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Review of Hughes, "Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity"

Review of Hughes, "Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity"

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Published by James K.A. Smith
Originally appeared in Calvin Theological Journal.
Originally appeared in Calvin Theological Journal.

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Published by: James K.A. Smith on Apr 09, 2011
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Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity
, by GrahamHughes. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. vii + 330. Price$23.00 paper.Despite the (false) Enlightenment prophecies of religion “withering away,” latemodernity has seen a persistent—even ascendant—presence of religion or“spirituality.” And much of this spirituality—ranging from New Age gurus likeChopra and Tölle to evangelical motivators like Rick Warren—is formulated interms of a quest for
meaning
: What is the meaning of life? What does it allmean? How can I “make sense” of my life? How can I make my life meaningful?Graham Hughes sees this preoccupation with “meaning” as a springboardfor theological reflection on worship, capitalizing on the central role of 
meaning
in 20
th
-century philosophy, ranging across Husserl’s and Heidegger’sphenomenology and its critique in Derrida’s deconstruction, developments inphilosophy of religion in the wake of Wittgenstein picked up in analyticphilosophy, and the “semiotic” tradition generated by American philosopherCharles Sanders Peirce. Given that liturgy traffics in signs, and thus isfundamentally a “semiotic” event, Hughes aims to make up for a lacuna in bothliturgical theology and semiotic theory, since “semioticians have avoided theliturgy even more comprehensively than liturgists have missed semiotics” (129).The heart of the book tries to reach two audiences: to semioticians it offers ananalysis of liturgy as something of a case study of sign-production and sign-reception; to liturgists and liturgical theologians, he offers a semiotic account of the way in which worship “makes sense”—that is,
gives meaning
—of a lifeworld
 
by orienting participants in a particular way (39). We will focus on the latter sideof his project.Hughes does not assume a familiarity with either philosophy of languageor semiotic theory; rather, he provides a helpful, comprehensive survey of 20
th
-century philosophy of language (both analytic and continental, 16-30), as well asa careful introduction to Peirce’s semiotics (134-147), noting the importancedifferences between Peirce’s account (which Hughes takes to be superior) and thesemiotics of Ferdinand de Saussure (one of Derrida’s primary foils) and UmbertoEco (115-134). (Unfortunately, the book has a very short-term memory in thisrespect, valorizing 20
th
-century developments but missing the rich semiotictheology to be found in early fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, aswell as medieval Eucharistic reflection which revolved around “signs.”)This exposition of semiotic theory then sets the stage for the “applicationof semiotics to worship in chapter 5. Given that the world is “signs all the way down” (69n103), by offering a range of signs worship provides a “platform onwhich to live” (68) or a map which orients us to our lifeworld, “making sense” of what we encounter. Worship, we might say, both informs and is informed by ourworldview, and both function semiotically. Hughes devotes most of this chapterto unpacking Peirce’s three-fold distinction between iconic signs, indexical signs,and symbolic signs—a bit too complex to summarize here. What I found of particular interest here (even if underdeveloped) is Hughes’ account of “semiotic
habits
” (142, 203)—the way in which participation in a semiotic “biosphereinculcates habits of orienting to the world (what Peirce called “the practicalbearing” of signs).
 
If this is what liturgy 
does
(semiotically speaking), then the next questionis
how
this happens: just how do signs function? How is meaning produced?How is it received? How do signs “transfer” meaning, as it were? It is here thatHughes sees the unique challenge (and opportunity) for worship in latemodernity. This stems from a semiotic axiom which owes as much to Ricoeur asPeirce: “Human beings construct their meanings (a meaningful world) from themeanings culturally available to them” (219; cp. 7 and
passim
). In other words,“meaning entails both ‘making’ and ‘finding’” (63); it is both construction anddiscovery (64). Liturgy must operate on the basis of the same axiom: worship canonly 
construct 
meaning from the meanings that it
finds
available. The challenge,then, in late modernity is this: how can the signs of Christian worship create ameaningful world which points to transcendence when the pool of meaningsavailable in late modernity assume the “disenchantment of the world?” It ishere that I was disappointed by both Hughes’ diagnosis and prescription.In his diagnosis of our “late modern (or postmodern) condition,” he seemsto suggest that the Christian community is resigned to the meanings which areavailable from modernity. Indeed, Hughes seems to overestimate the “power” of cultural conditioning, being quite fatalistic and pessimistic about Christianity’scapitulation to modernity: “A thesis which runs through this book is that themeanings to which people are exposed daily, hourly, in the world all around themcannot possibly be insulated from those same people’s religious readings of theworld. That is, the corrosive effects of secularism are not left in the church foyer.They are insistently part of the available means with which people have toconstruct their world” (53). In fact, he takes this to such an extreme that he

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