Scott Aniol: How Liturgy Connects to Culture

Liturgy is a word that describes the way we “live and move and have our being.” Our English word comes from the Greek term leitourgia, which is simple a compound word comprised of laos—“people” and ergon—“work.”

Historically, the term was used to describe various works done in public as a member of community, such as military or political service, or even vocational labor, relationship between friends or family members, and care for the ill. In other words, in its oldest and broad usage, liturgy referred to the common customs and routines of life within a community, what in more recent times we might commonly call “culture.”

The English word “culture” finds its Latin roots in discussions of the cultivation and care of livestock and crops. It was first used metaphorically to describe differences between groups of people, similarly to how we use it today, no earlier than 1776. The idea progressed through several different uses over time. It first narrowly denoted what Matthew Arnold would call “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” what we today might call “high culture.”

But as early as the mid-nineteenth century, anthropologists began to use the idea to designate all forms of human behavior within society, not limited to high culture, including what we might today call “folk culture” or “pop culture.” British anthropologist Edward Tylor is credited for the first influential use of the term in this way when in 1871 he defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired as a member of society.”

In other words, as it is used most commonly today, “culture” refers to the common behavioral patterns of a group of people—their “liturgy”—including their arts, language, customs, and rituals. It is this anthropological understanding of culture as the totality of human practices in a society that has become the predominant use of the idea among Christians and non-Christians alike.

Adopting the anthropologist’s definition of culture is not a problem for Christians—indeed, it may be a helpful category in studying the way humans behave as members of their society, but we must make sure that Scripture informs that understanding.

The parallel idea in Scripture to anthropological notions of culture is that of social behavior, something about which the Bible has much to say. For example, when addressing the matter of behavior, New Testament authors admonish Christians to “be holy in all your conduct” in contrast to the “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Pet 1:15, 18). They also identify human labor—both the act and what it produces—as the object of God’s judgment (Rom 2:6) and as an honorable endeavor that can lead unbelievers to “glorify God” (1 Pet 2:12).

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Scott Aniol