Angela Reitsma Bick: An interview with Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren
Christian Courier: Let’s start with the cover of your new book. It’s so ordinary it doesn’t even have capital letters!
Tish Harrison Warren: It is brilliant! I love it but I had nothing to do with it. It’s all the Art Director at Intervarsity Press. There are hidden liturgical elements in it – bread and wine in their most ordinary form – grapes and wheat. Green is also ordinary time in liturgical worship. The cover encapsulates the theme of my book – that worship is shot through in all this ordinary stuff, but you don’t notice it unless you have eyes to see, or were taught to see.
Last night my six-year-old son said, “Anything you say, you’re talking about God,” like he was daring someone to disagree. His sister took the bait by saying, “Okay, what about paint?”
“Well, paint is made from things in creation and God made creation!” he said.
Is there something kids maybe understand more easily about the nearness of God that we lose as adults? How do we get to the point where our “theology is too big to touch a typical day,” as you put it?
To be truly Christian, to be truly converted to the Gospel with our whole life, it can’t just be our mind that’s converted, or even our emotions – it has to be our imagination. The truth of Scripture has to capture our imaginations so that when we think about life, we think about God. And when we think about the good life, we think about Jesus and communion with God.
Children explore the world through imagination. Your six-year-old imagined the universe with God at the centre of it. I don’t think that’s innate to all children; there’s some catechesis there. But I think that when he begins to imagine his life and the world, it’s infused with God. And that’s what we all need. And we can lose that as adults because our imaginations get caught up with all kinds of things – with success, with pleasure, with making a name for ourselves, with consumerism. These things shape the way we view the world.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I hope this book does the same thing: re-enchant people’s notion of the day. To see that the very air around us is teeming with God – God’s work, God’s love for us and God’s action on our behalf. My brain is converted – I can tell you the doctrines of Christianity – and even sometimes my heart, but not my imagination. When I picture what makes a good day or the good life, it is basically like American consumerism. Suffering does not enter my view of the good life, which shows that I still have a long way to go, because Jesus suffered. It looks like a hard life to me, not a joyful life, because my imagination has been shaped so much more by consumerism than it has by the knowledge of God.
You have written about the need to believe the gospel not only in your brain but in your body. Are you adding another layer now with the idea of imagination?
Tish Harrison Warren is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary.
Imagination is led by our body. What shapes our imagination? Practices, which goes back to [author] James K.A. Smith. When you go into a mall, everything about that experience is to reach your imagination. They’re not trying to reach your brain and convince you rationally that spending lots of money will make you happy. They use aesthetics, beauty, lighting, to convince you that this is the good life. The way we use our bodies shapes our imagination.
I appreciated your chapters on waking as baptism, the ritual of making the bed and the everyday work of shalom in our daily petty squabbles. I fully believe that all of these moments hold something holy . . . and then I got to the chapter on email. My inbox is a mess. I have unanswered messages from last October. How can you call email a benediction?
I’m the chief of sinners in this place. I’m not even gonna tell you how many unanswered emails I have. It’s over a thousand.
I want God to do big things through me, but God wants to work through me in a daily way, and that involves a lot of very small things. I know that he wants to work through me day by day because he made days; he made us to live in days. I have to wake and sleep. That chapter was my own wrestling with the part of my work that I find least fulfilling. I do think we can experience benediction, the blessing of God, in things that we find frustrating. That is harder than feeling God’s blessing in the things I find most interesting about my job or my day. We won’t have experiences of spiritual ecstasy when we open our inbox. Sometimes God’s blessing is the grace to do things that we really don’t enjoy, and growing in the kind of practices we need to embrace, even if they don’t come naturally to us. God’s blessing can be in the places that incredible, and that sing to us, and also in the places that are difficult – the places where we need to grow and be transformed, the processes we don’t necessarily enjoy learning.
Some people say that the institutional church has so many problems – can’t we just start over and do it better?
No we cannot. We can’t erase it. The only way that we receive the gospel is from the hands of other Christians. The only way we know anything about Jesus is because somebody told us. We’re part of a divine story but it’s a human story too. Those hands are broken and weathered and have blood on them, but they carry the gospel to us. We can’t un-do what the church has done in the past – both good and bad. The church has done a lot that is very evil in the name of Jesus, but it’s easy to overlook how much the concepts that we’re committed to as Westerners are from the church – justice, value for the weak, for children; those weren’t alive in the world in the Roman era. We can read in America because Christians thought we needed to read the Scriptures. If we could somehow delete the church, we’d lose a lot of good things we don’t necessarily associate with the church.
The idea “we could do it better” is a bit arrogant. There has been so much darkness and evil done by the church, but it seems a little overconfident in our own abilities to think we wouldn’t make mistakes.
Part of the good news of the gospel is the church: Jesus saved us as a people. “Upon this rock I will build my church”; he calls it “my church,” not “something that will screw up all my teachings.” The church exists because of the cross and the resurrection.
How can it be that part of God’s redemption in the world is also a broken and sinful institution? I don’t entirely know. Jesus is redeeming the world through the church and yet we remain deeply sinful. I don’t know how to explain that other than that I can see it in my own life: Jesus does love me; Jesus is working; Jesus is moving through me, but on a daily basis I see ways that I trade in darkness instead of trading in light. I don’t want to deny the ways that we as a church have really failed. We haven’t lived up to the gospel we proclaim. But at the end of the day, the church is the bride of Christ.
Americans tend to be very anti-institutional, but there’s literally no way to avoid institutions if you want to continue something longer than one generation. If we want to sustain faith over time, we do it through institutions. The fact of our continued existence is part of the good news of Jesus. He promises us that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. In our brokenness we see that for which Christ died, and we see that which Jesus will redeem.
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