The Holy Eucharist is supposed to be boring. So claims the Catholic theologian James Alison. He says, “When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long term education in becoming un-excited.”

He’s right, I think. Let me explain.

Alison’s claim about the Mass being boring or unexciting comes in the course of his contrasting false worship with True Worship. Alison has a broad understanding about what counts as worship. In a manner similar to James K.A. Smith’s arguments about liturgy, Alison finds instances of worship in many cultural practices: “football matches, celebrity cults, raves, initiation hazings, newspaper sales techniques and so on,” pretty much any cultural practice that involves the formation of a group of people. For Alison, all these forms of worship are part of the warp and woof of the violence of this devastated world. So, while Christian worship is analogically related to these forms of false worship, it is more dissimilar than similar. To drive home the distinction, Alison uses the Nuremberg Rallies as the example par excellence of (false) worship: worship unqualified is death-dealing and dehumanizing. In stark contrast, Christian worship is “the un-Nuremberg.” The thrust of Alison’s talk is to delineate the difference.

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One important dissimilarity is that while Nuremberg-like worship produces a homogenizing unanimity, the un-Nuremberg worship of Christians is one of “respectful unity.” In “the Nuremberg,” as Alison puts it, differences between individuals are drowned in the collective persona of the mob. But True Worship is not totalizing. Christians gathered for worship retain their individual stories in all their historical particularities, “and yet, each story comes, over time, to bear a remarkable resemblance to the story of one who ‘for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame’ (Heb 12:2).” One thinks of St. Paul’s disquisition on the distinctiveness of the manifold members united in the Body of Christ.

It’s at this point in the argument that Alison says that Mass is about “becoming un-excited.” The power of the Nuremberg lies in the mastery of its liturgical organizers to stimulate in the crowd a unanimity of feeling, to whip up the Volk into an ecstasy of love for their Führer, into a frenzy of expectation for sacrifice, and with deadly effect: Ms. Mustermann leaves the rally that much closer to looking the other way when her neighbor Mr. Levy disappears. In short, the Nuremberg is dangerous to the degree it is able to excite.

In contrast, Christian worship is “a long term education in becoming un-excited.” The un-Nuremberg is a detoxification from the lies and violence of the Nuremberg. The paradigmatic act of Christian worship, the Holy Eucharist, does not turn on the exciting anticipation of a sacrifice. Rather, says Alison, the Eucharist is “the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we’ve been forgiven for and through it.” In the Eucharist, the Lord Jesus (Alison titles him “the forgiving victim”) draws to himself all those gathered from diverse starting positions, giving himself to us, so that, as the Prayer Book has it, “we may dwell in him, and he in us.” Receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus and being “made one body with him” likely does not feel like much at all, and we will be disappointed if we come to the Lord’s Table in expectation of the sort of frisson produced by the Nuremberg. But then Christian worship is not about the subjectivity of those gathered; it is about the One who gives himself for the life of the world.

Another way to say all this is to say that Christian worship is concerned with contemplation. Christian worship is about gazing on the light of God in Christ Jesus, about being transformed to reflect the glory of God (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). Contemplation is not exciting, but it is certainly transformative. I’ll give the last word to Rowan Williams who powerfully describes contemplation as:

the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom — freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.

About The Author

Fr. Christopher Yoder serves as assistant rector at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City. Christopher is married to Audra, who is, among other things, a historian of imperial Russia. They have a son, Peter.

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If I understand you right, you mean to say that the Eucharist is not to create an emotional response for the sake of manipulating the worshipper. Rather the Eucharist should cause the worshipper to be more attuned to values of the Kingdom of which the Eucharist is the principal feast. And while you don’t say it, I’d say that excitement for excitement’s sake should also be avoided. Boring is an interesting choice (this is a use of the word “interesting” in the Minnesota sense – really meaning I don’t like it). I have a 13 year old daughter for whom… Read more »

Tried to leave this comment earlier, but I’m hampered by bad wifi. My provocative suggestion: maybe Roman Catholic worship is boring?

I’m thinking of the comment I’ve heard attributed to Denys Turner that RC worship post-Vatican II is boring and ought to be. For him, the chief danger of Anglican worship is that it is beautiful, thereby lulling one into thinking something has been accomplished.

I can’t disagree with this strenuously enough. But right now I am typing with my thumbs. Longer reasons will have to wait.

I don’t think we are in disagreement, but I hear echoes of other conversations. Yes, I recognized that the use of the word boring was meant to be provocative. Certainly our worship should not be “intoxicating, arousing, titillating.” This them leads me to ask what “should” our worship be? “We are asked to “lift up our hearts”, whatever their state.” This is a critical point; one that I would heartily endorse. Worship is a discipline that we are called to whether we feel like it or not (I’d really like to know what is going on in 2 Sam 12… Read more »

Todd Welty

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, for the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”–for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:7-9). For me, we are all the Samaritan women at the well — alone, alienated, too many husbands, and to many idols — and yet Christ meets us where we are… Read more »

Fwiw, I think that Alison’s comparison is ridiculously over the top. It takes Nazi extremism out of the realm of incomprehensibility where it can and ought to remain. I also have to take exception with the idea that worship is boring – not because it is the opposite of boring, but because the description in question confuses two different human activities. Boredom is the product of passivity. Few things indicate an undisciplined mind more than the declaration of its own boredom. But liturgy isn’t passive. Rather, it is active – or, more truly, interactive. Interactivity is not at all opposed… Read more »

The problem here starts with sloppy scholarship: an over-broad definition of your field might give you plenty of books to write and classes to teach, but it’s not necessarily helpful. This same over-broad definition of worship led my liturgics prof to say her coffee cup was sacrament, and a priest I know to claim the same status for his cat! Second, liturgical thinking for Christians must be rooted in the Scripture. Christian worship is nothing but Old Testament Worship with a few bits upgraded because of the revelation, person, and work of Jesus. The problem with false worship is not… Read more »

John Thorpe: I wish I has said that!

One last thought – we are commanded to “rejoice.” It is the oddest of commands, for it seems to enjoin an emotion, and we usually think of emotions as being un-command-able.

If worship is truly about *God* – it will require we offer our whole selves – mind and emotions, heart, soul, and body; everything – to the Lord. Liturgy is, after all, a great way to do that.

I’ve also cited the James Alison piece in a post; I wonder if I can try to clarify a few of his points. Furthermore, let me be honest. I am worried about the claim that “The Mass should be a Nuremberg rally centered around that very mystery of the Lamb slain for us”–if I understand it correctly. As has been pointed out, Alison seems to criticize false worship as a form of manipulation. “The liturgical organizers of the Nuremberg rallies knew exactly what they were doing, and did it remarkably well.” Note the following sentences: “You provide …,” “You enable… Read more »