian baptism seems to lose its uniqueness, and therefore authority, by being assimilated to a cross-cultural model, it gains connectedness, not only with women but with other cultures and classes and with human ordinariness. I am not suggesting that some generic initiation rite is necessarily less sexist or more humane than Christian baptism. And I am not arguing for the moral or ritual superiority of other kinds of initiation, but for the value of continuing to imagine baptism pluralistically, as just one (not “the”) version of human initiatory activity. Christian baptism, I believe, is more, not less felicitous, if it remains permeable to cross-culturally informed initiation rites—if those who conduct and theologize about baptism do so in the light of non-Christian as well as Christian data.

I do not mean to imply that liturgical theologians need “authoritative” “correction” from anthropologists and historians of religion who work on rites of passage, but rather that mutual critique and collaborative reimagining of ritual processes should be our aim. We in the humanities and social sciences need critique as surely as liturgical theologians need ours. For example, a recurrent assumption of rites of passage theorists is that rites of passage have their proper home in pre-industrial cultures. Victor Turner represents a widespread anthropological view when he says, “Rites de Passage are found in all societies but tend to reach their maximal expression in small-scale, relatively stable and cyclical societies, where change is bound up with biological and meteorological rhythms and recurrences rather than with technological innovations.”[23] Is this claim true? No anthropologist that I know has presented data that demonstrates that it is the case. Perhaps the problem is rather a failure of the theoretical imagination—this time among secular academics rather than liturgists or liturgiologists. If baptism is, in fact, an initiation rite, is it not evidence that rites of passage continue in industrial cultures? Is not Christian baptism an example of a kind of initiation that continues, recast and reimagined, into industrial and postmodern society? I do not claim that the example of Christian baptism disproves Turner’s assumption, only that it makes it questionable.

I am currently struggling with the history of rites of passage theory, which is indebted largely to van Gennep and Turner. Turner’s theory of ritual is constructed around the cornerstone of liminality, the second phase in the rites of passage model. But rites of passage theorizing from van Gennep (its originator) to Turner (in whom it culminates) is determined mainly by one kind of rite of passage, namely, initiation; initiation has been regarded as the paradigm for the other rites of passage such as those surrounding birth, marriage, and death.[24] In turn, the examples of initiation are, in almost every instance those of male initiation. So ritual theory itself is not immune from the kinds of critique I have levelled at liturgical theology, because the theorizing itself is contaminated by androcentrism and colonialism.

But so what? What difference does such a conclusion make? It makes little if we imagine that theory has no life beyond the halls of academe. However, I know people who design initiations in three phases—separation, transition, incorporation—the classical threefold pattern formulated by van Gennep. I know feminists ritualizers who set out deliberately to foment liminality, a notion borrowed from Turner, who borrowed it from van Gennep, who borrowed it from…. Ritual theory itself is currently inspiring and permeating North American ritual practices, both ecclesiastical and self-generated. Whether or not van Gennep and Turner would have approved of such a use of their ideas, they (like Jung and Eliade), nevertheless, have fed the initiatory fantasies that have been with us since at least the origins of romance in the Middle Ages and the revival of romanticism in the nineteenth century.

I do not want to privilege ritual studies, religious studies, anthropology, or any other discipline, making it some new arbiter in the clash between ecclesiastical liturgiology and private ritualizing. Each of these is in need of critique. However, liturgical theologians need to stop uncritically appropriating and start questioning their anthropological (largely White male) authorities[25] and begin listening to their female ritual critics.[26] The opening of liturgy and liturgical theology to the cross-cultural resources provided by anthropology and religious studies, though not without its problems, is nevertheless essential to the felicitous functioning of a liturgy that must negotiate its position in what we all hope is a decreasingly androcentric and increasingly pluralistic world. It is also essential for debunking liturgical or theological claims to a false transcendence over culture. When culture is construed as the bipolar opposite of a male-engendered and male-controlled liturgy, it necessarily becomes the overcrowded home of women and “others.”

So, what am I actually recommending? I hope for continued, strengthened moral and cultural pressure on Christian liturgies in the direction of a more collaborative, less hierarchical, less androcentric sensibility for handling ritual power. I would like to see a sustained reconsideration of certain key notions—among them: authority, power, order, and tradition. The view of tradition, for example, that identifies its authority with rule-like order or maintains that tradition stands above culture should not be regarded as sacrosanct. There are other ways to understand tradition. It is time we admit that the reigning definitions of such notions are themselves both andro- and ethnocentric and thus in need of theological critique. When I hear calls for liturgical order and pleas for enhanced ritual authority, I cannot help thinking of Huntington and Metcalf’s compelling interpretation of Bara funerals. For these Madagascar islanders death is “an overdose of order,” thus funerals are necessary injections of chaos to revitalize and rebalance the socially generated cosmos.[27]

The Christian liturgical imagination can no longer afford the luxury of reasserting ritual authority on the basis of rules assumed to be unchanging and universal. Participants can begin to create the conditions for nurturing the liturgical imagination by refusing to reassert the authority of liturgy (or ritual theory) over those who participate in it, for the simple reason that many of us who exercise such authority are White middle-class, middle-aged Euroamerican males, who present keynote addresses at symposia like this one. If such a divestment of ritual authority means that one can no longer do the liturgy “by heart” and “without artifice” (two aspirations specified in the symposium proposal) so be it. Let us learn to ritualize our self-consciousness and our lack of authority.

In my view the feminist critique and environmental crisis require of us men who hold various kinds of ritual authority that we drop our preoccupation with ritual authorization so that we have the energy to follow the leads of others who know more than we about ritual generation. The former is typical of the posture of liturgical erectitude; the latter, of liturgical supinity. The difference between the two emphases is that the authority question (at least as posed for this gathering) starts at the top (the head) rather than the bottom (the roots). The question we should be asking, then, is not what stands above ritual to authorize it, but what lies below it. The best position from which to answer the question is supine. So if I were forced to answer the question, What constitutes ritual authority, without arguing against the question itself, I would have to say something like this: Ritual has (or ought to have) authority only insofar as it is rooted in, generated by, and answerable to its infrastructures—bodily, cultural, ecological, spiritual.

I might have approached the topic of ritual authority in a variety of ways, for example, theoretically or practically, theologically or social scientifically. I have done so ritologically, thereby assuming a position between these two sets of alternatives. My aim in doing so, however, has not been to pretend that I am neutral or to escape critique. I am not neutral, and I am well aware of the dangers of assuming mediating positions in disputes where dividing lines are deeply inscribed. In the present circumstances my own position is largely that of an advocate of the virtues of liturgical supinity (even though I know I have argued for it with considerable erectitude). I am not recommending it for women, who have known the posture for generations, but for men occupying positions of power and authority. From a supine position, into which many women have been forced both literally and metaphorically (but which I as a man have been able to imagine that I can assume by choice) one has to “overcome from underneath,” to borrow a Taoist phrase. One has to employ cultural and religious refuse, that is, the symbols our culture would prefer to bury or forget, recycling and transforming them into tools useful for the liberation of a captive liturgy.

Before I conclude, I must confess to a trick I have been playing. The image of a “supine liturgy” is not my invention. It belongs Aidan Kavanagh, from whom I have pilfered it.[28] I have inverted it, using it in ways quite contrary to his original intentions. Liturgical supinity is not a posture to which he aspires but rather one he fears and deplores. He uses the phrase to characterize the plight of a liturgy that capitulates to middle-class American culture. To quote him, “Liturgy is not [I think he means, “ought not be”] adapted to culture, but culture to the liturgy.”[29]

When I first encountered the image, it stopped me flat and stole my breath. It provoked an imagined a scenario: Liturgy was lying on its back, its spine following the curvature of the ground. It was, if you will, in missionary position. I imagined (my imagination being more perverse than Kavanagh’s) a very tall, very threatening, not very trustworthy Mr. Culture. He was standing over Supine Liturgy, whose gender I leave to your imagination.

This scenario is one Kavanagh rejects. He would have us reverse the polarities, so I inverted the imagery and ran out another scenario: Now, Liturgy is vertical, male, and standing erect; liturgical authority walks tall. Culture, now obviously female, is supine and vulnerable. To be lying on one’s back is dangerous, not to mention bad liturgical style. It is an invitation to abuse.

I do not like either scenario; I mistrust them both. By teasing out the images of erectitude and supinity, I am not suggesting that liturgical issues are really sexual ones. Instead, I am using the sexual images as metaphors for understanding the relations between liturgy and culture. I do mean, however, to imply that gender issues (as distinct from sexual issues) are more fully determinative of both liturgical practice and liturgical theology than most White male theologians readily recognize or openly admit.[30] I am also arguing that the middle class culture before which liturgy is not supposed to be supine includes some of the most articulate, critical, and creative women in the church. Thus, I question both the wisdom and morality of a liturgy-vs.-culture model. I am defending liturgical supinity not because I believe that the church ought to lie prostrate before culture, but because I believe the supine position best symbolizes what men presently prefer to ignore. Men, largely Euroamerican males, have been the inventors of most Christian liturgical traditions, so I believe that we should practice the posture we have assigned women as a way of educating ourselves ritually. We ought not pretend that the Renatas of our time merely invent their rites, while assuming that ours were “somehow given” to us.

American culture can be rapacious. We all know this. I certainly do not want to be seduced, much less raped, by a rapacious American culture. I am wary of it. But I am just as wary of canonized posturing and liturgical displays of the feathers of erectitude. I do not believe that a more prophetic liturgy needs to assume the form of liturgical erectitude or remain impervious to the supine virtues. I believe that Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, is much in need of liturgical supinity. A more supine liturgy, which I am espousing for White, Euroamerican men, would, of course, be perpetually endangered, a rare species. It would be a liturgy whose authority consists of the act (at once both real and ritualistic) of divesting itself of power. We men who organize and speak at conferences such as this need to meditate upon—or within—the vision of a supine liturgy, one that teases the spines of its practitioners into parallel alignment to, and contact with, the earth.

I conclude, then, by commending the metaphor of supinity to you. If you choose to embody and practice it, it will stretch muscles you did not know you have. And you may be sure that you will be sore the day after.



[1]. This chapter is the revised form of a lecture delivered in 1992 at the University of Notre Dame for a conference entitled “Reclaiming Our Rites.” In 1993 the paper was discussed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy. It was first published in Studia Liturgica (23 [1993]: 51-69). I am deeply indebted to Mary Collins, Marjorie Procter-Smith, Lynn Ross-Bryant, S. L. Scott, and Janet Walton for their reflections, critique, and encouragement in writing the original paper.

[2]. The version printed in the actual program differs slightly from this one.

[3]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 181.

[4]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 182.

[5]. For an alternative theological view of liturgy that emphasizes its public nature but attempts to overcome this tendency to accord it privileged status see Jennings, “Liturgy” and “Sacrament.”

[6]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 180.

[7]. Kavanagh, Baptism, 146.

[8]. The term is used by Aidan Kavanagh in Studia Liturgica (20.1 [1990]: 102) and quoted by Nathan Mitchell in “Americans,” 180.

[9]. The term was originally Roy Rappaport’s (Ecology, 197). It is used by Nathan Mitchell in “Americans,” 182.

[10]. Rappaport, Ecology, 175. In my Ritual Criticism (9-14) I have argued against such exclusion by definition.

[11]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 183.

[12]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 184.

[13]. The terms belong to Geertz, (The Interpretation of Culture).

[14]. Ebaugh, “Revitalization.”

[15]. The idea is borrowed from anthropologist Anthony Wallace.

[16]. This rhetorical strategy parallels the strategy of the 1992 Republican convention in the United States, namely, blaming all moral ills on “the culture” while maintaining that “America” (the country) is unblemished. I am indebted to S.L. Scott for pointing out this parallel.

[17]. Laird, “Women and Ritual,” 337.

[18]. Laird, “Women and Ritual,” 338.

      [19]. See my Ritual Criticism (chapter 9) for more on ritual infelicity.

[20]. Adams, “Decoding.”

[21]. Procter-Smith, In Her Own Rite.

[22]. See, for example, Paige and Paige, Reproductive Ritual.

[23]. Turner, Forest, 93.

[24]. Adams (“De-coding,” 332), who advocates a “baptismal paradigm,” ought to take this bias in rites of passage theory into account, since he makes explicit use of the theory.

[25]. Such as Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Roy Rappaport.

[26]. Such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marjorie Procter-Smith, Janet Walton, Mary Collins, Katheleen Hughes, and the many unknown Renatas.

[27]. Huntington and Metcalf, Celebrations of Death.

[28]. Kavanagh, Elements, 56.

[29]. Kavanagh, Elements, 55. This statement is softened considerably by one that follows: “…The liturgical assembly is normally always in the business of absorbing cultural elements into itself in a rich diversity of ways and over long periods of time” (57). Clearly, Kavanagh is aware that the liturgy/culture relation is not a one-way street.

[30]. The usual distinction is that sexuality is biologically given, whereas gender is socially constructed.

Rit Bits: An Unconventional Look at Ritual

A CBC interview about secular and personal ritual.

Interviews about ritual

Below are some interviews about

  • rites of passage
  • do-it-yourself ritual
  • ritual and science.







How Is a Ritual Like a Dutch Bike?

When I first began teaching in the Netherlands, I marveled at the herds of Dutch bikes that swarmed the streets. Exiting Velorama, Nijmegen’s tightly packed little bike museum, I jokingly said to a colleague, “The Dutch imagination is profoundly ‘bicyciular.’” Each time I was back in Nijmegen, I had to walk past a bike shop. I would stop and press my nose to the window. Shouldn’t a man, now ensconced upon a Dutch chair of ritual studies, ride a fine Dutch bike? The high prices of those hardy, brilliantly engineered machines only intensified my lust. Dutch bikes are sexy, but not in the cheesy way that Harley Davidson motorcycles are made to appear sexy by draping a babe across the rear fender. Until recently, no one in North America thought Dutch bikes were sexy. They are so heavy. Their rear ends (their booties) are too big and their tires, skinny. Their chains are not tantalizingly exposed to public view. And you perch on the saddle, upright, exposing little that is interesting from behind.

I was proud to be magnificently alone in my appreciation of the beauty of Dutch bikes. As far as I knew, no one else in Canada or the U.S. was lusting after them. Then suddenly everything changed. Dutch bikes have now become a fashion accessory for American males. The phrase “Dutch-inspired”[1] is selling not only bikes in Seattle, Brooklyn, and Toronto but men’s clothing in New York.[2] So now I am a little embarrassed to be casting such a fashionable item as the privileged symbol for this article. I’ve begun to worry that, should I ever own a good Dutch bike, I might have to adopt a classier dress code.

I could argue that a rite is a structure, placing myself in the august company of Claude Levi-Strauss. Or I could claim that it is dynamic, casting myself as a fellow traveler of Heidelberg’s Dynamics of Ritual project.[3] But probably because I was teaching ritual studies in the Flat Land of the Bike, an odd sentence lodged like a thorn in my brain: “A rite is like a good Dutch bike: If it is broken, it’s worth fixing.” The sentence may seem flippant, but it would not go away.

I made the mistake of telling some doctoral students about my not-so-secret desire for a fine Dutch bike. Later they invited me on a country ride and loaned me a “true” (not a “fine”) Dutch bike: only one gear, a fender needing to be wired on, and its paint fading. The experience tempted me to modify the sentence in my head, “A rite is like a ‘true’ Dutch bike, so it probably needs fixing.”

Before I begin the Quixotic task of comparing rites with bikes, some context: I have spent much time and energy working to demonstrate that ritual activities can be both creative and critical, and therefore, that theorizing about them should be as well. Creativity and criticism are two sides of the same coin. If ritual creativity is weak, ritual criticism will be too. If ritual criticism is muted, ritual creativity will suffer. I’ve also argued that rites are practical; they do important cultural, physical, moral, and intellectual work. Rituals should be as shapely as a good Dutch bike and as useful as a monkey wrench in the hands of a plumber.

When I first began studying ritual, I asked how ritual practices shape, or fail to shape, people’s attitudes, values, and decisions. I wanted to know how ritually enhanced images and practices shaped their views of the world. Currently, however, I have taken one step back and am asking theoretical and methodological questions: How do scholarly practices—applying for grants, conducting research, applying theories, and writing books—generate the scholarly world we call “ritual studies?” Where do theories of ritual come from? What do they really accomplish, or fail to accomplish?

Barry Stephenson and I built Ritual Studies Dot Com, a Web site for international, interdisciplinary discussion.[4] We had to choose an image for the home page and could have taken the easy way by merely putting up a picture of a ritual, but we decided to be suggestive rather than literal. We used two images—both a bit of a tease. One suggested that ritual is processual, flowing. However, this image was of Laurel Creek in winter, so the water was frozen.[5] It leaves viewers with a question: Is ritual flowing or fixed?

The second one playfully and critically asks viewers: If you think ritual is a structure, how about this kind? The photo showes the rear end of a Chinese restaurant, one that has, over the years, been patched in mismatched ways. Each image says something about how scholars might conceive ritual. There are other, contending models. The images are invitations to a friendly argument, a debate.

When I first began work on The Craft of Ritual Studies,[6] I thought of ritual-using and theory-using as two distinctly different activities. Later, I changed my mind, having found that scholars, like ritualists, inescapably wield metaphors, analogies, and images. I began to see that figures of speech and visual images are as essential to theory-making as they are to ritual-making. The theorist’s question isn’t only, “What convincing words can we use to describe ritual?” but also, “How should we imagine ritual?”

Theory-construction isn’t only about crafting words into credible statements, but also about images, visual as well as verbal. Even in the sciences, not to mention the social sciences and humanities, images and diagrams buttress verbal theory-construction. Theorizing, then, is an audio-visual production; we not only speak and write theories, we also visualize them. So I began hunting for the images that now litter this article.

I began plowing through theoretical writings, trying to understand not only the terms and concepts but the images that lie beneath them.

For instance, if we are going to speak of a ritual as a structure, what kind? What does it look like?

A set of interlocking stones?

A hierarchically arranged pyramid?

If a ritual is a system, is it like

a subway system?

a nervous system?

a solar system?

If a ritual is a dynamic process, how does it work? What does it look like?

A circular set of feedback loops?

A river’s course?

The aerodynamics of a speeding automobile?

If a ritual is deep or layered, how many layers are there,

and what are their names?

How does one know which layers are superficial and which ones, deep?

If a ritual exercises power,

what kind of power?

where and how is it generated?

how is it transferred, through what kinds of lines?

If ritual is embodied power,

in whom is it embodied?

how is it embodied?

in muscles? in minds? in hearts?

If a ritual has dimensions, what are they?

Which ones matter most?

Which ratios between dimensions are the most determinative of ritual efficacy?

If ritual is a language constructed of symbols,

and they mean things in the ways that words mean them,

what “language” does ritual speak?

Who can “speak ritual” and who cannot?

If ritual is constructed of elements how many are there and what are their names?

If ritual has building blocks, what are their shapes, and of what are they made?

If riiuals have a backstage area and a front of house, how do we know when we’ve entered the one zone and exited the other? Where’s the curtain?

If a rite of passage transports a person across a threshold,

how shall we envision such betwixt and between zones.

To what extent are they actually spatial?

You could object that no one takes such terms literally, that in scholarly discourse these are abstractions not figures of speech. However, all analogies are meant to “hold,” that is, be literal in some ways but not in others. My attempt to visualize or literalize a metaphor, is a way of learning more about how it works in a theory. Images do matter, because they shape and reflect attitudes, so the more explicit we become about them, the more effective we can be in both constructing and criticizing theories of ritual. It is fair to ask of any theoretically deployed image, analogy, or metaphor: In what respects does it hold, and in what respects does it not?

I began digging metaphors, images, and analogies out of abstract theoretical prose, because, in reading scholarly works on ritual, I was too often uncertain when, or even whether, I was reading theory. In ritual studies rarely does anyone say, “I am now writing a theory, and here it is.” So readers are left to ferret out the theory, and, worse, to guess at the methods implied by that theory. How does one distinguish between an ethnographic description of a single ritual performance and a generalized description of a ritual, or between a formal definition and a generalizing statement? I discovered that others, graduate students and professors alike, were often having the same difficulty knowing which parts of a book are theoretical. Eventually, I drafted a guide for reading articles theoretically and methodologically. Even though it is only a question set, it implies a tight connection between theorizing, imagining, and writing.

Before I return to evangelizing in favor of Dutch bikes, we should make an elementary distinction between analogy and metaphor. For a dad to boast about his son, “Paul is like a lion,” is an analogy, a mere comparison, but when Paul’s classmate Heather screams, “Paul, you are a stupid skunk,” that is a metaphor, although not a very strong one, because we know Paul is not really a skunk but a mere boy who has been teasing Heather. She probably means either, “I don’t like you, Paul” or more maybe, “You smell bad, like a skunk.” Weak metaphors are easily reducible to analogies, and analogies are easily explained as comparisons that hinge on one or two similarities.

A metaphor is a stronger kind of symbol, because it equates the “vehicle” (the symbol that points) with its “tenor” (that to which it points). A metaphor is also more complex, not merely x = y, but also x ≠ y. A metaphor simultaneously and paradoxically posits both identity and dis-identity.

The most rooted, or radical, metaphors are those that resist translation or reduction. If a ceremonially authorized person dresses up in robes and hands you a piece of bread while saying, “This is my body,” that is radically metaphoric, especially if you’re a Catholic, because the priest is declaring both: “This is bread; this is not bread.”

We can lose sight of metaphors, and they can become weak. “Head of the table” and “foot of the table” are rarely recognized as metaphors until someone comments on them or shows us an image that reactivates them. Where is the “head of a table?” Where is the “foot” of a table. Not usually on the “leg” of a table.

However, if your society expects you sit at the foot of the table, and lower body parts are associated with the sinister left hand, you are in a metaphorically reinforced position of subservience. The metaphor has force.

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, two American philosophers, show how entire worldviews and value systems are encoded in the adjectives “right” and “left” or innocent prepositions such as “up” or “down.”[7] Determinative metaphors are not mere cute turns of phrase or single images. Rather, they form clusters, systems, or webs, and they do so not only in ordinary social life but also in the rarified atmosphere of ritual theory. Because invisible metaphors embedded in theories can be even more determinative than visible ones, it is important to locate and reflect on them.

One of the most pernicious and widespread metaphors in ritual theory is that of “structure.” Jan Snoek says, “most ritual behavior is more formally stylized, structured, and standardized than most common behavior.”[8] Eugene d’Aquili defines ritual behavior as “a subset of formalized behavior that involves two or more individuals in active and reciprocal communication and that is structured….”[9] Catherine Bell treats ritualization less as a noun than as a verb. Even so, for her, ritual is “the strategic production of expedient schemes that structure an environment….”[10]

“Structure,” whether used as a verb or noun, may not sound to your ear like a metaphor, but it is. Even though none of these theorists would actually claim that ritual is unchanging, the architectural metaphor, “structure,” connotes something solid, reinforcing the widespread assumption that rituals are comparatively stable, that they don’t change, or change very little.

Since the mid-1960s, to counteract static theories rooted in static metaphors like “structure,” we have learned to speak of ritual as “dynamic.” Now rituals compete with racy sports cars and motivational public speakers. Ritual is no longer stodgy and unchanging but dynamic (it changes) and transformative (it changes things). But this idea too rides the back of a metaphor, since, literally speaking, the term “dynamics” refers to that branch of mechanics which studies motion and equilibrium. In speaking of ritual as “dynamic,” we are transposing the notion of driving forces from physics and hydraulics to psychology and politics, where the sources of action are really motivations rather than physical causes. In other words, if the notion of “ritual dynamics” leads us to imagine rites as causes or effects rather than as motivated actions, we have been seduced by the hidden metaphor.

A variant of dynamics is hydraulics, the branch of science that studies liquids in motion. Sigmund Freud made extensive use of hydraulic metaphors. Libido was liquid-like energy welling up from the unconscious, exerting upward “pressure,” like water heated in a boiler system. For Freud, catharsis was a kind of “emptying,” and cathexis, a kind of “filling.” Sublimation amounted to “channeling.”

Hydraulic metaphors helped 19th century thinkers get beyond the notion of information as discreet units. These metaphors enabled people to embrace the idea of continuous flow. But the metaphors carried other implications, and they were often unrecognized. For instance, communication came to be imagined as flowing through “lines,” and those “pipelines” could get “clogged.” Consequently, neurotics required therapists for the same reason that toilets require plumbers, to help clean out the grunge.

To nuance and complicate the hydraulic model by imagining “multi-channels,” does not get beyond the root hydraulic metaphor of a liquid flowing through a pipe or through several discreet channels. We bump up against the limits of the metaphor when try to imagine multiple voices “flowing” through a single telephone wire.

There are plenty of other concepts that are used like abstractions but which hide analogies or metaphors that can lead their users into absorbing attitudes conditioned by the images that lie beneath. Think, for instance, about Emile Durkheim’s notion of ritual “solidarity.” Don’t just think it, try to feel it, sense it. What does the idea or feeling of solidarity do for your understanding of ritual? In my imagination ritual solidarity is hardwood, oak, safe and supportive. Or consider Durkheim’s claim that rituals are characterized by “collective effervescence.” The images makes you want to rise up, like bubbles in a drink. I can’t contemplate the image-idea of collective effervescence for long without feeling Jamaican ginger beer bubbling up in my throat.

I am not trying to convince you that you should buy into my preferred metaphors instead of someone else’s, just to recognize that theorizing is not only about cobbling together verbal abstractions.Theorizing is also a way of imagining, consequently different from, but similar to, imagining in the arts.

Theorizing is not only imaginative, it is also strategic, thus similar to advertising. To theorize is to make a pitch, mount an argument for choosing this over that. The choice of key metaphors is not merely arbitrary, nor is it innocently aesthetic, a matter of turning phrases or deploying attractive images. It is culturally and historically conditioned, and it expresses strongly, if not sacredly, held values. Theorizing, however much it appears to mask or play down passion, is passionate to the point of being evangelical. Most of the theorists I know, regardless of how they write, will fight to defend their theories. So do not be fooled by the desiccated prose that too many theorists proffer.

By now, you are probably wondering what happened to that promised Dutch bike (the “fine,” idealized one, or the “true” one owned by a doctoral student’s boyfriend). I have latched onto the analogy, “A rite is like a bike” partly because no one is fooled by it. It is a mere analogy, not an invisible, determinative metaphor. It has no pretentions to power. Thinking of a rite as bike-like is modest—not very sexy—because everyone knows a rite is not a bike. You immediately understand that you could select other analogous objects: airplanes, computers, dresses, saxophones, or Chinese bikes. No one thinks a bike is a rite in the same way people do when they talk about rites as structures or rites as dynamic.

A rite as bike-like seems far-fetched, but I could make the connection more obvious by selecting certain kinds of bikes, this one, for instance, which tows a coffin on wheels.[11] A bike used as a ritual tool makes the bike-rite connection clear. Once you see the photo, the link is obvious.

It’s worth playing out some of the possible answers to the question, How is a rite like a Dutch bike? One answer is: For both a rite and bike, you can produce a parts list, and parts lists are handy. Try putting on a wedding or funeral without a list, and you are courting disaster. Try shooting a rite with no idea of its components and you’ll leave something out.

A rite is like a bike insofar as the whole can be factored into parts or the parts cobbled together into a whole. I call these “elements,” because they are primary, but you could call them something else, micro-structures, or more plainly, “the nuts and bolts of ritual.” Thinking this way has a certain plumber-like utility to it, but we shouldn’t let the analogy fool us. Adding elements—ritual objects to ritual spaces to ritual actors—doesn’t produce a ritual any more than a bucket of nuts, bolts, sprockets, and spokes equals a bicycle.

Unless you repair your own bike or you are a bike mechanic, you would not know how to assemble a bike out of a bunch of parts. An exploded diagram would get you one step closer, because it helps you conceive the spatial relations properly. Let’s say that you do, in fact, succeed in assembling a bike out of a bucketful of parts, there are at least two other problems: You must learn how to balance a bike, that is, to ride it, and you must know the rules of the road and understand biking culture. If don’t, getting “doored” is a distinct possibility.

So there is more to a bike (not to mention, a ritual) than just a bunch of static parts. Bikes and rites have a statics, evident in frame ratios, tubing, and joints, but also a dynamics. Riders need to know not only what the components are but also how they go together; how they work; how to use a bike physically; and how to use it socially and legally. In other words, to theorize them properly, we must put action into the picture, and then frame the picture in a cultural context.

So, a rite is bike-like insofar as it has “parts,” but how far can we go with the analogy? Imagine playing a game in which the winning side is the one that comes up with the most ways in which a rite is like a bike:

  • A rite is a like a bike; each can be schematized as a parts list or exploded diagram.
  • A rite is a like a bike; each can be fixed if broken. (Some would contest this claim.)
  • A rite is a like a bike; each will transport you from here to there.
  • A rite is like a bike; it can carry a heavy load.

Mechanical metaphors are useful insofar as they capture the material, tool-like aspects of ritual and because they help us grasp part-whole relations. However, because we are critically minded scholars, we’d should play the opposite game by running out the counterargument:

  • A rite is not like a bike; a rite disappears immediately after it is performed.
  • A rite is not like a bike; a rite cannot be invented or tossed in the junk yard.
  • A rite is not like a “true” Dutch bike; rites are always well oiled. (Is this true?)
  • A rite is not like a bike; rites don’t rust.

You get the general point, I hope: Not only that critical thought can be playlike, and that play is a form critical thinking but that metaphors and analogies have consequences and limits; we can only “ride” them so far.

Then what? We get off and proceed without benefit of analogy and metaphor? I think not. I doubt that is even possible. Then, we shift to another metaphor in the way scientists have to shift between particle theory and wave theory. The mechanical analogy of the bike can help us understand part/whole relations, movement through space, and some of the material aspects of ritual, but it does not, for instance, help us much with progression through time.

A rite unfolds through time. Noting this fact, some opt for a narrative metaphor: A ritual is, or is like, a story; it has a beginning, middle, and end. This is a popular idea because it makes ritual seem synchronous with myth or biography, two kinds of narrative. Fine, then we should test it by trying to create a plotline or storyboard for the ritual that we are studying. How well does that work? Does a rite really follow a plot-like course?

Or are the phases of a rite more like the rotating of a kaleidoscope than a turn in a plot? Do the actions of the ritual start at point A and go to point B like a story, or do they just go round and round a center? How far can you ride on the narrative metaphor?

When I have to give up my bike because the mechanistic metaphor has gone as far as it can, I turn to performance. My particular academic tribe venerates dramatistic metaphors.[12] Because actions, including ritual actions, are shaped by human perspectives and intentions, not merely driven by forces and powers, dramatism and the resources of performance studies can do theoretical work that bikes and mechanistic metaphors cannot. Dramatistic theories suggest that movement and change occur through the interactions and decisions of human characters, that things are not “driven” forward in the way bikes and trucks are but in the way a plot is.

Whereas the bike analogy compares ritual to something distant (a mechanical object), the drama metaphor compares ritual with something quite close, namely theater. The strength of dramatistic metaphors (or performance approaches, if you prefer) is that they compare one kind of strongly bounded human activity with another kind of strongly bounded activity. When we compare ritual with theatre, it’s like comparing apples with oranges rather than apples with Volkswagens. The kinship between ritual and drama is so strong that some of my compatriots would argue that ritual is (not merely, is like) dramatic. I don’t, because there are significant differences. One difference is that the roles and actions of plays are typically framed as “not real, make-believe,” whereas in rites, the roles and actions are framed as “believed” or at least “accepted.” Another difference is that, plays have audiences, whereas rituals have congregations or tribes or communities. Audiences are not, or not for very long, communities; rather, they are consumer groups. Having paid admission, they sit side by side for a couple of hours, but they do not feel obligated to look out for each other’s welfare after the performance is over.

I conclude by considering briefly a third metaphor (not a bike, not a performance): a web, a nexus of interconnectedness that rituals are supposed to facilitate. Neither mechanistic models nor dramatistic ones quite capture the networking nature of ritual traditions. Although in plays characters interact and are thus interconnected, dramatistic models are homocentric, human-centered, so we need something more “ecological,” such that a change in one part ripples through another and finally through the whole system. A web is suggestive of systemic interconnection, reminding us that, although we may be talking about a ritual, this ritual may be embedded in a ritual system, which is embedded in a cultural system, which is embedded in a global, or even interplanetary, system.

Systems metaphors keep returning in different guises, not only the 19th century hydraulic variant but mid-twentieth century cybernetics and more recently in cognitive science, computer-modeling, and complex systems theory.

Imagining ritual as a form of web-making, helps us reconceive ritual interconnectivity and boundaries, of the relations between rites and their contexts—social, economic, and environmental. Webs not only can connect, they can also entrap.

A web creates segmented boundaries, but they are permeable. If rituals are weblike, they do not have walls but membranes. If rituals have boundaries, and they are not like stone walls but like membranes, how do rituals select what can, and cannot, pass through? Or maybe you don’t think that things, values, “pass through?” Fine. Then maybe there are “carriers,” like bees. People who “carry” values from inside a ritual to the environment outside the ritual.

In any case, if we begin to reflect on ritual as weblike, we may wish to draw upon images of the WWW with nodes connected by hubs. Computer hubs connected by communication lines resemble the human nervous system, which utilizes a set of nodes connected by axons.

Currently, there is great interest in complex systems modeling that would enable us to connect various kinds of systems: nervous systems, computer systems, economic systems, and ecosystems with ritual systems. Both the Santa Fe Institute and the New England Complex Systems Institute foster complex system modeling. If you examine this example from the New England Complex Systems Institute, you can see that many of the metaphors and analogies that we have discussed are combined in this model: levels, hierarchy, dynamics, plotlike directionality, and recursive circularity.

Few ritual studies scholars have paid attention to complex systems modeling. The most explicit complex system theorizing is carried out by theologian-philosopher Mark Taylor in The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture.[13] Anthropologist Roy Rapport in Religion in the Making and other works approaches an ecological model.[14] Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley, using cognitive psychological modes, in Bringing Ritual to Mind could, but haven’t yet, moved in this direction.[15]

Once we humans model a single system and then do the same with another, we begin trying to imagine a meta-system that contains all the others. Soon we are conceiving a series of nested, interacting systems. A very attractive but undeveloped idea is that of fractals. A fractal is a micro-geometrical structure which, when repeated with slight variation, accounts for a macro-structure.

The Sierpenski Triangle is an example; the big triangle is made of smaller triangles, which are, in turn, made of even smaller triangles. In a fractal, the pattern appears to be the same regardless of the level of magnification. The branches of a tree replicate the pattern of the entire tree. A stalk of broccoli consists of hundreds of repetitions of each floret.

The strength and weakness of all modeling is simplification. You try to explain the most complicated things by identifying the fewest number of simple things out of which they are constructed. The temptation, then is to leap, to stitch together the entire universe, the macrocosm, by imagining it as a repetition, reiteration, or reflection of something much smaller.

There is something almost hypnotic about seeing how the coast of Norway as photographed from space seems be a fractal of a microscopic photo of a capillary in a blood vessel.

Fractals, used as models, sit on a precipice where science meets art and mysticism.

I am not so much recommending fractals as trying to illustrate the range of metaphors and models on which one might draw in trying to theorize ritual.

By now, your head is probably spinning, and you can begin to sense the Faustian temptations of theoretical modeling. I have taken you on an intellectual roller coaster ride. First, we are riding around on hardy Dutch bikes. Then, we are romping across the fronts and backs of stages full of players. And now I am tangling you up in a knot of weblike systems.

Lest we become unnerved by this little tour of the ritual theory universe, let us “return” to biking imagery. Comforting, isn’t it? A theoretical model should be as practical, reliable, and, dare I say it, imaginative as a well made bakfiets, don’t you think? Or do you? If the bakfiets is a little too old fashioned for your tastes, then how about a Conference Bike? Made in Holland, where else? Who else but an American living in the Netherlands, Eric Staller would design a bike that combines the practical mechanism of bikes and the weblikenss of the human brain and the fractal universe? You can even imagine the sociodrama that would set up if members of your work team or family were to spend 8 hours pedaling this to Leiden. You can buy this expensive machine, a model of ritual solidarity, either as “Conference Bike” (to attract Dutch buyers) or as “Love Bike” (the American version). You can bike in any direction, provided the seven peddling, effervescent conference-goers, or lovers, ride it cooperatively.

Maybe you have had enough of this bike and web play, and you just want to know where all this get us regarding ritual theory. Fair enough, I’ll summarize the argument line:

  • Western theories of ritual are constructed largely out of words.
  • Sometimes these theories are grounded on actual rites, but more often, they are based on the words of other theories.
  • Beneath theoretical verbalizations are images, analogies, and metaphors.
  • Because theorizing is imagination-driven, it is as artistic as it is scientific.
  • Underlying metaphors are not mere illustrations but either generative forces, creating new insights, or inhibitive blockers, obstructing insight.
  • Unrecognized, they can be either irrelevant or profoundly determinative.
  • Because of these dangers, sustained criticism of theories is essential to the construction of new theories.
  • In the humanities and social sciences, a crucial form of theory criticism is that of exposing the assumptions buried in determinative metaphors.
  • Although theoretical critique can dislodge such images, it is not possible to circumvent them altogether.
  • For a model of ritual to be adequate, it must enable one either to build or explain rituals by taking into account their
    1. static elements, using, e.g., mechanical models
    2. internal dynamics, using, e.g., narrative / dramatic models
    3. interactions with their contexts, using, e.g., complex systems (cybernetic, ecological, cognitive) models

Any theory that fails to account for all three, regardless of the metaphors it uses, cannot produce an adequate model for ritual studies research.

Why would anyone want to model ritual? Probably, if all is going well with a ritual, participants would not want to model it at all, but if things are going badly, then they may be forced to create a model. If your ritual is broken, or if there is an important occasion with no ritual means of marking it, then having a blueprint is helpful. If you are a scholar, you want to model ritual because, among other things, scholars build theories.

I end with a counter-argument and a question. The devil, if given his dues, would put this question to my argument: What do you do about mixed metaphors? Let’s say that you write this sentence in an essay, “Milking the workers for all they were worth, the manager barked orders at them.” When your teacher writes “mixed metaphor,” in the margin, this is a criticism. First the manager is a milker of cows, then he is a dog? Your teacher is saying, “Choose one or the other but not both.” Mixing two metaphors in the same sentence makes it sound ridiculous. So how many metaphors can a theory tolerate? Should there be only one? If more than one, how many?

That’s my killer question. Now, here’s yours: What’s your most frequently deployed theory of ritual, and what images, analogies, or metaphors inform it? If your model for understanding ritual is not a Dutch bike, what is it?


Bell, Catherine M. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

d’Aquili, Eugene G. , Charles D.  Laughlin, and John McManus. The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1967.

Grimes, Ronald L. The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford Ritual Studies Series.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

McCauley, Robert N., and E. Thomas Lawson. Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction.  London: Routledge, 2002.

Snoek, Jan. “Defining ‘Rituals’.” In Theorizing Rituals: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts, edited by Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek and Michael Stausberg. 3-14. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Taylor, Mark C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Turner, Victor Witter. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Symbol, Myth, and Ritual.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.


[1]. Bowery Lane Bicycles in New York City manufactures such bikes.

[2]. See, for instance, the online magazine, Por Homme,‑codes‑the‑dutch‑bicycle/#more‑7799

[3]. For more information on the project:

[4]. It is no longer live.

[5]. Photo by Robert W. Harwood,

[6]. Ronald L. Grimes, The craft of ritual studies, Oxford Ritual Studies Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). The book borrows some of the argument, but none of the illustrations, from this presentation.

[7]. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors we live by  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[8]. Jan Snoek, “Defining ‘rituals,’” in Theorizing rituals: issues, topics, approaches, concepts, ed. Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek, and Michael Stausberg (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 13.

[9]. Eugene G.  d’Aquili, Charles D.  Laughlin, and John McManus, The spectrum of ritual: a biogenetic structural analysis  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979). 29.

[10]. Catherine M. Bell, Ritual theory, ritual practice  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 140.

[11]. Photo courtesy of Meike Heessels.

[12]. See, for example: Victor Witter Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Symbol, Myth, and Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974); Richard Schechner, Performance studies: an introduction  (London: Routledge, 2002); Erving Goffman, Interaction ritual: essays on face-to-face behavior  (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1967).

[13]. Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[14]. Roy A.  Rappaport, Ritual and religion in the making of humanity  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[15]. Robert N. McCauley and E. Thomas Lawson, Bringing ritual to mind: psychological foundations of cultural forms  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

A daughter’s song

Everybody dies, and lots of people immigrate. But few Muslims marry Jews, and Mohawks rarely cross the river to conduct Condolence ceremonies among non-natives. Why? “A Daughter’s Song” doesn’t quite answer the question, but it captures what happens when such events coincide.

Three months after the death of Myriam Azoulay, Mohawks, invited by artists affiliated with Native-Immigrant (a Montreal arts project directed by Carolina Echeverria), offered a Condolence Ceremony for family and friends. This film braids together the ritual and a walk with Stephane, Myriam’s husband, who is accompanied by his daughter and mother-in-law.

For a more documentary-style presentation see A Mohawk Condolence and A Native Immigrant Condolence.

For an interview with Francis Boots and Philip Deering see Mohawk Ritual and Education.

For an article about the event go to Bridging Rituals.


The day the clock stopped

Norwegians sometimes refer to July 22, 2011, as their “9/11,” the day their perceptions were changed forever by an act of violence. An assassin exploded a car bomb beneath a government building in Oslo, then ferried to Utoya island, where he hunted down and shot Labour Party youth attending a summer camp. In the end, seventy-seven people were killed, and over three hundred injured. Norwegians sometimes say about the assassin that he was “one of us.”

This is a video about how the event was being commemorated in 2015.

Many viewers comment on the music. People have trouble identifying the instrument. One person wrote that the performance made his hair stand on end. Another commented on how perfectly appropriate to the subject matter it was. Another noted how different it is from the current Norwegian response: silence. The harmonica solo is an improvisation by Bryn Scott-Grimes at York University in 2011, a few months before the July 22 attacks.You can watch the original performance here.

Another experimental video that combines text and image: I Have Feathers Enough, and Toys Too.

What about ritual and religion?

When Cailleah was a kid, she complained, “Creativity, creativity, creativity…that’s all I hear in this family. I’m sick of all that C stuff.” Twenty-five or so year later she’s released her first documentary film, She Got Game, and Bryn, his first music album, Room on Ossington.

We must have seduced them into creativity and imagination. We can die happy now.

Before her 13th birthday Cailleah said there was no way we were going to do any of that R stuff like they do to African girls. I’m not sure what she imagined or where she picked up the images stuck in her brain, and she wasn’t about to say the word “menstruate” or “period.” When I asked if we could do C stuff, she asked, What? I said, Celebration. That made her happy. So we C instead of R.

There are two troubling R’s, ritual and religion. We didn’t succeed in making our kids religious, but we didn’t succeed in making ourselves religious either, at least not in the way “being religious” is usually understood. We’re not members of a religious group or institution. We don’t identify as SBNRs (spiritual but not religious)  or Nones (no-religion people). Even so, I say I’m a religious animal. And Susan says, “If I’m anything at heart, I’m religious; that’s all there is to it.”

I’d define the words this way:

Creativity: practicing one’s gifts for the sake of the planet

Ritual: embodied, condensed, and prescribed enactment

Spirituality: life as lived in resonance with fundamental principles and powers, usually symbolized as deepest, first, last, highest, or most central

Religion: 1. how people tie things together (the etymology of the word); 2. spirituality organized into a tradition, system, or institution and typically consisting of interlacing processes: experiential-mystical, mythic-historical, ritualistic-performative, doctrinal-cosmological, ethical-legal, social-personal, physical-spatial


How shall we make music of that?

My kids are too old to give assignments, but I hired Bryn as an assistant to carry out two assignments. In the first I asked him to read Irving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and make a short film about everyday ritualization.

How he convinced his mom to be the star of O Mother, Where Art Thou I will never know. She still talks about the video and says how much she enjoyed the process of making it. Since she’s camera-shy (maybe even camera-hostile), that’s quite a feat. Even as I write this, she is ensconced in her writing ritual with a coffee to her left and scone crumbs to the right.


For the second assignment I hired Bryn as a research assistant to help me do video work on Prague’s Velvet Carnival. Since he’s a musician, I asked him to do something with the music of the festival. Instead of writing about it, he composed a song: