Ceremonial is simply Un-American

You know, I’ve thought about this before, and maybe even blogged about it, but it bears repeating I think. This morning as I was praying Lauds, it occurred to me why actions such as bowing the head, the body, and even the knee are so despised by the majority (it would seem) of Americans. The first reason usually given is, it’s Catholic. But I’m not even sure that is the problem (although I think it is related). Another reason, and I think this is a biggee, is that they really don’t get the real presence in the Supper. This is true to a large extent, but there are many fine, believing folks who do get it, but still are uncomfortable with bowing and genuflecting, etc. I have a theory that it goes to the very foundations of this country, the very core of our culture. The fact is, from the outset Americans are decidedly anti-monarchy. It was very important for the founders of the country to remove from the Presidency any ceremonial (although they still cheered like a King was coming to town when President Washington arrived). Ceremonies like bowing and kneeling are very much related to the idea of kingship and showing honor to the king, in the case of the church, the King being Christ himself. The reason Europeans generally wouldn’t blink an eye if they saw a pastor kneeling or bowing toward the altar is that they are accustomed to such honor and reverence being shown to kings. The truth is, and I think this is a large part of why our bowing and genuflecting is so rejected, is that it is simply un-American. You just don’t do that stuff. It is not in the fabric of our culture. Because our people are not taught to show that kind of reverence towards our government leaders, they find it utterly confusing to see a pastor bowing the head at the name of Jesus, or bowing the knee out of reverence and humility for the Body and Blood of Christ.

And yet, Christ is not seen in the Scriptures as being a President, but a King, and not just any king, a King that is owed reverence and godly fear. Perhaps in our teaching and preaching it would help if we emphasized the Biblical concept of Jesus’ divine royalty and kingly identity, and perhaps then people would better understand why “every knee should bow, of those in heaven, of those on earth, and of those under the earth.” Just a thought. Comments?

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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11 Responses to Ceremonial is simply Un-American

  1. Adam says:

    Political republicanism and frontier style religion are so intermingled that they’re nearly indistinguishable for most American Christians. In America God isn’t so much sovereign and almighty but is instead the buddy living a couple houses down who thinks the height of fellowship is having a few beers and getting the kids to pull his finger. He’s personal, but he’s completely informal and could care less about all that doctrinal stuff. Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind offers an explanation and critique of this problem. As long as the American identity is grounded firstly in independence, the church and her expressions of reverence will seem out of step.

  2. Pastor Beisel says:

    Very good point Adam. Thanks for posting your comment.

  3. JDart says:

    Paul,

    I slightly disagree, and in doing so I think I end up agreeing with you. As a chaplain to Marines, I see the ceremonial regularly, from hand salutes to the “liturgy” of a formal event like the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. One wouldn’t have much trouble defending the assertion that Marines are the epitome of what America is. Or perhaps, in the Marines we see (albeit imperfectly) America’s best self. Ceremony in this case is extremely American.

    Admittedly, the Marines are the Few and the Proud, and are increasingly counter to the dominant American culture. It’s in there that I think I end up agreeing with you.

    I am often amazed that secular America can be moved to tears at military ceremony and solemnity but prefer the snappy-clappy Buddy Christ a la Dogma to any manner of Christian reverence. For me the issue becomes something like, “Americans don’t know how to be truly spiritual.” They haven’t been taught. Just as Marines are made, not born, so too mature spirituality comes through training and nurture–that “C” word: catechesis. I could totally unpack this one, but I’ll spare you for now.

    I feel myself ready to ramble, so I’ll end there. Blessings,

    JDart

  4. Scott Diekmann says:

    I agree, Americans will bow before no flag. I think there’s also a deeper reason people don’t want to bow or bend – the Old Adam. The Old Adam wants to be Lord, and he certainly doesn’t want Jesus Christ to be Lord. At times, he can keep even a Christian from bowing. But one day all will bow, both Christian and pagan: Romans 14:11 “for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.'”

  5. Pastor Beisel says:

    JDart–I read you loud and clear. I forgot about the ceremonial of the military. You are so right, and I remember reading something by someone out on the W. Coast about this too, come to think of it.

    I also agree with the idea that they need to be taught what true spirituality is, and at the same time, that the outward actions, though they are not essential to true worship, quite naturally flow from the inward worship of the heart. Good points, all around!

  6. Dcn. Muehlenbruch says:

    Pastor Beisel et. al.

    I would like to refer you to some comments on ceremony that I presented several years ago at the St. Michael’s Liturgical Conference: http://www.lexorandi.org/stmichael.html.

    Like jdart, I agree and disagree with you on this point.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Give it a rest.

  8. Pastor Beisel says:

    I guess I’ll “give it a rest” when people stop telling me that we can act however we want in the presence of God. Think about it–we are supposed to show respect for our parents and other authorities, and they are just God’s representatives. How much more ought we to behave reverently in the presence of the King Himself.

  9. Anonymous says:

    We fear too much looking like sheep in matters ceremonial, as we do in matters of doctrine.
    I imagine one flows from the other.
    But show me a Christian who doesn’t expect something like ceremony at his wedding or his funeral.
    Of course, even then–or maybe especially then–we expect to have it stamped all over with our individual imprint.
    We’re pretty good at celebrating ourselves, it seems.
    Susan R

  10. Pastor Beisel says:

    Besides the Military, the only place I can think of today where reverence (not necessarily toward God) is demanded/expected by the common people is the courtroom. Judges still wear robes, and everyone stands when they enter.

  11. Wyldeirishman says:

    Just goes to show that there ARE, in fact, two kingdoms. I happen to think that political republicanism works quite well, thank you very much, but only insofar as it CAN work.
    Considering the church and Her work puts me in mind of that famous quote from filmmaker Billy Wilder, when confronted with the notion that his movies were ‘out of step with the times:’

    “Who the hell wants to be in step with THESE times?”

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    Sean

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