Friday, December 24, 2004

Midnight (imagistic) Mass

A few nights ago, M. and I were sharing reminiscences of Christmases long past, including the experience of Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. It wasn't the content of the service that mattered, but the experience: the waiting all evening, driving to the church through quiet streets, the explosion of lights in darkness, then walking out from the church into the cold, crisp night air.

It was one of few times when modern Christianity--at least in our churches (hers Roman Catholic, mine Episcopal with High Church touches at the holidays)--felt like a mystery religion. Watching the stripping of the altar on Good Friday was another such time: it could actually seem deathly scary.

Neither of us could understand the Protestants--people just sitting passively and being talked at. No altar (at most a vestigial table), but a dominating pulpit that turned the church into a lecture hall.

A year ago I was introduced to the work of Harvey Whitehouse, an anthropologist of religion who divides religions depending on which tendency they embody most: the "doctrinal" or the "imagistic." Once you have had an imagistic experience, such as an initiation into a mystery, it stays with you, whereas doctrinal teaching must be reinforced with constant repetition.

Whitehouse has developed this idea in several articles and monographs; his new book, Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission is on my current reading shelf. I may have more to say about it later.


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