ESSAY
Culture.
POSTED
November 25, 2014

A river arises in Eden, flows through the sanctuary-garden, and waters the world downstream. A spring springs up from beneath the throne of God in the temple, rushes over the threshold, and then out to the land, toward the Sea of Salt, where it empties and turns brackish water sweet. In Christ, the secret gifts of God - tablets of word, bread from heaven, the rod of authority - are opened up and distributed to all who would receive them. Life flows from the sanctuary. Culture is the fruit of seeds planted in the cult.

This is all pretty, perhaps poetic. But does it mean anything? Is it anything more than poetry? Is the etymological connection between cultus and culture anything but etymology?

The Theopolis Institute is about Bible. Liturgy. Culture. All three, all three together. We believe that the link of worship and culture is more than poetry, more than etymology. It's our conviction that we cannot have healthy culture without healthy worship, and we cannot have healthy worship unless it is infused with the Bible and conformed to the Bible. Prosaically, we say that the reformation of the church's Word, Sacrament, and leadership is prior to the transformation of culture. Poetically, biblically, we say that renewal of the land and world comes from the garden.

There's an obvious historical way to make this case, showing how Western high culture has taken the form it has from its roots in the Christian liturgy. Bach wrote cantatas, Mozart wrote a Requiem, and despite the rise of concert music, we can trace liturgical music right into high modernism, into Messiaen and to Arvo Part and John  Tavener today. We could investigate the influence of Gothic architecture through the ages, or the ways the Bible formed, and still informs, language and poetry wherever the Bible touches ground. We could trace the stylistic and substantive affects of liturgy visual arts on modern and contemporary painting. Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud paint grotesque triptychs, and Mako Fujimura's paintings are full of traces of a golden city to come.

I want to take a different tack by examining what we can call the "anatomy" of human action. The Bible is full of body symbolism (see Body Symbolism in the Bible), and when we take it together we get a unified anatomy of human action. Human action, in biblical terms, involves the whole body, and moves chiastically from head to hand to feet, back to hand and head.

Action begins with judgments being formed, an act of sight. Eyes are organs not only of bare empirical perception; the eyes are not passively receptive. Sight is an act of judgment. (One might say that for the Bible every act of seeing is a “seeing-as.”)

Alternatively, action begins at the ear, with hearing a command, an imperative that pushes one down a path and so initiates a (perhaps unanticipated) future end.

In either case, action begins with the head, at eyes and ears.

Seeing and/or hearing, a person extends a hand. A soldier hears the trumpet of alarm and takes his weapon. A entrepreneur perceives, judges, an opportunity, and “seizes it,” laying hold of it. Someone in a position of authority perceives an injustice or disorder, and takes the situation in hand. A craftsman judges that a block of wood has potential for glory, and grabs it. “Under the hand” is a way of saying “under the authority,” and every human action involves some exertion of authority.

In the Bible’s body symbolism (shared widely in the Ancient Near East), the foot is the organ of dominion. Land is claimed by treading on it; enemies are subdued and trampled underfoot; victorious kings place a foot on the neck of the vanquished. Once something is taken in hand, it is brought under control by the foot.

But the foot is not the final organ of human action. Only tyrants and brutes rule only by foot, only by trampling underneath and keeping the subdued at their feet.

Concretely: The king who takes his weapon in hand and tramples enemies underfoot then should raise up the enemy, establishing peace. The craftsman who “tramples” his materials so they do his will then uses his hand to finish, polish, glorify. A farmer “treads” the weeds underfoot and subdues the land, but only for the sake of using his hand to cultivate it and robe it in new glory.

Once one takes the fruits of his action “in hand,” he brings them back to the head, perhaps to the eyes for inspection and valuation (“taste and see that the Lord is good”), but more especially to the mouth to taste and consume. This is most literal when we’re talking about farming and husbandry; but consumption is the final stage of all human action, because all action aims at incorporating some part of the world into oneself, incorporating some other into one’s own company of friends. A rulers acts and suppresses evil to enjoy the fruits of peace; a craftsman takes his materials in hand to form something useful and/or pleasurable, something “tasteful”; a businessman organizes employees and goods to produce something that both he and others can enjoy.

All human action is action of the whole body. The chiastic anatomy of human action is: Eyes/ears to hand to foot, back to hand back, ultimately, to mouth.

Now, what does this have to do with liturgy? Much in every way. The anatomy of human action replicates the shifting postures of worship. We enter into God's presence, coming under the scrutiny of His all-seeing eyes. We hear His commands and fall in confession at His feet. He does not leave us abject in the dust, but raises us up with the touch of His reassuring Word, a touch from the Spirit that is the finger of the Word Incarnate. We fall before the footstool-ark of Yahweh, but Yahweh raises us up, lifts up our face. From the foot, then, we return to the hand, now not “taking hold” but “raising.” He sets us at His right hand, sharing authority with us. He lays bread and wine in our hands, and invites us, "Take, eat; take, drink." He gives Himself to us, so that we become bone of His bone, flesh of His flesh. Human action is an imitation of God's action in the liturgy. And so too, all action is Eucharistic, fulfilling a command (ears) to take (hand) and break (foot) bread, so that it can be shared (hand) and eaten (mouth).

Through the liturgy, our bodies are attuned, trained for appropriate action. God doesn't take us in hand to squeeze the life out of us, but to guide us and refashion us. God doesn't leave us at His feet to be trampled, as some semi-Christian theologies imply, but raises us up to share His life and rule. God opens His hand to give us food, so we can taste and see the Lord's goodness in His every gift. In the liturgy's movements, the Spirit is remaking our bodies, turning our bodies to be instruments of God's justice rather than instruments of sin. In the liturgy God remakes us, so that we can remake the world in imitation of Him.

And so this is all quite literally true: A river arises in Eden, flows through the sanctuary-garden, and waters the world downstream. A spring springs up from beneath the throne of God in the temple, rushes over the threshold, and then out to the land, toward the Sea of Salt, where it empties and turns brackish water sweet. In Christ, the secret gifts of God - tablets of word, bread from heaven, the rod of authority - are opened up and distributed to all who would receive them. Life flows from the sanctuary. Culture is the fruit of seeds planted in the cult.

Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute.

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