Hoffman's 'Beyond the Text' directs us to the borderlands

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This article appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."


Beyond the Text: A Holistic Approach to Liturgy
by Lawrence A. Hoffman​
Indiana University Press, 1987

Although I do not specifically recall what initially drew me to Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman's book, Beyond the Text: A Holistic Approach to Liturgy, knowing myself it was probably the title alone that first attracted me. As colleagues in the North American Academy of Liturgy, I knew Larry to be a charming, good-humored, faith-filled scholar who inspired many of us with his ideas and perspective. The book not only did not disappoint, but it has also influenced my scholarship, thinking and teaching ever since.

Inspired himself by liturgical scholars such as Robert Taft and Geoffrey Wainwright, Hoffman's thesis is that we need to study what he calls the borderlands of our discipline, drawing on neighboring academic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, etc., in order to fully understand our own discipline. He calls the liturgical field a "holistic network of interrelationships that bind together discrete things, acts, people, and events into the activity we call worship — or better still, ritual."

Rather than seeing this as "merely … revamping a little-known discipline," Hoffman describes it as "opening a new window on the life of religious people the world over, a window that looks out on the very essence of religious celebration, the way in which a holy calendar takes its shape, a committed life unfolds, a community of faithful takes its stand. It is not the text, then, but the people who pray it, that should concern us." Although the case study Hoffman offers is the modern study of Jewish liturgy, it was not difficult for me to make other applications even while I read the text.

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A decade or so after first reading Beyond the Text, I found myself frustrated while working on the book that became A Time for Embracing: Reclaiming Reconciliation (Liturgical Press, 1999). Several years into that research, having approached the topic not just from historical and theological perspectives, but also taking both sociological and psychological stances, I felt increasingly inadequate to the task, thinking that I needed to read more deeply into both sociology and psychology before risking to write further. Since Larry had set me on that trajectory in venturing beyond the text, I thought he might be willing to help me on the path. I called him one afternoon and his advice at that time continues to echo in my life and work today.

I shared with him, for example, my concerns that I felt as though I needed to become a psychologist before going further in my writing. Larry seemed to bellow through the phone, "No! You are an artist not a scientist. Artists use the work of scientists without being required to engage in it themselves." Once again he gave me a new way of looking at things. Of course I still try to be a careful researcher and not a dilettante, but I have tamed those inner demons that would have me believe I need to know everything about every aspect of those approaches before proceeding. Hoffman reminds us that "artists and scientists who wish to apply their crafts to liturgy must learn to be at home in the arcane world that traffics in the coin of literary conceits, stratified pericopes and manuscript comparisons."

Although A Time for Embracing includes an analysis of the rites of reconciliation, it moves beyond the text to a give an historical overview of sacramental practice, report on, analyze and critique a study on pastoral renewal and penance conducted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Pastoral Research and Practices, reflect on the place of reconciliation in contemporary American society, and make some suggestions for reclaiming reconciliation. Because it is almost two decades old itself, the examples used in the text are often somewhat dated, but its scope is still valuable.

This urge to go beyond the text has found its way into my teaching as well. The student body at St. John's University in New York has always been very diverse and I try to draw on that diversity in the courses I teach. For a number of years we had several graduate students from Ghana in the theology program, and their description of liturgical practice back home always excited and engaged me. Tired of simply hearing about such amazing, participative worship, I wanted to experience it for myself. Although it took quite a few years for me to have the opportunity to do so, in 2002 I was finally able visit one of my former students in Sunyani, capital of the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana — to travel with him and enter fully into worship services. Reality did not disappoint! Instead I was left thinking that my students had actually underestimated the vitality and intensity of worship there. Worship in the United States in general is often more cerebral than embodied, whereas the opposite was more true of my experience in Ghana.

Sunday Mass began at 6:00 a.m. that July morning and the church was packed, which was my first surprise at that hour. Although Mass was celebrated in Twi, the indigenous language, I had no need for a translator. The singing, dancing and waving of white flags as the entrance procession began clearly expressed the spirit of the celebration. It was all repeated again while the Gloria was sung, and sure enough the white flags were out again and waving over the congregation as the Alleluias heralded the Gospel procession. Although Mass was not quite a two-hour extravaganza, it came close and I left spiritually uplifted and exhausted.

After inviting parishioners to consider serving in one of the liturgical ministries in our parish a number of years ago, I was approached by a gentleman who had recently moved to the New York City area from Peru. He told me how disillusioned he was with church worship in the United States because it had none of the vitality he experienced in worship back home. When I suggested he consider becoming part of the solution by signing up for one of the ministries, he took me up on my offer despite being concerned about his "accent." Not only did he become one of our most dedicated lectors, but he eventually became a permanent deacon as well.

Those experiences leave me wondering what it is about our worship that often makes it seem so disembodied. Perhaps anyone who is familiar with the work of Thomas Kane, CSP, on the DVD collection "The Dancing Church Around the World," has had similar questions. Campus liturgies are so vibrant, but students are often disillusioned that most worship services back home by comparison seem lifeless. Engaging others in a conversation that goes beyond the text might give us all a better understanding of how to address this dilemma.

For several years I have been privileged to begin the spring semester with students in Paris for an intensive week of study. We always go to Ste. Gervais for Sunday Mass, where the Monastic Community of Jerusalem leads a vibrant, welcoming liturgy, complete with a four-part harmony sung by the entire congregation. Year after year students leave amazed that in a service where they do not know the language, they find themselves welcomed and moved more deeply than ever before in their lives. Ritual is such a powerful force when it is used well.

Getting beyond the text is important in other disciplines as well. In the past two years I have begun studying for a degree in public health. Perhaps it was just time to nurture the scientist in me as well as the artist, but becoming more deeply engaged in another discipline has actually reinforced for me the importance of going beyond the "text," although in this case the texts are less often literal ones.

Dr. Atul Gawande, a public health researcher and staff writer for The New Yorker¸ made a similar discovery while caring for his father, also a surgeon, during his final illness. Gradually Gawande became aware that nothing he learned in medical school had prepared him for the reality of caring for dying people. Medicine had taught him to attend to diseases, but not to the people who suffer with them. His research "beyond the text" resulted in the national best-seller, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, which should be required reading of every healthcare professional.

The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa might not have been as devastating if health care professionals there had initially gone "beyond the text" they saw in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to understand how the lifestyle and religious beliefs of the population helped to fuel the epidemic. Because the Ebola virus is more virulent once the patient has died, it was actually the burial practices of the population which exacerbated the situation so quickly. Had medical personnel sought first to converse with, understand and then educate the religious leaders of communities, the contagion of disease and the fear it engendered might have been stemmed earlier and with more compassion.

Hoffman concludes his book by recommending that "the holistic study of liturgy may begin with the text but must eventually go beyond it — to the people, to their meanings, to their assumed constructs, and to their ritualized patterns that make their world uniquely their own." Having gone beyond that text myself, I recommend that this approach is applicable to many fields of study, but most importantly to those that involve the life and health of human beings and the environment in which we live.

[Mercy Sr. Julia Upton is provost emerita and distinguished professor of theology at St. John's University in New York. Her latest book is Worship in Spirit and Truth: The Life and Legacy of H.A. Reinhold.]

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