Liturgical and Critical Speech

In the interest of using my time more efficiently, while still maintaining this blog, here is a comment I posted on John’s blog that I thought might generate some discussion. Its also something I haven’t talked about that much on this blog, but that I think about a lot and try to incorporate into what I do at my internship, for example. It even ties into my love of Tolkien directly, though to explain why and how, I’d need time for a whole other post or three 🙂


I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about how myth, or perhaps the mythopoetic, works, because I think it is a crucial thing to recapture in order to make sense of the world and to be able to function meaningfully within it. I think that part of our negative inheritance from the Enlightenment is that we treat the world as if it was merely overtly functional, as if it was a “literal” or “objective” place, and it just isn’t.

I think that postmodernism clumsily grapples with this fact, but that part of the best cure for it is essentially premodern – in the mythopoetic.

In short, what I think is that as moderns/postmoderns, we’re past a point where most of us will be able to consciously treat our myths as factual in the usual, reductionist sense. However, our myths still function unconsciously (examples: the myth of America, the myth of the free market, the myth of democracy, etc.)

These unconsciously functioning myths are the worst-case scenario because they prevent us from understanding ourselves and our world, of actually making meaning rather than merely getting by.

What we need to do is to, on the one hand, understand our myths consciously, reflect on them, and even critique then if need be. On the other hand, in the ‘poetic’ part of mythopoetic, we need to speak and act as if your myths were reductionistically true, as if they were the “objective” narrative we so crave. It is only in this way that they can have their impact on us, that they can shape us in meaningful ways, and that they can help us make sense of the world and our place in it.

One example of this is liturgical speech in contrast to critical speech. You shouldn’t mix the two, but this happens a lot. Liberals tend to use critical speech in a liturgical situation (say, in a sermon), and conservatives tend to use liturgical speech in a critical situation (say, a Bible study). This just leads to confusion, at least for me, where critical-analytical sermons bore me and uncritical/literalistic Bible studies aggravate me – because their functioning is reversed. (To be clear, the above example is just drawn from my own experience and observation.)

There’s a context for both to function, but confusing them deprives both of their power, and can even corrupt it. (Here, by ‘liturgical’ I mean faith-speech or confessional speech, ‘mythopoetics’ in my useage, etc.)

Anyway, sorry for the long response. Your post just got me thinking.


For an exmaple of what I mean by “liturgical speech” used powerfully, for most people just think of the great sermons or speeches you’ve heard. They weren’t treatises, they were impassioned declarations. They were poetic. They moved you on a level that is deeper than what is rational.

Then, for “critical speech”, think of any classes you’ve really gotten a lot out of, or even training sessions at work that helped clarify a procedure for you or taught you a new and better way to do something. These were probably critical-analytical – they helped you reflect and develop consciously and to think critically and be more effective.

6 thoughts on “Liturgical and Critical Speech

  1. Thanks for the link and for this comment. I am glad you made an entry of it. I haven’t thought of it as you said, but that is true. Sermons need to move you. The heart has reasons that Reason does not know. The adverse is true as well in regards to spiritual voodoo when reason is in order.Hmmm.Hey, you are in seminary. What is a sermon in one sentence, two at most? This is not a quiz. I want to know! What the hell are we supposed to be doing on Sunday?Don’t give me any creedal nonsense. Give me the straight poop.


  2. Haha! What would make you think I’d give you creedal nonsense? 🙂A sermon in one sentence (don’t let me wriggle to two!):“A sermon is mythic and poetic language which reminds us of who we are and who God is.”Pam (my wife) says: “Fifteen minutes during which we fill in all the circles in the bulletin and plan the rest of our day.”So there you go.


  3. “A sermon is mythic and poetic language which reminds us of who we are and who God is.”Pam (my wife) says: “Fifteen minutes during which we fill in all the circles in the bulletin and plan the rest of our day.”Two great and true definitions. Thanks! Seminary has done you well (or you have done well in spite of it!)


  4. Doug,I was hoping you’d put this post in your blog. It was so good!I don’t like too much the spin that one gets from the “mythical poetic” vernacular. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of truth to it, and you use it wisely. But I still don’t like it and here’s why: It tries to tame the Gospel. We can do that, tame the Gospel, it’s not hard really. But when we do it’s always to our own detriment. But I love the distinction you made between the liturgical and the critical when it comes to sermons vs bible study. The metaphor that I have found for what goes on in what you would call the liturgical is a musical one. In this metaphor, the Scriptures become a musical instrument, and what a preacher does is play it.Now, if what a musician does when he gets on stage is give you a technical report on how a piano is put together, instead of playing the darn thing, I am going to want my money back.Likewise, if he or she gets up there and starts banging on the keys with his nose and elbows, that’s not going to work either.(God knows I’ve seen that happen)Some people are ho hum ok, some people get the technical aspects of playing but lack feeling, but once in a while you hear someone who plays in a way that just makes you say “hahhhh…”. It’s music.A good Bible study is like a good master class. There is a time for all that technical stuff. But the goal is always to learn how to play. You learn about the instrument and its history, how its made and why, and you learn about the theory of how to play it. You watch and listen to examples. And with any kind of luck you practice playing it as well. You would never ask of a piano if it is myth or if it is history. Stupid question.What you make of it might be. With any kind of skill though, what you make of it is music to the soul. The question the musician should ask is what kind of music do you want to make, and what style of music does his or her audience want to hear? Country Western? Fado? Samba?Whatever your choice, play it with your heart.


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