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Human Rites: The power of rituals, habits, and sacraments, by Dru Johnson 

21 June 2019

Jacob Belder reviews an exploration of order and spontaneity

CERTAIN parts of the North American Evangelical world have made pronounced moves towards an embrace of liturgy and ritual in recent years, and it is out of this changing landscape that Dru Johnson’s book emerges. Johnson, who serves as associate professor of biblical and theological studies at The King’s College in New York City, has written extensively on biblical epistemology and the part played by ritual in our formation as human beings, and Human Rites brings his research to a popular level.

Johnson’s main contention is that we are “ritualed creatures” designed to understand and learn to inhabit the world through ritual practices, and his book is meant to help us “appreciate how rituals shape our understanding and know how to discern when rituals go bad”. Because the whole of our lives is shaped by rituals, some scripted and some improvised, our faithfulness as Christians is intimately bound up with our attentiveness to how these rituals are shaping us, and being prepared to improvise when our rituals are not right.

Crucial for Johnson are the voices behind the rituals that we perform, and he suggests that three sources repeatedly emerge as the authors of our rituals: God, our traditions, and the real world. While recognising that all three are valid sources, he urges that we pay particular attention to the latter two to assess where the scripts they give us for our rituals might need to be improvised to enable us to live more faithfully.

He offers some meaningful examples to illustrate this, such as the rituals surrounding death in different cultures. Indeed, one of the strengths of Johnson’s book is the array of examples which he draws from to demonstrate how rituals shape our lives — from the most mundane things, like brushing our teeth, to the elaborate rituals that we have developed around big events such as weddings. An appendix to the book offers a simple and yet thorough checklist to assess our own “ritual inventory”.

Readers may find the final part of Johnson’s book, and particularly the focus on the sacraments, the weakest. It is somewhat unclear whether he wants us to see how the sacraments shape us, or how our own daily practices might inhibit the formative power of these liturgical practices, and these two chapters don’t sit as neatly within the overall framework of the book.

That said, Johnson ultimately offers a compelling case for slowing down and considering how rituals shape us and our understanding of the world, and for taking a deeper look at the daily practices that are forming us as Christians.

The Revd Dr Jacob Belder is Assistant Curate at Selby Abbey in North Yorkshire.

Human Rites: The power of rituals, habits, and sacraments
Dru Johnson
Eerdmans £17

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